5 Product Marketing Lessons I Learned at INBOUND 2018

Inbound 2018

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending HubSpot’s INBOUND conference in Boston. The conference marked my first trip to Boston (go Sox!) and was a delightful mix of education, networking, and hot buttered lobster rolls. All three were immensely satisfying.

INBOUND 2018’s theme, “Grow Better,” was thoughtfully incorporated into every track of the event. Many talks focused on empowering marketing, sales and customer success teams to help their respective companies scale up and grow their customer bases. As modern marketers, we have the tools available to deliver personalization at scale, and it’s our responsibility to create a customer-centric growth strategy and deliver value to our users with every touchpoint.

As a product marketer myself, I believe that product marketing plays an important role in acquiring and retaining customers. INBOUND 2018 left me feeling inspired and ready to create a better experience for visitors and customers. In the spirit of paying it forward when you’re gifted useful knowledge, here are 5 key takeaways for product marketers.

1. Marketing deserves a seat at the product table (but sometimes it needs to fight for it).

In my first breakout session (and one of my favorites from the entire week), Matt Hodges from Intercom shared advice from his experience surviving as a marketer at a product-centric company (slides here). Matt was the first marketing hire at Intercom, a high growth SaaS company that focuses on customer messaging. He shared his experience building out a product marketing team at a company with a product that the founders believed “sold itself.”

One of Matt’s main points was that marketing leadership deserves a voice in discussions about product. It’s easy for product managers at a product-centric company to think they have everything figured out. And it can be extremely difficult for marketers to gain respect and prove value in that environment.

Matt shared three solid tips for earning respect from product management:

  1. Know your product better than anyone at the company.
  2. Know who you sell to and who you’re up against (customers, current competitors, future competitors).
  3. Know how your product team works. Embed yourself in their process when you can.

The fact of the matter is, product teams that don’t take advantage of talking with marketing are missing out on extremely valuable front-line product feedback. But it is largely up to marketing to prove their value and earn the right to share their feedback.

Suggestion: If you are a marketer at a product-centric company, don’t just expect clout from the outset. Put together a tangible plan for proving value, gaining respect, and making your voice heard.

2. Customer Success is part of the product (and should be part of your launch strategy).

A major theme discussed at INBOUND 2018 was the continuous shift from a more traditional funnel-centric mindset to HubSpot’s concept of the growth flywheel. The flywheel is essentially a continuous circle where the customer is at the center and sales, marketing, and customer success work in tandem to grow and support that customer base.


I personally see a few challenges with HubSpot’s idea of the flywheel. One being that it forces you to lose the concept of an input, and that there’s no easy way to visualize the customer journey. But, I like seeing customer success finally receive the respect it deserves. Not only is customer success an important component of the product (as Peter Merholz famously noted, “the experience is the product”), but also, it plays a vital role in growing MRR and therefore should be included in your overall growth strategy.

Alison Elworthy, VP of Customer Success at HubSpot, spoke about this in her talk, “How to Evolve Your Customer Success Strategy to Fuel Your Company’s Growth” (slides here). One section of her talk especially resonated with me: using customers as a go-to-market lever.

As customer acquisition costs (CAC) rises—CAC has risen 50% in the last 5 years across all industries—-and buying behaviors change—customers don’t trust businesses anymore, they trust their networks—customer success teams play a massive role in growing a company’s customer base and increasing customer lifetime value (LTV).

At HubSpot, net promoter score (NPS) is a key business metric. which continuously gets measured at various stages in the customer journey. As results are measured, they’re shared across the organization (HubSpot, like ProductPlan, has a designated Slack channel for NPS responses). But the team at HubSpot knows that customer delight is not solely the responsibility of the customer success department. It is a team sport influenced by a wide variety of levers. HubSpot took specific steps to ensure this is the case, including:

The end result was a customer success team that not only prevented churn but created a contingent of successful customers that expanded their usage and served as important reference customers.

Suggestion: Make sure your marketing goals are tied to long-term customer success. Try measuring campaigns against the lifetime value they generate for the business as opposed to just looking at lead volume or customer count.

3. Don’t overthink it.

In a refreshing talk on the viral side of B2B marketing, Nathan Rawlins (CMO at Lucidchart) shared his experience creating and publishing a series of viral videos showcasing Lucidchart’s product in an accessible fashion (slide here).

First off, his videos are fantastic and should serve as inspiration for any creative B2B marketer trying to figure out how to make their product relevant to a wide target market. Here’s their most popular video to get you started:

Second, I loved one of Nathan’s key takeaways from his experience: don’t overthink it. Lucidchart’s most successful video took two days to create. One of their biggest flops, however, involved a significant amount of resources to create and launch.

Part of the “don’t overthink it” mantra is creating an environment where experimentation is welcome and failure is accepted as part of the game. Nathan’s team never imagined their video series would be as popular as it was. But if it wasn’t for the culture of experimentation at Lucidchart, they might have never created the first video.

Suggestion: If you lead a marketing team, make sure everyone feels comfortable experimenting and making mistakes. Build experimentation into your DNA. Better yet, write it down and make it a part of your company values.

4. Marketing is becoming more and more conversational.

Whatever your opinion might be about chatbots, there is no denying that marketing has trended more towards conversations over the last 5 to 10 years, and this includes product marketing. In his talk, “Introduction to Conversation Growth Strategy,” Brian Bagdasarian, Senior Conversational Strategist and Inbound Professor at HubSpot, talked about the evolving role of chatbots and conversations in the customer journey (slides here).

One of the most important takeaways from Brian’s talk was the importance of context, especially when it comes to live chat. He outlined a number of don’ts to consider when rolling out chatbots:

The end goal is creating a conversational touchpoint that delivers the right message at the right time.

While chatbots and live chat can be useful, one main challenge is figuring out when to use them (as opposed to a different medium, such as email or one-way messaging). At ProductPlan, we have a simple cheat sheet for determining what medium to use and when.

We have seen great success with launching new features via live chat messages. These feature launches serve to re-engage leads or inactive conversations, and the ensuing conversations often result in an increased number of conversions or (at the very least) important feedback on the feature that is being launched.

Suggestion: Experiment with using live chat in appropriate situations. Decide ahead of time what the goals of your experiment will be and make sure they are tied to creating a great experience for your user.

5. Your marketing strategy needs to by in sync with your sales process.

Prospects today expect a custom, tailored approach when it comes to marketing and sales outreach. But one of the challenges of creating this personalized customer journey is maintaining that personalization as your company scales. It’s easy to chat live with customers when your customers number in the hundred. But what happens when you have 100,000 customers?

In their session at INBOUND, Jamie Sloan, Director of Marketing Operations and Automation at InVision, and Francis Brero, Co-Founder and Chief Revenue Officer at Madkudu, shared their experience moving the marketing and sales teams at InVision to an account-based model as opposed to a traditional MQL-type model (slides here).

InVision’s smarketing (Sales + Marketing) model is actually quite similar to ours at ProductPlan: they are a SaaS tool with a portion of free users, a portion of self-service customers, and a portion of enterprise customers.

The challenge InVision faced was building a marketing and sales process that worked for their enterprise leads. Because the purchase journey was so different, the traditional model of scoring individual contacts and assigning them to sales just didn’t work.

InVision ended up working with Madkudu to implement an account-based model of marketing and sales that worked. I think there are two very important takeaways from Jamie and Francis’s experience:

Suggestion: Evaluate your current smarketing strategy and see if an account-based approach might help address the challenges you’re facing.

Inbound 2018: Some Final Thoughts

There were of course plenty more takeaways from INBOUND 2018, but these were the 5 which I found most useful as a product marketer. Periods of growth are always exciting times for marketers and product people, but they tend to come with their own sets of unique challenges—growing pains, if you will. During these times it’s always useful to hear stories and advice from people who have made similar journeys themselves. But at the same time, it’s important to remember that every team is different and what works for others might not be the best solution for you.