I Heard What You Said. Now What Did You Mean?

By Mike Nalls September 17, 2009

What is messaging and why bother?

Have you had the opportunity to sit through a presentation, read a document, or watch a video produced by your company that was full of information—yet, you came away wondering what it was all about?

By creating persona-based, differentiated messaging, you can communicate more effectively with your prospects, give your agency clear guidance, and save a lot of time on presentations, web design, collateral, and webcasts. Best of all, you can get some of the arguments out of the way early.

'Have you had the opportunity to sit through a presentation, read a document, or watch a video produced by your company
that was full of information - yet, you came away wandering what it was all about?'

Where do you start?

Here are a few steps to help you begin to develop differentiated messaging:

  • Collect your persona research for understanding the target audience. You may have established several personas that are involved in the process of purchasing your products. They represent the individuals who interact with your company. Identify the most influential personas that represent your prospective buyers.
  • Use your positioning document for background about customer problems, your points of differentiation, and the business benefits you offer. Your positioning document is extremely valuable to establish market drivers, competitive situation, and the results someone can expect from using your solution. It’s a key resource to develop sales tools down the road.
  • Use your “marketecture” to explain your offering to the buyers in their terms. Giving your prospects a picture they can understand helps you communicate with them. Use a diagram to provide a glimpse of your solution in a digestible form.
  • Show where you fit within the business or environment context. Research and gather the various sources of evidence, proof, and examples that support your claims. Evidence should be quoted from an external source that can be verified, as opposed to internal data that can’t be found by your prospects.
  • Finally, organize your thoughts into the key problems you can address for your audience types.
Identify your audience, purpose, and focus

When considering the target audience, prioritize the most influential personas. If you are addressing large groups, classify them by organization within a company. Think about how their needs converge in order to group or separate them. You may address many personas, but they often have enough in common to target their key needs.

Consider the reasons you are targeting them. Informing, persuading, educating, or entertaining can all be valid reasons if they help move a prospect along the path to your offer. A combination of these tactics can work in parallel or serially to help the prospect understand your benefits to them. It may sound obvious, but conducting marketing activity without knowing what you want your audience to do is a waste of time.

In the end, the key aspects of your offering that will appeal to your buyers should be your focus. It’s too easy to be distracted by product features. Here are a few tips:

  • Put yourself in your prospects’ shoes, and try to understand the results they can expect from your solution.
  • Keep the focus narrow enough to give sufficient detail, yet broad enough to be useful.
  • Don’t make prospects figure out how your features are their benefits.
  • Keep an open mind about what a solution might mean to a prospect. It can often go beyond a single product to a combination of products and services or to information that helps them solve a particular problem.
Outline the problems you address

Using your personas, positioning, and evidence as a basis, organize the key problems you address for each of the most influential buyer personas:

  • Describe the value to their business if they buy from you, emphasizing results in their terms. Use time, money, risk avoidance, and people metrics to quantify the benefits they can expect.
  • Now contrast the alternative choices—whether that is a competitor or an internal option. For example, “Unlike Company X or Product Y, we solve a problem, address a need, or improve a situation faster, cheaper, safer, or simpler.” Use all of the “first, best, only” differentiation you can claim. You may not think of your offering as the market leader, but if you look at how you are different, ride a key trend, or solve a unique need, your differentiation may become more clear.
  • Test yourself by asking how your offering is the only one to provide a relevant benefit, and fine-tune the result so you are unique.
  • Finally, identify the evidence you have (or need) to prove your claims, and make sure it’s current. Reports and benchmarks more than a year old can make a prospect wonder who the current leader may be or what the results might be with a more recent product release. If it’s important enough, run a new test, perform an audit, or conduct an assessment to establish your credibility.
Write the value proposition

Always advocate for the audience. In other words, describe what’s in it for them. They’re looking for some kind of result—not just features or facts. Begin with the benefits to them, not a description of your offering. Quantify the results in their terms.

Be clear about the problem you are solving, how your offering can help them, what advantages you bring, and how you will change their current situation. Most importantly, write a value proposition for each of your target buyers.
Consider three key points when writing your value proposition:

  • Try a storytelling approach to articulate your value. For example, “Trends in our industry have prompted an urgent need resulting in positive outcomes. Based on our experience and research in this area, we have successfully demonstrated a range of improvements.” Or, “For buyers seeking the best, we offer the only solution for _____” —filling in the blank with your industry, the prospects value drivers, desired outcome, and your advantages.
  • Value propositions that are short and to the point communicate best. Work in your points of differentiation to establish how you are unique. Quantify your claims whenever possible. When you are fortunate enough to have several strong points from which to choose, summarize the most impactful results.
  • Consider alternate value propositions with advantages that appeal to different industries and speak in their language.
Summarize the key points

Extract key thoughts and one-liners from your messaging. These become the headlines your audience will remember, your speakers will use, and your agency will rally behind. You might even find some nuggets you didn’t originally expect.

Document all your evidence:
the sources, analyst quotes, customer stories, and benchmarks. Delete the things that are too old or can’t be proven, while highlighting any claims that still require proof. With this list, you’ve got a solid foundation for your messaging that can be worked into presentations or turned into additional offers.

Explain concisely the next steps you want the prospect to take. Is it to download a whitepaper, demo your software, subscribe to your newsletter, or be contacted? Know your end game from the start. Often the next steps will mirror your sales cycle.

Now tie your offers (whitepapers, videos, calculators) to each persona.
In this way, your value proposition becomes more credible and relevant, because the evidence is unique and the offers make more sense to a prospect.

Document it

Writing it all down provides a valuable reference and resource for many people in your organization. Having one handy source for messaging eliminates searching for the material when you need it and helps prevent the tendency to rewrite things every time an organization changes.
When there is nothing in writing to review, messaging has a way of becoming an opinion, instead of an agreement.
Structure your document into an outline for a story:

  • Begin with the target audience, their business drivers, and trends in their market.
  • Move into the problems they are trying to solve in order to set up your solution.
  • State your solution in plain language.
  • Establish the value proposition that logically flows from problem to solution.
  • Spell out your key messages and your differences, and back them up with the evidence you’ve collected.
  • Finally, wrap up with the next steps you expect the prospect to take based upon the story you’ve told.
What could possibly go wrong?

It’s too hard, too complicated. No one else could do it, so how can you? Often something else is more urgent, like getting the website up quickly to meet the product launch date.

Whether it’s done at the beginning or throughout the process, you’re still going to have to identity the audiences you are addressing, what they care about, why your solution is better, and how you want your prospects to act.

The effort can get very messy and tense when it’s conducted close to an event or launch, where deadlines are tight. Common issues involve focusing on the wrong personas or adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, where you have one message for everyone. Congratulations! You have messaging, but it’s not relevant to anyone in particular. Or you are delivering a technical message to an economic buyer.

Other problems include emphasizing technology first, using your internal jargon, and listing features instead of benefits, which can leave it up to your prospects to figure out what you do for them. The more they have to think, the greater chance they will think something other than what you had in mind.

Generic, overly complicated, or “kitchen-sink” style messages have a similar effect: It’s all there, but it becomes difficult to understand. Avoid unproven claims or contradictions and ambiguity that will confuse your prospects.

Possible uses—what’s in it for you?

Gaining agreement in advance about audience, value proposition, key messages, evidence, and actions provides a number of benefits:

  • It becomes the structure for customer presentations, which cuts down on reviews and revisions.
  • Audience-oriented messaging is the source for online targeting and website organization. It is frequently used to create webcasts covering the top problems and your solution for each persona.
  • You can use messaging to provide agency direction, drive field execution, and identify industry priorities in segmentation efforts.
  • It provides a strong foundation to provide internal speaker guidance, create your elevator pitch, and develop marketing plans.
  • Best of all, it cuts down on internal arguments, external mixed messages, missed deadlines, and compromised launch schedules.
Messaging in the real world

At my company, we recently had a major software product announcement where the availability of clear messaging had a significant impact on the team’s ability to execute.

In the last few weeks prior to launch, all of the supporting teams had hit a wall. The web team didn’t have a launch banner headline, but they had plenty of technical content. The PR team had a press release, but it was missing the lead to the story. Sales needed positioning to complete a training module. Other supporting agencies were on hold pending key messages to start their work.

The impact went on and on, including executive presentations, analyst briefings, collateral production, even extending to bloggers who were waiting for the party line.

What broke the logjam was a messaging document containing positioning, key messages, evidence, and value proposition. From that point, each team could move forward with its work.

Even worse than the pressures of last-minute messaging are the consequences of no messaging. Without consistent messaging, each team will often make up its own story—resulting in conflicting information getting out in the market. When that happens, a competitor with a clear message has an opportunity to override you. The vendor with conflicting stories typically gets overlooked.

It’s what you mean that counts

Strong messaging starts with the personas that give you a feel for your target audiences. And positioning outlines your differentiated value for them.

Value that is stated in the audience’s terms is meaningful. It becomes impactful when combined with your unique offer.
The result is a message that can be spoken by your executives, field organization, and partners. Use it to structure all of your marketing efforts and materials.

Remember: It’s not so much what you say as what you mean that gets results.

Mike Nalls

Mike Nalls

Mike Nalls markets software for Sun Microsystems, where he communicates the value of market-leading products to businesses, developers, and IT departments worldwide. This marketing team has taken an extremely broad portfolio of technologies and organized them into field campaigns for their audiences and industries. As a result, there is a story to tell in language a prospect will act on, creating demand for Sun’s software. Email Mike at michael.nalls@sun.com.

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