Let’s do a quick and dirty exercise: Go to your office’s kitchen. Wait for the first person on your team to come along. While he or she innocently make coffee, ask them:
What does our product do?
Then ask – if our customers buy and use our product, how do their lives change? What do we promise them?
Got your answers? Great. Now, repeat this process with two more people.
Our guess is that you got three different answers. Surprised? We’re not. It is very common, especially for startups, to have messaging misalignment. We have watched three co-founders, who have been sharing the same desk for over a year, wrestle with disbelief as they realize each of them is actually working in a completely different startup.
The way you communicate about your product is critical to your success. Eventually it’s about sales and how you project your value to your potential customers. But there’s no way you can conquer marketing and sales without internalizing your messaging. Your team should be speaking in one succinct voice before they can project it. That voice is unique not only to your product, but to your company’s DNA. Achieving this voice, and having it shared across the company, is not easy, to say the least. In this article, we’d like to offer a methodology we developed that helps startups define messaging. It’s called the Messaging Hierarchy.
Essentially, a Messaging Hierarchy is a method that helps crystallize the company’s positioning. The Messaging Hierarchy is the foundation for all content written – whether a website, a brochure, or a sales presentation. If you get the Messaging Hierarchy right, you have a document that supports any marketing or sales effort. It is your true north.
Here’s the structure – and an example – of a basic Messaging Hierarchy:
Why is it a hierarchy? The idea is that the more you move up the pyramid, components are more flexible and tend to change. At the bottom, there is the product or service description. In some cases, below the product description, there is a company description and the company’s values. But for startups, the product description is usually a good place to start.
What’s a good product description? Here’s one for a product most of us know well:
Cloud-based applications for sales, service, marketing, and more.
That is Salesforce’s product description, taken straight from the Salesforce website. The interesting thing is that this description hasn’t changed for years.While the product evolved tremendously, the core and purpose haven’t changed. That’s how you should strive to define your product. It sounds easy, but in truth – it rarely is.
Next, you define your value proof. Value proof is what makes your customers trust you. For a startup in seed, this is a bit harder. But you can talk about the great team you’ve assembled, patents pending, or the testimonial from your design partner. You would use this section for all your marketing and sales. And don’t be shy.
Back to the Salesforce example, here’s what they say as their value proof:
The world’s #1 CRM platform with 150,000+ like-minded companies and a massive community of experts and evangelists committed to your company’s growth.
You can’t really argue with 150,000+ customers. If they trust them, you can too.
Now, that’s a bit tricker. Startups, especially the more technological ones, tend to talk about product features instead of talking about a real differentiator. Ask yourself – what do I have that my competitors will have a hard time replicating? That’s why your customer will pick you over the competition. It’s rarely about the technology. It’s something that touches your customer’s pain or need.
Salesforce say: We don’t require IT experts to set up or manage.
Overtime we get to know our customers really well. And as we get to know them, we understand what troubles them – and how we can support them. And our answer to “why us?” may change. We should be able to convey the answer to where we are right now based on what we know.
So much has been talked about the term “value proposition.” We want to simplify what it means. The value proposition is your promise to your customers. It should essentially answer one question: If your customer uses your product, how would their lives change?
It’s a big question, and not lightly answered.
What the value proposition is NOT is a tagline.
Before everything else, it is a clear explanation for your reason to be. We help our customers discover new trails to success using the #1 CRM platform is how Salesforce project their value proposition in their marketing materials. Two years ago, it was:
We empower companies to connect to their customers in a whole new way. What made sense then, does not make sense today.
It’s not copy – or it doesn’t have to be. It’s the documentation on which great copy can be developed.
It’s a marketing brief. Give it to anyone who writes for you, and you make their job easier and more effective.
It can be tailored and adjusted per product, or per persona. The initial work is just the basics.
And what’s most important: It should be created by your entire team – and then shared with them. It’s not a painless process, but it’s worth it. We’ve seen many startups thrive on their messaging hierarchy. Oh, and the right time to create it – was yesterday.