Why Product Managers Often Aren’t Great at Marketing


Back when I was a developer, many years ago, I worked with a superb sales person – an ex-McKinsey sales person – who had been tasked with explaining to all us techies “What Sales Did”. Of course we already knew the answer – “Nothing, except get paid more than us, drive nicer cars, get more recognition, fly around the world and generally take up space that could be used by someone useful – someone like me”.

The start of his explanation was as follows:

“A sales department exists to convince people to buy things that they don’t want. If they did want it, then it would be an orders department.”

He then went on to elaborate on different techniques, but at the heart was this basic premise. In essence, if someone is phoning you up and saying “I love your product so much, I’d like to buy five right now!”, then you don’t need great sales people or indeed sales people at all. You need people to write down the orders, get the invoice sent out and follow up on payments when they’re late.

Sadly, the reality is a lot different. Most people out there don’t want your product. Unless you’re Apple, you’re not fighting customers off with a stick (and in the world of software, “Running Out of Stock” is rarely an issue!), so a considerable part of any marketing or sales role is to convince people that they want something that they don’t currently think they want.

Now of course there’s a lot of gradation in what this really means. It varies from the almost illegal and certainly immoral (convincing someone to buy payment insurance, that they can never claim back on) to the much nicer end of the spectrum, where you are just making someone aware of a genuinely great product, that they might never of heard of before. For example:


These knitted chainmail hats from Thing-a-ma-bobs are just the greatest things. But before someone had told me about them (or at least, posted a photo on Facebook), I had no idea they existed and so certainly didn’t want them. As soon as I saw them – where can I get one? The product is great.

But this is still sales and marketing – it’s marketing that put this item in front of me. Similarly, I’m very lucky to work for a company that makes great products. I would say it of course, but Red Gate is the first place I’ve ever worked where I genuinely believe the products are great (my test for this is “Would I recommend the product to a friend?” – as I say, sadly, the first place I’d ever say “Yes”…).

So marketing at Red Gate is a job I’m happy to do – because at no point do I feel like I’m hoodwinking someone in to buying something which is crap. Nevertheless, the job does consist of letting people know what the products are, promoting what they do, convincing people they’re better than the competitors’ versions, convincing people they have a need in the first place, even if they didn’t realise it, and so on. I.e. convincing people to buy something they didn’t previously want.

And this, finally, gets to my point – working in marketing requires a certain perspective, a certain attitude, which is that you’re willing to change the minds of customers from not wanting your thing to wanting it. You’re willing to manipulate (in the nicest possible way), cajole and influence so that people get their wallets out, when they were, previously, quite happy not to.

And this, I think describes why some Product Managers struggle with some marketing activities. At the heart of the product management role is a concentration on the product. Of course many roles in product management and marketing overlap, but the job title gives it away somewhat – most of your time as a PM is spent on creating the best possible product that fulfils the market’s needs given time, budget etc etc. And surely, when your masterpiece has been created, its perfection will not need explaining!? Its so obviously a great product, that does exactly what everyone wants and needs, any marketing is just superfluous? If anything, marketing has a negative connotation – if something is being marketed, this would imply the product needed marketing. How can this be?

Obviously this is an over-exaggeration (like all blog posts 😉 ), but the point is about the type of mindset that I often see differentiates product management folk from product marketing. Are you willing to promote your products and services to people, even when there are alternatives out there that, Heaven forbid, might be as good as, or even better than yours? And are you willing to convince someone to buy something which, right now, they have no need for, and have never even thought about buying?

Are you willing to convince someone to buy something they don’t want?

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