But chances are, you're a very busy person who doesn't need more work. The thought of creating a huge messaging strategy might seem useless at best and reckless at worst, given all the other stuff that needs to get done.
The scary thing is, startups and early-stage companies are the most vulnerable to weak messaging. They don't have buffers like strong brand awareness and customer mind share to protect sales against a stinky burp of weak messaging.
As a relatively new player, it's almost impossible to compete in a crowded market without meaningful messaging. Adding to the challenge, small teams are short on time and expertise. This makes overly-complex strategies impossible to execute (and much more likely to end up in a Google Drive graveyard).
We’re gonna break that cycle. At least when it comes to your messaging strategy.
The most economical way for a small company to move the needle on its messaging is to focus on developing and testing these two things:
A positioning story
A clear value proposition
When you don't have time to do everything, start with these two elements of messaging. This is where organizations with small teams can get a major bang for their buck.
Positioning is a strategic set of answers to what your product is, who it serves, why it's unique, and its value for a specific audience.
Warning: Strong positioning takes guts.
To reference the modern positioning master April Dunford, positioning is the act of defining how you are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about.
Positioning builds context for your product. For example, calling your product an ‘email marketing platform’ sets up automatic expectations in the mind of your customer. Customers make important assumptions about what your product does. Do these expectations work for you or against you? You can see how a few simple words matter a lot to your messaging.
Positioning can help reduce competition by differentiating your product from others in a category. ConvertKit is a real-life example of this. Instead of calling the product an email marketing platform, they doubled down on ‘email marketing for creators.’ This strategy has been core to their success. Focusing on creators frees ConvertKit from competing against every email marketing platform out there. Instead, they built a product that's the best at meeting the email marketing needs of creators.
Of course, your product strategy should align tightly with your positioning and deliver on its promise.
Effective positioning "positions" your product advantageously, relative to your competitors and other alternative solutions. It takes the mental burden off your customers to figure out what you do and who you’re for.
Step 1: Prioritize your best customers
This is where positioning takes guts.
Many companies, especially those in the early stages, aren’t comfortable lopping off entire audience segments.
“We’re for everyone.”
“We don’t want to limit our audience.”
“We don’t want to push anyone away.”
The truth is, by talking to everyone, you increase the risk of being remembered by no one.
New or smaller companies should consider serving a smaller segment of a category really, really well. Be the best. Get a toe-hold, then expand. Remember, Salesforce started as a CRM for small businesses.
Your best customers are those who ‘get it’ right away. The users who rave about your product and evangelize to their own networks. You can find out who these people are with customer interviews. You want more of these people! Why waste time and money on convincing the inconvincible?
If you can't eliminate any customer personas, that's ok. Just make sure it's a data-driven decision, not one based on FOMO.
Step 2: Call your product something meaningful
Knowing who your best customers are will influence how/when/if you niche down within a category. Back to the ConvertKit example. In 2013, ConvertKit entered the highly saturated email marketing platform market. Did they bill themselves as an email marketing platform and leave it at that?
ConvertKit narrowed down to call their product the email marketing tool for creators. This became a powerful differentiator in the already-crowded email marketing space—the whole point of positioning.
ConvertKit's product development matched their niche. By not trying to serve everyone, they’re able to meet the needs of creatives better than anyone else. They can’t do everything MailChimp or ActiveCampaign can, but they wear this proudly because they do very specific things BETTER.
Again, the description you give your product sets up an automatic list of comparisons in your customers’ minds (h/t to April Dunford). Make sure to set up comparisons that work to your advantage and help you stand out.
Step 3: Pick a fight
Who’s your competition?
An interesting positioning story begins with your answer to this question.
It’s logical to assume your competitors are your biggest competition, right? The other solutions in your space. But as a relatively new solution, battling against category leaders can be an expensive way to ensure failure. Category leaders have too much customer mindshare. In many cases, newcomers shouldn't go head-to-head on features and value against established players.
Instead, take a closer look at how your target customers complete relevant tasks today. What does the status quo look like for them?
By picking a fight with customer status quo vs. your competitors, you position your product against the ‘old way of life.’ This is often the smarter approach with new products.
Common examples of customer status quo in B2B tech include:
Too much manual work
Keeping track of data in spreadsheets
Cobbling together multiple solutions
Talk to your customers and find out how they suffer in their daily grind.
By picking a fight with the status quo instead of your direct competitors, you help your own solution stand out and free your product from undesirable comparisons to existing solutions.
Step 4: Make a promise
Now that you’ve identified your best customers, picked a category or subcategory to dominate, and identified the biggest problem for your customers, it’s time to think about your promise.
What does success look like for your customers? What does your product help them achieve? Your product should help them undergo a transformation. We’re still not ready to talk about features or make it about your product. The promise should paint a picture of life free from the struggles of whatever the status quo looks like. For example, if the status quo means wasting time hunting for data in multiple places, your promise could be some variation of everything all in one place.
Prioritize your best customers
Call your product something meaningful
Pick a fight
Make a promise
Caution! In the beginning, avoid relying on fill-in-the-blank positioning statement templates. These statements are easy to fill out because they don't force businesses to think about the right answers. Do the hard work first, then pack it up into a nice, simple statement for internal communications.
2. Create a compelling value proposition
A value proposition transforms all the hard work you did in the positioning exercise into a clear statement.
The value proposition:
Explains your product’s value
Clarifies why customers should choose you over the competition
Your value proposition is one of the hardest-working elements of your marketing strategy.
Let's look at some examples.
Show it. Say it. Send it.
Record quick videos of your screen and cam. An essential tool for hybrid workplaces.
Loom's internal positioning story might be something like:
In today’s hybrid work world, getting everyone together for one meeting is harder than ever. People need a better, faster way to share ideas. Loom helps people share more ideas in less time.
They could then use this story to create the value proposition for their website.
Slack is your digital HQ
Transform the way you work with one place for everyone and everything you need to get stuff done.
One app to replace them all.
All of your work in one place: Tasks, Docs, Goals, & more.
Notice how Slack and ClickUp pick a fight against the status quo of having too many systems for communication or projects. They're positioning against the old way of life for their customers, not other competitors. They promise an easier way of working with everything all in one place.
Write your value proposition
Here’s the best ‘how to write a value proposition' guide I’ve ever seen, from CXL.
Positioning sets the scene. Think of the opening shot of a movie. It sets up a world for the characters. The first 30 seconds of a movie aren’t filler. They’re the culmination of intentional, strategic decisions made by filmmakers to bring viewers into the characters’ world. That’s what positioning does. By making a series of strategic decisions, you create and describe a world where your customers struggle. You can see how positioning drives your value proposition, because your value proposition is how you save them.
Value propositions are customer-facing. Positioning on its own is not. Positioning will drive how you tell your story in all of your marketing, but you don’t need to wear your copywriter hat when designing your story.
Good products deserve good messaging
Nothing is easy or fast when it comes to messaging. But when you're just getting started or doing things yourself, you can cut the fluff and concentrate on pulling levers that lead to the biggest impact on customers. If you’re not ready for a 25-page document of brand messaging guidelines and instead want to focus on what matters the most for driving results, focus on creating your positioning story and value proposition. You'll be way ahead. Especially when many other time-crunched companies skip these steps entirely.
Want feedback on your messaging? I offer a low-investment, one-hour strategy session that helps B2B tech companies understand what to keep or cut from their messaging today (plus any good stuff that's missing). Book your session here, or send me an email.
Annie Obergefell is a B2B messaging & brand voice strategist, copywriter, and founder of Copy Salt. Her specialties include brand messaging and voice development for clients, advertising agencies, and consultancies.
Have a brand messaging, voice, or content project? Let's talk.