Bridging the Gap Between Marketing and Product Teams

Written on 16 April 2021

Just a few years ago, the marketing and product teams at Buffer were working in silos. We often described the situation as “Product building new features and throwing them over the fence to Marketing for product launches.” It felt weird not only because the two teams shouldn’t be working in silos, but also because we are selling a piece of marketing software and the marketing team knew the customers and market very well.

I had thought it was a unique challenge that only we experienced but I gradually realized it’s common in other startups. Since we have managed to reasonably bridge the gap between our marketing and product teams in the past few years, I thought it might be useful to share what has worked for us and what didn’t.

I should note that Buffer was about 60 to 80 people during this period. The marketing team grew from about eight to 10 people. We went from two product managers to now five product managers. If your company is smaller or bigger, your mileage may vary.

What did not work

We once had one marketer meet with the product managers for an hour every week to share what we marketers were seeing in the market. For example, what did Facebook just launch? What social media tactics are people doing the most of now? What new features should we consider?

I’ll admit I don’t remember the full details because I wasn’t directly involved. But I know we gradually stopped this practice. My hunch is there weren’t always new things to share every week or the product teams couldn't act on the information fast enough because it takes time to build or there was a disconnect between what marketing was sharing and what product was focusing on. When we reduced the frequency of the meeting, the perceived importance of the meeting also fell. Over time, it didn’t feel like a good use of time.

If we had changed the format or gotten a better understanding of the product teams' priorities, it might have worked better. So I wouldn't discount this approach entirely.

What has worked

Embedding product marketers into product teams

As I grow in my career, I realized sometimes we need to change the organizational structure to find new ways of collaboration, instead of simply trying to do more things within the same organizational structure. Having product marketers join the product teams is, in my opinion, the most important change that enabled better collaboration between our marketing and product teams.

As one of the two product marketers on the team, I dove right into one of our product teams. I participate in conversations in their Slack channel daily, contribute where I can, join their weekly syncs (as much as I can because it’s 11 pm for me), and meet the product manager and product designer once every three weeks. This has allowed me to have a good understanding of what’s happening in the product team and to share it with the rest of the marketing team so that the marketing team can make plans.

The organizational change was important because the expectations were set early and it didn’t feel off when I join their meetings and conversations.

This approach worked well for us for about two years. But as the number of product teams and product managers grew, I started to feel it will be unsustainable to be so involved in multiple product teams' daily work. It seems common that one product marketer would work with several product managers. We will soon have seven product managers and two product marketers. It will be challenging to be deeply involved in three to four product teams’ daily work on top of other product marketing work. So we will need to iterate on the approach again.

Building relationships with product managers and their team

While there was a formal organizational change and expectations were set, I like to think that informal relationships are also important.

I built up such a good rapport with the product team that I’d stand in for the product manager when he goes on vacation. I wish I can tell you to do X, Y, and Z but the reality isn't that straightforward. I can only tell you what I've tried, which seemed to have worked for my situation:

  • Shared customer insights and data analyses and explained my intuition as a marketer
  • Helped out wherever I can, even if it is out of my job scope
  • Learned the fundamentals of product development, design, and coding so that they feel I understand their work and challenges
  • Stayed up late to meet with the product team

It wasn't glamorous work. It wasn't straightforward. And it took one to two years. But it worked. Eventually, I was able to influence the product roadmap.

Having weekly Go-To-Market (GTM) syncs

This was another one of the organizational-level type changes. After we hired Maria Thomas as our Chief Product Officer, she put together a weekly GTM sync that includes herself, all the product managers, the marketing leader, and all the product marketers.

It was one of those things that make so much sense once we started doing it but we just never did before Maria joined. My guess is it’s because we were spread across the globe and nobody wanted to step outside of the comfort zone and organize a meeting that will be in the early morning (6 am for me) or late night (11 pm for some). Maria came in and just did it. I do think it helped that she has the formal authority as the Chief Product Officer.

Here are some of the things we would discuss during the weekly GTM syncs:

  • Upcoming product launches
  • Upcoming product development work
  • Product updates
  • Signups and product usage trends (or more often anomalies)

The meeting is recorded and shared with the rest of the team. Our Customer Advocacy team finds it helpful to catch up on the recording to get the latest information from the Product world.

Always evolving

I recently got to work with one of our product managers to research and explore a new product area. I helped write the "press release" so that we have a clear understanding of the product's unique value proposition and positioning even before we start building it. We have come a long way from "throwing features across the fence."

But as I mentioned earlier, we are already thinking about how to evolve our processes. With more product teams and product managers but only two product marketers, we might need new creative ways to keep up the collaboration. That said, an advantage we have now, which we didn't have several years ago, is a better understanding across the marketing and product teams and past collaboration experiences. It would be harder if we were still working in silos.

If you are from a bigger team, Alicia Carney, Head of B2B Product Marketing at Deliveroo, just wrote an essay, How to win friends and influence Product, on the things that worked for her at Deliveroo.

If you know of other approaches that have worked for your company, I’d love to hear them. Thanks!