Product-Led Marketing: A No-Nonsense Guide for Series A CMOs


Just raised a Series A? Learn how to leverage Product-Led Marketing to steer your company to a successful Series B or an acquisition.

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Product-Led Marketing

December 9, 2021

Happy Sunday!

As he lay like a dazed child who just discovered Santa isn’t real, Andrew could only feel one thing… 

Shame he was about to fail: 

 product-led-marketing-meme-1.png

That was a sharp contrast to what he felt a year ago when his company got a Series A funding of $10million. Then, there was a glowing ember in his soul as he knew his efforts as the CMO contributed to the company’s win. 

While his company was still in its bootstrapped stage, Andrew leveraged the lead gen waterfall to generate traffic, a handful of leads (MQLs & SQLs), and some users – metrics that got VCs to bet on them becoming a rocketship:

 lead-generation-waterfall.jpeg

[Source]

The transition to Series A, however, came with greater expectations from investors and company executives. 

There was a higher revenue target to meet. More deals to close. A larger customer base to acquire. 

The company was full-force on accelerating top-line growth. 

Going all-in on what worked previously, Andrew directed over half of marketing spend into more traffic generation and lead magnets, accumulating more emails slapped with MQL tags. 

Crickets. 

The new MQLs – as many as they were – didn’t convert anywhere close to the last set, leading to horrible MQL to customer conversion rate:


lead-generation-waterfall-inefficient.jpeg

Even worse, early adopters (the few users converted from the MQLs at the bootstrapped stage) began to drop the product faster than a politician’s promises vanish. 

In no time, Andrew’s organization became one of software companies whose churn rate increase by 20-30% after receiving funding:

Churn Statistic

In all, Andrew’s go-to-market strategy led to:

  • Terrible MQL-to-Customer rate
  • A high churn rate 
  • An all-time low retention rate
  • An insanely high CAC

And the end result for Andrew himself?

Termination of his employment contract.

Ouch! 

What makes this sadder is most CMOs and Marketing Managers tread the same slippery slope as this fictional scenario.

Not convinced? 

Hear from Stijn Hendrikse, Co-podcaster of the Kalungi B2B SaaS Marketing Snacks podcast:

“CMOs are under a lot of scrutiny and are often seen as the major source and some of the major problems when it comes to growing technology companies. And that’s why the tenure numbers are not great. CMOs get fired, left and right…”

This trend didn’t start today. 

Since 2013, annual studies by Spencer Stuart shows falling CMO tenures (from about 46 months in 2013 to a little above 39 months in 2020): 

failing-cmo-tenure.png

[source:]

In the words of a Forbes article headline, there is… 

“An alarmingly high rate of chief marketing officers departures…”

What do all these imply?

You must directly impact sales and drive real growth or face the ax. Or as Greg Welch, Senior Partner at Spencer Stuart, puts it:

“…CMOs need to drive real growth if they are to thrive in their jobs. From my vantage point, it has become the single biggest factor CEOs want from them.” 

Yet, many CMOs, especially of fast-growing SaaS companies, fail to live up to this expectation. 

Why? 

Because they’re obsessed with insanity. 

product-led-storytelling-newsletter.png

The Insanity of CMOs

Albert Einstein once said:

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” 

I’ve never read a more concise yet poignant layman definition of insanity. In its simplest form, this definition has two meanings:

  • We should try to do things differently whenever we don’t get our desired results
  • Whenever you’re elevated to a new status or position, rethink your old strategies and implement new, brilliant ones 

Many CMOs, especially of newly funded tech companies fail to follow these principles. For the vast majority, a marketing-led model that championed ebook downloads in exchange for emails and ‘leads’ helped at the bootstrapped and pre-seed stage. 

But once your company receives funding, a turning point happens. 

There’s more pressure on the marketing team to fill the SaaS sales funnel with ready-to-buy prospects. What’s even more interesting is, founders and VCs expect CMOs to meet these new expectations while maintaining the highly coveted $0 acquisition cost. 

In the words of Randy Hamilton, Managing Partner at ClutchGrowth, a B2B SaaS growth consultancy:

“The only thing that ultimately matters to you (as a CMO) at the end of the day is delivering on promises made (especially the ones you made to the board), closing deals, and generating revenue. Keep the main thing, the main thing.”

So how do you, a marketing exec, keep the main thing? 

By becoming more revenue-driven and less metrics-obsessed.

And it starts…

By adopting Product-Led Marketing. 

Product-Led Marketing is the brainchild of Product-Led Growth. It’s a marketing approach where your product is the engine room to attract, acquire Product-Qualified Leads (not emails with MQL tags), and activate customers: 

 product-led-marketing-structure.png

If you’ve heard of Calendly or Ahrefs’ growth stories, those are just a few examples of what Product-Led Marketing can do. They didn’t use ebooks as bait for collecting email addresses in the name of ‘marketing.’ Instead, they weaved their product into their marketing, getting prospects to experience product value and sign-up. 

According to Eduardo Esparza, CEO of Market 8:

“The best marketing is not your brand identity, your studied messaging, your website, your award-winning campaign or your case study. The best marketing is the actual experience customers have with the product.”

Uh… sounds good. 

“But how does this help my marketing efforts impact sales & revenue, Jeremiah?” You’re probably wondering. 

Smart question. 

In this guide, I’ll answer that and more questions, including:

  • What is Product-Led Marketing? 
  • Why do I need Product-Led Marketing? 
  • Why focus on Product-Led Marketing?
  • What do I need to develop a Product-Led Marketing strategy, and how do I implement it?  

Product-Led Marketing: the engine to get your vehicle running 

Think about everything you know about B2B SaaS marketing for a minute. 

From websites to gated content and marketing collaterals, what do you think guides most marketing initiatives? 

F-E-A-R 

The common go-to marketing strategy is triggered by the fear of losing to competition, not achieving lead quotas, or not converting leads at all. 

You’re so scared of losing prospects you’ll rather deceive yourself with vanity metrics (e.g., total site visits and click-through rates) than deliver value to them upfront. You put marketing first and customers last.

I understand this fear, but you can conquer it easily by simply making customers successful. It’s that simple… maybe not so simple. 

A laser focus on making customers achieve their goals is the entire premise of Product-Led Marketing. As you lean more towards Product-Led Growth, marketing becomes more of an extension of Customer Success than it is about generating leads. You become the Romeo to your customer- supporting, nurturing, and loving them every step of the way:

 product-led-marketing-meme.png

In Product-Led Marketing, your product, and not gated content or other lead gen tactics, is leveraged to create a base of active users more likely to become profitable customers. This approach is what contributed to the success of Slack, Zoom, Dropbox, Wix, Atlassian, etc. 

So in case you’re wondering, Product-Led Marketing doesn’t just benefit end-users. It adds value to your business by freeing you from the shackles of lead gen’s insanity. 

Also, it can help you maintain a below-average CAC while achieving high, enviable growth. Olof Mathé, CEO of MixMax, said it best:

“Many SaaS businesses strive for $0 customer acquisition cost (CAC) and yet most still end up spending a small fortune acquiring each customer. If you want to get to $0 CAC, Product-Led Growth (marketing) is the only way you’re going to make it happen.” 

You also don’t need to hire every marketer under the sun, as you can do more with fewer employees on your team. Ahrefs achieved this in 2019. They crossed the $40 million ARR mark with nothing more than 40 employees. 

Here’s a case study of how Ahrefs does it directly from SaaS content writing

 ahrefs-product-led-marketing-results.png

In summary, Product-Led Marketing is a GTM approach where:

  • You first understand users’ problems deeply 
  • Prioritize helping customers succeed 
  • Show how the product helps so it doesn’t feel like marketing

Dropbox, the poster child of Product-Led Growth, understood these principles and leveraged them to reach $10 billion in revenue in ten years. 

In the early days, Dropbox focused more on delivering a powerful product that was easy to use. Afterward, they introduced a series of features that compelled users to share the app with colleagues, friends, and family:

dropbox-referral-link.png

Dropbox’s users ultimately became its marketers. 

At the core, they created a successful product, and users promoted it wide and far. Dropbox’s marketing was through a self-serve channel that allowed prospects to discover it with little support from the sales or marketing team. 

As per Daries Contractor, former Growth Engineering Lead at Dropbox, 

“Shared folders, a referral program, and shared links were three different viral sharing techniques that were incredibly helpful to users, matched their needs and also spread the word about Dropbox in simple, scalable ways.” 

You, too, can copy Dropbox’s approach as your company’s Series A status already gives you a headstart. After all, before your organization could raise a Series A, it must have:

  • Found its Product-Market fit 
  • Acquired a baseline of early adopters, some of whom are product champions and superfans 
  • Established a solid Minimum Viable Product (MVP)
  • Established its most effective channels (at least to some degree)
  • Gotten early revenue
  • Had a clear definition of its target customers 

Layer on a go-to marketing strategy to these strengths, and you’ll improve the customer journey and closely align with sales to drive revenue. 

But for Product-Led Marketing to work, you must get certain things right. 

What You Need to Make Product-Led Marketing Work

A growth mindset 

Your mindset is everything. If it’s faulty, your strategy won’t scale. 

That’s why you need a growth mindset. 

In her book, Mindset, Carol Dweck writes,

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” 

With a growth mindset, you don’t consider setbacks as roadblocks meant to make you fail. Instead, you’ll see them as a way to get better. 

 growth-vs-fixed-mindset.jpg

This mindset is crucial when adopting Product-Led Marketing because you’ll encounter challenges during implementation. These challenges are similar to what you experience when trying to break an old habit and form a new one. 

You were so used to putting marketing and sales first. 

So your subconscious and mind will fight back as you begin to do the opposite and put customers first. 

Even worse, you’ll experience certain challenges that might prove your inner critic right. But with this growth-driven mindset, you’ll be more experimental and see those challenges as a way to get Product-Led Marketing right. 

Sufficient data on the customer journey

Borrowing from the wisdom of Neil Michel, Chief Strategy Officer at Wire Stone, a digital marketing agency,

“The ultimate goal for marketers is to put data to use in shaping their customers’ experiences throughout the customer journey. When analysis is successful, it empowers a brand to deliver a relevant offer to the right customer at the right moment.”

In other words, data is the foundation upon which you’ll build this strategy and run subsequent experiments. 

It’s your window to know customers’ needs through implicit input (behavioral info) and explicit input (data they share directly with you). 

So… 

Ensure you gather enough data points to get a deep understanding of users and their customer journey. Doing this helps you discover unexplored opportunities to align your marketing message better. 

It’s why Carly Fiorina, Former CEO of HP, said: 

“The goal is to turn data into information and information into insight.”

Executive buy-in

Change is exciting yet hard. 

As such, not all decision-makers in your organization will accept the new direction of your marketing program. After all, if it’s not broken, why fix it? So it’s vital to gain the trust of executives who will support your PLM plan and champion it within the company. 

As Mark Jeffrey quipped in this excellent book on data-driven marketing

“Successful CMOs make efforts to develop a synergistic partnership with other team members of the senior executive team.”

Here’s how you build this relationship and achieve advocacy:

  • Present the compelling need for a Product-Led GTM: Determine the pain point of each executive, then tailor your pitch to how your strategy solves that problem. For instance, a CFO will be impressed if you can prove how your PLM program can drive higher revenue while maintaining a low CAC. 
  • Backup your points with supporting data: Numbers speak louder than words. Back up each point with the most relevant statistics and case studies. 
  • Highlight examples of Product-Led Marketing success: From Grammarly to Slack, there are many examples of companies that have succeeded using the PLG go-to marketing strategy. Share any of their success stories with your management team. 
  • Explain your execution plan: Walk other executives through the typical customer experience and how your idea will lead to better acquisition, activation, and retention. Also, convey how you’ll prioritize speed in your execution. 
  • Run a pilot program: A product-led marketing pilot program is a test run of what’s to come. It assures the management team that there will be little or no hiccup when they approve the budget for your strategy. 

Clearly identified goals and expectations

Congratulations! 

You convinced the management team to adopt a Product-Led Growth model, but what promises does your new marketing program hold for them? 

What are the KPIs to measure success? What is the number of users you hope to acquire? What retention rate do you envisage? 

You should have clearly-defined goals and expectations communicated to stakeholders before executing your Product-Led Marketing strategy. 

Some KPIs to agree on: 

  • Product-Qualified Leads (PQLs), real users taking your product for a spin. Not arbitrary metrics like emails, leads, or MQLs. 
  • Sales Qualified Opportunities (SQOs). 
  • Reduced pipeline volume because you’ll now focus on quality over quantity.
  • And others. 

The right people

With a bigger marketing budget, you might want to expand your team. 

I recommend you approach this carefully. 

It’s better to hire people coming from environments where Product-Led Growth is the norm than it is to nurture them from scratch. Don’t do this at the expense of the inexperienced but incurably curious candidates, though. 

They deserve a shot too. 

Cross-functional team alignment 

If all teams in your company aren’t focusing on the product and customers – the most important aspects of Product-Led Growth – you’re bound to fail. 

And that’s where the Product-Led Single Point of Truth framework comes in. 

It’s a VEC-developed concept illustrating how all teams in an organization must ensure customer satisfaction and regularly optimize the product to meet customers’ needs:

 product-led-single-point-of-truth.png

Like a compass, the Single Point of Truth directs a user-centric feedback loop across your company. It ensures the marketing team isn’t the only one trying to turn new users into paying customers. Every team gets involved- from product to design, support, sales, engineering, and researchers. 

This way, the brunt of work is less on your team.

But more importantly, this cross-functional collaboration unshackles your marketing team to go out bring in more new users: 


product-led-single-point-of-truth-2.png

How do you execute a Product-Led Marketing strategy?

Now that you’ve established the foundation needed to kickstart your Product-Led Marketing strategy, here’s how to execute. 

Change your method of acquisition

While the non-PLG approach focuses on metrics to validate marketing channels, PLM is rooted in product-based acquisition. Here, users discover the product when looking to solve a problem or through the recommendation of a trusted source. Either way, content is often what fuels product-based acquisition: 

 ahrefs-product-based-acquisition.png

That, in my opinion, is the best form of growth marketing. Or as David J Greer puts it, 

“A customer talking about their experience with you is worth ten times that which you write or say about yourself.”

Codecademy is a perfect example of a company that does product-based acquisitions excellently. 

They leveraged certifications of people who took a course on their platform to build an admirable viral loop. 

Whenever a user completes a course on Codecademy, the company prompts them to share their certification on social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter, driving more awareness and user acquisition. 

Doing this pulls in others trying to solve the same problems: 

 codecademy-product-based-acquisition.png

So, rethink how you’ll acquire users. Forgo metrics-obsessed methods and concentrate more on making your product an acquisition channel.

Encourage reviews, prioritizing the good, bad, and ugly 

Reviews are excellent for communicating everything about your product. It’s an exceptional form of Product-Led Marketing as it comes from users actually using your product and not just perception of value. 

So encourage people to drop reviews of your product on your website.

Yes, even the bad ones. 

There should be enough cons to balance the pros of your product so prospects can decide if your product is worth purchasing at all. 

Great, convincing answers to bad and ugly reviews are also a way to sell your product even more than testimonials and successful case studies would. 

Chris Salles, Director Learning, Audible, Inc., best quips this in the 2019 B2B Buying Discontent Report

“I don’t want hyperbole. I don’t want marketing or sales speak. I want the good, the bad & most importantly, the ugly. The most valuable reviews for me are the ones that include a healthy dose of cons to balance the pros. 

I can read about the pros for days on the vendor’s website. I need to understand if the cons are large enough to dismiss the solution from consideration, not relevant to my use case, or small enough to not be a problem.” 

Implement analytics tools to track & measure performance

Management is difficult without measurement. 

You need certain data management and analytics tools in your Product-Led marketing tech stack. Some examples are:

  • Bizible is an example of such tools. It reveals which campaigns, channels, and content deliver the most pipeline, ROI, and revenue. 
  • User.com is another marketing tool with a workplace that provides simple yet powerful tools for your marketing team to organize data in a single database efficiently. 
  • Mixpanel is another tool that helps you understand the way your product is used, the most popular features, when users dump your product, and the behavior associated with retention. 

But it’s not enough to implement these tools. 

Ensure they come in handy in measuring: 

  • Customer satisfaction rate
  • Time to first response 
  • LTV/CAC
  • Daily active users 
  • Net promoter score

Once you’ve got a base for measurement, it’s time to audit. 

Audit your product and existing content (case studies, customer success stories) for viral loop opportunities

As I’ve established, Product-Led Marketing thrives on product-based acquisition. 

Your company didn’t reach the Series A stage by chance. You should have sweet case studies, customer success and user stories, and product champions. 

How about leveraging these to infuse virality into your product? 

For instance, can you sprinkle a little bit of product use cases and customer testimonials into all your marketing assets to infuse some virality and turn them into acquisition assets? 

Yes. 

And that’s where content marketing comes in. 

 product-led-storytelling-newsletter.png

Content marketing: the indispensable battery of your Product-Led Growth vehicle

Just as you can’t ignite a vehicle without a battery, you can’t ignite the Product-Led Growth engine if you don’t create and share content. 

Content marketing and blogging remain indisputable B2B marketing tools. Companies like Mio and Calendly understand this advantage and leverage it to drive growth. 

Here’s what Dominic Kent, Content Marketing Director at Mio, told Victor Eduoh, our Lead Strategist, about using content to drive growth. 

“The Mio blog exists to generate relevant traffic to our product and use cases. Each time we write a new post, the overriding question is, “will this lead to the reader one day buying our product?

When the answer is yes, the blog post will be informational but include stories around how our product can solve the reader’s problem. Typically, we try to answer genuine user questions (Google, Answer The Public, customer interviews, social media, support tickets). Part of the answer to these questions is almost always how they can use our product to improve their situation.”

If you didn’t pay attention to any of those words, ingrain this in your memory:

“The blog post will be informational but include stories around how our product can solve the reader’s problem.” 

That’s Product-Led Storytelling in action. 

Coined by Victor Eduoh, Product-Led Storytelling is the process of infusing stories into content (whether blogs or social media posts) that show a well-defined ICP how to solve their problems with your product. 

It’s like being informative in a product-centric manner. 

Calendly’s content has elements of the Product-Led Storytelling approach. Although it managed to go viral in its early days with little or no marketing efforts, Calendly is finally taking its destiny into its hands by crafting content with its product weaved into them. 

Their articles show how Calendly solves its target audiences’ problems. 

Check out this piece on ways early-stage entrepreneurs can leverage scheduling automation:

calendly-product-led-storytelling.png

Amanda Natividad, Marketing Architect at Sparktoro, is another person who leverages elements of Product-Led storytelling to her brand’s favor. 

Take her recent Twitter thread, for instance:

 amanda-natividad-product-led-marketing-example.png

She doesn’t just offer a solution to her target customer’s pain point, but she also shows how Sparktoro is the perfect solution, step by step. 

Here is how that made a prospect eager to use Sparktoro: 

 eager-sparktoro-prospect.jpg

I know you’re probably wondering, “how can I apply Product-Led Storytelling in my marketing program?” 

Great question. 

Here is how to go about it. 

Build Topical Authority 

Before crafting Product-Led Stories, you need a content strategy. And for this specific case, a Content Topic Clusters’ Strategy (CTCS). With it, you can predictably puzzle user-acquiring pieces together. 

But what does the Content Topic Clusters Strategy entail anyway?

A content topic cluster strategy is the process of puzzling related content pieces around topics relevant to your business. You can leverage it to define a strategic narrative to either become an authority in an existing niche or pioneer a new niche for your SaaS company:

 saas content topic cluster strategy

Content Topic Clusters are crucial for Product-Led Marketing.

They streamline your content marketing efforts to achieve differentiation on one end, while also aligning to the typical customer journey.

Take HoneyCart, a software for drop-off caterers. 

When they hired our B2B storytelling studio in January 2021, their goal was to become the go-to software for drop-off caterers. To achieve this, we first assessed their existing marketing efforts and conducted a competitor analysis. 

We also prioritized the most important business problem HoneyCart solves:

The difficulty small business caterers experience due to paying commissions to third-party platforms. 

Then, after examining what drove their 1st set of customers, the VEC team merged the trifecta of these insights to design an overarching narrative: 

Commission-free catering automation.”

Next, we ideated five pillar topics relevant to this strategic narrative. These topics weren’t only relevant to the main topic, but they aligned with how prospects were searching for HoneyCart’s solution. 

The end result of this gruesome, but fun process was a Content Topic Cluster Strategy that looked like this:

honeycart software content topic cluster strategy

Today, just six (6) months later, our strategy has powered HoneyCart to carve its niche in the highly competitive online catering market: 

commision free catering software honeycart

Here’s what Andrew Woo, the Co-Founder & CEO of HoneyCart, had to say after we executed the strategy:

Andrew Woo Product-Led Marketing Testimonial

That’s a glimpse of how powerful the Content Topic Cluster Strategy is. 

But without creating action-driven pieces, HoneyCart wouldn’t have realized the full extent of CTCS’ power. 

How did we help HoneyCart craft such pieces, you ask? 

With our unique, Product-Led Storytelling formula. 

Execute Your Content Strategy with Product-Led Storytelling

Product-Led Storytelling transforms your regular content pieces into high-converting funnels:

product led storytelling formula

You can read this guide detailing the Product-Led Storytelling formula. 

But here is a TL;DR breakdown: 

  • Craft benefits-driven stories that promise to solve a problem for them. 
  • Get the context straight right off the bat. Your content mustn’t appeal to everyone. It should target defined ICPs who’ll get the most value from your product-led story. 
  • Show (and not tell) them your product can solve the problem addressed in the article, which gets keen on exploring your content. 
  • Make your content entertaining and engaging by infusing your PoV, quotes, stats, etc. Walk prospects through how to solve the problems your article addresses in real-time using relevant stories.
  • Insert reviews and contextual CTAs, inviting those who consume your content up to this point to start solving their problems with your tool. 
  • Add more entertaining stories, as necessary. But, make sure you continue to insert snapshots of your tool in action. 
  • Use a more-detailed testimonial (with a reasonable outcome) to show that people similar to the ICPs your content targets have used your tool to achieve results. 
  • Switch on your SaaS copywriting skills and persuade those who engaged your content to this concluding part. Get them to imagine how their lives will be better if they signed up and started using your tool to solve the problems your product-led story walked them through. 
  • Don’t ask them to become a lead, download an ebook, or use a pop up to disrupt them. Use a prominent CTA box, sweet copy, and button and ask them to trial/demo your product. 

And when you apply these steps? 

As I showed in Ahrefs’ case earlier, here is what your content achieves: 

ahrefs product-led marketing results

The Product-Led Storytelling Formula is how we help fast-growing B2B SaaS craft content that directly fuels demand & sales qualified opportunities. 

Again, here’s what Andrew of HoneyCart said about this approach:  

Andrew Woo's testimonial

Get to your desired destination faster with the right vehicle

Whewwww. 

I know you’re probably thinking all these sound like much hard work. 

Sure, you’re right. 

Nonetheless, it gets better once you roll your sleeves and start implementing. 

By switching to a product-led marketing approach, you’ll have a direct impact on sales & revenue. What better way to help steer your company to a successful Series B or an acquisition? 

As I’ve shown you, to drive Product-Led marketing, you must fuel it with Product-Led stories. 

Do you need help crafting Product-Led Stories? 

Check out our pricing page or learn to craft Product-Led Stories. 

About the author 

Jeremiah Ajayi is a Product-Led content strategist with passion for engaging storytelling and creative ideation.

Outside of work, he loves deconstructing ideas that help people blossom into the best versions of themselves.

  • Apart from this being a good resource.

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    And one good thing is you could relate the following sentence with the previous while connecting it with the next.

    Damn good stuff.

    Yeah, good one!

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