Mind The Gap, with Kristina Libby

Rory Woodbridge

Everybody wants a differentiated product, but can differentiation come from the message, and not the software? Nick sits down with Rory Woodbridge, Senior PMM at Pleo and author of The Product Marketer, as they discuss messaging-led differentiation and the key for PMM’s to work more effectively with product managers.


Everybody wants a differentiated product, but can differentiation come from the message, and not the software? Nick sits down with Rory Woodbridge, Senior PMM at Pleo and author of the Product Marketer, as they discuss:

  • The benefits of messaging-led differentiation and why many founders build too much in the spirit of being ‘different’
  • The key for PMM’s to work more effectively with product managers 
  • How product marketing needs to “find itself” over the next year.

This episode is perfect for anyone seeking more product differentiation, or any PMM’s struggling to work effectively with their product management teams. Be sure to check out The Product Marketer for updates in the ever-changing world of PMM!


Nick: Hello everybody and welcome to Mind the Gap, the only podcast about sales and marketing alignment put on by Enablix. I am your host Nick Ziech-Lopez and joining me on the podcast today is Rory Woodbridge. 

Rory, how’s it going?

Rory: Hey Nick. I’m doing well, thanks. 

How are you? 

Nick: I am trying to shake a cold here, which is probably why I sound scratchy.

Rory: Oh god, not the bad kind of cold. 

Nick: Yeah. The kind you can record a podcast through I suppose. Which is really the bar for how bad your cold is in my mind. No. 

Rory, you are the head of the product marketer Sub Stack. You have other projects in the world, but first can you take a second? Can you introduce yourself to our listeners? 

Who are you and what do you do? 

Rory: Hi there, I’m Rory based in London. I am currently the head of product marketing at Pleo. I have been in product marketing roles for the best part of a decade, having worked at big global brands like Google and YouTube, and then more emerging startups scale-ups like Whereby and Pleo. 

Then as Nick says, I also run the product marketer sub stack which tries to help people that are either starting out in product marketing or looking to kind of evolve the way they work on their product marketing strategies. 

Nick: So being in product marketing for a decade that makes you a veteran of product marketing at this point, right?

Where you one of the first seven?

Rory: Yeah. 

It’s quite worrying how long I’ve been in it, but no gray hairs somehow, so that’s something to be proud of I guess. I probably jinxed it now. 

Yeah so I mean It’s kinda crazy because I think it’s really emerged as a discipline now. 

But we definitely feel it, especially in Europe where you haven’t actually got a lot of people that have that amount of experience in product marketing and can really kind of point to all the elements that make up like the product marketing discipline. But I think it’s definitely found its identity in recent years.

I think we’re all getting much better at articulating what it is.

Nick: I mean, speaking of being a savvy vet. you started the product marketer, so it’s product marketer.subsect.com. That’s yours. What led you to start that? 

Just so you know, the listeners here, if you go to the podcast page, you’ll find a link to this sub stack there, but can you tell me a little bit about that?

Rory: Thanks for the plug. So it’s nice when I don’t have to promote myself. So yeah, it was a funny one. 

So, my last place, Whereby, which is a great video conferencing, an embeddable video product. One of their lead investors was a company called 0.9. 0.9 is just a great VC firm.

Kristoff’s one of those sort of valuable investors I think a European startup could have involved in their team. And he got in touch and said Rory would you do a talk on how to build a product marketing strategy. I sort of got to work on it eventually having procrastinated for a while. You know, you get on Google to see what’s out there because I don’t really have a, how to sort of like an off the shelf guide. 

And as I was Googling, I realized there’s not a lot of practical content, when it comes to product marketing. There’s a lot of high level of soul searching online about what it is and how we should think about it, and maybe there’s a bit of like templates out there. 

But I found there wasn’t a lot of practical, usable, written content.

Nick: Yeah. 

So it’s a thing I’ve noticed that when you look at the market enablix, there’s a lot of top-down content and a lot of bottoms up content.

Top-down content being starting with this idea, right, positioning. Then talking about why the idea is important, how you should think about the idea, but giving you really little to tangibly take from it. 

On the other hand, bottom up content starts with, what is this thing you’re going to do? And what are the explicit steps you’re going to take to get there?

That’s the thing at Enablix, we’re trying to create more of saying, hey, you want your sales rep. to find content using their outreach tool or something like that. 

I find in product marketing so much of it is top-down, to your point and because product marketing is so many things to so many people. I think you’re doing a good job and I’m wondering how you go about creating bottom up product marketing content.

Saying you almost focus on the deliverable at the end not positioning, but creating a persona or something like that and you get step-by-step. 

Can you tell me why you think that there’s not a whole lot of bottom up product marketing content out there?

Is it hard or is it just because it’s new? What do you think?

Rory: Well, I guess it’s because one of the tricky things is that as soon as you get into the details, you realize that every product marketer faces different challenges because a lot of your destiny is tied to the product and company that you work on. I guess so does anyone that’s trying to do this professionally, I don’t know someone like HubSpot. There’s loads of content about how to do product marketing. They’re trying to make a capsule. They’re trying to get people they’re searching for this kind of content. They probably aren’t afraid of getting into the weeds because something might not be relevant for 80% of the audience.

Whereas for me, I sort of take a bit of a chance and sort of use my examples from across. I guess I’m lucky I’ve worked on consumer brands and B to B SAS brands. I often try to balance an example from something consumer with an example from something to SAS to try and cater for the bulk of product marketers.

But I think I haven’t got the pressure to like my content doesn’t need to be perfect. I think it has to be useful for a big chunk of people that get a kick out of reading about product marketing. 

Nick: Yeah and I want to switch to something that you wrote about recently that resonated with me. I want to talk about how you got there. The ideas are messaging based differentiation, as opposed to product based differentiation.

Well, I’ll start by saying this was an interesting way to think about it that I don’t think many product marketers, product managers, and anybody is thinking about first. Can you tell me the difference between the two and a little bit more about messaging based differentiation?

Rory: Yeah, of course. So the idea for this post is that sometimes a theme will follow me around and chat. I’ll find that I’ll be either having dinner with people, with colleagues, or friends to just sort of make conversation and a thing keeps coming back.

This was one that kept coming up for me around the topic of differentiation and the fact that as product categories mature, it becomes harder and harder to differentiate. What we mean by feature based differentiation is the idea that product A has a feature or capability that product B doesn’t. 

But as I pointed out in the blog, the problem these days is that it’s quite easy to catch up. You’ve seen it happen in a big way. I mean, at one point it was there. It was a year ago, or two years ago, everyone was raving about the clubhouse. Clubhouse was this incredible innovation.

It wasn’t long before multiple players were scrambling to put together their own versions of it and it didn’t take too long to build. Now it’s kind of like, what is a clubhouse’s reason for being. 

I think it began like the Snapchat stories example, which was adopted by Instagram. I’d say Instagram is now as famous for stories, if not more than the company they took the inspiration from. 

So I think it’s dangerous being too reliant on feature-based differentiation. I think it’s also sort of on its own. You shouldn’t also look at a competitor’s features for your own roadmap. Just because your competition has a feature doesn’t mean you should build it.

You should really look towards your own customer base and get a sense of what it is they want and build for your customer rather than worrying too much about what the competition is doing. So those are some of the risks associated with thinking too much on feature based differentiation.

Well, you’ve got this emerging theme of message-based print differentiation. I think this has been long championed by Pat who’s the founder of winter.com. If you know that it’s something he’s written a lot about, and it’s this idea of companies that can nail who they’re like, target personas and target audience, work out what their positioning and what their proposition is for those that makes them special. And then nailing it with creative messaging that captures the heart and the mind, and clearly explains kind of what a company’s about is a way to go. I think.

But in the article I wrote, I think there’s many ways to differentiate. It can be about standing for something. It can be about having a brand that is either about something or it’s just iconic or striking. You could differentiate by customer experience just by sheerly offering a better level of service.

It doesn’t have to be a feature for example, or you can differentiate by being the best at something. You can be the fastest, the cheapest, the most premium in a certain capacity. So yeah. But basically I think that there’s a whole bunch of things to explore when it comes to differentiation, other than just building features X, Y, and Zed.

Nick: So one thought from that is I think it goes along with the fact that it is getting easier and easier to build features, right? Software is getting easier and easier to create. Look five, ten years ago with whatever stacks people had and whatever frameworks they were using. I think when you had a new feature that gave you a lot of space in many ways. Especially, if it was a feature that your competition wasn’t thinking about.

But I think these days it buys you less and less, but having a differentiated story, message, community, whatever that is, it’s intangible. And as marketers, it drives us crazy sometimes. 

But I think that in many ways, it is a more sustainable way going forward. My last question to you on this is, do you have an idea of how you know when your message is differentiated?

I understand that there’s no like oh, this is how you know. But let’s say that you’re a product marketer and you want to differentiate yourself more. You’re in marketing, you’re in product marketing, you’re in sales. What are steps you would take to go about saying okay, this is how we create differentiation and see if it sticks.

Rory: Yeah. I guess I think about it like how I view messaging in general, which is to kind of create a constant loop of taking insights from your customers of what they’re saying about you, be it on review sites in user interviews, in customer feedback, like surveys. Feeding that into your actual messaging, testing the messaging, and seeing what sticks, seeing what resonates and keep on going. Keep on iterating and there’s great ways of testing your messaging. 

Be it, is it to mention winter again. I am a big, big fan of that or something like usertesting.com, or video testing platforms to see is the message you’re trying to convey actually connecting.

But then, I mean it’s really hard. Product marketing and success metrics is again something I think a lot about. How do you measure the impact of product marketing? Sometimes it’s just a feeling and I think a company like Pleo is in a really good position in a lot of ways because it’s a long-term play.

But if you asked our customers what we’re about, it’s about the fact that we want to make employees feel valued and that we put the employee at the heart of our experience. That comes from building the product, building a brand consistent messaging across a long period of time. Differentiation through messaging isn’t something that you can fix in two weeks, sadly.

Nick: I think that that brings up a good point, that when you have feature based or product based differentiation, the roadmap can get really hairy. Because the roadmap is essentially like what compliments, the thing we’ve built.

But when you have either story or whatever that other differentiation is, it’s almost saying all right, where does this guide us? And the roadmap in a lot of ways falls into place. The prioritization is going to change, but does this support our central theme? Does this value the employers or is it just a nice thing to build? If it doesn’t value the employee, how much revenue would it have to get to make it matter? In a way to think about it. 

But speaking of building things, I wanted to pivot really quickly to the idea of product marketers versus product managers. This is something you also write about on your sub stack and it’s something I lived. I come from the world of product management originally. Kind of did the underground through product to product marketing. 

Can you talk to me a little bit about how you see the difference between what a product manager and a product marketer should be doing and when an organization should think about splitting out that role? 

Rory: Yeah, for sure. 

I think my view is you should avoid conflating the two. Product managers should ideally not have to do the product marketing pieces and vice versa. But the two organizations or roles should have an incredibly close partnership. They should be sort of one of the places partnerships in a business.

If I was trying to differentiate the two, I’d say like product marketing is more about bringing the insights from an array of places. I think it’s more about actually delivering the messaging, the positioning, delivering the actual launches. While, the product manager is more on the hook for coordinating efforts to deliver on their own product vision, and actually be really kind of owning the product roadmap while being open to being influenced by product marketing and other parts. 

One of the simplest ways I describe it is like a product marketer should be the marketing person in a room with a product and the product person in a room with marketing or go to market.

Nick: That makes sense to me. 

My question being, where’s the handoff? When you talk about bringing products to the market, the product manager is owning the roadmap and like you said collaborating the efforts. But like there’s a pretty bleeding edge there because what does it mean to bring something to market?

Does it mean that the software is usable or does it mean that everybody knows about it? Where do you have an easy place to draw that line? Like perhaps you do? 

I find so much fuzziness there.

Rory: I do agree it’s fuzzy and I think it requires quite a lot of goodwill and it’s why having a healthy relationship between the two roles is so important. Because as soon as it becomes territorial that becomes an issue, that fuzziness. 

Most fast moving tech. companies have a healthy culture. Usually there’s more work than there are people to do it, so it becomes a real kind of teamwork and it matters less about who drives market intelligence or whatever. It’s a team effort to get something like that over the line. 

But I think for product marketing it’s about holding a product to an account in some ways about who you are building this for? And is it for the right audience? Does it match up with the overall business or go-to market strategy? Then making sure that it’s no good just building great products if they don’t find their audience.

So I think marketing is also about making sure that a product is built, that a company or a product team believes in finding its user. Otherwise you can’t have product marketing fit. 

Nick: You’ve got profit, you’ve got a product. 

Rory: You’ve got a product, but who to sell it to?

Nick: Unfortunately, many of us know the feeling of having a great product. 

Many of us in product management have felt many times before well, I have this great product. What happened? 

Rory: It’s going to turn into therapy now 

Nick: Absolutely. That’s gin in that glass, right? 

So I want to shift here. You recently published a post about your product marketing prediction for 2022. I ask a lot of people to come on the podcast, what they see as the future for product marketing because it could be a lot of things. 

Can you briefly share with me what you see in the short-term, long-term how you see it? What do you think the future holds for product marketers and the discipline in general?

Rory: Yeah, totally. 

I wrote that post because you and I chatted, we had that initial getting to know each other and you said I might ask you this. I thought you know what, I’m terrible at making predictions because I’m not good at, I don’t want to call it, but I did end up landing on quite a big thought or what I think is actually quite a big point to make.

I think product marketing is almost at a crossroads. The last couple of years the discipline has done an amazing kind of reputation, brand reputation, or PR job in itself to a point now that every kind of tech company on the land in the land is trying to hire for product marketers.

I think we’re all feeling it. Anyone who’s got product marketing in their job title right now is the inbounds. LinkedIn is amazing, but I think that we’re almost at the risk of product marketing becoming this silver bullet where companies go, do you know what, this is gonna fix everything. We’re gonna bring in a couple of product marketers. They’re gonna help us work out who our ideal customer is. They’re gonna nail our positioning and our product proposition. And everything’s just going to come together and we’re going to be flying.

Nick: Yeah, we’re just gonna do it. We’re gonna hire these people and they’re going to do it for us.

Rory: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. 

Marketing kind of goes in circles. It’s quite good at reinventing itself. We’ve seen it before like we had content is king a few years ago. We’ve had growth hacking. We just need to be careful because I think product marketing just needs to sort of really focus on a few.

Probably marketers need to focus on a few things to really make sure that this does remain a long-term discipline of substance that should be like an essential kind of an essential part of any marketing or product department. And it goes without question the value. But I think we just need to do some work on defining what it is and making it very clear when you join a company, or if you’re building out a product marketing department, that you’re very clear with the rest of the company about what it is and setting expectations.

Then I think it’s about really showing that’s what we do. Tying product marketing to key business metrics, ideally revenue. Then, finally it’s about I think having an impact. 

I think product marketing is this dance between being strategically influential and operationally effective. You need to be both. It’s no good kind of doing one or the other, some companies you end up sort of pontificating and doing too much thinking and documentation. Other company’s product marketing becomes this very executional role where you’re just a mouthpiece for a product, and that’s also not very effective. So you want to find this balance, but you wanna make sure you’re having an impact on the things that matter most to a business.

I think if we can all do these three things then I think it will sustain product marketing as a respected and essential department. 

Nick: Yeah and you see it over time, too. 

I liked that you called back to like the idea of growth hacking and even the role of product manager was once where product marketer is. Oh, we’re just going to hire this person and they’re going to fix the issue between how we develop products and how our users use them. We’re just going to fix it. I think those things don’t take off.

I agree with the idea for specificity and I think it’s okay to admit that your specificity could be different at every single company. Right?

If every single product marketer at every single company is doing a different thing, but they’re all adding value in specific ways like you point out, fine then that’s what product marketing is. That’s still very valuable. 

Rory: Yeah, totally. I think because it is so tied to what the product’s about and the value that your users get from that particular product brand company. You do have to tailor your definition to each one, but I think it’s important you do it quickly and that you do it as best as possible. Do you align it with some of those core principles around kind of being the voice of the customer, bringing insights to the table regularly, not knowing your place in the market landscape? 

So taking some of those fundamentals and turning it into a unique definition for your role or company.

Nick: Now before we break here for the day, we’ve already talked about your sub stack. The productmarketer.substack.com. Anything else you’d like to let the people know about where to follow you? Things to look at?

Rory: Yeah, sure. 

I’m also on Twitter, just @RoryWoodbridge. No dots or hyphens and then yeah if you want to sort of see what we’re working on out in the open, I’m sort of building out part of the marketing team at Pleo very much. Hiring and growing the team this year, see if there’s any product market that is looking to be part of something special. I’m trying to put together a really strong team. You can watch as we tackle a lot of the challenges. 

Pleo that comes with fast growth, scale-up probably would benefit lots of people listening.

So yeah. Keep an eye on the product marketing work that we are doing. 

Nick: And be comfortable if you are interested in that role, that it’s going to be specific. As Rory said. 

Rory: That’s going to be the first thing I ask you is what are you gonna be doing? All right. 

Nick: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. It was wonderful talking to you. Ladies and gentlemen… 

Rory: Nick, it has been an absolute pleasure.

Nick: We’ll have to have you on, let’s do it next January. We’ll talk about our 2023 predictions. We’ll make it a yearly thing. 

Rory: Sounds like a plan.

 Nick: Awesome. Ladies and gentlemen, Rory Woodbridge. 

This has been Mine the Gap, a podcast about sales and marketing alignment put on by Enablix. My name is Nick Ziech-Lopez. Thanks for listening.