What PLG means for CMOs: 4 learnings from 20 years of marketing cycles

If you’re a marketing grandpa/grandma like me, you may have a strong sense of déjà vu. Every 5 years, a new wave sweeps through GTM organizations, changing how we engage with customers and how the GTM organization works. Product-led-growth is the latest wave.

Each wave is a rare opportunity for (aspiring-) CMOs to give their company an edge on the rest of the market and to get a boost in their career. But it can also be painful. Many just make it through. Some marketing leaders fall or fall behind.

I was reflecting recently on what we can learn from the past waves. Which CMOs did great in the past and why? Below are 4 patterns I believe were part of their success. We’ll see how those patterns apply specifically to the wave of product-led-growth.

The best CMOs educate the board and the leadership team

Most waves happen top-down. When Inbound was hype, VCs loved how some companies could generate lots of leads at a very low CAC compared to paid acquisition. This was very exciting. They pushed CEOs to get on the bandwagon, often with an unrealistic expectation of how fast inbound could generate results. Similar story with ABM. And similar again with PLG.

Many VCs see a pattern somewhere and want to apply it everywhere, even if a company is not ready for it. I have met multiple CMOs telling me jokingly that their board and CEO are trying to make PLG work again, after 2 failed attempts, even though the product is not where it needs to be to enable this motion.

There is a unique opportunity for CMOs to bring thought-leadership to the boardroom, and make sure the company is set up to win with a solid PLG strategy. There is a lot of great content out there. Mark Roberge’s view on the organization readiness to PLG is an excellent read. Other of my favorites include a variety of PLG playbooks (e.g. OpenView’s Product-Led Growth Playbook, Mark Roberge’s PLG playbook, Aptrinsic’s ebook, or MadKudu’s PLG ebook). The best CMOs I know educate proactively the rest of the leadership team and set expectations right.

The best CMOs put organizational alignment first, and tech second

It’s very tempting when a vendor shows up and says buy this tech and you’ll be doing great at ”. Throw some money and make the problem go away.

The biggest challenge with a new GTM wave is changing the old culture and creating new alignment across teams. The tech challenge comes second by far.

This was true for the inbound motion, which made sales and marketing alignment more relevant than ever. It was also true for ABM, which required even more sales and marketing alignment if it was to work. This is even more true today with the PLG motion.

The PLG motion requires not only sales and marketing alignment. It also requires alignment with the product org, the data org (if separate) and even with the CS org. For example, I have heard lots of CMOs talk about activation and retention when defining their PQLs and ICPs for their demand generation efforts. This is quite new.

The best CMOs make the extra-effort to build cultural and operational alignment between their team and the rest of the org. This requires lots of soft-skills and mindfulness.

Discussing those topics with other CMOs is a great way to avoid pitfalls and enable the team. Ping me if you’d like to get recommendations about whom to connect with to trade notes or if you’d like discussing joining a select-group we’ve been sponsoring at MadKudu.

The best CMOs find early the top talents needed to run the new motion

Each new motion requires a new set of skills in the GTM team. Inbound required content strategy and writing skills. ABM required specific cross-organizational skills and knowledge of the ABM playbooks. PLG also requires a whole new set of skills in the marketing org. For example, Rachel Hepworth from Notion describes here how her number 1 priority in building her team was to hire data scientists. This is extreme, but it shows the importance of building the data foundation when enabling a PLG motion.

Everyone knows the hiring market is a war zone right now. Good luck getting a good data scientist to join a marketing team. I have seen the best CMOs recognize the challenge, invest time and money earlier than most to convince the few qualified people out there to join them.

The best CMOs add a new funnel instead of trying to replace the old one(s)

Each wave promises a new world and predicts the end of the old one. Remember the outbound marketing” is dead?

What about The MQL is dead” and the flip the funnel” or the net versus the spear”?

There is a similar old-world-new-world with the PLG wave.

OpenView also describes it that way in this post.

But after the hype cooled down, each wave added themselves on top of the previous one. Digital Marketing hasn’t made offline marketing disappear. ABM hasn’t made Inbound disappear. And PLG won’t make the other motions disappear.

Instead, the hyper-growth companies and the best CMOs are extremely good at building and operating multiple funnels at once. At MadKudu, we often use this visualization to understand the revenue engine of our customers.

What do you think?

Those are 4 learnings from observing the best CMOs ride the prior waves. Agree, disagree? What else do you see as relevant?

April 21, 2022