Episode 26: Product Marketing and Women in Tech with Kelsey Johnson from AWeber

Welcome to the Marketing Hero podcast. I'm your host, Maia Wells. On today's episode I am pleased to welcome Kelsey Johnson, Product Marketing Manager for AWeber, a global leader in email automation. We're going to take a bit of a different approach today and take you into a more personal conversation about what it's like to be a woman in a male-dominated field like software as a service and more broadly, technology. As you know, women still earn 70% of what men do for the same work, and we are often in "softer positions" like marketing and PR, whereas men dominate engineering and product roles. Of course, we'll get into specifics about Kelsey's experience as a product marketer at AWeber and virtual reception company Smith.ai, but couldn't let this opportunity pass to inject a little bit of humanity into the conversation. Kelsey Johnson, welcome to the show.

Kelsey Johnson:
Thanks so much for having me, Maia.

Maia Wells:
Now listen, before we dive in, I have to start off with the question that we ask all of our guests. What is your favorite part of your career, and how did you figure that out?

Kelsey Johnson:
My favorite part of my career is the technology. I absolutely love technology, and the reason why is because it feels like magic to me. Now, I'm one of those kind of Harry Potter nerds, was a big reader when I was younger, but as I started diving more into technology, as technology became more accessible and more cool and more interesting, the more that I find out about it, the more that I love it. I absolutely love learning new platforms, learning new tools, and learning new ways that I can use them both in my professional career and also in my life to just make things easier. And I think that it's so exciting.

Maia Wells:
So who are some of the people or the mentors that you learned about technology from? Where did that interest start for you?

Kelsey Johnson:
Well, to be perfectly honest, I really started off on Reddit, just paying attention to some of the things that they were talking about there just to get into what the vibe was for technology. But in my first position, which was doing local SEO, which was a fairly technical thing to do in marketing, I had a mentor named Kimberly Favor. She's still my mentor to this day, and she was the one that taught me what it was like to work as a woman in technology. She also taught me how to write for technology, which really comes down to writing things in a way that everybody can understand even though you're describing technical things, but she is still my mentor to this day. She's wonderful.


I've also had a couple of other mentors since her, someone named Meghan Saylor who works in product marketing and lives in Colorado as well. I connected with her when I was getting into product marketing and I really started to understand from her how to make that transition from a general marketing career to a product marketing career. And then last but not least is a woman who until recently worked at AWeber with me named Meghan Nesta. I guess I love those Meghans. And she taught me about the product that I'm selling now. She really helped me understand email, understand AWeber, where we came from, who we're selling to. She's a product manager, but she completely understood the way that a product marketing manager should think.

Maia Wells:
It sounds like you may be one of the lucky ones because you've had some amazing female mentors in your career. Do you think that's common? Maybe we have a misperception about women in technology?

Kelsey Johnson:
Well, I seek out female mentors, not because I dislike men or think that they don't have the information that I need, but I found that women tend to have the perspective that I have. And so it's easy to jump into that conversation of what I actually need to know for my career. I have had many, many men and nonbinary people give me opportunities to grow in my career and to teach me the things I really needed to know. I just don't keep going back to them for more and more information because I enjoy creating a community of women in technology, especially since it can feel a little bit lonely sometimes.

Maia Wells:
Yeah, definitely. It feels like we do have to seek out those experiences for ourselves in a lot of ways. Have you ever experienced discrimination or marginalization in any kind of way as a woman in technology?

Kelsey Johnson:
It's really hard to understand the way that you're being discriminated against, in my opinion, in a career path. A lot of the ways, it's not blatant in the way that you would think of discrimination, like having somebody, I don't know, kick you out of an office or even talk over you. That's not something that I've experienced a lot in my career, but I have felt in the past, particularly very early on in my career, I was not encouraged as much to do the technical side.

I was underpaid at certain points in my career and I don't know if that's because I was a woman, but I had found out ways in which to do the research across the board to just know what I'm worth and ask for that. But I do think that, certainly in a lot of the stuff that I've read, not because I've necessarily spoken to people directly who have done this, but that oftentimes men are just offered the amount that they're worth rather than having to do that research and ask for it specifically.

Maia Wells:
Yeah. I mean, these types of conversations definitely have to happen in order for us to be aware of some of those subtle ways that ideas about who women are, are perpetuated in the workplace. And you're right, it's subtle things like, "Well, of course the women would order lunch. That's the nurturing, caring nature of women." Well, is it though? And so conversations just being aware of these things I think are super important.

So I don't want to be too high up on the soapbox today, but I do just want to bring that out because I just couldn't let the opportunity pass to speak with you, Kelsey, about that. I think we don't often get to speak with a lot of women in technology and in roles that are more toward the product side. Of course, this is a marketing focus podcast and we have lots of different types of guests, but I was especially excited to talk with you about those types of issues.

Kelsey Johnson:
I just wanted to mention, right when I first started I felt very frustrated and it wasn't because I was experiencing discrimination, but I felt lonely when I had first started in tech, in that I just didn't feel like there were that many women around for me to even talk to or ask questions from and feel vulnerable around. And I did run into a woman who didn't work at my company, but she worked at a different company and she said, "Stick it through." She said, "Don't quit and don't do it for you, do it for women in tech." And I always remember her. That must have been eight years ago, but I always remember her and I say the same to everyone, it's definitely getting better and it can feel frustrating, but it's a wonderful, wonderful industry to work in, career path, if you like it. And so, don't run away just because it can be difficult sometimes.

Maia Wells:
And I think also to just add onto that as millennials and younger folks end up being in positions of leadership and really infiltrating the workforce and specifically technology and software companies, the old-school issues of harassment and discrimination are shifting a bit, I think. There's a lot more inclusion. There's a lot more awareness of how we're addressing people, how we're treating people, and just the fact that we're having these types of conversations very freely and in a lot of different business situations where we may prefer a different pronoun or a different way of speaking about something, it's okay to speak up and say something these days, where I think maybe 10 years ago it was still a bit taboo.

And even 20 years ago, it was like, "You ladies just need to stay in your place," right? So I think it's evolving and it's getting better, just like you said. And so I'm just honored that we can even sit here and have this conversation and share it out with other people. I was curious in some of this conversation, does AWeber where you currently are have an official diversity and inclusion program, or somebody that's overseeing that on the HR side for you guys? I'm just curious if there's an official presence around diversity and inclusion there.

Kelsey Johnson:
We do not have an official document for it. That's a question that I asked when I was hired at AWeber just this past year. However, what I've experienced working for AWeber is absolutely nothing that I was talking about earlier in this podcast. We have diversity and inclusion initiatives. Everybody introduces themselves to the new people who have just been hired with pronouns. There is a specific email that comes out from HR talking about diversity and inclusion, and the ways in which to deal with it and the resources that you have if you feel uncomfortable in certain situations. But further to the point, I have just noticed that AWeber clearly is making an effort to hire diversely. It is not just a team. Even the development team is not just white men and I'm so impressed and so happy and proud to work for a company like that because it makes it more comfortable for me and for everyone, I hope. It's been really, really great.

Maia Wells:
That's really good to hear. That's really good to hear. Well, let's shift down into the nitty-gritty a bit because we do like to give actionable tips and talk about things that marketers are facing every day here on the Marketing Hero podcast. So I would like to know from you, what is the most important aspect of product marketing?

Kelsey Johnson:
Well, I am going to give you three, but I'll give them to you in order. First of all, in my experience, the most important aspect of product marketing is copywriting. I think that when it comes down to it, when you're looking at your KPIs, you're looking at the results that you're trying to drive, you can know everything about your product. You can know everything about your customers. You can know everything about your competitors, but if you can't properly describe that in a way that's incredibly concise to people these days, you're just not going to make the sale. You're not going to get people using the product. You're not going to be able to adequately get people engaged in the dashboard.

And not that you have to write all that copy. You probably have UX people who are working on that, too, and even designers, but having the voice of your customers and knowing how to turn that into good copywriting, first of all, it's unbelievably difficult, but it's also so, so important. And so for me, constantly reading up on good copywriting, constantly rewriting my own writing has been one of the most essential skills. Unfortunately there's no quick trick. You just have to keep at it. You have to keep testing the writing that you're having and you have to keep talking.

The other two things that I think are really important and in this order is research, and the main research is talking to your customers themselves. It's so crazy how quickly people's priorities can change, how quickly a new feature can become a favorite feature, and you want to stay on top of making sure that you know what your customers' wants and needs are, what their pain points are, the language that they're using to describe things, and you just got to go talk to them. You need to go out and do that research. So I think that's super important.

And then this is a little bit of a sleeper, and I feel like I haven't heard a lot of product marketers say this, but one thing that I think is very, very important is knowing your product in and out. That means not just the list of feature that your developers have built, but actually use cases that you can bring up in certain situations. For example, at AWeber we have a landing page builder, right? Just a landing page builder. I mean, not just. It's a wonderful product, but within this landing page builder, we have templates and one of these templates works like a Linktree, and it's on our free service.

So our customers, if they don't already have a link list set up, if they're just getting started with Instagram or even TikTok and they need that one page with all those links, they can actually use this, what we would just consider internally as a template, as its own complete feature and product, and it's so useful to them even though it's not something that took a lot of engineering work to build. And so diving deep into your actual product and the special features of it, you might call them, or just ways in which it can be used is something that's very, very important to be a good product marketer.

Maia Wells:
And it seems like those last two can combine in certain ways. What I'm hearing you say is, you may not know how people are using certain features and you may discover the cool ways that people are using your product and discover other ways that you can talk about it.

Kelsey Johnson:
Yeah, there are a lot of small and medium size businesses that use Aweber, and I'm not a small business owner. We actually use our own product a lot, but not for necessarily all the things that our customers do. And so doing that research, it just drives success. It just does, and you can see that as long as you're testing and tracking everything. But if you're looking for that one thing to drive the needle, whether it's copywriting or whether it's knowing your product or creating good content, all of that comes from that research.

Maia Wells:
Talk to me a little bit about that research and knowing your product and understanding the features that it offers, versus the market positioning for the product as a whole or for the brand as a whole. Do you feel the market position or the messaging of the company as a whole is under the purview of product marketing? How have you interacted with that at AWeber? Do you guys have a really solidified brand position document per se? How have you addressed that larger umbrella of, this is what we stand for as a company, versus, here's what our product does?

Kelsey Johnson:
Yeah. I think that product marketing should be pretty intricately involved in that just from advocating for the customer perspective. Your research really can come at the sort of minutia of copywriting and how to talk about a product and how to sell a product. But when you take a step back and look at bigger trends, both with your competitors and with your customers, that's where that positioning comes into play. I actually think that, at least for a company like AWeber that's fairly well established, positioning in the bigger market is something that you almost just have to pin down rather than create because there is a need and a want that's coming from the market itself.

And there are definitely newer companies that are disrupting and that are creating these newer needs and wants and things that they're solving for people that you can pay attention to and look at in terms of your competitors. And then you can take a look at your own product and the ways that it's helped the customers that you're talking to and find that fit. And so product marketing for me isn't coming up with something new. It's identifying where that fit is. AWeber is certainly, since I've started, we've been doing a little bit of an adjustment in terms of the way that we are positioning ourselves. We had previously been somewhat known as an old-fashioned company.

I mean, we started in 1998 and we have been aggressively, in the past two years, adding so many useful features for our customers, really changing what our product actually is. And so we're in the position right now where we are trying to let everyone know about what our product actually can solve for them, versus potentially this older concept of what somebody thought AWeber was. And so it's actually a really good question for me because it's something that we are in the process of making adjustments to. But it couldn't be more fun because it's really just finding that want and need, it's finding where the market's going, it's finding the trends based on market research, but also research through your customers themselves, and figuring out where that fit is.

Maia Wells:
Very poignant statements. I want to pull out like 10 quotes from what you just said because I love that. Now I'm going to hit you with a hard question here, Kelsey, okay? I want to know, is email marketing still effective?

Kelsey Johnson:
Yes, it is. And obviously we hear all the time, "Is email old-fashioned? Are people still using email?" And the fact of the matter is that people are using email more than ever. And the reason for that, partly, is that people are starting to understand the concept of growing an audience. A lot of people, especially influencers, but also brands and other companies, have been spending a lot of time on social media growing their audiences, growing their brand, growing their community, really, growing a group of people who care about what they're talking about.

And then they're starting to realize that Instagram doesn't really care about their audience or their community. They don't care if they're lost. They don't care if they don't get to talk to every single person every single time. And so email is a really good way to manage that community once you've already built it, or separate from building it. So we definitely think, it's not like replacing Instagram or TikTok or anything like that, but it's such a wonderful way, once you've started to build up this trust, started to build up this community, or once you already have to bring those people into a place where you own that audience.

If you use AWeber to send emails out, AWeber doesn't own that audience. We can't steal it from you. We're not going to only send it to certain email addresses. That is an audience that you can take with you wherever you want to go and you can communicate with them all the time. Another point to that is, there are certain people using Facebook. There are certain people using Instagram. There are certain people on Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn even, people are talking to each other, but everybody, almost, I won't say everybody, almost everybody checks their email every single day. I mean, it's just like the ultimate gated social media platform.

Maia Wells:
All right. That's valid. I'll take that. I think that makes sense. It makes a lot of sense. So within AWeber or in other positions that you've had in product marketing, I want to know your definition and your best ways that you've found to work cross-departmentally with product, with marketing, with sales, because I really see product marketers as that ultimate connector point, right? Where your job really is to have all of those different departments' best interests in mind, as well as the customer.

It's like product marketers have become this really important hub in SaaS marketing. Do you see yourself that way? Do you have any tricks for us on how to get all of those different people on the same page? Do you have any processes you could share with us? We want to get the nitty-gritty on how does it feel to be that hub for everybody? And how do you handle that? What can you share with us about doing a good job as a product marketer to connect all those different moving pieces?

It's not a small job, and so for anyone who's thinking about going into product marketing, don't do it lightly. It is hard work to be a product marketer and to hold all of that in your head. In my experience the absolute first thing that you need to do is start building relationships. If you don't know how many kids the product manager that you work with regularly has and whether they're playing soccer or what this person's favorite type of beer is, or something like, they're never going to trust you enough to tell you the things that you actually need to know. And so the absolute first thing that I think matters is to identify the people who can really advocate for their own departments, right? A product manager has engineers. I don't need to talk to the engineers because the product manager has already built those relationships.

But if I build a relationship with the product manager, they can let me know what's going on that's going to matter for marketing, for advocating to create new products, for copywriting, for anything like that. And so building that relationship is really great. I haven't worked with a lot of sales teams. Just in my position at Smith.ai and my position at Aweber, we didn't have sales departments until later on at Smith.ai we did. Same thing, find the person in charge and build the relationships there. But there's so much more that you can give to a sales team. You're sort of gathering information from a product team and you're giving information to a sales team, and if you can think about that team from their perspective, like a salesperson has numbers that they're trying to hit and that's how they make money, right?

So when you're talking to somebody, make sure that you can figure out what it is that you can give to them to make more sales. And all of that just comes to that relationship building. I would say the first thing that you should really do is care. You should care about those people. You should care about their success, and you should be a team player when it comes to that. Product marketing in general, the next thing you need to do is just figure out the landscape of what's going on in your company. Try to understand if there's something that isn't being built, especially in a SaaS company, there's a reason that that's not being built. It's not because people are lazy. It's not because there's someone at the top trying to bring us all down. There's an absolute reason.

Always remember that and then dive into what that reason is and see if something's changed, and see if you can advocate more for that product and understand that there are priorities, and understand what they are very much to start. That's where I started at AWeber, was I dove in the deep end. I tried to build the relationships and I tried to very, very truly understand what we're building, why we're building it, who we're competing with, how hard it is to build certain things. Sometimes it's really easy for your engineers to get out the door.

And so when you ask for that and you're like, "Oh, they did that in a month, or even a couple of weeks. They were able to just offer that to me," and then you ask for the next thing and it takes them a little while or they just say, "No," and you're like, "It seemed like the same size to me, but I don't know, I'm not an engineer." There's probably an entire system that either needs to be built or rebuilt in order to do that. And so, having that empathy day-to-day when you ask for and advocate for those products. And the last thing I'd say, and something that I've definitely struggled with, is to figure out where your resources are best spent so that you don't burn out. And I know, we're all at our computers. Most of us are working remotely. I certainly have been since I started at Smith.ai, and that was three years ago.

You can work all the time and if you know everybody and you know what they need and you know what they want, it's time to take a look into all of those things. Take a look at the way that your company is actually making money because when it comes down to it, that's what actually matters, right? And what can you do first, second in the short-term and the long-term to move that needle? So, that was a lot. I feel like I just talked for five minutes. It's a big job and it's a big job of gathering information, prioritizing what you can do, and then advocating for the people who need it, specifically your customers, but also sometimes your sales team.

Maia Wells:
Kelsey, some of the things that you were talking about in terms of what makes a great product manager felt like qualities that we normally associate with a feminine perspective, like caring, empathy, relationship building, right? And so bringing it full circle back to our first part of our conversation in our intro on women in tech, do you feel like women are particularly well suited for a role like product marketing or product management even, because of those things being so important?

Kelsey Johnson:
I don't think so. I think that that's pushing the narrative of women. I think that men have complete capacity to be empathetic and to learn how. And lots of men are. I mean the man who, I can't remember his name off the top of my head, but he taught the product marketing course that I took, that took me a huge step forward in terms of my ability to do this job. He said the exact same thing about empathy and about building relationships and building friendships. And so to me, I think that maybe those that were traditionally thought of as feminine characteristics, but they don't have to be.

And whether you're a woman or a man or nonbinary, or anywhere in between, if you don't act empathetic, if you aren't necessarily as good at building those relationships, that doesn't mean that you can't do product marketing. It just might look a little bit different for you. For me, the most important thing is the end goal, and that's what you always have to keep paying attention to. What's the end goal? How can we move this company forward? How can I advocate for the best products? How can I best tell people about what they are? And when you look at that, there are a lot of different ways to get there.

I personally tend to take the empathy side because I also just like knowing my coworkers and I've always liked doing that and getting to know them. But you don't have to be a super relationship builder in order to do testing, in order to look into documentation internally. As long as you have it, we've got tons of internal documentation. I'd probably ask questions of people that I could find just by reading through our documentation. You can certainly do this job no matter what your disposition is, and I think that you can be a kind, empathetic person no matter what gender you are.

Maia Wells:
Well, Kelsey Johnson, that is such an excellent point to end on. Thank you very much for your time and for joining us on the Marketing Hero podcast. We look forward to seeing what you do next.

Kelsey Johnson:
Thank you so much for having me. This was so much fun.

 

Click me