5 product marketing tips to help your startup cross the chasm

by Hugh McFall in Medium on January 9, 2019

How to apply a classic marketing principle to the SaaS start-up economy

If you’re in product marketing at a growth-stage startup, your job pretty much boils down to one thing: helping your company cross the chasm.

First introduced by Geoffrey Moore in his book, Crossing the Chasm, the chasm is the perilous gap between your early adopters and the mainstream market. The book was published in 1991 and it remains, to this day, a must-have read for product marketers.

Let’s say you’ve taken Moore’s advice and acted accordingly: you’re selling a complete solution, found a narrow, beachhead market to start with, and have a good plan to break into the mainstream.

What do you do next? What are some of the practical steps you can take to make sure you stay focused and disciplined, move quickly, and get the most out of every product and feature release?

The reality for many B2B marketing teams at growth-stage startups is that they work without a lot of resources at their disposal. Ad budgets and teams are small, and they only grow when absolutely necessary.

Meanwhile, your company is moving fast and your product is changing by the day. Where I work, for example, we released new features nearly every week in 2018, made a half-dozen integrations, and launched a joint venture. I’ve been able to work on all of these projects as our product marketing lead, and have learned an important lesson along the way: if you can put the right strategy, processes, and activities in place, you’ll be able to have an outsized impact as a marketing team, launch great products, and do your part to help your company cross the chasm.

If you’re a product marketer looking to do the same, here’s 5 ideas you can quickly put into place in your own work, all without needing to grow your team or spend more ad dollars:

  1. Better prioritize feature announcements
  2. Stay focused and responsive with weekly sprint cycles
  3. Take responsibility for putting products on the shelf
  4. Take your product on a ‘book tour’
  5. Empower your customers to do the talking

1. Better prioritize feature announcements

At my company, we release new features every week. When I first started this was enough to make my head spin: we had a constantly updating list of new features and improvements, and all of them seemed like opportunities to make an announcement. I was excited about what we’ve built and wanted to let everyone know about everything. Minor improvements made their way into blog posts, less relevant features crept into press releases and webinars, and over time, I realized that something didn’t seem quite right.

There are two main problems that come up when you don’t prioritize your feature announcements, and they’re important: first, you only get so many opportunities to hold the attention of your target audience. You don’t want to lose your their trust and attention by crying wolf on features that aren’t that important to the majority of them. Second, you only have so much bandwidth as a small team: you can’t waste time promoting a minor, untested feature, for example, if your time could be better spent promoting a bigger, more significant release that’s more likely to drive new business.

Inspired by the smart people at Intercom, we found a solution to this by putting a product marketing announcement framework into place. For every feature or product we build, the product marketing team — often with the input from product, sales, and support — uses a simple 2×2 matrix to assign a priority level, from P1 to P4:

Once we assign a priority level to a feature, we then have a list of marketing activities to undertake depending on the priority. Your table will look different depending on what channels you use and how you prioritize, but below is an example, and here’s a template you can copy and use in your own work.

P1’s, of course, are your biggest ones: they get a press release and full press cycle, a dedicated landing page, and a launch video, for example, while a P4 release might only make your changelog and be part of a bulleted list in an email update to customers. Every established product marketing team has a prioritization system that works best for their business: it helps you better market the stuff that matters, without letting the small (but important) changes slip through the cracks.


2. Stay focused and responsive with weekly sprint cycles

One of the facts of working at a startup is that your priorities constantly change. As a small marketing team, we struggled for a while trying to figure out the best way to balance our longer term strategy and goals with short term priorities.

Not only do you have your own team’s initiatives, but you also have high-priority requests from other teams that come up when you least expect it. This can be tough when you’re a small group without a lot of bandwidth: You want to be a team player, but you also have your own set of internal priorities and activities that you need to get done.

It turns out the answer to this was right in front of us the whole time: our product and engineering team. They built a great agile development process to manage feature requests, balance competing priorities, and consistently launch new features. We realized that agile project management could work for marketing, too, in our own way. We found some great resources on how to implement it, and we were on our way.

Here’s how ours works: we start with a backlog that we put all marketing-related requests into. It looks like this:

Start your own backlog with this template

Each task is summarized, categorized (e.g. sales collateral, success story, webinar, operations, etc.), timestamped, and include who requested it and who’s responsible for it. Anytime someone makes a request (via Slack, email, in-person, etc.), it goes in the backlog. Here’s a marketing backlog template you can use if you’re interested.

Then, every Friday, we have a sprint planning meeting for the week ahead by reviewing the backlog, prioritizing and assigning tasks, then listing them as to-do’s for the week ahead. We do a final check-in on Monday morning and then kick off the week with a clear mandate: to complete the tasks in that sprint, without letting ourselves get distracted by other requests.

For other teams, this will look a bit different depending on team size, org structure, and other factors. But we’ve found it most important just to start with an agile workflow, have open discussions with your team about what works and what doesn’t, and constantly refine it. It’ll help you better prioritize and finish your work, be more responsive and transparent with other teams, and give you a great project management foundation to build on.


3. Put the product on the shelf

There’s a myth about how product management and product marketing work together: product management puts the product on the shelf, while product marketing handles getting it off the shelf. And yes, while the main job of a product managers is to deliver a product, the process they build to do so is arguably more important. And if it’s a good process, it will be intertwined with product marketing right from the beginning.

As a product marketer, you have a big role to play in figuring out what to build, who it’s for, who it’s not for, how it works, what it’s called, and more. Here’s a few ways you can do that:

  • Competitive research: You’re responsible for understanding what your competitors are building, how they’re positioning themselves, and where they’re likely to go next — all of which are crucial things for your product team to know.
  • Positioning: Once work has started on a new product or feature, you should also start work on positioning it, even long before it launches. This will help your whole company understand and get excited about what you’re building, what problem it solves, and how it compares to the competition.
  • Messaging: Work with your product manager to turn your internal positioning statements into customer-facing messaging. Once you’ve put together a first pass, get feedback from your sales and customer success team. They’re on the front lines with customers every day and will give you valuable input on whether your messaging will actually resonate or not. This messaging, once finalized, will form the basis for all of your launch content and sales pitches.
  • Getting involved in beta testing: Sit in on beta calls — via web conference usually, or in-person if possible — and watch how your customers use your product. Listen to the language they use to describe the problem they have and how what you’ve built helps solve it: it will help you refine your positioning and messaging to make it more relevant to them. These beta customers are also usually the ones who will give you testimonials for launch day, so this is a good time for you to build a relationship with them.

By putting the product on the shelf, then giving your sales team the tools and resources to get it off the shelf, product marketers cement themselves as the linchpin between product management and sales. And that’s exactly where you should aim to be.


4. Launch day is halfway. Take your product on a book tour

Launch day is the dividing line between product marketing and product education. But at smaller startups, especially those without a demand generation manager, product marketers end up being responsible for both.

Despite the huge amount of work that goes into launch day — research, positioning, naming, creating content, training your team — your work is only halfway done. Now that you’ve made your first impression on launch day, it’s time for you to take your new product on a roadshow to get people to new audiences to hear about it and more people to use it.

I’ve found it helpful to think of your work like it’s a book tour: in the days and months after your launch you should be speaking at events, doing media interviews and Q&A’s, hosting training webinars, and writing guest blog posts. Even though you put a huge amount of work into launch day, oftentimes it’s what you do post-launch that can make or break the success of your product.

When you’re preparing for a big launch — a P1 or a P2, for example — don’t just plan everything you’ll do for launch day. Plan your key activities for the first 30 to 60 days post-launch to make a bigger impact and actually drive adoption.


5. Empower your customers to do the talking

When you’re releasing a new product or feature and trying to drive adoption for it, success won’t come from a new Facebook campaign or another A/B test. It’s going to come from good worth of mouth from your existing customers.

While word of mouth is a critical channel, it’s also the hardest one to measure and grow. This can lead you to think that word of mouth is out of your control, especially as a product marketer. You may say, “this is a great product and we’ve done a great job bringing it to market. Now, demand gen and comms needs to get people talking about it.

But word of mouth is something you can actively encourage and shape. In fact, if you want to ensure the long-term success of your new release, you have to. But how?

Great positioning and messaging are table stakes: it gives your customers a simple, compelling story to tell for every new release. But you have to encourage them to actually tell that story and to promote what you’ve built. This starts by turning your best customers — the ones who are happily using your product and telling people about it — into advocates on launch day and beyond.

Here’s three ways you can do that:

  • Get them involved in launch day: Across every channel, especially on launch day and in post-launch promotion, look for every opportunity to put your customer in the spotlight. Have them use your feature in beta, and provide a testimonial you can include in your launch post. Get them demo it in a webinar. Nothing builds trust in a brand new product like having your customers go to bat for it on day 1.
  • Publish case studies: For a big release, you’ll likely have a few customers using your new product in beta, oftentimes doing real work with it. If they were able to have success with the new product, turn that success into an in-depth case study. It’ll give your potential customers a clear blueprint for how they can use your new product and how they’ll get value out of it.
  • Support their talks at industry events: If you’re in B2B, many of your customers will want to share how they’ve implemented new technology like yours at conference keynotes and talks. Do everything you can to support and encourage this, even if that means writing most of the proposal yourself and helping them put together the slides. Having them speak to a room of their peers about your product is way more beneficial than if you were to do it. This tends to have a snowball effect, too: if you can help your customer have initial success with their first few talks and webinars, they’ll be sought after to do more talks.

As long as you’ve nailed your messaging, give your customers as many megaphones as possible. Because in the long run, it’s what they say — not what you say — that will determine the success or failure of your product.


It can be tempting to think that hiring more people or pouring money into paid spend will help your next product launch be successful. And yes, that’s what you you need over time — it’s tough to continue to grow year-over-year without more people or a bigger budget — but in order to get there, these 5 tips can help:

  1. Better prioritize feature announcements
  2. Stay focused and responsive with weekly sprint cycles
  3. Take responsibility for putting products on the shelf
  4. Take your product on a ‘book tour’
  5. Empower your customers to do the talking