Defining a compelling messaging strategy is one of the most important tasks a marketing director working for a technology service provider (TSP) in B-to-B has to tackle. But it is also one of the most challenging ones. In fact, Gartner recently noted, “TSPs must capture and retain the attention of prospective buyers, communicating the value that can be obtained through their solutions. But in today’s noisy market, where those buyers are continuously bombarded with messages across multiple channels, the window in which to show relevance is small. Consequently, companies struggle to create messaging that resonates and clearly conveys what makes their products and services the best option”.
So here is a list of 9 tips or best practices on how to create more compelling messaging strategies for TSPs which I hope you’ll find valuable and helpful. And in case you are wondering what gives me the expertise and authority to create and provide this best-practice list, I’ll provide the answer at the end of this article.
So let’s jump right in.
- Start with a clear and differentiating positioning platform. A positioning platform and a messaging strategy are obviously not the same. A positioning platform captures the unique position a brand wants to occupy in the mind of its prospects and is an internal, not customer-facing document. A messaging strategy is customer-facing language (though advertising, marketing material, sales presentations, CRM, the website, etc.) that highlights the brand’s value, benefits and points of differentiation and that is designed to create interest among potential customers. And while having a clearly defined positioning platform seems obvious, I often find that this is not the case for many organizations. When talking to the different stakeholders inside an organization, something I typically do when I start a new project (product teams, sales, marketing, the CEO and CTO, customer success team, engineers, etc.) I often find that everyone has a slightly different opinion and perception of what the brand does, what is unique about it and what it should stand for in the mind of the brand’s prospects. A clearly defined positioning platform will align everyone internally, guide all future product and marketing/sales activities and provide a solid platform for a compelling messaging strategy. The two work hand in hand (even though a messaging strategy may change more often) and are often developed together (at least in my projects).
- Create a range of messages rather than just one or two: Historically, messaging strategies were used by packaged good companies to identify the most relevant “selling point” to communicate in mass communication (often TV or print). The focus there was on identifying 1 core message (or unique selling proposition) to focus your marketing communication on. In technology, focusing on just one point of differentiation doesn’t make much sense as the needs and decision-making criteria used by prospects are typically more complex. In my experience, the best messaging strategies include anywhere between 6 to 10 messages which together check all the boxes your prospects are looking for. Each message is strong enough to create interest among prospects and together they provide a value proposition that is bigger than the sum of its parts. A good sign that the different elements of your messaging strategy are compelling and work well together is when the research respondent is so intrigued by the messaging language he is supposed to react to in the research that he mentions unprompted that he’ll reach out to this company.
- Focus on your customers’ needs and pain-points in addition to your product performance. The natural tendency when developing a messaging strategy is to want to talk about the product and how great it is. And there is nothing wrong with that, if indeed your product is significantly better and customers can actually experience or measure that difference. However, clear and obvious product superiority is often difficult to achieve and claim in technology. Further product performance is generally not all your customers care about. Corporate buyers tell me over and over that a product that performs better than competition is worthless if it is either extremely difficult to implement or if the intended users refuse to actually use it. I would even bet that every corporate IT buyer has purchased a solution in his career that was never actually used because of the reasons mentioned above. Learning about your customers pain-points and their needs as well as the context in which they have to make decisions (other people involved in the decision or in using the solution, corporate preferences for broader solution versus point products, etc.) will allow you to identify messages that strike a cord with your potential customers because they address real issues they are trying to solve and for which they are looking for a solution.
- Don’t ignore the “intangibles”. As human beings we are often overwhelmed by the amount of information we are absorbing every day. So to cope, we use short-cuts to filter through this information.Typical examples in technology would be Gartner’s Magic Quadrant and peer recommendations, which are often the starting point of many purchase decisions and customer journeys. Those are short-cuts buyers use to sift through all the information and narrow down their choices. In the same vain, technology companies might be able to leverage intangible attributes that can help them stand out. This can be the company’s origin story, or a special type of application (is your technology used by NASA for example?) or any less tangible messaging element. In the world of technology, it is easy to ignore these “softer” points of differentiation and they will typically not be the primary reasons your product will be purchased, but I’ve seen over and over again how these intangible attributes can help enhance the appeal of the brand overall, add credibility to the other messaging elements and help your brand differentiate itself (beyond the product performance).
- Translate your benefits into issues that are relevant to your prospective buyer. A developer or an engineer will respond to a very different type of language than a department head or business executive. Further, while technology is important, it is often not on the radar of the C-Suite or the executive team unless it is directly connected to the executive team’s key strategic priorities. As such, and depending on who you are trying to attract, a compelling messaging strategy often connects technical strengths to business value and elevates product features and attributes to themes and issues that are relevant and top priorities with the C-suite’s or key buyers.
- Make it a joint effort between the sales, marketing and product development. Developing a messaging strategy is typically the job of the marketing team. But the best results come from involving both the sales team and the product development. The sales team is typically at the front line of prospect interactions and the insights and knowledge gained from sales calls (both good and bad) is usually invaluable to the process. The product team obviously can help you crystalize the language and validate some of the product claims you are trying to come up but also show you the boundaries of what the product can do. Because of that, the process I typically recommend includes a round of stakeholder interviews of all the key players within the organization as this provides the most complete internal picture of the company while making everyone feel involved in the process (a prerequisite for the internal adoption of the new messaging strategy).
- Talk to your potential customers. Recruiting the CFO of AWS or the CTO of Daimler is not cheap. It is possible and there are services that will do that for you, but it isn’t cheap and I’ve often seen organizations trying to avoid this step due to the costs involved. Alternatively, they may try to use a prospects list that they already have to save on the recruiting costs. I am not quite sure why, but in my experience this never yields the type of respondents you want. I’ve also learned that talking to prospects should be an essential part of developing a messaging strategy. To understand their frame of mind, pain-points, priorities, knowledge of the category and the different players in it and to get initial feedback to your messaging strategy allowing you to finetune and sharpen it. Talking to your potential customers will enable you to cut through all the category language and claims and focus on what really matters to your customers. The good news is that you don’t have to talk to hundreds of them to get valid and actionable insights. Anywhere between 12 to 20 will typically be enough. In my projects, I typically do 2 rounds of research. The first one to learn and validate initial hypotheses on what the messaging strategy could be. These results from the first round are then used to finetune the language and arguments and again validated during a second round of research.
- Talk to your current customers. A messaging strategy is usually designed to attract new customers and should therefore appeal to them. However, talking to your current customers and running your messaging strategy ideas by them is equally important. For one, they will tell you if your messaging is consistent with the experience they have with you (which it needs to be as prospects will reach out to them before they reach out to you) but they might also help you identify attributes for your messaging strategy that you may not have thought about or thought of as being important enough to communicate. While talking to current customers of a recent client we, for example, identified a specific point of differentiation in his offering that those customers perceived as extremely important and very specific to this client that the client hadn’t really thought about (or did naturally). This highly relevant point of differentiation would never have emerged if we hadn’t talked to current customers.
- Beware of your advertising agency’s recommendation. My objective with this point is not to dis your agency, or any advertising agency for that matter. In fact, I’ve worked for ad agencies for many years and some do some amazing work. However, I have also noticed that you can immediately tell when a technology company has had the help of its advertising agency in developing its messaging strategy. It will use big words, often superlatives and generally tries to associate the brand with some kind big emotions (control, freedom, security, peace of mind, etc.). They will tell you about the need to connect emotionally with your audience, to be culturally relevant and to differentiate yourself beyond product features through emotions. But your customers, or potential customers will tell you something very different. They will call BS on your messaging claims and tell you that they just want to know what problem your product can help them solve and why, rather than what kind of emotional connection you want to create with them. Listen to them, not your ad agency.
Based on my experience, following these 9 best-practices will enable you to develop a messaging strategy that works hard at creating interest from prospective clients while allowing you to differentiate yourself from your competitors.
So to come back to the question asked earlier in this article? What gives me the authority to write this list? Good question. The development of positioning strategies and messaging strategies is the heart of my business and an important part of the services we provide at brand consultancy First The Trousers Then The Shoes Inc.. Over the course of my career I have developed over 100 brand positioning platforms and messaging strategies in a whole variety of categories including technology. This experience prompted me to create a unique approach and methodology in form of method cards that is already used by thousands of strategists around the world.
So if you ever need help to develop or finetune your positioning platform and/or messaging strategy, I’d love to talk to you.
Please check out my new book, “The Brand Positioning Workbook: A Simple How-To Guide To More Compelling Positionings, Faster“, available on Amazon around the world as Ebook, Paperback and Hardcover.
Mark Jenson, lecturer at the University of MInnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication describes it as “hands down the best book on brand positioning since Ries & Trout introduced this concept many years ago”. Jill Baskin, CMO @Hershey’s says “This book is packed with easy-to-follow exercises that guarantee a compelling brand positioning. Lots of helpful examples and blessedly free of marketing catchphrases. Highly recommend”.