The three modalities of marketers (and a proposal on how they could improve hiring)

Hiring marketers is hard.

It’s hard because in marketing, it takes some time before we hire for the same role twice. By the time your sales team hits 30, it will have clear roles, career maps, leveling, and multiple people in each role. Same with engineering. Your company will have 30 “software engineer level 3's” before marketing has a single duplicate role.

Marketing hiring managers need to be good at hiring for one-off roles without the benefit of pattern matching.

It’s common to hear folks roughly describe three “types” of marketers as PMM, growth, and brand. I know I’ve read something from Dave Kellog (can’t find it, sorry!) on this and I’ve come across it from other smart folks as well. What I’ve struggled with personally is what’s going on behind these roles?

Marketing titles are a mess. I’ve met content marketers who think like PMMs and growth marketers more oriented what’s trending in marketing than data. So what are we actually describing with these buckets?

I’ve landed on what I’m calling “modalities”. A modality describes an expression or way of working. It captures something innate, a preferred way of approaching the world. The three modalities of marketing, at their very center, are about how a marketer arrives at audience understanding.

Marketing begins and ends with audience understanding. Every good marketer is obsessed with understanding their audience, but there are three unique ways in which marketers arrive at that audience understanding.

Culture Modality

What I’m calling the Culture Modality is most often associated with marketers working in brand. Marketers in this modality arrive at their audience understanding through a cultural lens. They know what’s trending in the industry and the wider news. They know what resonates or “lands”. They are incredibly good at getting attention.

Success in this modality is less about understanding the unique characteristics of your ideal customer profile or product features, and more about understanding the general cultural milieu in which your company and product exist.

🚀 The greatest strength of this modality is its ability to make your company and product relevant to more people.

🚩 The failure mode of this modality is in attracting too much of the kind of attention that doesn’t turn into demand.

Marketers operating in this mode who I admire:

  • Caryn Marooney led tech communications at Facebook and her First Round Review article on PR advice crafting stories that make success feel inevitable just rocked my world.
  • Amrita Gurney is a tough one because I’ve learned things from her across all of these modalities. But given that she just published a podcast on brand marketing in B2B, I’m going to put her here.
  • Kim Darling is the HubSpot leader who grew the INBOUND event into the experience that it is today. I can’t imagine a marketer in a different modality creating the kind of expansive cultural event that Kim built.

Customer Modality

What I’m calling the Market Research Modality is most often associated with product marketing. Marketers in this modality arrive at their audience understanding through research — customer research, competitive research, feedback from sales & customer success teams. They tend to lean toward qualitative research (not exclusively!), and the best are relentless about matching product capabilities & messaging to market needs & understanding.

Success in this modality depends on building deep understanding of both ideal customer profile and product features. These marketers won’t be the one’s to help you make a big splash, but they will make sure your message is landing with the right people.

🚀 The greatest strength of this modality is the rigor it brings to your go-to-market.

🚩 The failure mode of this modality is leaning too hard on features & benefits and failing to connect the dots to customer pain & opportunity.

Marketers operating in this modality who I admire:

  • April Dunford wrote one of the marketing must-reads, Obviously Awesome. She is one of the most pragmatic marketers out there, and I am a huge fan.
  • Dave Kellog is another must-read. I’ve spent days of my life reading through his blog archives and it is is just a wealth of good stuff on matching product messaging to market needs.
  • Bogomil Balkansky is ex-VMWare and a partner at Sequoia regularly referred to as “the greatest product marketer in Silicon Valley. He hasn’t published his PMM handbook publicly (yet that I know of), but someone should convince him to because it’s one of the best summaries of this modality that I’ve ever come across.

Data Modality

What I’m calling the Behavioral Data Modality is most often associated with demand-gen, growth, or marketing ops. Marketers in this modality arrive at their audience understanding by looking not at what people say, but what they do. They are highly quantitative and care about conversion rates, product usage, campaign performance. The best are relentless about measurement.

Success in this modality depends on building a deep understanding of the customer journey. They care about segments, campaign performance, how leads progress through pipeline, and where things get stuck in your funnel. These marketers are the secret to improving performance over time.

🚀 The greatest strength of this modality is in optimization.

🚩 The failure mode of this modality is short-term focus on the current reality that prevents long-term investments in brand and product positioning.

Marketers operating in this modality who I admire:

  • Gioncarlo Lionetti, aka GC spent time at Confluent, Atlasssian, and Dropbox. Google his name + podcast and you’ll find some of the most valuable listening out there.
  • Jamie Barnett is a must-follow on Medium. She’s another one who flexes easily across all of these modalities, but I’m putting her here because her writing on managing pipeline and demand-gen have been enormously valuable to me personally.
  • Kamil Rextin runs 42/ and an associated Substack. His thoughts are often expansive and don’t lend themselves to immediate implementation. Because of this, I find his thinking to be a a particularly useful balance to the incessant hype of marketing “thought leadership”.

Closing thoughts…

This framework has sparked some new thoughts for me, I hope it does for you as well. For example:

  • I bet it would be relatively easy to identify a few questions that help suss out the natural modality of early career marketers (something that I have found to be consistently challenging because without some years of experience, it’s hard to know our own preferred modality)
  • For a first marketing hire, I would bet harder on Customer Modality the higher your ACV is. The lower your ACV, the more you likely you’re pursuing a self-service motion and would benefit from a Data Modality. Then again, you could go the Superhuman track and raise a ton of money to buy yourself time, pursue premium positioning, and then you might want a Culture modality to make a big splash at launch.
  • My guess is that you’ll find fewer marketing leaders in the Culture modality in early stage B2B startups, but by the time a company is thinking about IPO, that modality starts to matter a whole lot more — at that stage, you’re speaking to a wider audience than customers alone.

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