Graduation day from the Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU felt special.
I was pumped — ready to take on the world. I felt like my mind had the proper focus and intellectual stamina to venture out and pursue what I knew to be the purpose of my future career: to build and market products that I believed made the world a better place.
Ten years since business school, that candle is still burning bright. But something feels different about that day. I was reflecting on it while watching an insightful talk by branding expert Scott Galloway on YouTube when it hit me: It's no longer just about what we market today, but it's becoming even more important how we market.
The Real Purpose of Product Marketing
Before getting into how we market and what that means, let's first ask an obvious question. Why market anyways?
Many will argue for product-market fit. To the untrained eye, product-market fit is the often-elusive state of a product when it perfectly matches (or exceeds) a customer’s expectation to resolve a specific need or want on an ongoing basis. Essentially, product-market fit is the holy grail for any marketer — whether they admit it or not. Business school can teach you many tips, tricks, and tactics that can hope to get you close to product-market fit with a lit candle. But often, the most crucial aspect of product-market fit goes missing or is lost in the footnotes of many textbook lectures. That aspect is customer empathy.
But why should you take my word for it? I've spent the better part of my career post business school at Microsoft and recently joined Grammarly to lead product marketing for our business product offering, Grammarly Business.
At Microsoft, I started as a product manager because I had (and still have) a firm belief that any product marketer willing to dive into the lucrative world of tech should first understand how products are built before marketing them. Since my stint as a product manager, I switched functions to go full-steam into product marketing, pursuing product-market fit for the likes of Microsoft Teams, Office 365, Microsoft 365, Azure Data and AI/ML.
After eight fortunate years of professional and personal development at Microsoft, I leaped into startup land, intending to challenge my preconceived beliefs of marketing. This was a move long coming, though. Since I began my post-business school career, I have stayed closely connected with the startup community in Seattle. The exposure had an exciting and humbling effect on me as I had a front-row seat watching founders bring their ideas to life and/or navigate a treacherous marketing blocker. And since our family’s move to Boston earlier this year, this exposure lives on through my engagement with the startup community here as well.
The Crucial Question
I learned my first lessons in customer empathy when I was at Microsoft. I was part of the initial marketing team that delivered our first freemium model for Microsoft Teams, essentially launching Microsoft Teams from the ground up.
Using my product management background in e-commerce, I helped identify customer needs and developed an enduring positioning and messaging framework for the product. The overall goal was to achieve product-market fit that would closely align with our desired business model. I also worked with other marketers to identify our target customer segments and how they would perceive product value so that we could monetize the paywall appropriately. We worked many long hours to find the right value equation to enable hybrid collaboration for our target user personas. Over the course of dozens of meetings, we discussed and deliberated on everything from strategy and pricing to product development and GTM.
But there was one common point that resonated in almost every meeting among our teams — one question that kept coming up, not because of a lack of clarity but because it was crucial that we remained steadfastly focused and current on the world influencing our customers.
That question was, "If I am the customer, what's going on in my life today that would influence my mindset here?"
Note that the question wasn't just:
"If I am the customer, what would I want?" or
"If I am the customer, how would I perceive this?"
Granted, these are important questions, but we had asked these questions earlier in the research already. The point here is simple but powerful: The customer is not a static individual but a human being affected by the world around them at any given time.
With that truth in mind, the right questions for us were:
“Has anything changed in our target persona's life that may impact how they perceive a need or a solution?”
“Has anything changed in the customer mindset in how they make decisions?”
“Are there any sensitivities affecting the customer's life today?”
“Is this a good time to market to this customer?”
Now, these questions may appear broad or generic in nature, but there are many ways you can make this tangible and defined for any business or startup.
For the sake of illustration, let’s say you are a startup developing an app that helps people manage their spending better. Any worthy product marketer would basically try to create a customer profile by articulating who the customer is, what personal traits exist and how they spend at given times. Using the insights gathered from this research, the product marketer would develop a hypothesis based on the customer profile and work with the product manager to develop a roadmap that would hopefully get the app to achieve product-market fit. In this illustration, product-market fit would be a customer who has improved their spending habits using the app and can attribute this success directly to the app’s usage.
But let’s say you are a product marketer with real empathy for your customers. You wouldn’t stop at a customer profile that just gave you static, objective information about the customer. You wouldn’t settle for even basic subjective information if it didn’t tell you more about the surrounding societal and economic factors driving a customer’s spending versus just the fact that they spent.
So in our illustration, you would also ask questions like:
“Does the customer think their spending habits are good or bad versus their peers?”
“Is there anything going on economically that would influence a customer’s spending?”
“Are there any family dynamics influencing the customer’s spending patterns?”
“Is there any seasonality involved in the customer’s spending that’s not in their control?”
These types of questions — combined with the standard research questions you’d ask — mean you’re approaching the customer with empathy. And it doesn’t stop there; these questions need to be asked on a regular, ongoing basis throughout the product marketing and development process because, if you’ve noticed, the answers to these questions can quickly change.
The good news is that as you ask these questions and get your answers, you will identify behavioral patterns of the customer that can be attributed to specific external drivers that you are now aware of. This knowledge will not only benefit you when developing your positioning, messaging and go-to-market plans, but it will also help your product manager build features that align with many more user scenarios that would previously have been blind spots. And now, when you launch your beta, you can measure your timing and strategies against these patterns in a much more definitive manner. This approach will prepare you for a successful general-availability launch with the right product and the right message at the right time for your customer.
This illustration shows a product marketing motion that’s driven by genuine empathy. And to me, that's product marketing done right.
Customer Empathy in Action
One of the many reasons I wanted to lead product marketing at Grammarly was because customer empathy is ingrained in the people here. The Grammarly Business product offering is growing strong in product-market fit, and it all starts and ends with customer empathy as we begin to scale. In just the past few months I have been here, I have spoken to end-users, managers, and senior leaders alike from companies big and small. The experiments we conduct and the tests we administer are based on hypotheses that put our customers at the center of our learning goals.
But how has this helped us?
By empathizing with the customer, we have learned more about their mindset and thought process than ever before. In doing so, we have minimized the cost of running multiple, redundant research studies that ask similar questions at different times with often the same results. We have also become better at positioning and messaging our value proposition to our target personas with compassion and precision.
How, you ask?
By cultivating empathy for our customers, we can project their behavior better since we can now understand the external drivers and influencers of that behavior with a certain level of confidence. We can identify what factors affect how the customer evaluates an option and makes a purchase decision or not. And most importantly, we have a better sense of the timing and messaging that would resonate best with the customer because we put their needs and mindset first.
Now, this isn't a silver bullet for ideal product-market fit, but it's firmer footing in that direction. Marketing today is a marathon, not a sprint. And the better we are prepared for this marathon, the easier it becomes to turn customers into fans.
Customer empathy has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have because of how quickly things can change in a customer's environment. If you need proof of this fact, look no further than the rapid, seismic shift we all went through with the pandemic. Whether you are a startup or a Fortune 500 behemoth, customer empathy will be the key to unlocking sustainable product-market fit now more than ever.
So how do you get started with customer empathy as a marketer? Begin by not being a marketer who’s solely focused on the product. Develop a genuine curiosity to learn about your customer and what makes them who they are, how they think, and what’s important to them. A little extra effort, care and time spent upfront will ensure a customer lifetime value that delivers on its promise — by actually lasting a lifetime