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How to become a product marketing manager

Breaking Down the Role of a Product Marketing Manager

There is no denying that product marketing is in demand today. In 2022 the role was consistently ranked as one of the best 50 jobs in the United States, surpassing even popular roles like Product Design and Program Management, according to Glassdoor. Despite its surging popularity, many job seekers are struggling to pivot or land a role in product marketing. Every week, candidates come to me with questions such as:

  • I have no tech experience, can I still become a PMM?

  • I have been prepping for months, but struggle to even land an interview. What can I do?

  • I keep getting passed over by more experienced candidates, am I not cut out for this?

I know you can transition into product marketing without tech or marketing experience. After transitioning from being a transportation engineer to a product marketing manager myself AND coaching nearly 100 professionals to land their product marketing roles even during the pandemic, I know you can do it too.

In this article, I share with you the key steps you can take to pivot into product marketing, typical mistakes candidates make, and how you can avoid them to pursue your dream role with confidence.

What Product Marketing is (and what it’s not)

To find and land a product marketing job, you need to first understand what product marketing is. Too often the role of product marketing is reduced to product launches, generating collaterals, or supporting the sales teams. While these are the activities a product marketer does, it is not the purpose of product marketing.

The purpose of product marketing is to tell the story of the product and use marketing strategies to reach product adoption and business goals. My LinkedIn post below summarizes product marketing in a nutshell.

LinkedIn post by Yi Lin Pei summarizing product marketing in a nutshell

Another common misconception is about the relationship between product management and product marketing. Many people think product marketing is a supporting function to product management or is a “backup” career to product management.

This couldn’t be further from the truth because the two roles are actually distinct and both are necessary to help drive adoption and business goals. In simple terms, product management puts products on the shelf, and product marketing gets products off the shelf. You need both functions to build and sell a successful product, and great product marketers are highly respected peers of product managers. This article by the 280 Group provides excellent insight into this.

How to pivot into product marketing without experience

Many articles out there offer advice on how to find a product marketing job if you are already in tech or have access to product marketers at your company (this Hubspot article is a great one). But the reality is this process is 10x harder for career switchers in non-tech or non-marketing roles. My goal with this section is to provide you with a proven strategy for pivoting into product marketing regardless of your experience - and focusing specifically on the job search phase.

Five steps to getting your dream product marketing role even without direct experience

Step 1: Assess your current skills

It’s impossible to reach your goal if you don’t know where you need to go. The first step is to map out the key skills required to be a product marketer and how you measure up today.

Product marketing does not require a laundry list of skills. In fact, what is required can be broken down into two main buckets:

  • Core competencies - these include research/data analysis, storytelling, product launch, and enablement skills.

  • Soft skills - these include influencing without authority, a bias for action, writing/verbal communication skills, and emotional intelligence.

While candidates generally understand that soft skills are transferable, many think they do not possess any of the hard skills. But the reality is even the hard skills can be transferable - after all, the principles of research are the same whether you are a product marketer or not.

The key is to correctly identify what past experiences can be translated into product marketing, which can be hard to do on your own. As a result, this is usually where I start helping new clients when we begin working together.

What if, after mapping your past experience to product marketing skills, you find that you have huge skills gaps? That is definitely possible but the surprising fact is that 90% of all my clients match at least 70% of product marketing skill requirements, even without any tech or marketing experience. This could be explained by the fact that product marketing by definition is a highly diverse role with very transferable skills.

Step 2 - Target the RIGHT companies

Once you have matched your skills, the next step is to determine what companies you should be targeting as not all opportunities are created equal. Identify your key strengths and prioritize opportunities that you are passionate about AND have a competitive advantage (I will talk more about this later).

One of the most common mistakes candidates make is using the “spray and pray” method, where they apply to as many jobs as they can. When that does not work, they apply to more jobs only to have the same thing happen again. This creates a vicious cycle as shown below.

Infographic showing the 3 steps of a typical Product Marketing application process

This approach to targeting companies will not only waste your time but will also yield sub-optimal results. Instead, the best approach for career switchers is to narrow your focus by targeting companies where you have a competitive advantage.

To uncover your competitive advantages, start by listing out all types of customers, industries, transferable skills, and products that you have had experience with within your previous roles. Then find companies where your competitive advantage will be a key requirement for the role.

For instance, as a former transportation engineer, I was the exact target customer of Autodesk’s AutoCAD product. My in-depth knowledge of the customer and their needs differentiated me from all other candidates and helped me land the role.

When evaluating these opportunities, don’t forget to also evaluate the company culture, and whether you are a fit. This will not only help you land the interview (as culture fit is also a competitive advantage) but also help you thrive in the role once you land it.

When I work with clients, we create a specific rating system for determining and scoring each job opportunity that best aligns with their skills and passions.

Step 3 - Craft your personal story

Once you have determined which companies to target, it’s time to create your personal story. Your personal story is NOT just your resume - it’s your entire brand from your resume/cover letter to how you introduce yourself in LinkedIn messages to hiring managers.

Despite its importance, typical personal stories for candidates generally resemble a laundry list, which is ineffective and uninteresting. The reality is that you can’t expect the employer to connect the dots for you through your experience - you need to tie your background to why you are naturally the best candidate for the job, despite your lack of direct experience.

To craft the best personal story during interviews, start with your most important skillsets that directly tie to the jobs you are targeting, and highlight 1-2 key accomplishments to support your skills before wrapping up with why you are interested in the role.

My client Ayushi has a really unique background as a software engineer which she thought was not relevant. However, we completely reworked her story to make her engineering background a central part of her skills and rationale for her ability to grasp technical concepts quickly. She was able to use her story to land a great role at a B2B SaaS startup, where she is marketing a complex technical product.

Step 4 - Apply the right way

Now that you have a great personal story and thoughtfully crafted resume, it is time to apply. The last thing you want to do is to submit your resume online, where it will sit with hundreds of other resumes.

What you need to do is to get referrals as much as possible. This is because getting a referral is 15x more effective than submitting online (Jobvite). For most companies, when you get a referral you bypass the online application pool, so the resume goes straight to the recruiter or hiring manager to be reviewed.

So what if you don’t have any warm leads? Then you need to get a cold referral. This means reaching out directly to the hiring manager on LinkedIn in your target companies, with a thoughtful message that directly ties your background to why you are a great fit for the role.

In addition, you can also play the long game by following your target companies or hiring managers on LinkedIn and interacting with their posts (thoughtfully). My client Tanner was able to land an interview (that turned into an offer) by thoughtfully commenting on the hiring manager’s posts.

One of the most common questions I get is whether you should include a cover letter with your application. While there is a lot of advice that says cover letters are unnecessary, I believe they are crucial for your job search success. These are the reasons why:

  • It signals high intent. Out of 100 applications, only 5-10% of candidates will write a cover letter. If someone puts the effort to write a cover letter, it immediately signals they are more serious about the job.

  • It highlights your most important competitive advantages that are not apparent in the resume, which is especially true for career switchers.

  • It shows your writing and storytelling skills, which are key skills for any great product marketer.

All this is to say, your chances of landing an interview are significantly higher when you write a cover letter and include that no matter how you apply.

Step 5 - Ace interviews and assignments

The most critical part of the job search process is preparing for the interviews. Before we dive into the strategy, let’s look at what a typical interview process looks like for product marketing in the table below. Analyzing what each interviewer is looking for is the first step to acing interviews.

Table showing the typical product marketing interview stages

Then when it comes to preparing for each interview, be sure to prepare thorough examples using the STAR method while highlighting your key strengths through your responses.

But just using the STAR method is not enough. One of the most important ways to prepare for product marketing interviews is by using frameworks. Frameworks allow you to structure your thinking and present a cohesive plan that can be more easily understood and communicated internally. Frameworks can include Go-To-Market, Market Research, Positioning/Messaging, Enablement, and more.

I spend a significant amount of time with each client practicing product marketing frameworks. This is not only crucial for acing interviews but for learning how to be a great product marketer.

For instance, my client Mara used the GTM framework we went through to land two offers while learning how to build the best GTM strategy in the process.

The assignment stage is where a lot of candidates trip up. In general, there are presentation assignments and writing assignments - both of which require strategic thinking and communication skills. The key to doing them well is by avoiding the temptation of jumping in to solve them right away but instead smartly outlining the thought process first.

Bonus Step - Make yourself the irresistible hire

After going through all the hard work of the previous steps, you should be getting offer letters. However, if you just don’t seem to be able to close the deal, I suggest reading this bonus section.

When you get rejected in the final stage of interviews, it’s generally not because you lack experience (otherwise you would not have been moved forward). Here are the typical reasons why you may not be landing the role:

  • You didn’t show enough interest

As a hiring manager, I want to hire candidates who demonstrate they are highly interested in the job. This could simply be reiterating your interest after interviews and following up promptly. Or you may have to go above and beyond to show your commitment to the role. For the role you really want, I recommend going above and beyond by creating a 30-60-90-day plan, sending in sample collateral, or something else that is unexpected.

  • You didn’t address your weaknesses

While no candidate is perfect, you want to understand exactly what the hiring managers are looking for in terms of key skill sets, and promptly diagnose if you have a skill gap. Developing a great relationship with the recruiter to get feedback after interviews can help you tremendously in gauging your candidacy, and allow you to address your weaknesses in subsequent interviews. My client Simeon promptly sent in a product positioning deck to show he can actually do positioning - and got the job immediately.

  • You are not targeting the right companies

If you’re convinced you have demonstrated all your skills, you have gone above and beyond but you still did not get the role, then your underlying issue might be not targeting the right companies. As I mentioned before, you have the highest chance of success in jobs where you have the best alignment in terms of domain experience and passion. If you are targeting jobs where you have little to no competitive advantage, you will likely lose out to candidates who have that slight edge, all else being equal.

What’s Next?

Pursuing a product marketing career without prior experience is possible with persistence and the right strategy. The world of product marketing is all the better because of the diverse backgrounds of people who make up the field. Reflecting on your WHY and what makes you unique is the first step to your success.

Additional resources:

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