As I detailed in my interview with the Onward Nation Podcast, my 3 biggest strategies for ongoing career success are:

  • Learn from the mistakes of others
  • Sometimes, you just have to take a deep breath, say “f*ck it” and jump
  • Send the elevator back down when you’ve seen success

A month ago, one of my colleagues connected me with her brother, who is an MBA candidate at Cornell Tech here in New York. He was curious about a career in product marketing, so we spent an hour over the phone talking about the function and career paths

Our conversation sparked broader interest from he and his class. As part of their MBA program, they invited guest speakers in on Fridays to fill gaps in the curriculum or address interests student career interests.

Apparently product marketing is a hot topic. This excited me, given product marketing is still a relatively new function and role in companies. But interest at the MBA level indicates that it’s becoming more mainstream and prevalent in the job market.

Needless to say, I was grateful for the opportunity to send the elevator back down…and also curious what the perception of product marketing was amongst MBA candidates.

If you don’t ‘know your customer,’ get to know them

Back in high school and college, I toyed with the idea of going into an MBA program. Long story short, I tabled the idea in favor of a different route. I’ve been fortunate to gain what I and my mentors deem “MBA experience” through my positions at Jostens, Tallwave, Infusionsoft and VTS. I’m continuing to learn so much, so fast, that I don’t see myself going back to school in the near future.

Given I haven’t been close to the MBA thing in a while, I wanted to get a feel for my audience. So, before I started crafting anything, I asked them one simple question. “Before I ask any leading questions, what do you want to know about Product Marketing?” Here are the raw responses:

  • not very much
  • Difference between Product Marketing role vs. Marketing or Product Management
  • how to develop insights from data
  • How to get a job in product marketing? How to position myself, what kind of skillsets are looked for, etc?
  • It’s the intersection between product and customer. Ensuring that the product is serving the customers needs are being fulfilled.
  • What it entails on the day-to-day. What bigger strategic questions need answering.
  • Branding and pricing
  • It’s positioning and messaging the product to the target customer segment
  • How do companies build up anticipation and demand for new products/services
  • How do you figure out the amount to spend on different types of digital advertising?
  • How to find the right target market
  • Identifying the right buyer personas, developing an inbound marketing plan with a shoestring budget and no idea how to implement (what tools / services do I need to purchase to get this up and running?)

Sadly, responses #1 and #5 taught me that 16% of MBA students still need to work on their reading skills. 😉 The survey also uncovered hot spots around the topics of:

  • Product launches
  • Pricing
  • Sales enablement
  • “Day in the life”

Customer research complete.

Products should satisfy customer needs

I’ve been to a fair amount of smaller conferences and speaking engagements. My biggest pet peeve is when speakers recycle some blanket talk or presentation they’ve given in the past that’s sooooo broad it’s irrelevant to the audience.

I mean, how hard is it to pause and consider your audience? We’re all sitting on a mountain of decks and could talk about ourselves or what we’ve done for hours on end. But if people showed up for Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 and you give them Phantom of the Opera, they’re going to be disappointed.

Once I had a feel for my audience, I was able to splice together a deck in about half an hour from past presentations I’ve given on the hot topics. The up front work? A Google Forms survey that took me 5min to build.

My resulting deck was about 100 slides, which for a 2 hour slot, was ambitious. But I over engineered the deck to be able to dive as shallow or as deep as the students wanted. I included deep dives in case study format around pricing and product launches, because we all know MBAs love case studies.

We wound up covering all areas and 80% of the content. My indicators of success? Nobody left early, we regularly paused for questions (yay engagement!) and we skipped 20% of the slides in favor of tangents.

What did we cover and what were their questions?

We started with an overview on product marketing, similar to the “What is product marketing? How is it different from product management” piece I authored a few years ago that went viral on LinkedIn. We talked about where product marketing fits in an organization, and more importantly, when the function usually appears.

After that, we moved on to what it takes to pull off a successful product launch. I used my Infusionsoft Payments launch as a case study here.

Then we moved on to pricing, the topic even some product marketers are afraid to tackle. In addition to covering what a minor repackaging looks like, we walked through how I overhauled VTS’ pricing and packaging after a 4-year neglect.

There were lots of questions around ownership and timing of product marketing as a function. While I appreciated them reaching for a clear definition or formula, I wonder if MBA programs need to do better about encouraging inference over deduction.

Close with a bedtime story

Originally, I wanted to end my presentation by reading them a story. I think there’s few better ways to end presentations than with a lighthearted story or thought. It brings your audience back up for air and ends on a memorable note. Otherwise, everyone’s brains are still running and your audience runs off the “deep thoughts” cliff like a bunch of lemmings with no closure (other than certain brain farts). Maybe it’s my pragmatic nature, maybe it’s because my educators read Dr. Seuss at my graduation, I don’t know. Stories all around.

My story? The Product Marketing Manifesto I authored after starting the function from scratch at VTS. I was actually short on time but sent out the manifesto along with my slides.

Why did I choose this as my bedtime story? Because the MBA candidates were poking around the scope of the product marketing role. I spent a lot of time explaining how it can differ across companies, industries and products. Truly, product marketing is 50 shades of gray. And while that may not be a good bedtime story, it’s the perfect analogy for our role.

As I state in my Manifesto, product marketing is all about telling a great story. And though we may not own every piece of the website, ads, PR, blog articles, sales emails, etc., we partner with and equip the creators of those assets. We arm customer-facing teams with the knowledge and tools they need to be successful and enable all channels to bring our product’s value to life.

I would close with “the end,” but we product marketers know that there is never an end to our trifecta of art, heart and science.

The bottom line

I had a great time spending two hours with the leaders coming out of Cornell Tech’s MBA program. Circling back on my career advice I began this post with, learn from the mistakes of others, don’t be afraid to take a leap and send the elevator back down when you reach success. Stay open-minded, stay hungry and never forego a good bedtime story.