The words “marketing” and “startups” don’t always have an easy co-existence, but creating innovative and successful marketing efforts — and in particular positioning, PR, and pricing — are an essential part of creating growth. Over his career at personify, salesforce.com, and Dropbox, Adam Gross has launched tens of cloud and SaaS products, and helped create some of the larger customer communities on the web. In this talk, he shares a few of the basic tenants of product marketing he’s learned along the way.

All errors, omissions, and misrepresentations are mine.


At the most basic level, one of the really interesting things that's happened in the last 5 years is the bottoms-up style of marketing: customer acquisition, activation, retention, funnel, marketing mechanics which are essential to a company's success. There's a lot of great people who are establishing the new art of growth hacking, including Ivan Kirigin (who ran marketing at Dropbox, now founder of YesGraph).

Of course, top-down marketing is still important: positioning, pricing, PR, sales enablement, etc.

The future of marketing has been defined by developers. If you look at past marketing practice, what has been used to market to developers in the past has become some of the state-of-the-art techniques we use today: online communities, user-generated content, content market, bottoms-up adoption in the enterprise.

We're going to talk about 7 ideas of product marketing today.


1. Grand unified theory of marketing

What are the properties and characteristics of the companies we admire most? There are two dimensions we want to execute on: (1) we want to be strategic — we're driving our respective industries, are an influential center player able to exert real importance and impact; (2) the emotive dimension. The combination of these things are what makes Apple so powerful.

Harley-Davidson is emotive but not strategic. Enterprise companies like Oracle and Intel are strategic but not emotive. Even worse are companies who think they're emotive but aren't (Sun), or strategic but aren't (Microsoft).

Our startups right now aren't very emotive and aren't very strategic. How can we get there? There tends to be two paths. If you're a more traditional B2B company, you tend to become strategic, then emotive. If you're a consumer-oriented company, you tend to be emotive, then strategic.

Our attitudes towards entire industries shift over time: when Salesforce started, the world of contact management was a crappy commodity space. Before Dropbox, the world of file/FTP utilities was similarly unappealing. Both of these companies have led their industries strategically, but also have spent a lot of energy and time trying to create emotive qualities.

The least emotive thing you can do, ever, is to use stock photography.


2. Industry transformation narrative

Salesforce (even when it was a low-impact contact management solution) frames itself as being part of an industry transformation: the shift from mainframe to client-server (SAP, Oracle) to cloud/on-demand. This was used to affect its position on the strategic dimension, to put themselves in a broader position to achieve this differentiation. This is the same thing that Box is doing now.

There's always some industry transformation narrative that drives the important players in any industry: Zynga — the transition to social/casual gaming; Facebook — discovery/ads moving from search to social.

What is yours? Start with "the Internet changes everything." It is the core technical, cultural, economic force of our lifetimes, changing every aspect of our lives and the economy.


3. Differentiation

"It's better to be different than it is to be right." If you don't have differentiation, it's hard to imagine how you ultimately become successful. You only have a limited amount of bandwidth to talk about your product, and if it isn't immediately clear what's different about you, your opportunity is lost.

Salesforce has a "no software" logo (SaaSy), positioning itself against an industry model, differentiating itself against something else. When the Economist asked Dropbox why Google was losing back in the day, Dropbox instead talked about how they were competing against a model, harkening the industry transformation to multiple devices, intermittently connected, sharing data across companies.

A lot of this is who you're trying to compete with, who you're trying to differentiate from, and why. How you're framing all this counts for a lot.


4. Ingredient branding

Ingredient branding becomes the physical manifestation of all of the ideas about what makes your company better/different. The mouse was the stand-in for everything that was fundamentally differentiated about the Mac; the pause button on the TiVo was what made it the most different; "virtual machine" was the single most valuable word created in infrastructure/IT the past decade. Recent things: multi-tenancy, dyno, PaaS.

B2B companies especially do a poor job of this.


5. Leveraged acquisition

BD is product marketing.

Minimum viable marketing: what's the smallest product you can create that will carry your message so that you can deliver that through another company's channel, as a way of ultimately acquiring customers for your own business?

Salesforce tried to position around Microsoft and Skype. For the latter, they wrote three lines of code that allowed you to initiate a conference call with Skype, wrapped it in messaging around the future of software, the future of telephony, big industry transformation → was in WSJ 3 times.

These aren't traditional BD exercises, no real BD partnership contracts. It's more product people working together.


6. Repetition is the soul of modernity

Repeating your message is crucial. Salesforce is still using same slides, same messages about industry transformation 11 years later because the message is still current, still new to a lot of people, still fundamentally frames the company and the value. The job of the product marketing people is to repeat it until they can't stand it anymore.

One of the most important lessons that Adam learned at Salesforce is how to launch the same product multiple times. What's the smallest piece we can credibly add to make the product appear new? Your individual, discrete launches are in service of whatever your core narrative is, and each launch is an opportunity to repeat what your core message is.


7. PR APIs

PR has APIs, a set of ways and stories that they expect — don't try to violate them or invoke APIs that don't exist, because it won't work. Your job is to format your story to fit one or more of these APIs.

These APIs have a stack rank of importance, from most important to least:

  1. Controversy: this is Uber's entire PR strategy. Works really well but it's dangerous.
  2. Acquisition: even buying a company of one person is far more impactful than a product launch.
  3. Financial/funding: IPO, quarterly results
  4. Partnership
  5. Product launch
  6. Hiring
  7. Metrics

Think explicitly about the APIs, don't try to invoke APIs that aren't there.

What are you doing on a day-to-day basis to push yourself down the field to become more strategic or more emotive? Think about how everything you do — the language you're using, every customer/sales communication — pushes you in these dimensions. Repeat your industry narrative that enforces your differentiation, that you're highlighting through your ingredient branding, that you're using your partners to amplify, and you're repeating often by invoking the right APIs.


Q&A

When/why did Salesforce decide to use SaaSy?

I don't like it that much, it just shows the distance Salesforce will go to amplify the emotive quality. The question is how do you take advantage of existing emotive qualities with positive framing. Of course, your first job is still to be strategic.

What is the difference between selling to small businesses vs. enterprise?

I loathe when people make a decision between selling to SMBs vs. selling to the enterprise. There is no distinction. There is only an artifact of old distribution channels: distributing at CompUSA vs. having a full field sales team.

You're either selling the product to the CEO of a small company, or a department head of a large company. There is no special boundary surrounding enterprise; you're still selling to everybody.

What do you think of viral/sharing techniques companies like Dropbox use?

Surveying the early startup (especially enterprise SaaS) landscape, it seems like innovation in customer acquisition is devalued. If you have an enterprise SaaS company, you're going to raise a $50M Series C, hire a big sales team, take the sales playbook, and that's your go-to-market sales problem.

What that ignores is how much innovation is in go-to-market. Salesforce offered things like a free trial, which was unheard of at the time, and spent a lot of work and effort on their customer infrastructure — the metrics were so widely distributed across the company that no one had to worry about them not being in developers', others' minds. Be innovative in that area, whatever that means to your business, rather than try to emulate another pattern.

Are there any myths about the development of an affiliate/partner channel?

I don't believe there's a channel model in selling SaaS products. It came mostly from the Microsoft/VMware era, where it applied more to middle-of-the-road SIs.

The market is direct sales/direct customer interaction. There was an ecosystem which was essential, but that's it.

What about negative positioning, such as a Salesforce-killer?

It's okay only if it's in service of something bigger such as the industry narrative. Zoho buys billboards saying it's the "anti-Salesforce", but that doesn't really mean anything. Salesforce is "anti-software" because it's a different model.


Adam Gross was co-founder and CEO of cloudconnect.com, recently acquired by salesforce.com. Previously, he was was SVP Marketing at Dropbox, led marketing for salesforce.com's force.com platform, founded Personify, one of the first web analytics companies, and was executive at Grand Central.