7 Keys to Product Marketing for Startups

The road from young startup to industry-leading juggernaut is a bumpy one: A crucial piece for those that make it? Effective product marketing.

Startups that succeed do so because they effectively position their product offering – at each and every stage of their company they know who they’re building for, what their target audience’s pain points are, and the propensity of their target audience to pay for a specific solution.

The first step down this road is often the most crucial, and from a product marketing perspective, can also be the most challenging. Former Dropbox SVP Adam Gross gave a talk at Google Ventures Startup Lab in November 2013 focused solely on “Product Marketing for Startups”, which focuses on developing branding, positioning, and messaging for startups. I’ve summarized Adam’s talk in my notes below, and you can find the video of the original presentation here.

7 Keys to Product Marketing for Startups

1) Strive to be both strategic and emotive

The Grand Unified Theory of Marketing: The two properties of truly great marketing comes from organizations that are both strategic and emotive. By being strategic, an organization is driving and leading their respective industries: by being emotive, an organization can produce a reaction upon individuals engaging with a specific product/service. Overall, B2B companies usually start out being strategic and then gradually lean more into emotive qualities, whereas the opposite is true at B2C companies.

2) Develop an “industry transformation” narrative

For companies that are important players a specific space, there’s always a core industry transformation narrative. Whether it’s Zynga describing the industry transition from console gaming to social gaming or Facebook moving “discovery” from search to the social realm, any stand-out company is able to craft their narrative around disrupting an industry. 

3) Differentiate yourself from the competition

“It’s better to be different than it is to be right”

If you aren’t able to differentiate your organization, it’s hard to imagine how you will become successful. You have limited bandwidth to talk about you company and your products: if it isn’t imminently clear what’s different about you, your opportunities are going to be lost. To be successful, you need to know who you’re trying to differentiate against, who you’re trying to compete with, and why.

4) Brand the ingredients of your product

Certain aspects of your product should become the physical manifestation of all of the ideas about what makes your company/product different. As an example, was the mouse actually a key differentiator for the Mac? No. But because of the way Apple branded it, the mouse became the stand-in for everything that was different about the Mac.

5) Use other organizations to distribute your product

A good approach on how to piggyback on other organizations is thinking about the smallest, simplest product you can create to deliver it through another company’s channel. For example, Salesforce wanted to partner with Skype. They wrote 3 lines of code to pass phone data and made it easy for Salesforce users to create conference calls via Skype. This feature, although small, greatly bosted Skype adoption and awareness, in addition to generating 3 separate mentions in the Wall Street Journal.

Tip: Leveraged acquisition shouldn’t be driven by BD: it’s really just effective product marketing.

6) Repeat your message ad nauseum

After you know what your messaging/positioning is, it’s the job of product marketing to repeat the message until they can’t stand it anymore. One tactic is to create a minimum viable marketing product (ie the absolute minimum amount of smallest piece that needs to be added to make something credibly new). Product launches should be used to convey a core message and each launch is an opportunity to repeat your core message.

Saying the same thing again and again and again is counterintuitive to what we typically think of as communication, but repetition is the best way for potential users and customers to continue to discover (and re-discover) your organization/product.

7) Understand PR hierarchies

Similar to an API, every PR story can be grouped/classified into one of several plot types. PR plots have a stack rank, or an order of impactfulness. Your approach should always be to craft a story that falls within one plot type. These plots can also be factored into your overall strategy, (ie since partnerships are typically more impactful in the press than product launches, you may want to focus more resources on partnerships as opposed to product launches).

Press Plots Lines: Most –> Least impactful

Financial/Funding (IPO, quarterly results, etc)
Product launch


Final Summary:

Product marketer should be continually asking:  What am I doing on a day-to-day basis to become both more strategic and more emotive? Whether you’re writing a blog post, sales collateral, or a press release, you should be taking advantage of every customer communication to become both more strategic and emotive.

The Essential Product Launch Toolkit

Know Your Users: Developing Actionable Customer Personas

Customer personas can be hugely helpful for any organization that’s designing, developing, and marketing their product. Creating and validating specific customer personas that span a company’s various and potential customer types makes it easy to understand what pieces of the product/marketing strategy are most effective.

You can’t build everything for everyone or market to every person: Knowing who you’re building for is just as important as knowing who you’re not building for.

3 Tips to Developing Actionable Customer Personas:

Tip 1: Psychographic > Demographic

Good personas combine both demographic data (age, gender, occupation, relationship status, etc) with psychographic information (goals, motivations, concerns, shopping patterns, etc), but great personas emphasize the psychographic. Demographic data can help determine appropriate market sizing and can be leveraging in certain marketing channels (i.e. PPC advertising), BUT customers don’t purchase a product because they happen to be in a specific demographic. Understanding why a customer might buy a product and what types of messaging motivates them has a much greater impact on product /marketing strategy than demographic data.

Tip 2: Focus on the “Jobs-to-be-done”

The “jobs-to-be-done” framework, created by HBS professor Clayton Christensen, was developed to help companies focus on the problem their customers have, NOT the current solution the companies are offering. Customers don’t buy products/services but instead “hire” them to do a specific job: understanding the “job-to-be-done” makes it much easier to build a solution to the problem. 

Don’t ask customers what they want: ask them what their problem is and focus on developing a solution to solve it.

Tip 3: Use a Variety of Data Sources (hint: it’s easier than you think)

Develop personas using both qualitative and quantitative from a variety of sources. One data source will only cast your target customer in one type of light: the more sources you use, the clearer idea you’ll have about who your target customer is.

Use the following data sources to build your persona:

Analytics Data: Pull data straight from Google Analytics to determine demographic data for visitors (age, gender, location, etc).

Survey Data: Use surveys to target both individuals currently visiting/engaging with your site AND individuals within specific demographics that aren’t visiting your site.

  • Onsite Survey (using Qualaroo or Qualtrics).
  • Email Survey to Existing Contact List (using SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo or FluidSurveys).
  • Offsite Survey (using Google Consumer Insights Market Research Surveys).

Phone Call Data: Phone calls with current customers are THE best source of qualitative data and are 100x easier to schedule than in-person interviews. Create a 10-15 minute call script with questions to ask and distribute internally so your entire team/company can participate.



Developing customer personas is a relatively easy exercise that can give more direction and focus to almost any marketing effort. Personas are narrative in nature and are meant to be tested: don’t kill yourself trying to get a persona completely right the first time. Gather some data, create a persona or two, and start executing tests to see how your personas stack up.

Creating Value Propositions for Marketplace Businesses

The value proposition:

One short, easily digestible and simply understood phrase that encompasses everything your organization stands for.

For startups, developing and testing a value proposition isn’t particularly difficult. A/B testing different copy from day one on the very first launch landing page makes it easy to figure out what type of messaging resonates with your target customer.

Strategically, however, delivering on this value prop is where the rubber really meets the road. If you really are providing the best, easiest, cheapest, or fastest whatever, your product needs to back it up.

What a Value Proposition Means for a Marketplace

To make it more difficult, marketplace businesses have a whole host of additional challenges. Delivering on the value proposition for a non-marketplace business, while by no means easy, is relatively straightforward. Identify the problems your customers are trying to solve and work to build a solution. At a marketplace, however, you’re creating an environment in which each side of the market solves the other side’s problem.

By bringing both parties together and reducing marketplace friction, you’re enabling both groups to fulfill the other’s needs. So, how do you develop and promote your value proposition if you’re merely providing a platform for communication and interaction?

Ultimately, you need to think strategically about what else your product does besides merely connecting these two parties. At sharing startups, as an example, this can be difficult, but to truly add value to each side of the equation your product must actually ease a specific pain point for each side of the marketplace, whether that pain point is time, cost, etc.

While your company may not be at one end of an actual interaction, you control the arena where interaction takes places. You can shift marketplace dynamics by changing the monetary structure, communication structure, or timing of how the marketplace should interact: add value to the marketplace that makes it one party’s best interest to satisfy the interest of the other party.

And as with any company, if your marketplace is supposed to make it better, easier, faster, or cheaper to transact, it needs to back it up: adjust the marketplace dynamics to make it so.