An elephant walking on a bridge — Midjourney v6

The Elephant Test: A Tale of Product Trust and Marketing Genius

Madhukar Kumar
madhukarkumar
Published in
8 min readMar 31, 2024

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Legend has it that when the first engineered bridge was built, people refused to get on it.

It was a bridge too far. Literally.

No one trusted it enough to step on it. The architect and the engineer who created it tried their best to persuade everyone, but it was no use.

Then the architect had an idea. He got an elephant from the town and made the town watch as the elephant crossed the bridge. The rest, as they say, is history.

This, in essence, is Product-led Marketing.

You cannot have marketing without a product. And a good product is useless if no one knows about it.

This is why Product-led Marketing is so powerful. It bridges the gap between what people need and what you offer. It builds credibility by showing, by experience, not telling. It lets your product speak for itself.

The Duality

The world we live in is rife with duality. Day and Night. Life and death. Yin and Yang. As opposites they may seem, they are often two sides of the same construct. One does not exist without the other.

Unfortunately, in the tech space we have created a duality between Product and Marketing. They are two different teams, two different sets of activities and KPIs, two different processes running in parallel.

In 2024 and beyond, this is changing.

I have worked in enough tech companies in my career where I have seen the same movie replay over 100 times. The marketers are good at the mechanics of marketing. They are good at copy writing. They are good at experimenting with what channels and what tactics work better than the others. However, most of them, especially agencies brought in to drive lead generation miss one critical thing.

The product.

On the flip side, people who are good at building products rarely think about growth or marketing when they are building. Marketing is an afterthought.

“I have built a really awesome product. How do I grow my Product-led Growth (PLG) trials? How do I build a pipeline for my sales?”

Enter Marketing agencies.

Now you are paying a retention fee to an agency that is running your digital campaigns and demand gen. A few months in, you have spent thousands of dollars. The web traffic goes up. You have “leads,” yet no revenue. So, what do you do?

You hire your first marketer, and the marketer brings the agency work in. They talk about SEO, SEM, content marketing. Sometimes, these tactics work but most of the times they do not. And now your marketing team is a revolving door of people trying different tactics.

Pretty soon it becomes a conversation about budget and Marketing Qualified Leads (MQL).

What you are experiencing is a common dilemma in the world of marketing. The root of this problem is that you have separated marketing from product development.

You think of marketing as something that happens after you have built your product, or even worse, as something that can compensate for a flawed product.

But this is a mistake. Marketing is not an add-on or a patch.

As radical as it may sound, marketing is an integral part of product development.

Product-led Marketing

It is as much about how you communicate the value of your product within the product as much as the steps leading to trying the product. This is the reason why some of the best marketers are often those who have been a product manager before.

To break it down into first principles, marketing is about shaping the perception and behavior of users and customers before, during and after they start using your product. In other words, marketing is not something that you do to your customers. It is something that you do with your customers after you have made a connection with them individually about something that matters to them and what your product does.

As cliched as it may sound, let’s take the example of Apple.

Apple did not become the world’s most valuable brand by outsourcing its marketing to agencies or following the latest trends. Apple understood that product adoption is intertwined with marketing. That the psychology of marketing and influence is part of the product. That the user experience from the website to using the product to customer support is part of the product.

If you look at their website copy it is not the Why but the What of the product that they start with first. The world’s first or fastest XXX. Sure, they talk about the value of the product, but it is not just a fairy tale about the Why.

All right. Enough talk.

So how do you actually implement a product-led marketing strategy? What are some things you can do to bring product and marketing together, especially when you have both PLG and human sales motions?

The Product-led Marketing Framework

Let’s break down the product and marketing duality into a set of guidelines that you can apply while building the product and driving growth. Keep in mind that these are guidelines, and you have to modify them based on your product. The same steps and tactics do not work for everyone but if you have the basics right you can craft a powerful experience around building and growing a product without the angst of repeated expensive experiments of trial and error.

Discoverability –When it comes to the discoverability of your product, focus on quality, not quantity. This is not just in terms of building content but also in terms of the quality of users trying your product or prospects accepting a meeting request with your sales teams.

For years and years, we have been looking at building the pipeline wrong. We consider the process as a funnel. This usually means a lot of quantity on top and very few at the bottom (hence the funnel).

This is a mistake.

Don’t build a funnel. Instead, build a pipe.

What is the difference?

A traditional marketing funnel where the top is all about quantity

The funnel is all about quantity and marketing declaring victory anytime someone attends an event, a webinar or downloads a paper by qualifying them as an MQL. Instead, build quality driven leads early on using ruthless qualification based on questions related to projected use of your product.

When it comes to sales, don’t settle on incentivizing BDRs to book meetings. Instead, focus on having them to be part of the sales journey till stage 3 of the sales process vs stage 0 or 1. When it comes to Marketing KPIs, do away with MQLs as a KPI and instead pick a metric somewhere in the middle of the sales stages that marketing can drive to. This way both sales and BDR teams are aligned on the exact same metric — getting quality leads to the middle of the pipeline.

A pipe focuses more on quality instead of quantity

The principle of quality over quantity also applies to PLG. Don’t worry about quantity of sign ups and instead focus on Daily and Monthly Active Users. Are more people coming back to use your product? If so, what features are they using the most? Once you measure and figure this out, the pricing and the marketing messaging should be around this value. For example, Slack is about communicating with colleagues, so their single activation metric and onboarding is around encouraging users to add other users and sending messages and once they reach a threshold the paid plan is around the search feature for previous messages.

For PLG discoverability, go to the watering holes of your potential users and try to help the users, and not try to sell to them all the time. For content marketing provide how to articles with free resources then use paid digital to drive traffic to those pages when appropriate. Focus more on the docs of how to use your product vs authoring lengthy thesis on the Why (this will come later as part of a different strategy).

For the main content on the website, start with the What then talk about the Why otherwise your message becomes abstract, common, and often pretentious. Finally, weave in stories to connect with the audience at an emotional level. This is especially useful when you have existing customers and users, and they are willing to share their stories of how they use their product and how it helped them solve their challenges.

Activation and Adoption — Once you have found the right prospects and users for your product, make sure the experience and the copy around product onboarding matches and is in absolute sync with your product values. Let’s take the example of Dbrand. They have a certain style of writing and sense of humor on their website

Once you buy the product, the same sense of humor and product-centric approach continues. Here is a picture of their packaging when you purchase their product.

A picture of Dbrand packaging focusing on product experience

Purchase and Post Purchase Experience– Believe it or not, both the purchase and the post purchase process is also about fusing product and marketing.

The key here is to prioritize support over sales.

Once you have a customer base, obsess about them more instead of acquiring new logos. Getting new customers is ten times harder than working with existing customers and this is not just true for late stage but also early-stage startups. You will see far more revenue from existing customers vs someone who still doesn’t know your product yet.

How your sales and support teams talk to your customers matters if they become avid fans and advocates or spread the word that the company and the product is not genuine. Here is an example of a customer of SingleStore, Jack Ellis and what he wrote about the sales process after he discovered the product on his own blog —

Similar to the Elephant on the bridge, truly successful companies know how to drive marketing through their products. Anything short leads to continuous expensive experiments of the mechanics of the growth and constant frustrations around why marketing is broken.

Conclusion

In this article we saw the what and some of the how of product-led marketing. In my next post I am going to show you the how of building a demand gen engine on a shoe string budget with modern tools of the trade. We will look at defining a persona, picking the audience and using these as the input for a product-marketing focused content plan and distribution. Feel free to add me on Twitter or LinkedIn if you have additional questions and I am happy to answer some of the queries directly.

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Madhukar Kumar
madhukarkumar

CMO @SingleStore, tech buff, ind developer, hacker, distance runner ex @redislabs ex @zuora ex @oracle. My views are my own