Your must-have core messaging framework: A guide for high-tech startups
One of the most critical activities — and indeed THE most important marketing activity — that a company must do is establish a strong value proposition for itself and its product(s) with a clear, accurate, compelling message.
Messaging is the hardest thing marketers have on their plates, it always takes waaaaay longer than expected to create, socialize, and ratify. Plus, everybody has an opinion, no matter how qualified they are and how many buzzword bingo titles they have to their name. Poor marketers don’t do messaging well (or don’t do it at all!), unsupportive executive teams don’t contribute to message development or help make it stick once it’s in place, and CEOs who go rogue can single-handedly undo an otherwise strong message and really hurt the company while they’re at it. When messaging is done wrong, it’s easy to spot and so damaging to the company.
But when it’s done right, it’s really, really good.
In this article, I will endeavor to identify what goes into effective messaging (and a standard core messaging document). I’ll use partial templates from companies I’ve worked at or with, draw on examples from around the web, and contribute my own thinking. I’ll do my best to indicate what comes from where.
First, let’s take a look at some messaging frameworks from around the web. Consulting firm Four Quadrant does a nice job laying out simple, effective recipes for everything from messaging to demand generation. They identify five must-have components for an effective value proposition (I added descriptions and used examples from my prior company, cloud security leader Netskope):
This framework is not unique to Four Quadrant; you can find hundreds of variations of this framework from sources around the web. It’s a useful framework, but in my view, doesn’t quite articulate what’s important. I like to think of positioning as the intersection of three things: Customer need, white space, and your unique capabilities.
If you can identify the intersection of those three things, filling out those positioning bullets should come easily. For example, if you have customer need, you can easily come up with the FOR and WHO; if you have white space, you can fill in the UNLIKE; and if you have unique capabilities, you can communicate the PROVIDES and ONLY. Thinking in terms of the above diagram not only helps you fill out the positioning worksheet, but really draws out that CRITICAL THING that defines your company or product.
Detour on personas
Before we dive in further, let’s take a short detour to discuss customer or buyer personas. The customer is your raison d’etre when it comes to messaging (or pretty much anything else). I shouldn’t have to say it, but before you even THINK about putting pen to paper, you need to know who you’re doing this for (and if you have multiple critical personas involved in the purchase of your product, you need to do this exercise for all of them). This means you need to walk in their shoes. You need to have multiple in-depth conversations with them, talk to people who sell to them, observe them (not just interacting with YOUR product, but in their day-to-day lives). You need to understand who they are, where they come from, what they do, what drives them, to whom they report, what pressures they face, what their key challenges at work are, what their business goals and key performance indicators are, and more. For example, when thinking about the chief (information) security officer persona from my prior companies, here’s what my colleagues and I have learned:
The CSO (or CISO) skews older and male. He typically reports to the CIO, though increasingly reports to the CEO or directly to the board. He comes from a military, law enforcement, or information technology background, and often holds a CISSP, CISM, and/or CISA certification. He’s honest, a “do-gooder,” skeptical, smart, technical, and maybe a little paranoid. He values straight talk and hates anything that smacks of marketing. He typically owns responsibility for securing information and IT assets at the company, and sometimes owns physical security. Depending on the industry, he may also own risk management and compliance. If he doesn’t, he most certainly interfaces with those teams. He typically manages teams that span the security operations center (SOC), network security, endpoint security, application security, security architecture, and security engineering. Because the security space is heavily fragmented, he must be up to speed on hundreds of technologies and companies. He is often beleaguered, with the weight of the world on his shoulders (e.g., if the company is hacked, his neck is on the line) and often little authority to secure the company fully. He’s sometimes seen as “the business prevention department,” and is working hard to turn that reputation around. His career tenure at any one company is less than two years. He’s a little old school when it comes to technology buying, yet will hold his nose and do business with a multitude of vendors, including startups, because he knows that in order to run an effective security program, he must have the latest security countermeasures. He is undergoing a career transition from being a highly-skilled technical leader to a visionary business leader with competencies in influencing and negotiating, and who must interface frequently with the company’s top ranks and board of directors.
Knowing these kinds of details (and more!) about our customers helps marketers know how to position their companies and products, what use cases to talk about, what details to emphasize, what words to use, what analogies to make, and what proof points to present. Spending time with our customers and walking in their shoes helps us understand what offers will resonate with them and how they are likely to consume our offerings. In short, intimate customer knowledge is essential to creating successful messaging (and a successful company).
From a tactical standpoint, companies sometimes struggle with whether they need to have a separate experience on their website for each persona. I think a simple, effective way to address different audiences is in the solutions section of your website, but I have also seen companies do a great job of organizing their content by audience, such as in these examples:
- SafeBreach, a security breach company, offers content by role (chief security officer, security analyst, and security red team engineer).
- Looker, a data analytics company, shepherds visitors to information by department (sales analytics, marketing analytics, account management, etc.) and industry (e-commerce, SaaS, gaming, etc.).
- Comparably, a compensation comparison site, guides the experience by context (see how much people like you get paid, anonymously rate your workplace, etc.).
Let’s drill a little further into what needs to go into each of the positioning elements:
Here’s an example of an early-stage company, Split.io, that has done a good job of pointing out this intersection in its messaging.
Looking at its “Why Split?” page, it’s pretty easy to understand customer need (be able to roll out different software service versions for testing and other purposes post deployment, which carries with it the cost of not testing features and potentially releasing the wrong features), white space (deliver features quickly while ensuring stability, leading to “shipping code fast, and often”), and unique capabilities (controlled releases, kill switches, integrations/integration monitoring).
The next level: Product- and feature-level messaging
Now let’s focus on product- and feature-level messaging. This level of messaging takes discipline and is much more of a science than an art. Forget flowery language! Forget extraneous words! Use the word “synergy” or “paradigm shift” and you’re dead to me! And for God’s sake, be plainspoken and don’t use quarter words when nickel words will do. For example, don’t use “leverage” when you can use “use” (or “take advantage of,” if you’re feeling frisky).
Great product- and feature-level messaging (or any messaging, for that matter) is down-to-earth and organized. You need to slice and dice your features and benefits in a way that people will understand, is in the customer’s words, and demonstrates the benefit. Here’s an approximation of the worksheet we used at Citrix (where I worked briefly when they bought my former company, Zenprise, and which was relentless about messaging discipline). I embellished it over time to fit my needs.
Here’s an example of product-level messaging pillars from secure access company Duo Security. Notice how plainspoken it is, and how each first sentence begins with an action — yes! Also notice that each description is roughly the same length — that’s no accident. My guess is that Duo went through a disciplined exercise like the above framework. It shows in how easy it is to understand what they do and what the value is.
There’s a trend afoot in the high-tech world, and thank God, because it means that vendors are actually (finally!) listening to their customers. They’re starting to organize products and features by customer use case. Now technology buyers that are looking for solutions to their problems — rather than try to sort through a jumble of features — can actually look for the problem they’re trying to solve and THEN see whether the proposed solution fits what they need. Hallelujah! Citrix does this on its website, and I think it works pretty well.
The importance of consistency and MECE
Consistency and the concept of MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) are paramount in messaging.
Let’s say you have a product and your messaging pillars are A, B, and C. In that order. That’s how you have it on your website. But you outsourced your collateral to a technical writer outside of the company, and they emphasized B, forgot A and C, and introduced a new concept, D. Your sales reps really like C, except the ones on the west coast who made up a completely different set, E and F. Your CEO recently had a conversation with two customers who happened to bring up point G, which your CEO is now repeating to everyone who will listen. And half of your salesforce (those that showed up and listened to the last sales call in which your CEO talked all about G) are now talking C and G (and sometimes E and F). Guess what! Your next prospect will read about A, B, and C on your website, learn about B and D from the data sheet, hear about C and possibly E, F, and G from their sales team, and when they meet the CEO, will hear all about G. Do you think that will be a good experience, and will it build trust with the prospect? No matter how good A, B, C, D, E, F, and G are — even if they are all A+ messages — the customer will NEVER have confidence that you can satisfy their requirements…or, for that matter, that you even know what you’re doing.
In a world in which prospects do 60–80 percent of their research online, then peruse reviews, talk to their peers, engage with salespeople, ask channel partners and integrators, and reach out to company executives, they are having potentially dozens of conversations about your company or product. Having a consistent message across all of those experiences is the ONLY way to convince the prospect (and his or her team) of your value proposition. Knowing this, you should favor a consistent B- message over an inconsistent set of A+ messages any day of the week. Good teams (or teams that work really hard at it) know how to find the A message AND say it consistently. Not very many companies get it right. It takes discipline.
Why does MECE matter? The concept, “mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive,” is part and parcel of consistency. It’s about organizing your stuff so people (including your customers) can understand and REPEAT your value proposition to others, internally to their own teams as well as externally to industry peers. Customers can only remember a few things (three, really) and can only make simple associations with each. So, if you talk about the same things or use the same words under multiple pillars, or leave an important concept out of one pillar, it will not make sense to your audience, leaving salespeople, partners, and prospects to either make stuff up or avoid the conversation. Both of those are bad.
Take video conferencing company, Zoom. In its “Why Zoom” page, the company emphasizes three things: 1. Vision, innovation, and experience; 2. Video conferencing that always works — no matter what; and 3. #1 in customer satisfaction (ok, technically that’s five things, but I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt, and maybe suggest that they pick ONE concept for 1). They do a good job organizing their points under each of 1, 2, and 3. One point the company makes in 1 (vision, innovation…) is that its engineers have more than 1,000 years of combined experience. That point could be made under 2 (always works…), but it’s not. Even if it’s totally relevant to 2, it has already been used for 1. By being mutually exclusive, Zoom is putting everything into a nice little box so its audience can grok it all easily…and if we grok it, we’ll repeat it to others. What’s not to love about that?
If you’ve made it this far in the article, kudos to you! You’re either really, really interested in messaging or just a glutton for punishment. Or maybe both! If you’ve got this messaging thing down, you can probably stop here. But if you’re like, “No, no, I’m just getting started, and I need to write my core messaging document RIGHT NOW,” then read on. Next up: Boiler plates.
In messaging, a boiler plate (or “boiler” for short) is your elevator pitch. It’s a set of messages in varying lengths that everyone in your company (and partners) should have access to, and can copy, paste, and use anywhere — on your press releases, website, collateral, presentation abstracts, and even while riding in an elevator. Boilers are the way you ensure consistency and MECE because — together with the rest of your core messaging document — they are your bible, and everything ties back to them.
It’s best if your boiler set can include a tagline (if there is one — not everybody does, and I’m not entirely sold on the need for one), a definitional fragment, a 25-word, a 50-word, and a 100-word.
I like online review site G2 Crowd’s 100-word boiler from its most recent press release. Whoever wrote it did a good job of building out a modular message that incorporates the definitional fragment, 25-word, and 50-word into the 100-word boiler, making it really easy to work with. I’ll use it as an example of what should be included in each of the above items.
G2 Crowd, the world’s leading business solution review platform, leverages more than 170,000 user reviews to drive better purchasing decisions. Business professionals, buyers, investors, and analysts use the site to compare and select the best software and services based on peer reviews and synthesized social data. Every month, nearly one million people visit G2 Crowd’s site to gain unique insights. Co-founded by the founder and former executives of SaaS leaders like BigMachines (acquired by Oracle) and SteelBrick (acquired by Salesforce) and backed by more than $45 million in capital, G2 Crowd aims to bring authenticity and transparency to the business marketplace. For more information, go to G2Crowd.com.
Breaking it down, the first line looks to be G2 Crowd’s definitional fragment: “the world’s leading business solution review platform” (always good to be the leader if you can possibly justify it…and even when you can’t).
A solid 25-word boiler should include the definitional fragment (“the world’s leading”) and some notion of customer benefit (“to drive better purchasing decisions”).
A strong 50-word boiler needs to build off of the 25-word, and is best if it can include “for whom” and “how.” In G2 Crowd’s case, the “for whom” is “business professionals, buyers, investors, and analysts,” and the “how” is “to compare and select the best software and services based on peer reviews and synthesized social data.”
Finally, depending on what the company is trying to achieve, a good 100-word boiler should build off of the 50-word, and add evidence or proof points and point to a vision or mission. In G2 Crowd’s case, the company chose to emphasize the experience of its leadership team (“founder and former executives of SaaS leaders”) and share its mission (“to bring authenticity and transparency to the business marketplace”).
Before knuckling down and doing yours, take a look at the boilers of companies you admire. The fastest place to find them is at the end of their most recent press release.
You get a medal! And YOU get a medal! Medals for everyone! This article was a slog. Useful and pretty comprehensive, but a slog. So, here’s a summary of what you learned to make it easy to remember:
- Top-level positioning needs to point to the intersection of customer need, white space, and your unique capabilities.
- If you can identify that intersection, you can easily articulate your value proposition, using the FOR-WHO-PROVIDES-UNLIKE-ONLY model.
- Know your customer before you ever get started on messaging. And I mean really walk in his/her shoes!
- Consider organizing messages by audience — by role, department, industry, context, or whatever makes sense. You can do this in the solutions section of your website, or by funneling website visitors to specific content. Also consider messaging by use case, which will position your company or product in the context of your customer’s pain point.
- When it comes to product- and feature-level messaging, discipline is your friend. Fill out and maintain the product/feature worksheet, clearly articulating message pillars, customer pain, requirements, short/long descriptions, product/feature details, and benefits (include evidence or proof points in those benefits, if you can).
- You will be golden if you approach all messaging with an eye toward consistency and adhere to MECE.
- Write your boiler plate messaging modularly, and make it available to all of your internal stakeholders and external partners so you’re all singing from the same hymn book.
- Remember to pull together and maintain your core messaging document — your company’s bible — which should include (at least): high-level positioning; customer personas; product- and feature-level messaging; use cases; and boiler plates (tagline, definitional fragment, 25-word, 50-word, and 100-word).