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Caroline Walthall

Caroline WalthallShare

Director of Product Marketing, Quizlet
I lead product marketing at Quizlet focusing on holistic messaging, pricing & packaging, and customer engagement & monetization. Prior to Quizlet I was a PMM and lifecycle marketer at Udemy.
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Caroline Walthall
Director of Product Marketing at Quizlet | Formerly UdemyJanuary 30

We have a product pod structure at Quizlet. Each product pod has 1-2 very clear business goals and usually owns certain product lines or domain areas. Every pod has a PM, a PMM, a designer, a product analyst, a product support specialist, an engineering manager, and an engineering team. 

This structure allows teams to determine the best working cadences and divisions of labor that work for them. I've found it to be a very liberating structure because it gives the teams a lot of autonomy over decision making and it promotes true cross-functional collaboration. 

Each PM I've worked with has been different. The pod structure has given us the space we need to negotiate our divisions of labor in the ways that make the most sense for us as individuals and to help us meet the team's business goals.

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Caroline Walthall
Director of Product Marketing at Quizlet | Formerly UdemyJanuary 14

Beyond the 5 “don’t”s I listed in another question, here are two others:

  • Not having tight enough clarity and communication about what the launch stages look like for all stakeholders. Sometimes it’s fine to have a more decoupled feature/product release and marketing launch, but oftentimes that creates a poor experience for users and steals some of the thunder from your "moment." Not to mention, it tends to create some internal churn and chaos. This one seems like a given, but it's common for engineering, product, and marketing to interpret launch terminology differently. Even if your system for tiering launches is super codified, you’ll often have new folks on the team and so it is really important to work with your PM or PO to explicitly describe the scope and rules for each stage of rollout. It’s also important for those folks to update your changelog as those things happen, since many other parts of the launch are dependent on these stages. A lot of teams use a PMM launch “tiers” rubric to better define this, but I see that as just a starting point. I recommend you make the scale and scope really explicit for each launch, and check in for alignment, often. 

Here’s how I think about some of the options - but this is only a starting place as every launch is different, with different goals and requirements. 

  • Minimal launch - Usually this is more of a direct release that doesn’t involve much from marketing except updating a few evergreen marketing pages/placements. Decide if this will be a rolling launch or if it will be released to everyone at once.
  • Beta launch - When you are investing more into a product and want to continue making improvements prior to your moment of big fanfare, you can launch in beta to get feedback before going big. These can be closed (by invitation) or open. Decide if this will become a minimal, soft, or full launch following the beta period. Decide if beta participants will be part of creating buzz and influence at your real launch or if it’s mainly for research and development.
  • Soft launch - Pick one or two channels and/or scope your target to portions of your audience who will appreciate it most. Decide if this will be a rolling launch or if it will be released to everyone at once.
  • Full launch - Go big with your message through as many channels as are appropriate for your target audience and through a strong concentration of internal team resources and alignment. This should ideally be launched to all eligible users at once (post QA).

  • Not investing in the right creative and using too many words. As much as we wish it, people don’t read. Distill your message down to a simple story and then find a way to communicate that with very few words. Test out different approaches with marketing and product design to illuminate the value. If you’re reading this, you probably already know this key point, but I’ll say it anyway because we all need reminding: demonstrate benefits, don’t yammer on about features.
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Caroline Walthall
Director of Product Marketing at Quizlet | Formerly UdemyJanuary 14
  1. No clear messaging target - it’s almost impossible to write copy for everyone, so it ends up being for no one. In this scenario, we also become more tempted to use our internal lingo in absence of anything more specific, which almost never works. Even if you want to reach a broad audience, decide who is most important to influence and write to them.
  2. Adding more features or products to a page rather than recontextualizing the whole. Make sure you’re not just positioning the feature or single product. Stuffing a page with more info sometimes works, but it's a strategy with diminishing returns. What does this launch change or shift about the story you’re telling as a brand (across your portfolio)? You don’t necessarily need to reskin everything, but make sure to take a step back to see if there are opportunities to simplify, even as you add more complexity.
  3. Putting a lot of effort into a low tier improvement. Hey, let’s be real, I’ve done this several times before. We do it because we want to appease that PM or because your manager asked you to. But before you plan a whole GTM launch motion, think twice. Your time is valuable! Not all features/products are created equal.
  4. Forgetting to schedule a premortem + an internal kickoff. Your support and CS team will thank you! We lead busy lives as PMMs and already have so many meetings, but as you zoom towards launch, you need to make sure internal stakeholders are informed with plenty of time to get up to speed, create plans and macros, and assign owners to monitor higher risk issues. PMM doesn’t have to always own this step, but since you’re working to prepare everyone with common language and external plans for launch day, you’re usually going to be a trusted leader who can rally the crew, ask for feedback, and get people pumped up.
  5. Failing to define success metrics for PMM. As a business you probably have some OKRs or KPIs associated with this launch. Are any of them marketing driven? Whether it’s % of active users who reach an upgrade page, # of MQLs, and/or seeing a X% lift in conversion for key segments, you need to pick something you can influence directly. Doing this is important for visibility and helps make sure you’re really learning rather than feeling anxious about secondary metrics (which are important but dependent on many other inputs).
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Caroline Walthall
Director of Product Marketing at Quizlet | Formerly UdemyJanuary 30

If you can get it, the most important thing is executive buy-in for a team structure that honors marketing not just in the end phase, but also as a crucial thought partner to product and design. If you’ve had product launches that haven’t landed with the impact expected, those are great case studies to use to ask for that.

After executive buy-in and team structure, pure relationship building can get you a long way. If you get to know your PMs and show your support in other ways they are more likely to have you top of mind when they are making important decisions.

Another way to go about it is to take initiative on market research when you hear murmurings about a product direction. You can do competitive research and/or user research to bring tangible value to the questions at hand, which shows you can be a real collaborator worth having in early stage meetings.

Lastly, if you can show your value in helping provide structured thinking in the form of slides, problem statements, and useful data, PMs will generally be really happy to have you in the room at earlier stages.

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Caroline Walthall
Director of Product Marketing at Quizlet | Formerly UdemyJanuary 30

So, I never use all these types of research, but here's a great menu of research phases that I keep at the top of my Research Plan Template. Usually at most I'd pick one of these per phase, that is most important and will produce the most actionable insights. 

Phase 1 - Early stage

  • Market understanding
  • Market segmentation and validation
  • Customer journey work

Phase 2 - Early stage **This stage is so crucial if you don't already have data to support the direction pre-design phase**

  • Problem discovery
  • Problem validation

Phase 3 - Mid stage

  • Defining or testing new product concepts
  • Solidifying pricing
  • Prioritizing features and releases
  • Investigating the best marketing options

Phase 4 - Launch stage

  • Creating or testing messaging
  • Qualitative impressions of marketing programs

Phase 5 - Late stage

  • Analyzing business success
  • Measuring customer satisfaction
  • Measuring brand equity
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Caroline Walthall
Director of Product Marketing at Quizlet | Formerly UdemyJanuary 30

Yes. One of product marketers’ jobs in the process is to continue sounding the alarm for user validation at each phase of the process, but that’s easier said than done. Pressure to ship product work quickly directly conflicts with this. The reality is that some product teams are more user-centric than others. If you have a product org that is not as user-centric in the early stages, it’s an opportunity for you to get more involved at that point. 

Develop better relationships with your PDE orgs and bring more value to the table in the form of distilled customer insights and future projections around target markets, market sizing, and expected GTM impact. It’s hard for PMs to ignore clear, concise, and helpful information that could help them make better decisions.

In my career, the launches I’ve been “brought into” at a late stage have almost always been less impactful, and sometimes that’s okay. Not everything needs to be a big splash. Sometimes when these are pure “feature parity” launches that merely bring you up to industry standard or simply provide parity across platforms, you don’t need to be so involved in the product cycles. But if you're making bigger investments in the product than that, you should absolutely have a seat at the table. Try using data to make your case. If there was an example of a disappointing launch that you were brought into last minute, use that business failure as a reason to try something new in the process.

It’s also helpful to define what types of launches you can offer the product org and to clearly articulate what their side of the bargain looks like to get those levels of service from you. For example, “tier 1 and tier 2 launches must involve product marketing in the discovery and/or validation stages of product development.”

However, if you've tried those things and your product team is exploring new features or serious directional changes without your input, I’d recommend finding a better playground. While you can make significant headway in influencing individuals or certain leaders you work with, if you’re in an environment that doesn’t respect PMMs, it’s better for you to take your talent somewhere that does!

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Caroline Walthall
Director of Product Marketing at Quizlet | Formerly UdemyJanuary 30

For a full-scale launch, yes, I do a pre-mortem about a month ahead of time so there is time to act on any key risk-mitigation activities before launch date. 

I like to do an async brainstorm in a google sheet with two tabs.

  1. 🤕 Everything failed miserably...
  2. 🤩Everything was beyond our dreams!

The prompt for tab 1

Imagine we launched product X...
We thought we did everything we could, but the product is not taking off like we hoped. 

  • What did we do that we SHOULDN'T have done or what did we NOT do to set ourselves up for success?  
  • What did we get wrong?

The prompt for tab 2

Imagine we launched product X...
Everything surpassed our wildest expectations and users love it. 

  • What did we do right to end up here?

I ask *everyone on the team* in all functions to contribute at least 2-5 rows to the brain trust. I ask them to select a preset category from a dropdown, write a brief description of what the item is, and add their name in an "author" column. 

Then we have a meeting to go through and prioritize potential issues or risk mitigators. As we prioritize we assign owners to make sure those safety measures are put in place.

For lighter launches, we may host a kickoff meeting to ensure alignment as we head into public announcements, but I don't tend to do a full pre-mortem.

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Caroline Walthall
Director of Product Marketing at Quizlet | Formerly UdemyJanuary 14

I don’t have a framework, per se, but here’s a list of actions I tend to go through when creating the plan.

Strategy steps (Pre-tactics)

  • Give the thing a name and decide how important it is. Obviously this should be a given, and it’s not really a tactic, but I find it can be a difficult step, depending on how established your guidelines are here. Is it a whole new product? A feature? What else is it like amongst your portfolio? Start thinking through some basic name usage guidelines. Then, don’t forget to come back and edit these once you’ve gone further through the process. Once they are locked in: share, share, share. You can avoid future blunders across teams with well-written cheat-sheets. 
  • This is the step where you also define what kind of launch you’re doing (minimal, beta, soft, full) and whether it’s going to be a slow roll out or designed to reach most eligible users at once.
  • Target audience, core positioning, and messaging always come first. Again, not a tactic, but don’t skip this step. It informs what tactics could be a good fit.
  • Figure out how and when to build a “moment.” Now that you have your key message and audience defined, plan a date that you can think of as a real “event.” Brainstorm with colleagues about how to infuse the moment with inspiration and connect it to your brand story. Make sure to include creative folks at this stage as they can help you think big about a number of options for “big ideas” that effectively communicate the “so what” of your launch. For example, do you want to create a sense of suspense and exclusivity? Do you want it to feel like a big party? Do you want to come off as authoritative and highly trusted thought leaders? Think through the right kind of emotion and atmosphere for your message, audience, and timing.

Getting more tactical

  • Do a quick channel audit. What channels have you used in the past? Was the ROI on time and money there? Are there channels that you’ve kept using, despite mediocre performance? Also, what channels work best for different stages of the marketing funnel? Make sure you have a good mix of awareness-building and conversion-supporting channels.
  • Pick a few experimental bets. Talk to folks in your growth marketing and channel org (if you have them). These could be new social or ads channels, events, or even high visibility partnerships. Note: I recommend doing this for bigger launches or those with niche audiences that are new for your company and harder to reach. It probably doesn’t make sense for smaller launches.
  • Discuss the right PR strategy. If you have an expert comms person, talk to them about whether your launch could be considered newsworthy if contextualized in a broader story the company or the industry are trying to tell.
  • Establish a sense of timing that fits with your message(s), your moment and your audience.
  • Don’t forget the guts of your existing customer experience. What about your existing experience needs to be redone? With a big change you may have to audit all your evergreen lifecycle comms and help center content. If you’re in B2B, rework all your sales collateral. Beyond basic updates, consider picking some key comms and pieces of content to use to really feature this new product or feature. 
  • Creative strategy and campaign building. Imagination counts! Don’t be like everyone else, stretch yourself with out of the box ideas. Think about attention-grabbing and entertaining tactics. This is where there are no rules -- which is the fun part, just ensure you have some budget (and exec buy-in) on any bigger swings.
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Caroline Walthall
Director of Product Marketing at Quizlet | Formerly UdemyJanuary 14

If your industry thrives on frequent technology updates, quarterly can make sense, or potentially even more frequently than that. It really comes down to how you balance out your marketing and product calendars. What events or “moments” has your company established that serve as anchors your loyal customers begin to rely on? Try to rally around those. You may also need to invent new moments that position your brand relative to other industry events, typical purchase cycles, and news.

How tech savvy is your buyer and end user? Orient to a cadence that feeds their appetite -- meaning don’t overwhelm non-tech people with tons of feature launches if you can instead group and simplify the message. But if your typical audience is really deep into using the product, it can be a strategic benefit to show you’re always innovating and improving.

That said, a lot of features aren’t worth a big “launch.” You still want to take a number of steps in the launch process, but making noise about everything you do can backfire. If I’m reading between the lines, it sounds like your company might be launching more frequently than you think is ideal. That could be true. You have to zoom out as well and make sure that the key launch messages are laddering up to a broader brand platform. If you’re “launching just to launch something” that will come through and can erode your currency and customer trust when it’s time to market the “really important product” and message.

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Caroline Walthall
Director of Product Marketing at Quizlet | Formerly UdemyJanuary 30

Yes! I can relate!

Feature-level messages are so limited on the marketing side. Part of your job as PMM is help recommend the best way to 1) connect features benefits, 2) roll benefits into value props, and 3) provide positioning statements for your target markets. 

PMMs can take the lead on drafting this work but it's really beneficial to include your PM and other key stakeholders in the process to get their buy in. Once you settle on the place you want to go with regard to value prop, consider testing the messaging and putting it in front of customers. 

As you validate the strength of leading with higher level benefits and storylines, you can bring that as a key filter for product planning. Ask, "does this new feature help us shore up our core value proposition?" If not, "how does it tie into our marketing platform? Is it truly additive or does it complicate things unneccessarily?"

Credentials & Highlights
Director of Product Marketing at Quizlet
Formerly Udemy
Top Product Marketing Mentor List
Product Marketing AMA Contributor
Lives In San Francisco, CA
Knows About Developer Product Marketing, Consumer Product Marketing, Release Marketing, Product L...more