Pivot Stories

How to Pivot into Product Marketing with Rona at TikTok

Rona Matthew
Product Marketing Manger @ TikTok
Account Manager to Entrepreneur to Product Marketing Manager

Rona Matthew graduated with a Marketing degree from Howard University. After graduating and facing the tough housing crisis, she decided to explore her career path in South Africa. She worked at a design agency, launched a brand consultancy, and after eight years in Johannesburg, she made a pivot into tech. Rona attended Columbia Business School while working as a Product Marketing Manager for Spotify and, today, she is a Product Marketing Manager at TikTok with a bright future ahead.

Zeit invited Rona to speak with our cohort of aspiring PMMs about her path to Product Marketing. Read some highlights or watch the full video below.

Making the Pivot to Product Marketing Management

While attending Columbia Business School, I interned at Spotify as a cross functional MBA intern, working across partner solutions. I ended up staying on as a PMM (Product Marketing Manager) intern while in school and that was my traditional PMM experience. When I graduated from Howard, it wasn't exactly a very exciting time to move to New York to chase my dream of working in advertising in the Big Apple, so I decided to go abroad. I went to visit South Africa, loved it, and decided to keep in touch with some people there and ended up getting a job offer once I graduated. I moved to Johannesburg to work at a design and branding agency as an account manager. 

The best way to understand advertiser challenges is to work inside of an agency as a service provider. You will see every part of the business and how they think about advertising their products.

After a year working at the design agency, I wanted to do more strategy work, so I ended up starting my own company called “Brandpulse” in which I was a brand consultant for 6 years. However, more than a brand consultant, I effectively managed a network of creatives, strategists and designers to then configure into teams based on my client's unique needs. A few of Brandpulse's projects included: writing business plans and corporate identities for new companies, content sourcing and content distribution with Telcos in Nigeria and Ghana, developing an African music streaming service, the list goes on. With the music project, we were trying to develop the iTunes of Africa and it was an incredible learning experience. That was my first love affair with music tech, which led me to seek out opportunities to work closer to creators and help them monetize their arts. 

After eight years in South Africa, I knew it was time to move back to the US and formally pivot into tech. My goal was to work in media and entertainment and I wanted the creator to be at the center of my efforts. I wanted to be in New York surrounded by a handful of companies and Spotify was one of them. At that time, I felt that the best way to position myself and re-enter the US market would be to go to business school, expand my network, and gain credibility prior to joining a leading entertainment tech company.

I wasn't exactly married to the PMM role until I interned at Spotify where I realized that the sweet spot for me is the intersection of marketing, product and sales. I've been at TikTok for about a year and I'm currently a product marketing manager. I originally joined as a measurement PMM where I focused on incrementality measurement, mainly brand lift studies, sales lifts and store visits. My job was to look at how a campaign's performance changes the attitudinal behaviors of users. I have recently transitioned into the Branded Hashtag Challenge PMM. The product is fundamentally different and requires a much more creative lens from me, which I love. Hashtag challenges are the industry's most participatory ad formats available on the market and invites everyday creators to play with brands.

Breaking Down the Day-to-day

I spend about 50% of my time in meetings. I'm not proud of that, but you can't avoid it when there's so many stakeholders. You're dealing with your teammates, your product teams and many cross-functional teams. There are constant check-ins, chances are you're having regular one on one's, joining or giving roadmap presentations, or providing training content to the sales force for example. Every week is so different.

Positioning Transferable Skills

Research was a big one for me as I was pivoting into Product Marketing Management. In my role as a consultant, I did a lot of qualitative research. I would be in the field, speaking to customers and administering surveys. I would often have focus groups where we would show a group of people one campaign over another and gauge sentiment. Why does one resonate more than the other? When building out brands with my clients, I would have workshops with them, and try to understand what they are trying to do. Not just what their vision and their mission are, but the reason why they exist. Research is key to understanding the customer and their needs. The other piece that is really important in a product marketing role, which is a highly cross functional role, is stakeholder management.

As PMM, you have to influence without authority. You have to make sure that your priorities, somehow, get prioritized. Even when there are conflicting objectives with other teams.

Your priority is not someone else's priority. Therefore, you have to always create business cases for why one thing or the other should be getting the attention and the resourcing it needs to get done. It is also important to be comfortable with some level of data analysis. You're going to be in a platform where you need to pull data in and really understand the insights within the data, but I wouldn't over index on just data analysis. 

Addressing Skills Gap

It caught me really off guard when I had to learn how to manage up in my first PMM gig. I've been an entrepreneur or worked in startups where I wasn't used to having a traditional manager. I had to learn how to have an effective and productive one on one. If your manager doesn't give you a template to use or they don't tell you necessarily what they want to focus on each session, you have to guide your manager on what is important to you. How do you set your own boundary? What are your preferences? Managing up was a challenge and I'm still learning because I finally have a manager, and she's been a great teammate and lead for me. It's really refreshing to see what that looks like in practice because I never had that throughout my career. It is important to learn how to influence without authority and get the needs of your product, especially if you have a revenue driving product. At the end of the day, you have to manage those stakeholders and make sure you create the case for different priorities. 

Learning how to influence is really important. You're just one piece of a large puzzle. You have to think about it holistically. Ultimately, when bigger decisions are being made, you're looking at a full picture of how you impact the bottom line.

Lightning round

What about your personality makes Product Marketing Management a good fit for you?

I’m very curious. I would’ve gone into psychology if I had not gone into business. Just understanding what motivates people to do certain things, feel a certain way, and buy a certain product. How do you tell stories around the product and create these different associations? That's why branding was so interesting to me.

Don’t go into Product Marketing Management if…

You need all the answers. You have to be comfortable navigating ambiguity with timings changing, roadmaps changing and the market changing. TikTok was not on my radar about a year and a half ago. Now it’s where I am and I see myself really growing and expanding my career here. Don’t expect to have all the answers, be comfortable figuring it out along the way. Getting those skills where it needs to be, positioning yourself, working on your own personal brand in a way that makes you comfortable. Just continuously readying yourself for the opportune moment. Eventually, you will get the right interviews and the offer. 

What advice do you have for someone looking to break into Product Marketing Management?

There are three main things. Adaptability is key when you are going into a growth stage tech firm because there are so many unknowns. You have to be comfortable with ambiguity and get your hands dirty to figure it out. Being a problem solver is really important and I linked that to adaptability. 

You also have to be resilient and resourceful. There are limited resources: financially, human capital, time, everything. How do you ruthlessly prioritize? How do you leverage your network? And soft skills? How do you develop relationships with the right people? Sometimes it is about who you know, especially when you're dealing with external teams, PR, etc. 

Resilience is important too because this work is hard, it is a new function and many people don't understand what Product Marketing Managers do. There's a constant battle to elevate the marketing function and the PMM function sits right there. You have to constantly prove your worth and also prove why it's crucial to launch products effectively. Show your empathy to understand the voice of the customer and to be the voice of the customer.

In the company, you have to understand the basic human needs. For example, I understand the end customer needs X, but this media planner is coming to us to do Y.  How does this product make people feel? Does it change behavior in a positive way? Does it make the world a better place? These are the metrics we care about.

Luck is another factor involved. You have to be at the right place at the right time, and also be ready for it. You can create your own luck by being prepared for that conversation with that person. That luck is also positioning yourself, being in communities like Zeit, going to industry functions, and reading the right reports so you have a point of view when it's your turn to shine.

To sum up, showing those hard and soft skills is key, but also make sure your why comes through in those interviews. In some of these high demand companies, there's an abundance of talent. You need to make sure you draw that link as to why you, and only you, can be the best person for this role.

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