Go-To-Market Strategy: Building an Effective GTM Plan, According to Experts

Three product marketers weigh in on how to build the most effective go-to-market strategy.
Mae Rice
May 14, 2020
Updated: October 15, 2020
Mae Rice
May 14, 2020
Updated: October 15, 2020

There are plenty of popular products, but few effortlessly popular products. Take Airbnb: Though it’s everywhere today, it took three launch attempts (and a stint in a startup accelerator) for the short-term rental platform to take off.

That’s not unusual. Consensus across the marketing industry has it that building a wonderful product isn’t enough. True success also requires a detailed plan for connecting that product with people who will use and value it. In other words, it requires a strong go-to-market strategy.

So, how do you craft one? At some companies, the go-to-market strategizing starts only after the product is finished — but that approach is falling out of favor.

“If you do it that way, your process is broken,” Yoni Solomon, manager of product marketing at G2, told Built In. “It just creates such a log jam of things that are complete and ready to be shipped out, but marketing’s not ready.”

More common, now, is for product and marketing to work in lockstep from ideation to launch and beyond. In fact, often marketing  — or at least, the market — leads ideation more than product. If you don’t know of someone who wants a given product, you probably shouldn’t start creating it.

“The worst case,” Solomon said, “is you do [product development] in a silo and you build a product for a problem that no one’s having.”

So, what’s the best case? We spoke to three product marketers — including Solomon — about how to build a go-to-market strategy more like Airbnb’s final one than it’s first (or second) one.

How to Build a Go-To-Market Strategy

  • Find a valuable problem to solve
  • Define your market
  • Determine a sales strategy
  • Develop an effective marketing strategy behind the product
  • Test, test and test again
  • Soft launch
  • Gain customer feedback
  • Launch with strategic KPIs and stats in mind

Can you give some insight into your process for creating a go-to-market strategy?

yoni solomon go to market strategyYoni Solomon

Director of Product Marketing at G2

There’s a bunch of different phases to going to market. At G2, we actually have a blueprint for go-to-market strategy. It’s five different phases that need to happen in sequential order before we consider a software product ready to launch: product ideation, build, soft launch, go-to-market and go-to-market continued.

Ideation typically starts with a problem we could solve. Then people sit in a room and think about what this thing could be how it should work, and how we should talk about it. Where would it sit on our website or in our product hierarchy? Then if we decide to build it, we go to build, where two things are happening at once. The product team and the developers are actually building this thing, and us product marketers are building our go-to-market plan.

We put together what’s called a “messaging house,” which is a one-page document that is our Bible for whatever this thing is, and we build out a tactical plan. Do we want a landing page? Are we going to put this on the website? Do we want to promote it in an email to customers? How are we going to train the sales team? Do we want to have a certification exam? We think through every single last detail. Then there’s soft launch, where we test it with a couple of people and make sure it works. From there, you go to the go-to-market phase — the launch. Then you enter go-to-market continued, where you’re pumping out new campaigns and new awareness to help promote that product.

 

mike eckstein go to market strategyMike Eckstein

Product Marketing Manager at Buffer

The way it starts is, I’ll work with the product team to do a bit of a deep dive on the product — what is it? — and the problem space — what is the problem we’re trying to solve? That comes even before we think about how we’re going to market and sell this thing. Getting a good understanding of the problem space would involve going through customer research with a product manager or product designer. We might also look at our data about how people use our other products, or do customer interviews.

“At this point we’d be looking at competitors as well.... How can we differentiate from the other solutions out there?”

So that’s the first thing — validating the idea, essentially. Then we go to designing the solution. I’m probably less involved in the actual design. But as we’re building this thing, it is important to think about if it’s something we’re really confident we can sell to the market. At this point we’d be looking at competitors as well. What are other solutions out there? How can we differentiate from the other solutions out there? So that’s the very early part of the process.

 

michael phelan go to market strategyMichael Phelan

Principal at Go-to-Market Pros 

At the highest level, a go-to-market strategy starts with figuring out which market you’re addressing. Let’s say a company decides they’re going to address the U.S. market — what market within the U.S. are they addressing? There’s direct-to-consumer, and business to business. And then if you’re on the business to business side, are you targeting healthcare or financial service companies? Are you targeting large, medium or small companies? You’re defining the geographic region, the market segments, and the personas that you’re going to target within your ideal companies. That’s the first stage.

The next stage is, how are you going to sell your product to that market? Are you going to go through partnerships for distribution? Are you going to go direct? If you’re going to go direct, how are you going to generate awareness and demand for your product? Looking at awareness, obviously you’re going to look at all the different marketing tactics, from pay-per-clicks to display advertising to e-marketing, to events. From the sales perspective, do you have an inside sales force or an outside sales force? Then there’s the whole experience of the product as you bring it to market — everything around your website and your company and your brand. If you plan carefully, you’ll have a good go-to-market strategy, but a lot of companies don’t put the time into it.

 

Who’s responsible for creating a go-to-market strategy?

Solomon: That’d be me and the product marketing team. But we work with everybody at G2. We work with product directly. We work with digital marketers directly. We work with sales and customer success to train them.

Eckstein: At Buffer, that’s something that I own, but it’s also a very collaborative process between our product team and our marketing team. If we use a wheel analogy, there are spokes going out to different people, like designers and product managers and the marketing side — people who are working in PR and social media. In many ways, the product marketer’s job is pulling all those things together into one cohesive plan.

Phelan: A lot of times, product marketing or product managers will be the ones developing the go-to-market strategy for a specific product. But if you think about it from the company perspective — like if a company’s coming into the U.S. and they’ve never been in the U.S. before — it’ll be some combination of the CEO and their senior leadership teams. But I think in general there is a lack of an assigned person that really looks at the company’s go-to-market strategy. Nobody really owns those areas.

 

What is a step in the process that’s too often overlooked?

Solomon: Definitely step three, soft launch. To the surprise of no one, agile methodology works. We go through these couple-week sprints and boom, stuff is ready. Unfortunately, testing products with people to see what they think or feel or what they would change — that takes a lot longer. But when we go to market without properly testing, the product may not work, or you may be selling it to the wrong audience. We like to introduce a product in a private test with existing customers, and collect feedback on a bunch of things, including our marketing. Are we talking about it the right way? Does the story fit whatever this product is and is it enough for people to want to buy? A lot of the times companies test functionality in beta testing, but they won’t actually ask people what they think about the name or the logo or the messaging. And then you roll something out and you miss and that sucks.

“When we go to market without properly testing, the product may not work, or you may be selling it to the wrong audience.”

Eckstein: There’s a few steps that are undervalued. One is the internal communication side of things — just rallying everybody internally around the launch, making sure that everyone knows what’s going on. A second thing that gets a bit overlooked is what happens after launch. Often you launch something, and then you’ll do a bit of a recap, and then it’s on to the next thing. But for a new product or new feature to take off, it often takes time. So you need to keep reiterating the value of this new thing.

Phelan: I think one of the biggest things that gets short shrift would be understanding what your prospects really want and need. A lot of times, companies are so busy just selling what they have, they don’t understand where the customers want to go, where the best of the best in their industry are going. When you’re talking to a prospect about advanced marketing personalization, which is a very hot topic for retailers today, they want to know what Sephora is doing, because Sephora is the No. 1 retailer in the world for that. If a company takes a vendor-centric view of the market, it’s hard to answer that question. They think about how to sell more now, but not necessarily: How do we dramatically impact customers?

 

How is the process of creating a go-to-market strategy different for established companies and startups?

Solomon: In a perfect world I would say there’s no difference, except in the budget — how much money you’d have to pump into this launch and the training. Training a company of a hundred people is totally different than training a company of 40,000 people. Right? So that might be something that fluctuates.

Another difference might be the persona that you’re going to market to. A larger company, there’s a good chance they’re marketing to enterprise companies. So the marketing needs to be a bit more rich, because the deals are higher value. With a startup, you may be doing short, punchy launches that come out in really fast succession. So the personas and the pace would be different. But I would use our blueprint at a hundred-person company or at a 50,000-person company.

Eckstein: I think it definitely is different. In my experience at Buffer, our product marketing strategy has shifted as the company has matured. When companies first start out, especially if they’re entering a newer market with less competition, the strategy is usually more like, let’s have a really broad positioning, and try and get as many customers as possible. It doesn’t really matter who they are, how much they’re paying, or where they’re coming from. We just want some growth. Right?

We did this at Buffer. At first, when we were taking products to market, we would basically take it to everyone. We just wanted to build word of mouth. But as our business matured, our business model got tested. As we started getting more competitors in the space and the market changed, we discovered that we really needed to hone in on our best customers. Now we think a lot more about who we’re targeting, and how we’re pricing. How can we bring on customers who are going to get maximum value out of our products and expand with us? Ultimately, we’re thinking less, “We want lots of customers.” Instead, we want good customers.

Phelan: A small startup or emerging growth company is really looking to do a couple of things. One is they need to validate their product, which is unique. Does it meet the requirements of the market? At the same time, they’re looking for their first five to 10 customers. They want customers willing to try new technology. They know it’s not perfect. They need someone to give them some feedback to modify it on the fly. They have typically no brand names and little money. So they have to be very efficient, very targeted in the way they do it. So their go-to-market strategy has to be very precise and creative.

“It’s a lot easier to take your current product and service and bring it to a new market than it is to develop a brand-new product or service.”

Now, if you take your large company, they’re oftentimes trying to sell their core product to a new market segment — a new industry, or a new region. It’s a lot easier to take your current product and service and bring it to a new market than it is to develop a brand-new product or service. They already have a sales force, bigger budgets and more people. So it’s different than a startup.

 

Can you talk about a challenge you faced creating a go-to-market strategy, and how you handled it? 

Solomon: My biggest challenge was at my first job out of school. I was working on mobile wallet technology. This was back during Apple’s first generation of its wallet app, and we were trying to build coupons and loyalty cards that you could save to your wallet. It was an entirely new product category. No one was doing it at the time. There were no use cases, no best practices, nothing.

The most challenging piece of the go to market wasn’t the launch. It was that I needed to feel confident enough in myself to say, OK, we don’t know what the best practices are, and we should be the ones to figure that out. I handled it by going really, really deep into the product. I dissected how the mobile wallet app worked. I built coupons on my own and saved them to my own phone. That’s something I always try to emphasize to my team: You need to know the nooks and crannies and crevices of what you are marketing.

Eckstein: There’s often a bit of push and pull between product and marketing in terms of scoping. So currently we’re in the midst of building a new feature that we’re gonna launch soon. And obviously, from a marketing point of view, we want it to be fully fleshed out, so we can take to market and make a big, splashy noise about. But the product team wants to ship things as quickly as possible so that we can get feedback. If that means shipping something small, as long as it adds value to the customer, they’ll ship it. So this creates a challenge. At what point is something ready to be shouted about?

Right now, we decide using a framework where we look at the value of the feature or the product, and we say, is this something that’s going to attract new customers, or is it more so going to retain existing customers? Where does it fit on that scale? Then we also think about, is this an innovation or is this more of a catch-up type feature compared to other things on the market? If it’s more of a small catch-up feature to retain existing customers, we’ll do a contained launch. Whereas if it’s an innovation that could attract a whole new audience, we’ll do a big social media-type launch.

 

What’s a sign a go-to-market strategy is ready for rollout — or, conversely, that it’s not, and needs more work?

Solomon: I think being a great product marketer is equal parts data analysis and people work. We’re marketing to people. So the first thing that I’ll always bring up when we’re in ideation phase is, who asked for this? That’s the litmus test for me. If I can’t definitively see that a lot of people are asking for this product, then it’s probably not a product that’s ready, unless it’s the most innovative thing ever. If it’s a pie-in-the-sky innovation, I’ll do my research at a macro level, to see, what reports can I find, what data can I find that tells me that people are headed this way. It all comes back to people and aligning what you’re trying to sell to human behavior and preferences.

Phelan: You should define your strategy in terms of how you’re impacting your customers. So for example, a lot of companies have customer success initiatives, which should be about making customers more successful. How are we going to become a vendor of choice? But if you really look at customer success initiatives, a lot of them are internally focused. They’re all about churn reduction — how do we lose less customers? How do we keep customers longer? They’re very much operational metrics. Not that it’s bad to look at those things, but if you’re not focused on how you can make your customer successful, then you’re looking inward rather than outward.

Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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