Every startup needs to develop messaging. It’s a process which the company will go through several times during its growth trajectory. For many, it may conjure images of introspective meetings searching for the ‘mot juste’. In others, the process reveals distinct differences among the management team about the company mission, vision and proposition. Get it right and you have a common framework for marketing and sales to articulate the brand and its value to all stakeholders – prospects, customers, employees, investors and partners.
To help the process, here are some guiding principles we find useful and more specifically some pitfalls to avoid.
Be flexible – the messaging is important and must be precise – and it will likely change. The market will move, competitors will copy your messaging, the proposition will evolve. So ensure the structure can adapt. Understand there will be diminishing returns from diving too deeply into each facet since it may get outdated quickly.
Build momentum – move through the process and keep to a timeline. Getting the messaging right can be energizing, and to do that you need momentum and consensus.
Listen – those involved want to be heard. Even if their views are not included in the final messaging framework, most execs will adopt the outcome provided their input was properly captured. Talk to customers to understand their decision-making and hear the words they use to describe the proposition and benefits. There’s rarely time for extensive research but hearing from the buyer is invaluable if you want more of them.
These may sound obvious but keeping the project moving in an adaptable and empathetic way will often mean all the stakeholders buy in. That’s what you want. We’ve found that bringing in a third party – perhaps from the VC, a marketing firm or consultant can provide the objectivity, the driving force and the diplomacy necessary to get the messaging over the line. That’s not to say it can’t be done in-house, it’s just a more visceral process sometimes since everyone is close to it and emotionally / financially involved.
Now let’s take a look at a few of the common pitfalls in message development. They broadly fit into three categories about the process itself, the vocabulary, and the credibility of the final result.
This is the easiest to get right and the most common breakdown. Think through who should be involved and ensure it’s a cross-section so all parts of the business have a voice. Be clear who is a contributor and who is the decision-maker. Making it too democratic can lead to friction or indecision. Messaging can involve choices, so prevarication or changing direction mid-flow will bog the process down. We’ve seen the existential crisis which can stem from decisions about what the company aims to become. That’s not a great path to go down.
Equally moving through the process too quickly can be uncomfortable. It takes time for new messaging to set. Let key stakeholders live with the wording for a while, and give them time to digest the implications. It needs to become second nature, so moving to the implementation phase before it’s properly baked can be premature. The risk here in forcing it, is that the messaging isn’t adopted, making the whole exercise moot.
Words matter – that’s rather the point. The challenge comes in selecting the right register, tone and technicality. Typically startups use technical terms to describe their proposition. Elevating the specific wording understood by only certain target audiences to the top level means everyone else will bounce off. Up-leveling the messaging loses specificity which can be uncomfortable to some – the tradeoff is a wider comprehension of the core message.
Equally, going too high level might make the messaging undifferentiated. My sushi restaurant specializing in local line-caught fish shouldn’t just be ‘takeout food’.
Beware using your own vernacular which others don’t understand. This normally revolves around the category creation discussion. The thinking goes that if you can define your own category, and be the leader of it, that will increase demand and valuation. It’s a nuanced debate but in general, few companies have a category-defining innovation or the resources to create one. Regardless, try to describe the company in terms which are meaningful to the audience, not your own colloquialisms.
“Honestly, we have no real competitors. I know people often say that but in this case it’s true.” This is a bad starting point for messaging. It means you haven’t done enough market research or are looking too narrowly at the competitive set. If the customer doesn’t spend with you, who do they spend with? That’s your competitor, even if it’s a fundamentally different technology. So yogurts and fruit both compete for your kids’ dessert even though they are in different aisles of the supermarket. Once you have the competitive set, you can start to frame messaging which is distinct and will resonate.
Another credibility issue arises when marketing messaging gets ahead of product performance. Don’t claim feature capabilities which the product cannot deliver. It might create the appearance of competitive parity in the short term, but customers will soon notice. How can they not? This can happen when product marketing isn’t close enough to the actual customer experience and the company starts to market futures. Many sectors have a competitor marketing ‘vaporware’ – so it’s not uncommon but it will drill a hole in your credibility.
Both of these can be addressed by keeping the marketing grounded in the experience of your customers. They like the product – so capture why and find others by clearly explaining it.
Messaging is just the beginning
Message development is hard. But it doesn’t need to be painful or all-consuming. Let the process run and allow the new messaging to emerge. Once you have the message framework set – it’s time to get it out there. And that’s a whole different challenge.
Morgan McLintic is the founder of Firebrand. With over 25 years’ experience in the tech sector, he advises clients about their marketing and PR strategy. Prior to Firebrand, he was the founder of digital communications agency, LEWIS in the US, growing it to 250 staff and $35m revenue.