The Art of Product Messaging

By Abdul Rastagar September 06, 2017

"Words are free; it’s how you use them that may cost you. –Author Unknown"

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One of your primary responsibilities is to own how your product is perceived. And unless you actively define what your product stands for, customers will assign their own meaning to it. Or worse, they will allow your competition to shape their perception.

Unfortunately, in the hectic rush to launch on time, too often teams spend virtually all their time on product development. Downstream planning becomes an afterthought, executed as a check-box exercise that happens just prior to, or even after, launch. It is little wonder that messages are often inconsistent, confusing, contradictory or just plain wrong. Simply put, your words matter. Whether customers perceive a product as good, rather than great, is often the result of product messaging.

Developing the right messaging requires significant effort and resources. It is not simply jotting down the top three to five features and expecting your marketing department to own it from there. Yet, this happens all too frequently. Rather than focusing on your product’s functionality, your messaging needs to be closely tailored to your audience’s key needs, differentiated from your competitors and focused on business benefits. While there is no one universally accepted format, there are best practices that should guide you.

Tailor Your Messaging

It should go without saying that messaging needs to target your audience. The trick is knowing who your audience is and what their needs are. “But I know who my audience is,” you say? Perhaps you are correct. Chances are, you spent a fair amount of time talking to them as you developed your product. But the real question is, do you know who the decision-makers are?

It’s tempting to focus on end users because they are the people you’ve been building the product for. As a consequence, messaging often becomes feature-centric, with too much emphasis on the details of specific functionality. But beware. Often, buyers and users are two entirely different sets of people and their underlying buying motivations can differ drastically.

For instance, consider the buying criteria of the corporate procurement department vs. the criteria of your users. One will focus on cost, while the other will be biased toward usability. To complicate matters, myriad additional stakeholders may be involved as well, including IT, compliance and so forth. Clearly, you cannot—and should not—try to develop messaging to all of these diverse groups at once. It is imperative that you identify the right decision-making audience and tailor your messaging to their needs.

Identify Differentiation Points

A great litmus test for determining message differentiation: Remove all of the names, brands and logos from your competition’s marketing collateral and from your own. If you can’t tell the difference between your messaging and theirs, how can you expect your customers to tell them apart?

When buyers see the same language on multiple, competing sales presentations, they will assume each product is the same and simply make their buying decision based on the lowest price. For this reason, competitive differentiation is of the utmost importance.

Unfortunately, differentiating your message is not necessarily a straightforward exercise, since you cannot control what your competitors claim. Ideally, you will want to identify three unique differentiation points. Here again, it is tempting to default to product features as differentiators. However, customers have a broader and multifarious perspective. What’s more, as we saw earlier, functionality isn’t always the top priority for decision-makers. Think beyond product functionality. Concepts such as vendor reputation, financial stability, a track record of compliance, an extensive peer network, access to unique data sets, total cost of ownership and more can be part of your differentiated messaging.

Focus on Business Benefits

For product teams who spend a lot of time developing new products, it can be difficult to accept that prospective buyers rarely make purchasing decisions based on features. How can this be? After all, they constantly ask about it during demos, on RFPs and at presentations, so it is easy to assume that functionality is their primary concern.

The reality is far more complex. What they are doing is vetting that your product meets their basic functional needs. However, this is only one aspect of a far more heterogeneous buying decision—one that is influenced by a multitude of different, and sometimes competing, factors. Product-centric messaging, therefore, will likely miss the mark. Instead, focus the message on business benefits. How will your solution move the prospect’s business forward? What is the ROI? Will it lower costs or drive revenue? Will it enable compliance? The point is to focus on the business outcome your buyer can expect.

Note that the focus on business outcomes applies even if your target audience is technology buyers. The IT department does not purchase technology for the sake of owning technology; there is an underlying business motivation that compels it to seek a solution (protecting the company, cost control, supporting the business, etc.)

Getting It Right

Another common challenge is when to develop your messaging. A key mistake is to defer thinking about messaging until late into product development, when you are consumed with meeting launch deadlines and can’t dedicate the necessary time to get it right. In fact, the conversation should happen much earlier. If you know you are going to build something and you know what problem it solves, you are ready to think about your market messaging.

Getting it right also means that you need to convene a team of experts who understand your market and customers. Typically, this includes gathering sales, solutions consultants, marketing, services, strategy and anyone else with a strong market perspective for a comprehensive, multi-day discussion.

Rather than starting the conversation with your product, focus on understanding the external factors: the market landscape, your customers’ current and evolving needs, the competitive situation and any other tangential business drivers that may impact your customers’ lives. Once you have a holistic understanding, you can begin to map your product capabilities against customer business needs and outcomes (with a keen eye toward competitive differentiation.)

The next vital step is to road test your messaging externally. This can be done using a paid market-research study or a set of close and trusted partners. Often, you’ll find that third parties have a different perspective that you may not have fully considered.

And as your sales team rolls out the new messaging to select or beta clients, be sure you have a seat at the table so that you can understand how customers react. Be prepared to continue to refine your messaging in the early phases as you gather feedback. This is why it is important to develop your messaging well in advance of the full product launch.

Own the Message

Message development is not a quick, ad hoc exercise; it requires a more dedicated and structured approach. Few individuals have a greater stake in getting your product to succeed than you do. Assigning meaning to your product is too important to be left to the whim of others. Your partners in marketing and sales can help shape the message, but ultimately, the product team must own this vital aspect of product, just as you own the roadmap.

Check out more articles from this issue of Pragmatic Marketer.

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Abdul Rastagar

Abdul Rastagar

Abdul Rastagar is a B2B marketer, fierce customer advocate, digital and future enthusiast, and an all-around curious guy. When not expounding about all things marketing, he can usually be found outside climbing trees with his kids. Connect with Abdul at www.linkedin.com/in/rastagar.

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