Messaging Matters (A Lot): A Roadmap to Breakthrough B2B Positioning

February 25, 2018

B2B Marketing Messaging

This guest post was contributed by David Karel, Principal, OutLeap Marketing; a version of the post originally appeared on the OutLeap Marketing blog.

In a recent post on the DNA of great marketing, I touched on the potentially massive opportunity to take the rigor you apply to your positioning strategy to the next level. The words that you use to describe your company and solutions (your “messaging”) are what fuels every marketing program, every outbound call or email, every sales conversion. Suffice it to say, the teams that put messaging at the core of their marketing strategy are in a stronger position to make an impact. Done right, strong positioning can amplify every program you run, every hour invested in selling and marketing your offering.  

On the flip side, a weak or absent positioning strategy can create drag on your entire go-to-market effort, giving your competition (even ones with a weaker product) an opening to shape your target audience’s thinking and purchase decisions.  

Most marketing leaders will tell you that messaging is important. It’s just that doing it well is hard. We need only look at the emails landing in our inbox, the websites we visit, the sales pitches we sit through to see how many teams struggle to differentiate themselves. We usually tune it out. Or, if we try to pay attention, we’re not exactly sure what they do, why we should care — and we’ll likely not invest any more time to find out.  

Even those marketers that develop messaging that has the potential to break-through the noise often fall short in how they operationalize or “activate” it. Prospects may experience multiple versions of a company’s story throughout their buyer’s journey. For a given company, there may be inconsistent messaging used on the website, tradeshow signage, email promos, the voicemail left by their SDR team, the slides used by their sales reps. The net effect is that instead of each subsequent impression made on a prospect amplifying or creating lift for the next one, the very opposite is happening: Each prospect “touch” is actually creating drag.

So, how do you get to world-class messaging that can make a difference? Those companies that do it best master two key aspects of positioning strategy: 1) messaging development and 2) messaging activation. Below, I lay out some of the best practices I’ve picked up as a marketing leader. My teams and I have tried to follow these practices religiously.

Start with the “who”

As you start on your messaging journey, never ever leave the station without a destination, i.e. your specific target audience. There may be several distinct audiences you want to get in front of — distinct roles in a given buying process (head of marketing, CFO, CEO), or different vertical markets (Tech, Finance, Manufacturing), or industry segments (Small Business, Large Enterprise) that you’re aiming to penetrate. But, it’s key to go into a messaging exercise with a distinct priority audience in mind to create your core “messaging blueprint” (more on the messaging blueprint itself in my next post).

Unless you can crisply visualize who you are trying to engage, how can you possibly come up with words that have a chance of resonating?  Said another way, if you try to talk to everyone, nobody will hear you.  

The more your team has done its homework to develop specific personas for your priority audience(s) (e.g., what they care about, the challenges they face, other key attributes), you’ll be able to sharpen your pencil and come up with words that mean something to them.  

Don’t message in a vacuum

If you want to understand your value to customers, talk to them. Thanks for the mind-blowing insight, Dave! Yes, it’s an obvious step to interview or survey customers, but it’s also a tempting one to skip in the interest of speed.

You can just as easily rely on a few internal conversations with others across the company that spend a lot of time in front of customers (sales, client services, other execs). Checking that internal pulse on customer value is really valuable but not a substitute for sitting down with the actually people who have decided to lay down cash for your product and asking them a few simple questions such as:

  • What ultimately made you pull the trigger to allocate budget to invest in us? To renew?
  • What differentiates us from other alternatives you explored?
  • How are you grading the success of your investment in us?

Just a few minutes with a customer will unearth tons of insight.

It begs the question, how many customers do you need to talk to? My answer: Whatever is practical given resource and time constraints. I’ve worked with larger organizations that have had the resources to conduct more scaled messaging-focused customer research initiatives. But, more often than not, compressed timelines around product launches, that big upcoming users conference — or whatever initiative might be serving to drive some urgency for a fresh look at the company’s positioning — have forced the teams into scrappy mode. In that case, even getting in front of a few customers (four to six) can be hugely illuminating. The key then is to get feedback from a smart cross-section of your customers. For example, if your customer base is 50% SMB and 50% enterprise, clearly you’ll be setting up some blindspots for the messaging development effort if you only speak to your three largest customers.

Stand-out from the competition

Whatever message or narrative you bring to market, it won’t be the only one your target prospects see. They’ll be bombarded with all kinds of words, promotions, content, and sales pitches from your competition, so you need to make sure yours is differentiated. You may feel you’ve created a strong messaging platform but if your two largest competitors are saying the same thing on their websites, you’ve got a problem.

Suffice it to say, at some point in the messaging development process, you’ll want to do conduct a basic audit of your competitors websites and core collateral. My recommendation is to NOT start the process by combing through what the competition is saying. In my experience, it risks overly constraining or biasing the process. I’d first make the rounds with customers and internal teams that spend a lot of time with them to begin forging a perspective, and then loop back to account for the competition.

Be aspirational but credible

When it comes to messaging development, you need to strike a balance between making sure it’s grounded in what the value the company credibly delivers today (based on your current product/service offering), and what you aspire to deliver tomorrow (based on near-mid product roadmap and longer-term vision).

If you strike the right balance, you’ll come across as a real strategic and visionary partner who can lead customers to the promised land. However, if your messaging isn’t sufficiently grounded in reality, you risk setting the wrong expectations with customers, creating confusion among your sales team, and losing trust with target prospects before you’ve even had a chance to earn it.

Aim for alignment, not consensus! 

If the new messaging is to have staying power, it’s key to run an inclusive process where there is real engagement from key stakeholders across the business, from the exec team to sales to product management. Of course, that ensures you get the benefit of their insights into the value you’re delivering to customers. But, just as importantly, it will ensure you get buy-in to the process you’re running and implicitly its output.

Now, once you enter the land of positioning, opinions are inexpensive and plentiful, so if whoever is quarterbacking the exercise (e.g., your product marketing lead) aims to please everyone, your messaging is destined for mediocrity (best case). You’re aim should be to get buy-in to the process, not consensus on the words used in final messaging (you’ve got a better chance of winning the lottery twice). The process needs to transparently chart out who ultimately owns the final call on messaging, which may vary depending on the nature of the initiative (new product module launch vs repositioning the company).

Take it for a test drive

If you take nothing else away from what I’ve shared here, here’s a keeper: SAY IT OUT LOUD.

Too often marketers (including me) fall into the trap of falling in love with words on paper. But, it’s only when we try to verbalize those words when we’ll know if we’re really on to something great. Does the way you’ve captured the essence of the product or company roll off the tongue, or is it painfully cumbersome? Would your target audience understand? Would they care? Would they pay attention?

Before you stamp the messaging final, there’s no better exercise for any marketer than to stand in a tradeshow booth for an afternoon, using the new messaging. If it’s not translating into words you’d comfortably use — if you find yourself reaching for other words that come more naturally, go back to the drawing board.  

The goal is to break through the noise and engage prospects who are bombarded constantly with messages and information, from morning to night. They’re numb to it all. You need to strive for “plain speak” (vs. jargon), and it’s always effective to use different or even somewhat surprising language that accurately captures the value.  

Finally, and another keeper for you -- LESS IS ALWAYS MORE. Every additional thought you attempt to build into your messaging blueprint will dilute every preceding thought. Let’s call it the law of dilution. You can either place a high-powered spotlight on a single thought or spread the wattage over multiple thoughts which will inevitably cause the light on each to become more dim.  

Next stop: positioning activation!

These are just a few deep thoughts on how to approach positioning strategy to create an impact. I should say that any discussion on positioning touches on emerging practices around category design.  But that’s a meaty topic (and a big opportunity) for another day.

For now, if you’ve applied some real rigor (including but not limited to the above suggestions) to your approach to the messaging development part of your positioning strategy, you likely already have a leg up on your competitors. Unfortunately, all that foundational messaging work will have limited impact unless you deploy it effectively. You need to take the next giant leap-- positioning activation — which we’ll explore in an upcoming post.    

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Photo: Marc Cooper