Inputs, Outputs, and Outcomes: A framework for measuring the impact of product marketing

⚡️ Summary ⚡️

  • Measuring the impact of product marketing is hard because it is a collaborative function that influences a variety of goals, across teams.
  • In my experience, product marketing wants to be strategic but is mostly limited to execution. In other words, it is limited to delivering outputs.
  • These outputs contribute to desired outcomes. Outcomes are changes that help a business achieve its mission.
  • Understanding this contribution to outcomes is the key to measuring the impact of product marketing.
  • The quality of inputs — for example, customer research — should be consistently monitored to avoid outputs that look good but actually contribute to bad outcomes.

If I had a dollar for every blog post, conference talk, and podcast episode attempting to answer “What is product marketing?” I’d have a lot of dollars.

This is not a good thing. It’s a problem. If people still don’t know what product marketing is, how can we possibly move beyond educating others and justifying our work to improving the craft?

One of the reasons why I think product marketers are stuck on this definition treadmill is that we are too focused on the “what” and are not explaining the “how”. And the reason we avoid explaining the “how” is that frameworks for understanding the impact of product marketing are hard to come by.

This seems to be especially true for self-serve, low touch digital products that have a large marketing funnel and are sold through a website rather than a person. Metrics like “sales qualified leads” and “win rates” aren’t applicable.

I do product marketing for Buffer, a SaaS company with a predominantly self-serve model. People come to our website, try the product for free, and then decide if they want to continue with a free version or upgrade to a paid version. You might have seen this described as product-led growth — the newish buzzword that is currently making the rounds.

My work at Buffer is varied and collaborative. This seems to be reflected across the industry. The graphs below are taken from the Product Marketing Alliance’s State of Product Marketing Report in 2020.

Product marketing OKRs and responsibilities. See the whole report.

As you can see, there is a breadth of objectives and responsibilities as reported by product marketers around the world. Because product marketing touches so many areas, it’s difficult to measure impact with a single metric.

Instead, I think about my work in terms of inputs, outputs, and outcomes. This is a popular framework for measuring performance within complex systems. I like this framework for explaining the impact of product marketing because product marketers tend to partner with many other teams, with varying degrees of influence.

In short:

Inputs are the raw materials of product marketing. Things like customer research, visual design, or copywriting. Quality inputs lead to quality outputs.

Outputs are the end product of putting these inputs together, the sum of the parts. Outputs range in size and scope. An output could be something as simple as an email newsletter, or as big as a go-to-market strategy for a new product. Quality outputs lead to quality outcomes.

Outcomes are the changes that help move a business forward and can be linked to outputs. This is where things get tricky for product marketing because product marketing outputs typically combine with outputs from other areas to create outcomes.

Let’s dive into the specifics of each, working backward from outcomes.

Outcomes: The changes you seek

Outcomes are changes that help a business move towards its goals. They are strategic in nature and are typically set at a company or area level.

Here are five examples of desired outcomes that are typical in product-led SaaS companies:

  • Increase the trial-to-paid conversion rate
  • Acquire more enterprise subscribers
  • Increase the usage of a key feature
  • Reduce customer churn
  • Rank #1 on Google for an important search term

Let’s take the first example — increasing the trial-to-paid conversation rate.

There are a number of outputs that could combine to generate this outcome, and product marketing has varying levels of influence in each.

  1. An acquisition program that generates better quality triallists.
  2. Changes to the product that improve the trial experience.
  3. A new on-demand support channel for triallists.
  4. New educational materials that are surfaced during the trial through email and in-app notifications.

As a product marketer at Buffer, I am only responsible for producing one of these four outputs. Can you guess which one?

(It’s number 4.)

I collaborate with other teams and can influence the production of the other outputs, but they aren’t my responsibility.

Let’s look at another example of an outcome — increase the usage of a key feature.

Here are the outputs that might contribute to this outcome:

  1. Marketing messages that help customers become aware of the feature.
  2. Changes to the feature that make it more valuable to customers.

As a product marketer, I’m responsible for leading the marketing campaigns and customer messaging for features but I am not a decision-maker when it comes to changes to the product. I can influence the product team, but I have no authority over them.

To me, this highlights how important the skill of influence without authority is for product marketers.

It also highlights that if product marketing is to be taken seriously as a strategic function, we either need to come up with a better way to measure product marketing’s contribution to outcomes or give product marketers more authority and accountability at a strategic level.

In my experience and from speaking to others working in the space, this level of ownership is rare — which also puts product marketers at a disadvantage when it comes to fighting for resources.

A Twitter thread by Marcus Andrews, Head of Product Marketing at Hubspot

Ultimately, it’s the outcomes that count. If you can’t link your outputs to outcomes it is hard to justify investment into the work.

Outputs: The work you ship

Outputs are more tactical in nature. They are the things we produce to help us get to our desired outcome. In other words, they are the execution of a strategy.

I’ve already shared some examples of product marketing outputs. Here are some more:

  • A competitor analysis presentation
  • A case study for prospects
  • A welcome email for new customers
  • A launch campaign for a new feature
  • A customer research project
  • A product roadmap recommendation

I also mentioned earlier that these vary in size and scope. A customer research project might involve many milestones across weeks or months, as might a launch campaign.

On the other hand, an experienced product marketer with a solid foundation of inputs (research, copywriting, design, product knowledge) could put together a welcome email for customers in just a few hours.

The key question we also want to be able to answer in evaluating impact is; did the output contribute to a desired outcome?

Let’s take a real-life example of a launch campaign for a new feature:

In October last year, Buffer launched Instagram Stories Scheduling. At the time, the company was eager to lift our growth rate, and so one of our desired outcomes was an increase in revenue through customer acquisition.

Example: Linking an output (product launch) to outcomes (more customers and revenue)

Here’s another real-life example:

In June this year, I sent our monthly newsletter to our list of 1m+ users. In this case, the desired outcome was to increase the usage of a new publishing feature called “campaigns”. This was important to the company because we hypothesized that the users of the feature would be more likely to buy our analytics product. (It had a cross-sell built into the experience).

Example: Linking an output (email newsletter) to an outcome (feature usage — shown in the graph on the right).

Execution is the bread and butter of product marketing, and the quality of an output should be judged on its contribution to the desired outcome.

Inputs: The raw materials

Understanding whether inputs are good or bad is extremely important because they are upstream of outputs and outcomes.

Let’s take customer research as an example.

If a product marketer does bad research that creates faulty assumptions, for example using confirmation bias or incorrect samples, this can lead to all sorts of issues down the line. The outputs, for example landing pages or emails, might look good at first glance. But they don’t generate positive outcomes. They might even create negative outcomes.

This is why measuring the quality of product marketing inputs is very important, and something that should be monitored regularly. I think of it the same way as quality control in a factory.

  • Was the research done without bias?
  • Was the copywriting peer-reviewed?
  • Did the product marketer use the product?
  • Was there strong internal buy-in for go-to-market strategy?

These questions can be turned into quality control checklists. If the product marketer ticks them off, then that is a good sign that their outputs will generate good quality outcomes.

How do you think about measuring product marketing? Do you have any frameworks you use? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a note here or connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Thoughts and reflections on work and life. I'm a product marketer at Buffer, and work remotely from Sydney.