What are the most important soft and hard skills Product Marketing Managers can build to become successful in their field going forward?
Everyone’s definition of soft and hard skills differs, but here are the nine skills that I think are the most important for a product marketer to have. I've used these skills as a compass to help me grow in my own career and have turned them into a success guide for my team at Envoy to use:
- Cross-functional excellence: As a PMM, you have the opportunity to lead without being a manager of people. A strong product marketer is someone who takes others along with them, rather than telling people exactly what they want them to do. They’re able to create strong relationships across the company, with product managers, engineers, designers, marketers, support folks, and more. They’re natural connectors who know who to go to in an organization to get things done and can influence cross-functional stakeholders to support and prioritize projects.
- Executive presence and clear communication: As you get more senior, you'll spend more and more time presenting plans, public speaking, and communicating with executives in the company. The stronger you are at presenting and public speaking, the easier this will be for you. Executive presence also means knowing how best to leverage an executive’s skills to get feedback that will help your project, manage their expectations, and ensure they feel like they’re in the loop about work that matters to them.
- A pitch in, get-it-done attitude: Being a PMM can be unglamorous at times. Sure, you get to run the big launches, but what people don’t see are the hours you spend writing support macros to ensure the team has what they need to answer incoming tickets, the amount of times a day you have to field seemingly random requests that don’t always fall neatly into your scope of work, and how often you get looped into last-minute, urgent projects that you didn’t plan for. PMMs that can approach this type of work ready to pitch in and help are often those that are seen as the most dependable and trustworthy, which helps them create strong relationships across the company. In my career, I've always made sure I'm never above doing the grunt work that's needed to get something across the finish line. While I don’t do it every day, I’m happy to roll up my sleeves to take a screenshot for a help article or write a macro if it means the team will be more successful and I reward members of my team that have the same attitude.
- Market, competitor, and product expertise: PMMs should know their product inside and out, be an expert on its features, capabilities, and limitations, and be able to help partner teams figure out solutions to customer problems. This takes work, and it shouldn’t be overlooked. On top of that, you should know your competitors' products almost as well as you know your own. What does the competitor’s product have that yours does not? Where do you lose? Where do you win? How do they position themselves? These are all questions you should have an answer to. Last, you should know your market. What are the trends in the market in which you operate? What are the factors that influence decision making for your buyers? What’s coming down the line in terms of regulations or industry shifts that your company might want to get in front of? The better equipped you are to answer these questions, the more strategic value you'll bring to your company.
- Positioning, messaging, and storytelling: Messaging and positioning isn’t a soft skill - this is something you hone and work at. This skill is all about being able to create tight, clear, compelling messaging frameworks that identify the target customer, nail their pain point and the benefits your solution provides, and clearly explain how you're different than what else is on the market today. A leader I used to work under said “The person who most accurately identifies the problem earns the right to solve it”, and I think that’s a really clear articulation of how specific and focused you should be in your messaging. You always know when a messaging framework is ready for prime time when you would defend every single line of copy, are able to explain why each line is necessary, and can show how each phrase ties back to the feature or product itself.
- Know your customer: There are two parts to this. The first is knowing your personas. Specifically, you should be an expert in who buys your software, what their titles are, where they sit in an organization, what matters most to them, and how to market to them. The second is connecting that customer persona with actual customers who use your product. If you’re not talking to customers throughout your day-to-day, how can you represent the voice of the customer to the product team? I have OKRs for my team to have a certain number of interactions with customers each quarter to make sure that customer empathy doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. The key is getting these customer insights and then doing something with them to make sure that those insights are driving your roadmap and activities.
- Go-to-market planning and execution: PMMs are responsible for creating unique, impactful, cross-channel GTM plans that will help your product or feature hit it’s launch goals and drive sustained adoption and revenue. Product marketers should understand which channels drive success and identify the metrics they want to move so they consistently hit their goals. Another part of this is studying how other companies run their launches and taking inspiration from that for your own launches to up-level your approach.
- Process management: It’s often said that PMMs should act as the quarterbacks to a launch. A big part of this is ensuring there’s a process in place within the marketing team and with partner teams in order to make sure that everyone has the information they need and clarity on what’s expected of them to make the launch a success. If there isn’t a process in place, it’s up to the PMM to create and drive new processes to fix problems. It’s also up to PMMs to point out when a process is no longer working for your team.
- Making data-driven decisions: The need for data and analytical skills continues to grow in the product marketing space. I personally wouldn’t call myself a “numbers person”, and I don’t think you need to have the data skills of an analyst to do the job. That said, I do think you need to understand your company's baseline metrics, be able to pinpoint the data that would help the team make a decision, and back up your plans and initiatives with data that supports your proposal in order to succeed in your role and provide value to your organization.
The number one skill is influencing without authority. More specifically, influencing authority in a matrixed organization. By design, product marketing sits at the intersection of a multitude of functions, each with their individual KPIs. Your job is to balance the needs of your various stakeholders to drive revenue and adoption for your product(s). If your company has one product, then this task may be fairly straight forward. If your company has multiple products or multiple portfolios, then the task becomes exponentially harder.
The most important hard skills are positioning and messaging. In the end, the product marketer determines what market to go after, how the product will stand out, and what benefits resonate with end consumer. It is extremely tough to take a complex idea and break it into a clear, concise, and relatable benefit statement that anyone can understand.
Hard skills may vary by company, but I think there are two that are critical:
- Insights. Know the difference between an anecdote and an insight. This is especially critical when you work on a service at scale. Your best (and sometimes most challenging) users tend to be the loudest, so make sure that you're helping the team hear from a diverse array of customer voices. I find that one of the most important parts of any study is the recruit/target audience. Spend time getting the team aligned on who you're going to hear from.
- Analytics. Spend time not just understanding how to interpret results, but also understanding what it's possible to understand and how to ask the right questions. I'm not saying you need to learn SQL, but it never hurts! I find that the process of learning simple queries (or asking a trusted analytics partner how they do their work) teaches you how to think about data in a way that makes you sharper.
I think there are many soft skills that matter, but of the ones that I value most, it's Empathy.
Put yourself in your customer's shoes and make sure you're always thinking from this perspective. The business has many things it wants to acheive, but more often than not your customer isn't showing up to hear from you– they're hungry, they're trying to relax, or they want to hear from their friends. Balance the drive for objectives against the needs of the audience.
Do this equally for your peers, especially those in product. The best tool for empathy I ever built for product teams was shipping my own app years ago. It's certainly not necessary that you do this yourself, but as the engineer, design, PM, and marketer on my own project I learned that the deadlines I most often set were optimistic, that "easy" problems were almost always harder than you might think, and that my wishlist was always longer than my ability. Give your partners the benefit of the doubt, be flexible, and make sure that you're always working together for customers. If you all agree on the audience you're serving and their needs, you'll make the right tradeoffs together over time.
Top 3 Soft skills
- Be collaborative: Be open to new ideas, raise your hand to help, lean in to new areas, and have fun while doing it.
- Build strong relationships: Invest in your cross functional partners, get to know them personally and professionally, know what is most important to them.
- Develop a point of view, clearly communicate your point of view, and influence others with your point of view
Top 3 Hard skills
- Analytical <-> Creative: Navigate this spectrum to be both analytical and creative in your problem solving, go to markets, and develop recommendations. Demonstrate the ability to get deep into numbers to uncover insights. Then test something unscalable to see what works.
- Strategic <-> Execution: Set the strategy, align cross-functional partners, execute, measure results, incorporate learning, and do it again!
- Storytelling: Be the product storyteller in evangelizing the product both internally and externally to truly inspire. Bring the product to life, through user stories and highlighting the impact.
Strong PMMs are good writers, know their product inside and out, experts of the competitive landscape, messaging geniuses and storytellers, BFFs with the sales team, GTM architects and excellent project managers. I like to think about a good PMM as a:
- A psychologist who can develop a deep understanding of the fears, aspirations, hopes, and dreams of buyers and target personas.
- An explorer seeking to learn more, discover more, and do more; bringing curiosity and some risk taking to product messaging and positioning.
- A teacher who can inspire an audience with subject matter knowledge and possess excellent preparation and organization skills.
- A conductor, leading cross-functional teams, unifying performers, and setting the tempo of product launches and other GTM initiatives.
- An artist, who is creative and adventurous but also persistent and disciplined to deliver top results.
PMMs are (and need to be) masters at many things but if I had to pick the most important:
- (Soft) Cross-functional Collaboration: PMM is a highly cross-functional role. On any given project, you’ll work with Product, Design, Engineering, Research, Marketing Channel Experts, Operations, Legal… and the list goes on. A product campaign can’t get done without many partnerships. So you have to be great at working across different teams and getting them to share in your goals.
- (Hard) Data Driven: Product and business decisions are most times made based on quantitative insights. PMMs are critical to helping product and business partners make decisions at scale, so you have to have a keen ability for understanding, creating and effectively communicating data as information.
- Messaging and storytelling: this continues to be the hallmark of a great PMM. In particular, really leaning in on differentiation and value to the customer (not speeds and feeds) while also simplifying concepts down in a memorable way that makes it easy for sales to land, marketing to build copy and content, and ultimately, the customer to understand. I sometimes joke that PMMs like ALL the words...but we don't need to use them ALL the time. Being able to really tell a compelling story that connects with the customer, and romances the product in the way that customers can say "Yes! I can see how this will help me" is a key skill.
- Business / data acumen: Knowing the business, what are the key levers, how do you actually make revenue, ability to dig into where you have pipeline or conversion issues, etc. Having this business / data acument is really important for narrowing in on where you will focus, and ultimately your ability to drive impact that matters. This also plays a role in effective pricing / packaging strategies and understand the right levers to drive value for the business.
- Relationship building / collaboration: PMM is at the cross roads of multiple functions - sales, Growth, product, partner, enablement (which is why it's so fun!). The ability to build relationships with those functions, understand their goals / motivations, be conversant enough in their space to identify ways to align, and then work effectively to drive the right actions is critical to PMM success.
- Communication: There is a lot of complexity to the PMM role. Your ability to communicate ideas, represent data in a way that is meaningful and actionable, and inspire teams to rally behind a shared vision is a top skill in my opinion.
I like to define PMM excellence in the following way: You are the master of three truths. 1) The product truths - what the product does / doesnt do, how it delivers value to the customer, how it stacks up vs. the competition, etc 2) The customer truths - what are the needs, pain points, outcomes that the customer cares about and how you can adress them in productive ways and 3) Market truths - where is the opportunity in the market, what trends should we be paying attention to, what is the competition doing (or might do), etc. And the combining those truths into an integrated GTM that drives the right outcomes for the business.
So if you buy that definition, the hard and soft skills that map to mastering those truths are critical.
One of the main skills I see to success in PMM im Empathy. Empathy in the sense of being able to to put yourself in other people's shoes. You are the customer and market advocate internallt and the product advocate externally, so understanding those different perspectives can help a LOT in any PMM materials you are developing, from slides to demos to websites to campaigns.
Successful product marketers are both right and left brained. Thus, in addition to the hard skills, they must possess soft skills to rally teams behind their ideas.
There are five fundamental soft skills that product marketers must demonstrate:
- Cross-functional leadership
- Executive presence
For Hard Skills, from my experience the most important skills are:
1. Market Sizing - Total Addressable Market (TAM)
2. Customer Segmentation
3. Narrative Design
4. Go-to-Market Strategy
Check out my blog post about these key PMM hard skills here.
I talked about soft skills in another question, so let's laser focus on the hard skills needed to succeed in PMM here. Here are 3 hard skills you can focus on right now:
1. Data-Driven Decision Making: I actually teach a dedicated course on this topic at Loyola Chicago because I believe in it so much! Data helps with identifying and speaking to your target audience, defining the value of your product and ROI, market sizing, predicting buyer behavior, validating success in the market, and so much more. Even if you don't fancy yourself a "numbers person" - it is important to get into enough detail both qualitatively and quantitatively to target your approach.
2. Storytelling: You will more often than not need to use an emotional connection to convince buyers of the value of your product, service, or solution. By telling the story of your product and getting your prospective buyer to relate on a personal level, you are creating empathy that can take you miles. Take them through highs and lows and make them feel something. I took an amazing Pixar class on this a few years ago that I highly recommend to really harness this skill.
3. Program Management: PMMs are often tasked with huge initiatives, like product launches. I hear over and over that PMMs are the "quarterbacks" in product launches (yay sports!). By being the QB, you need to make sure there is a collective goal, a process in place, defined roles & responsibilities, and everyone has what they need to complete their responsibilities. This comes with epic organization, program, and process management skills.
This is an interesting question. In my experience, the most important soft skills needed for PMMs are influence management, and public speaking skills.
Influence management would be getting people from outside of your department or team to work on your project. Good influence management is not just asking people to help, but making sure they understand the value of the work they're doing. If someone says they can't help, going to their manager to help with priorities needs to be done with a soft touch. Being a tyrant to get your projects done won't get you far in the long term.
Public speaking comes into play with enablement and training sessions, as well as just speaking extemporaneously about your solution, your goals, and what you're trying to accomplish. For any products I work on, I build a baseline presentation and craft the story to tell people "who, what, when, where, why, how" in an efficient manner.
Hard skills will vary from company to company, but I've always found that an ability to crunch data is highly valued by senior leaders. Taking a complex raw data set (raw research, sales data, etc.) and turning it into insights that inform your decisions is very compelling.
If I had to pick just one then it is (customer) empathy. PMM becomes strategic and business-critical when we harness this soft skill to generate breakthrough insights (hard skill) that helps the company not chase the taillights of competition but leapfrog them.
For example, winning strategic narratives (in B2B SaaS especially) first attack the old game—your audience’s orthodox, status quo approach to winning—by credibly showing how it’s now unwinnable. Then they name the new game that winners are already playing (for which your product is designed to confer advantage). This winning narrative/positioning has to be rooted in a deep understanding of customer insights and market trends. This requires empathy.