Minimum Viable Messaging for Startups

Few things make a content developer (aka writer) happier than a complete product messaging roadmap. For details, see What the Writer Wants from a Product Messaging Document. We know that content development and review cycles will be smooth sailing if there’s a well-developed product messaging map at the start.

But as with any rule, there’s an exception – the early stage startup.

Product messaging is critical in any business, start-ups included. But in an early startup, product messaging has a shorter shelf life than a peach in summer.

In the early stages of a product or solution’s life, messaging is bound to change, no matter how much work and research you’ve put into the messaging process.

What’s your minimum viable product messaging?
In The Lean Startup, Eric Reis recommends coming out with a minimum viable product and seeing how the market reacts. This protects you from spending a time (and money) on the wrong strategy.

Marketing teams can take a similar approach, even when the solution is ready for production. Come up with a minimum viable messaging platform, then test and perfect it based on its reception.

The elements of the minimum viable messaging map
An ideal messaging document is concise, so you can change it easily. Most startups go out the gate with the messages that their founders and investors feel are most important. If those messages don’t resonate with buyers, you want to know quickly.

The startup messaging map includes all of the main points of the standard product messaging map in a condensed version. Doing research is good, but experience with real customers is better.

Here’s what the product messaging map might look like for a startup:

  • Target markets/buyers: Start with just one or two, and assume there are others you don’t know about yet.
  • Key pains addressed or problems solved: Identify the key issues you’re trying to address and what people are doing about them now. Continue to listen to the market to validate those pains. Your solution may solve problems you don’t even know about. Did Apple know that the iPad would be a hit with octogenarians? No, but my mother is one of its biggest fans.
  • Top benefits: Identify what you think the top two or three benefits are, then let early customers tell you what they think based on their actions. They may surprise you.
  • Competitive differentiators and unique value proposition: Start small and test the messaging about why you’re different. Things you think are critical may be unimportant to customers.
  • Key features: Choose a few essential features and see which are most interesting or important to early users.

Put the most energy into testing the target market and top benefits. The key features and value propositions depend heavily on the value that people perceive they are getting from the solution.

You can track what people think about your messaging in several ways:

  • Use your content:  structure the website by benefits and features, and track where people click and read.
  • Track which kinds of content they download from your site or which blogs they read.
  • If you have insight into product usage, identify which features people are using.
  • Use customer research for additional insight.

Be ready to rewrite and revise the content produced in the early days, because it almost always changes. Revision isn’t a sign that you failed in your messaging – it’s a sign that you’re learning.

If you have other strategies for handling messaging in the fast-changing start-up world, please share them in the comments.

Content Marketing: Past, present and future

Want an illustration of how far content marketing has come as a practice? I was at a wedding a few weeks back, speaking with someone who does video for brands. Just to try it out, I described myself as a “long form written content developer” and he knew what I meant.

I’m not a writer anymore, I’m a long form written content developer. Try to tweet that!

How far we’ve come
When I started this blog more than five years ago, I had to define the term “content marketing” to people when I met them. Now it’s one of the hottest topics in marketing. See the Google Trends graph for content marketing in the last five years.

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Content Marketing World is in its fourth year as a content marketing conference. It had more than 2,500 attendees this year.

Content is part of many job titles: Director of Content Strategy, Chief Content Officer, Content Marketing Manager, etc. Content marketing is mainstream.

Where we’re going
On one end of the spectrum, some marketers feel left behind by all the hype. At a marketing meetup in San Francisco a while back, someone asked me in hushed tones, “What does content marketing really mean?”

I gave her a quick answer – it’s about understanding what your prospects and customers need and then making sure you can help them at all points of their journey with content. If you’re in this camp and want a fuller explanation, I’d recommend that you read Joe Pulizzi’s book Epic Content Marketing. I’ll review that in a blog soon.

On the other end of the spectrum are the expert practitioners who use content not just to drive sales, but also to add value to their brands and solutions. These people understand that content is itself an asset of value.

For inspiring examples, see this blog that Michael Brenner posted recently about branded content hubs that are becoming valued destinations: 20 Amazing Examples of Branded Content Marketing Hubs.

In these examples, content marketing does more than simply driving leads through a sales cycle – it is adding value to the overall brand and strengthening relationships with existing customers. And that, in my humble opinion, is where the future of content marketing leads.

What’s your True Story? (Book review)

truestory-coverDavid Meerman Scott’s New Rules of Marketing and PR came out in 2007, which seems like a lifetime ago. Now it’s a “marketing classic.” As the world continues to evolve, marketers need to be lifelong learners to stay current.

In the interests of continuous learning, I’ve been reading a wide range of books and want to share the more interesting ones here. Ty Montague’s book True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business is a good place to look for marketing inspiration.

While marketers everywhere realize the importance of storytelling, Montague suggests that we take it further, committing instead to Storydoing™.

The strategy requires an organization to craft its own metastory. Doing so requires a deep understanding of the participants and the stage, as well as the business’ own capabilities. The fourth key component of the metastory is the “quest” – or the higher purpose of a company beyond simply making money.

To move from storytelling to storydoing, you need to let the metastory guide actions. The book offers illustrative stories of the theory in practice for inspiration.

The key takeaways are relevant to every marketing organization:

• Make sure you truly understand your prospects and market participants.
• Honestly assess your own capabilities and personality.
• Have a vision or purpose – and make sure it’s authentic.
• Let that purpose and story inform your messages and actions.

For another inspiring book, see the earlier post on Empowerment Marketing discussing Jonah Sach’s Winning the Story Wars.

Content marketing and online courseware

Content marketing aims to educate and inform. And what’s more educational, at scale, than Massively Open Online Courseware (MOOC)?

I was struck by the content marketing possibilities of online courseware after completing an online class on Sustainability and Business Innovation presented by Peter Graf, former Chief Sustainability Officer for SAP, on the OpenSAP platform.

Fake diploma by gadgetdude, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  gadgetdude 

The class had all the hallmarks of traditional courses, including lectures, quizzes, discussions, assignments and a final exam. It spanned six weeks. More than 17,000 people enrolled in the course. That’s a pretty incredible response rate considering the time commitment.

The marketing payback for online education

If done right, an online course can have a have a significant impact on marketing objectives, including:

  • Brand value: Depending on the course topic, you can strengthen brand perceptions. For SAP, the course linked the brand with the values of sustainability and business innovation – both powerful attributes in SAP’s market.
  • Lead nurturing: Foster a deeper connection with attendees, particularly if you deliver information of real value that helps attendees in their jobs or daily lives.
  • Customer retention: Customers who invest time and effort in training are more likely to remain customers.

Making online education/training work for content marketing

Preparing and delivering an online course is a larger undertaking than a webinar or even a webinar series. But if you already use online courseware technologies and have experience in creating courses, consider using training as an advanced content marketing strategy for lead nurturing and customer retention.

Make sure that the attendee comes away with useful and actionable information, not just a sales pitch. From a marketing perspective, online training is another way to practice empowerment marketing that helps people advance their own objectives.  (See my blog post on Empowerment Marketing.)

Is your business website a lekker?

No, that’s not a typo – “lekking” is at term in animal behavior that means self-aggrandizing behavior (usually for the purpose of attracting mates). I didn’t know that term before encountering it in Adam Grant’s brilliant book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. (I highly recommend the book, by the way.)

Grant argues that it’s helpful to be able to identify the ‘takers’ in any business – the people who act on their own interests to the exclusion of the interests of others. He suggests that investors looking at a company’s annual reports can often identify CEOs with ‘taker’ profiles by the number of times they claim credit. A CEO that uses first-person singular pronouns like “I” and “me” significantly more than the plural ones like “we” and “us” is most likely claiming credit personally.

B2B marketing and lekking
It occurred to me that one could do a similar exercise to identify businesses that are focused on their own objectives over customer needs and interests by looking at the language used on the corporate website.

So I decided to examine B2B websites for evidence of this behavior.

Comparing the ratio of first-person pronouns (whether singular or plural) to second-person pronouns (you), one could determine out how much time the company spent talking about themselves versus talking about the customer’s needs.  And this is evidence of a company that’s not adopting a customer-focused approach (at least on its website).

My nonscientific test
I wanted to compare what I’ll call an “old school” technology company to a newer counterpart – ideally a company that had a good grasp on marketing realities in today’s world.

For one end of the spectrum, I chose a company that had its origins in the days of the mainframe. (It will remain nameless.) For the newer model, I chose Marketo, as they know a thing or two about marketing.

Choosing the right pages to compare posed a challenge. The “About Us” part of any website should legitimately talk about the company, so that was off the table. And when it came to comparing the products or solutions pages, it was truly like comparing apples and oranges.

So I chose another page that is common on many B2B sites – the Resources page. Although not every site has a Resources page, when it exists it always serves the same general function. People visit the page because they want to find something specific – like a report or a video – to learn more.

The results

The old-school company Resources page presents a high-level landing page with text that has embedded links to blogs, podcasts, white papers, research, and case studies. The navigation menu includes other links like multimedia and thought leadership. (Figuring out what to click on would be kind of a challenge.)

Here’s what that text looks like, with everything except the personal pronouns obscured:

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 9.33.31 PM

That’s 21 first-person pronouns (yellow), and 9 second-person pronouns (green). Of the 221 words total, almost 10% are first-person pronouns. The links to click are embedded in this text.

In contrast, here’s the top of the Marketo Resources page (image as of April 30, 2014).

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 9.39.12 PM

Hmm.  There’s hardly any text outside the links, headings, and names of the resources. I see a single “we” in “We respect your privacy.”  It’s balanced out by the “you” in “Enter your email.”  And there’s a “me” in the Send Me Updates button – but it refers to the site visitor, not Marketo.  So, maybe a 1:1 ratio, but there’s almost no text to speak of.

And there you have it.  It’s not only a matter of how you say things – it also what you choose to say in the first place. Marketo is trying to solve their visitor’s problems or engage them. Some people will want to see basic material (getting started). Others want more advanced topics. And they’ve called out the hot topics in the Definitive Guide series.

The old-school company is still trying to explain itself, and that’s actually getting in the way of the links that the visitor needs.

So, when you’re tempted to start talking about your company on your website, stop and ask yourself:

  1. Am I thinking about this from the visitor’s perspective? Is this the right place to talk about the company? Does the visitor really care, or are they trying to get something else done when they reach this page?
  2. Do I really need to say anything at all?

Measuring content marketing effectiveness

How do you measure the performance of your content marketing?  LinkedIn recently introduced a Content Marketing Score to track and benchmark the performance of content on the LinkedIn network. This effort highlights a larger issue – it’s tough to track the effectiveness of content marketing efforts.

We’re not great at tracking marketing in general

The most recent release of the Duke CMO Survey confirms the scope of the problem. Conducted twice a year through the Duke Fuqua School of Business, the survey is a rich source of information about trends in marketing. You can see the overall results here or drill down to the results split out by industry characteristics and look for what’s happening in B2B marketing.

One interesting difference between the B2B and B2C responders was that B2B marketers were significantly worse than their B2C counterparts at quantitatively proving the impact of their marketing efforts.

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 4.12.45 PM

Source: The CMO Survey (February 2014), Figure 3.7, Highlights and Insights Report

When it comes to short-term impact, B2C product marketers can prove their effectiveness at more than twice the rate of their B2B colleagues.

Near half of B2B marketers claimed ‘qualitative’ proof of their marketing effectiveness without the hard data to back it up. And almost 20% had no idea at all. Because content marketing is a growing part of the B2B marketing investment, it most certainly contributes to the problem.

Measuring content marketing is difficult

Measuring effectiveness of content is difficult, particularly in B2B. Content marketing often helps the buyer through a journey, and sales can rarely be attributed to a single piece of content or interaction. Different metrics are appropriate at different stages of the content cycle.

For a lead generation piece, a high number of downloads or registrations may be the best measure of success. A piece designed for a specific buyer persona late in the sales cycle may reach a small number of people but play a critical role in revenue.  I once wrote a white paper intended for one specific prospective customer of an early-stage B2B company. Given the size of the deal and the importance of the customer, creating the paper was well worth the time and effort.

That being said, you should certainly try to track the effectiveness of the content marketing investment as best you can. Just realize that it’s an imperfect art. And remember that your social media and content marketing efforts may trigger the ‘offline’ discussions that ultimately deliver big results. Thanks to Heidi Cohen and her blog on P2P Content: The Content Nobody Measures for advocating the importance of the offline world!

5 strategies for faster customer story approvals

Customer stories often have bad rap in marketing organizations.  Everyone loves them when they’re done. But the process of publishing customer stories can be difficult – you’ve got to line up interviews with the customers, write and edit the story, and then get the customer’s approval. The last step (approval) can drag on for weeks or months – or worse.

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 10.26.56 AM

There’s nothing more frustrating than creating a customer story that never sees the light of day.

A stalled approval process is often a symptom of flaws in the story development process. Here are five strategies for keeping your customer stories on track from the start.

1. Scope approval processes before you start

Some companies have policies restricting endorsements. Others may consider your solution part of their competitive advantage. Find out before you start what you’ll have to do to get the story approved. Then decide if it’s worth going forward.

2. Do your homework before the interview

Dig deeper than the customer’s “About Us” page.  Make sure you understand the customer’s messaging and positioning so the story reflects how they would like to be seen. If you don’t describe their business well, they won’t be motivated to approve it. You cannot always count on the person you’re interviewing to have the broader company perspective.

3. Never make the customer look bad

In taking the usual “problem/solution” approach to a customer story, it’s tempting to emphasize how bad things were without your solution. But in doing so, you might be making the customer look incompetent or negligent – and that will make it tougher to sell the story. Instead of describing how bad things were, try to find the common themes and challenges that will resonate with other people in their position.

4. The customer should be the hero – not your technology

The real hero of the story isn’t your technology – it’s the people who select, promote, install and use it. This is the core idea behind empowerment marketing.  When the customer is the hero of the story, they are more likely to approve it quickly, and maybe even amplify and promote it with you.

5. Tell the story on a human scale

Even in B2B marketing, a story should be about more than organizations and departments. Write about the people and how their lives, experiences or concerns changed. People are more interesting than organizations.