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Justin Parnell – The Buyer’s Journey Has Changed & PLG Is In! – Episode #104

“The first question is, ‘How hard is it to extract value from our product?’”

Justin Parnell is the VP of Marketing at BrightIdea. Justin is a data-driven marketing leader who oversees a full range of initiatives including influencing business strategy, developing lifecycle marketing plans, and the project management of BrightIdea’s marketing initiatives. Justin is also experienced in launching and scaling new offerings and providing the vision of BrightIdea’s new product go-to-market strategy.

Questions and topics we covered include :

  • How having experience working in sales aided Justin in becoming a better marketer.
  • Can you define Product Lead Growth?
  • Which department owns PLG? Is it marketing? Product? Sales? A combination?
  • What are some PLG Go-To-Market tactics and what brands are the best-in-class examples to follow? 
  • When shouldn’t a business try to use PLG as a  Go-To-Market strategy?
  • How has the buyer’s journey evolved?
  • The right way to tackle upward mobility within a marketing team.
  • The qualities in new candidates that Justin is looking for when scaling his marketing team.

And more!


Say hello to Justin on LinkedIn here –

Full Episode Transcript:

Kenny Soto 0:00  

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the people Digital Marketing podcast with your host, Kenny Soto, and today’s special guest, Justin Parnell.


Justin Parnell 0:15  

Thanks for having me, Kenny. I’m super excited to be here.


Kenny Soto 0:17  

Now, Justin, I gave you a little context before we got started. And you now know a little bit more about the people Digital Marketing podcast. But before we dive into your area of expertise, and all of the lessons that you can share with us today, let’s get something like as far as the lay of the land of your career is concerned. How did you get into marketing?


Justin Parnell 0:41  

It’s a great question. I’ve always been passionate about marketing my entire life. But coming out of college, I started working in a couple of different industries, insurance, and Telecom, and just naturally gravitated towards the marketing side of the business. I had some stints in sales, as you can see on my LinkedIn, but really learned that I was most passionate about marketing, and started out in product management and product marketing, and in both telecom and insurance, and then got into the startup game. 


And I’ve been a serial entrepreneur ever since I love working at startups and growing startup teams. And growing startup companies from seed all the way to series A, series B Series C investment rounds, and growing the marketing function along with it.


Kenny Soto 1:34  

Can you give us more context into the company you’re working in today?


Justin Parnell 1:39  

Yeah, absolutely. Today, I’m at a startup called Bright Idea. We do idea and innovation management software for b2b SaaS. And basically what that means is, companies need a CRM for ideas within their company and a way to develop those ideas into the next big product that they might be launching. 


And our software helps you do that all the way from the ideation stage where it’s just a twinkle in your eye or a light bulb above your head to the product on the shelf when the company is starting to realize revenue, and everything in between. So a pretty complex process, but a challenge that almost every business faces at some point. 


And usually, they need a little bit of help and help manage that. And our software does that. So it’s a tried and true b2b SaaS company. And our marketing function reflects that. But there are some interesting trends in the market these days for b2b SaaS, which I’m excited to talk about with you today.


Kenny Soto 2:44  

Before we get into those trends, you mentioned something and I don’t want to gloss over it. Did you talk about how in the past you did have some sales experience? To what degree did your previous sales experience help you become a better marketer?


Justin Parnell 2:59  

Yeah, that’s a great question. And for all the, you know, people out there, just starting their marketing careers, I will tell you, one of the biggest skills and best investments of time in my career has been to learn the sales discipline. And the reason I say that is because it’s, it’s helped me develop a ton of empathy for what sales go through, in dealing with customers, having done you know, cold, calling myself having sold products myself. 


And even here at the bright idea when I first started as the head of sales and marketing when we were, you know, a bit smaller startup, I even sold the product myself, right and developing that empathy for what the sales team has to go through what the market wants, right? And what customers are saying is handling objections. And just seeing like, where the marketing is really starting to influence the buyer and understanding the buyer’s journey. 


All of those things are just greatly amplified by having sales experience. And if you’ve never done a stint in sales, my best advice to you is to become best friends with your sales team. become best friends with your SDR, your BDR is your AES, take them out for drinks, and learn what they’re going through on a daily basis. 


Because as a marketer, oftentimes they’re your number one customer other than the folks you’re targeting in the marketplace. And having that deep, deep understanding of relationships is going to pay dividends for you and your career.


Kenny Soto 4:31  

You mentioned b2b SaaS trends. What are some of those trends that marketers should be paying attention to this year?


Justin Parnell 4:40  

Yeah, there are some really, some really flashy ones out there that I’m sure the audience is going to recognize these three-letter words. Still, plg or product lead growth seems to be one of the biggest ones in b2b SaaS, and that’s really piggybacking on a broader trend, which I feel is the consumerization of b2b of the b2b sales process. 


And what I mean by that is, I’ll pivot back to TLG in a second. But as consumers become more and more accustomed to buying things via, you know, online transactions and via trial periods, we’re starting to see that same kind of expectation trickle into software, sales, and b2b go-to-market. So now we’re starting to see buyers want to try before they buy, leading to this new discipline, which is a new go-to-market mechanism called product lead growth. 


A lot of times, you’ll see it described as a free trial or a freemium product, you’ll see it on companies’ websites, where there’ll be a button that says try for free all of a sudden. And that’s what I mean by the consumerization of the b2b, go-to-market. 


And, I mean, there are some pitfalls with this go-to-market, it’s still in its infancy. I think a lot of b2b marketers are struggling that have maybe never done any consumer marketing in the past to understand you know, what this goes to market means for them. But it’s going to be something that’s not just a trend, it’s here to stay. 


I think the growth rates of companies that are employing this go-to-market mechanism are much, much higher than those that don’t. It’s kind of interesting what’s happening. And I think those that are just developing their career if you want to develop it in a way, that’s going to be a hyper-growth marketing segment, and where there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for you. Layering in those products, lead growth, skill sets, and product lead growth go-to-market skills are going to be very valuable for you.


Kenny Soto 6:49  

This is a complicated question because all businesses are made differently. But in your opinion, who owns plg? Is it marketing as a product? Is it sales?


Justin Parnell 7:03  

Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question. And, honestly, plg is, and I started to be cliche, here, it’s a flywheel. I know everyone will laugh when I bring that out. But it’s really not any one discipline that’s creating the momentum that drives the success of a product like growth go to market, it’s the collaboration between customer success, sales, marketing, and product. And I don’t want to be too high level with this so that there’s not like tactical advice and things that people can take away from this. 


So I’ll give you anecdotal examples. But you know, from a product standpoint, in plg, a product like growth, it’s the first letter, the product has to be very easy to use and deliver value within the first one to five minutes of someone getting into the product. And from a marketing standpoint, we have to be able to educate customers and tell them what they’re going to experience when they get into this trial so that they can easily discover that value. 


Now, once they’re in a trial, maybe sales come along and assist them with extracting that value from the trial and wanting to purchase after the end of the trial period. And then finally, once the trial is over, Customer Success comes into play and looks at expanding that account and penetrating the business more, adding more trials, getting more users, and more adoption, right? And so you can see there’s an overlap of all these different departments and activities. 


Marketing plays a role in every part of the flywheel product plays that role in the whole part of the flywheel. And then sales and CS jump in, you know when the timing is right for their roles to help convert and expand those, those customers. So it’s not one, one department as much as it is, you know, a whole team effort.


Kenny Soto 9:03  

When is plg not appropriate for business use?


Justin Parnell 9:09  

Yeah, that’s a good question. And since it’s so new, I feel like a lot of people have been trying to flap plg onto their go-to-market as like everyone’s doing this, we need a free trial. We need to have this on our website. And there are a lot of pitfalls to that. And you need to be asking yourself this. 


The first question is, how hard is it to extract value from our product? Right? Can someone sign up for my product and within, you know, one to five minutes get value from the product? If the answer’s no, you’re not ready for PL CI. You need to figure out a way to reduce friction and reduce time to value your product so that you can get that person hooked within the first experience. 


The other thing to consider is if this is appropriate for you to consider the buyer persona of your product, right and think about who that person is, is this someone who has enough time to get into a free trial, you know, poke around, uncover the value, send it around to their peers, right? extract value from collaboration and the virality of the product? If the answer is no, like, the person you’re targeting isn’t going to enjoy that experience, then it’s probably not right for p&g. 


So think about those two things, how long does it take to get value out of your product? And who is your ICP, right? Who’s your ideal customer? And would they enjoy that experience from your go-to-market? So those are my two top tips. If you answer no to either one of those, then maybe consider a tried and true enterprise sales model or, you know, a sales assistant model at a minimum and revisit plg. When the answer’s yes to both of those things.


Kenny Soto 11:08  

One brand that sticks to my mind when you mentioned that that is probably doing something right with plg is notion because when you go to their website, and you’re interacting with a brand for the first time, they walk you through how to use their project management software if you’re a designer if you are a marketer if you work in sales if you work in the product. So my follow-up for you would be Are there any brands that stick out in your mind today that are doing TLG? The right way?


Justin Parnell 11:39  

Oh, yeah, there are a ton of great brands out there to go and look at and consider in terms of use cases, I agree that notion is a great one. And I can, we can double click on a notion in a second. But some other brands that I would recommend taking a look at the OG of field G, if you want to, if you want to put it that way, are Atlassian or JIRA. 


And they’ve been doing it for over a decade. They were some of the first to do it. And if you think about Jira and Atlassian, their ICP are developers, right? And product managers and their people that really don’t want to talk to sales, they would rather just get in the product, figure it out on their own and extract the value on their own, and then convert without ever even talking to anybody. 


So it seems, you know, pretty intuitive when you think about it. But yes, there is the OH JESUS plg and some more modern companies that are really doing a great job with plg. And really kind of defining the space I would throw at us out there at Hughes is a smaller company, but they are growing really fast. They do product tutorials, and it’s in their DNA to be great at plg because they’re trying to assist their customers in uncovering value and driving that plg to market motion. 


So they do a great job. Zapier does an incredible job. I’m always blown away by Zapier and what they’re doing with airtable Mirror. they’re both doing a good job. And I’m just trying to think of a couple of other good examples. Yeah, I mean, those are, those are some really good ones if you want to go study what they’re doing and some of the tactics that notion has employed. 


And all of these companies do really, really well with plg having an amazing organic content creation engine, and driving organic traffic into the plg engine. When you’re thinking about plugging, your cost to acquire customers has to be very low. Because often, the initial conversion point is a very low conversion point. 


We’re talking like single dollars per user, you can’t afford to be paying, you know $100 cost per lead like you would for an enterprise SAS lead. So you really really have to get your organic game going. And the notion is world-class when it comes to organic. One of the things that I admire most about notions other than what you mentioned, like their job role specific to the market, which I think is genius is their user-generated content engine. 


And they have an amazing user-generated content engine where they take the notion specialists and they found a way to help them coach them on how to monetize content creation for notion, which is like a genius.


Kenny Soto 14:48  

They made their own economy for UGC, where people promoting notion templates are able to make money from those templates and notion gets exactly like Hot off the top, I guess for selling the product itself or being the owner of the product.


Justin Parnell 15:03  

Well, yeah, I mean, in order to use a template, you have to be an ocean customer. It’s amazing and they’ve really done it. I mean, I don’t know how they even figured this out, but they figured out that in certain markets like APAC, like the con, the appetite for doing this UGC is much, much higher than in other markets. 


And they’ve found some, like really niche areas where I know they’re just exploding and like Korea and Japan with UGC and my UGC influencers there, and helping them monetize but they also coach people how to do it, like go on YouTube, create a YouTube channel, monetize your YouTube channel, right? Like, they’ve gotten super smart on creating master classes and, and people you know, charging for, you know, these like learning modules that like or outside of the notion platform, but drive people back to the notion. 


And there are other companies that are doing a good job of that. I think Sigma does a really good job at what they’re UGC to, and it’s a plg first go-to-market but there are some really inspiring UGC engines out there. I think that happier is like, probably the OG of UGC, again, but they’ve found a way to make it their product, which is like so cool and so smart. Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of great organic work going on at those companies.


Kenny Soto 16:30  

For the listener who’s curious, I would definitely recommend not from a plg perspective, but from a branding and rebrand perspective to check out Zapier because they just did a rebrand. And I think it’s flawless execution, because not only is it notable from their customers, but people are citing this rebrand as a way to do rebrands in general. So I just wanted to mention that. Justin, when it comes to the buyer’s journey, can you paint a picture for us? What was the buyer’s journey? And how has it changed this year?


Justin Parnell 17:08  

Yeah, that’s a great question, Kenny. And the buyer’s journey traditionally has, from an inbound perspective, been associated with like the awareness, consideration, and decision phases. So like, when does someone become aware and activated around your brand? When did they start considering your brand as something that’s relevant for them and could potentially be used by them? 


And then when did they decide that they need your services or your product? And one of the interesting things that have changed recently, in my opinion with a lot of this plg going to markets is the buyer’s journey is collapsing a bit into consideration being a point in which people start interacting with your product. 


Previously, people would only be able to interact with your product once they reached the decision phase and decided to talk to a salesperson or get a demo in the b2b SaaS world. And this year, especially plg is making it an expectation that buyers will be able to sample your product when they’re in the consideration phase. And what’s happening is they’re considering whether or not they can use your product before they ever even engage with anybody at your company right there. It’s completely different. 


As a marketer, you have to be able to bridge that gap between the old buyer’s journey and the new buyer’s journey and meet the customers where they want you to be right they want you to be offering that a lot of times again, not appropriate for every persona, right there are personas out there that would prefer to talk to sales just because they don’t have time to poke around at a trial. But a lot of folks nowadays are in the consideration phase. 


They want to be able to experience the product and make a decision about whether this is right for them before they ever engage with anyone at your company. And that’s really a big difference from the tried and true old b2b SaaS buyer’s journey.


Kenny Soto 19:13  

What when you’re thinking about building out a marketing team? What qualities do you look for in job candidates?


Justin Parnell 19:21  

Yeah, that’s a great question too. And it depends on the size of your company like what the needs of the business will be. But when I’m looking at any role, I’m looking at I’m looking for people that have you know, a good understanding of the buyer’s journey our marketplace, how to engage with the sale you know, these specific go-to-market strategies and mechanisms and understanding and being able to apply and like just the conversation with me during an interview how they think they would tackle this right from like the go to market perspective. 


Do what they would recommend doing in terms of like campaigns and based on, you know, whatever our business objectives are, how they would try to, you know, accomplish those goals and seeing that, like creative thought processes happening during the interview process is something that I look for, as a soft skill. 


And, you know, from a hard skill perspective, just being familiar with those go-to-market tactics, being able to show experience and awareness and knowledge of those tactics is, is really, really helpful. And then one thing that I always look for that I think is one of the influences that I pay a lot of attention to Dave Gearhart is being able to write good copy. 


Right, so like being a good copywriter, I think is a foundational skill for almost any marketer. And without being able to do that, as you know, a lot of things are a lot harder if you can’t do copywriting. So, Dave Gearhart always says his number one is being a good copywriter. I don’t know if it’s my number one, but it wasn’t in the top three. Always, always, always keep your copywriting skills sharp.


Kenny Soto 21:12  

Let’s double-click on that because I think it’s important, to highlight not necessarily just copywriting in and of itself, but really like, I think, when you think of copywriting as something that is definitely a skill that stands out for a candidate. What really is being shown there is that they understand how to communicate to customers and how to learn from research and how to apply that research so that you get tangible results, would you say? That’s correct?


Justin Parnell 21:43  

Yeah, that’s, that’s a great way to explain it. I think it also displays empathy for the person that is being targeted or the persona that you’re targeting. They understand, you know, they can put themselves in their shoes, and they can understand what’s effective, what they’re looking to see. So I think copywriting does cut across a lot of disciplines and shows like a lot have a lot of thought and in terms of like you said, customer research and, and empathetic marketing. So


Kenny Soto 22:18  

Can you share any lessons? And this is because I did a lot of research on your career. Can you share any lessons on upward mobility in a team? How can marketers get promoted this year? 


Justin Parnell 22:30  

Yeah, I think one of the most important things, in order to advance your career, is being able to quantify your success. And going into any marketing role that you’re entering into, you’re going to have a hypothesis that you’re going to test right, you’re going to go out there and say like, I think this is a great campaign idea. I think it can generate a lot of results for us, I have a hypothesis about how much it could yield for us. 


And then you’re going to test that hypothesis, you’re going to quantify your test, and you’re going to say, this is successful, let’s scale it, let’s, let’s do even better, right, let’s scale this and or it wasn’t successful. And this is why it wasn’t successful. And this is what I learned. And being able to quantify both of those things is extremely important for setting yourself up for promotion. 


I think when you have that data, and you and you bring it to your one-on-one meeting with your manager, and you’re able to say, hey, this last quarter, my OKRs were this for the team, I was able to run these experiments, scale these campaigns, and contribute this much more towards the team OKRs and the business OKRs. And if you’re able to demonstrate that consistent quarter over quarter month over monthly success and track record with your manager, it’s going to be a no-brainer for them. 


Like who’s up next for promotion as I’m scaling this team, who am I going to give more resources to who’s always delivered when I give them more resources? And can I show my boss why I’m promoting this person? And if you’re preparing that for your manager, you’re making their job to promote you way easier, right? 


Because they can just turn that package around show their boss and say, you know, Kenny deserves a promotion because his track record has been exempt from exemplary he’s been over objective and all of his OKRs every month, every quarter, and we’re scaling the team and I want to give Kenny you know, more responsibility and more resources. That’s what I would recommend.


Kenny Soto 24:46  

Two more questions for you. What is the biggest marketing challenge that bright ideas face this year?


Justin Parnell 24:53  

Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve just come out of meetings talking about this, but Our biggest marketing challenge right now is getting ready to execute the solutions based on going to market. In the past, we’ve been very horizontal in our go-to-market. 


Anybody needs idea management, anybody and everybody needs it. We’re going to start specializing in jobs to be done and job roles for IDEA management that we think are ripe and ready to emerge. Within the market, we’ve seen a lot of traction and things lining up in certain sectors of the economy, even though the economy may, you know, it may all be doom and gloom, it’s not all doom and gloom for everybody. 


When we’ve been horizontal, in the past, we are able to see that from like, our customer base, like these segments continue to grow, some are slowing down. And we’re gonna double down on our go-to-market approach targeting those segments, those jobs to be done, those teams that are ready for IDEA management, and our team is just, you know, trying to scale around that and sequence. Which opportunities want to go after first? So yeah, that’s their biggest challenge.


Kenny Soto 26:03  

Justin, my last question for you is hypothetical, because time machines don’t exist. But if you had access to one, and you can go back into the past, about 10 years, knowing everything you know, today, how would you specifically accelerate the speed of your career?


Justin Parnell 26:19  

Yeah, that’s, that’s a good, good question. If I had to go back 10 years, I would probably teach myself quite a bit about entrepreneurship and how the startup model works specifically with financing and what it means to be working at a startup, I would probably explain the pros and cons of an early-stage startup versus mid-stage startup, what it means in terms of your equity as an employee, and for all of you listening out there who are early in your careers, 


you need to ask questions during your job interviews about any kind of equity packages you’re getting from a startup to really understand that startup’s cap table, what your equity Packwood package represents when you’re eligible to be invested when you’re eligible to cash out your equity. These are all really, really big decision points for an employee and you owe it to yourself to ask those tough questions in the job interview, it shows that you’re serious about the job. First of all, it’s not something you should be scared to ask the hiring manager. 


But I would have taught myself a lot more about that, and how that all works. And the pros and cons, again, of an early-stage startup, is maybe you get more equity and less, you know, less compensation at a later stage of a startup, maybe less equity and more compensation, and how that all plays out. And like, how long you’re in the game for right in each one of those phases? Like how long does it take you to really realize the value of that equity? 


And, and, you know, when how long you’re gonna have to be at that company to realize that value, right, and like plan your career path, I think something that is super valuable for everyone to hear on this call is you’re going to have a lot of careers, you’re going to be at a lot of different companies, the economy has changed, very few people are going to work at one company for 30 years and retire. 


So in order to create value from your job, that will yield you the retirement you want. You need to find a couple of these opportunities in your career that you believe are going to hit it big and payout in terms of your equity. And that’s how you’re going to create your nest egg for you and your family. A lot of people don’t realize that when they’re joining companies, and they don’t plan for that. 


But I would seriously consider that if for anybody who’s listening, you know, be judicious about the companies you’re joining, understand what you’re getting yourself into, and understand how long you need to be there. And plan to have like three to five of those good opportunities in your career and one to two of those actually pay off for you.


Kenny Soto 29:02  

So yeah, and this is just a personal side. But definitely ask about the burn rate. Even if you don’t get the answer. The fact that you didn’t get an answer to that question is a signal. Just my opinion that the organization doesn’t feel comfortable being transparent. And you want to ask questions, specifically financial information about the company so you know what you’re walking into. 


And, you know, clearly stating this company with the current cap table in the investment round that they just did, will last for two years if they don’t do another round as an example, that needs to be top of mind. So you know whether or not you’re going to be joining an organization and then within four months, you have to find another job. It’s very important.


Justin Parnell 29:50  

Absolutely, especially in this economy right now. Startups are the most exposed to this current downturn and understanding the companies that you’re joining need to be close to a neutral or cash-positive burn rate, or they will be doing layoffs. I guarantee it. So a very important question to ask. 


Thank goodness, our company is in a great financial position we’re hiring. Come check us out. Right. We’ve answered, I’ve answered that question for you. But yeah, check out our job listings on our site and ask that question, regardless of the company you’re joining, again, for those of you that are interested, bright is our website. You can check it out there.


Kenny Soto 30:37  

Justin, if anyone wants to say hello to us, specifically, where can they find you online?


Justin Parnell 30:43  

Yeah, find me on LinkedIn. Justin Parnell VP of Marketing at Bright Idea. Please hit me up and ask me questions. I’m here to help. Love what you’re doing for this audience Kenny, and I would love to help anybody out there that wants advice or needs advice. Feel free to ping me.


Kenny Soto 31:02  

Awesome. Thanks again, Justin for your time today. And as always, thanks to you the listener for listening to another episode of the people Digital Marketing podcast. And if you haven’t done so please subscribe on whatever podcast app you are listening to this episode on. And give us a review if you have the time. And as always, I hope everyone has a great week.



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