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.

Freelance horror stories: Undead projects

Here’s the latest installment in my “freelance horror stories” – “undead” projects. If you’re a freelancer, you know that these are frighteningly real.  And if you hire freelancers, this may help you understand that fleeting look of fear when you first start working with a freelancer – we live in a dangerous world.

The Zombie: Not quite dead, it just keeps lingering on – for just a few more revisions. Defenses against zombies: Putting a fixed number of review cycles in the project scoping.

The Disapparition:  You send it to review and it is never heard from again. This is the most frequent type of undead project – and it’s a problem if you are waiting for project completion to invoice. Defense:  A fixed time for final invoicing on the project scoping.

The Shape-shifter:  This happens when the project shifts mid-course. For example, the senior person who hired you leaves the company mid-stream, and the new person wants to take the project in an entirely different direction. This is all fine unless the new direction is far outside the negotiated scope of the project.  A well-defined project scope is the only defense – but the process is never fun.

The Vampire: This is the one we all fear – the project that lives forever and sucks the life right out of you.  One sign of a vampire project? A client that cannot scope the project and wants hourly billing with a firm time commitment from you.  (Not every client like this has vampire projects, of course, but it’s a warning sign.)

Even great clients can have the occasional undead project. In nearly every case, careful project scoping and definition is the freelancer’s silver bullet (or wooden stake). Sometimes it takes courage to use that bullet, particularly if you fear damaging the client relationship. It’s not easy being a vampire-slayer.

I’d love to hear from others on the ‘undead’ project types I may have missed!

In case you missed it, the first installment can be found at Freelance horror stories: The consulting contract.

The true costs of freelance writing projects

In a tight economy, some companies try to save money on writing projects by outsourcing to other countries, or by using sites like Elance to find inexpensive freelancers.  A recent MarketingProfs article discussed the challenges of using sites like Elance.

Outsourcing can be a false economy.  A friend told me recently that her company was outsourcing all of their documentation work to India to save money, but that the effort will increase the workload on their developers, who must now write exactly what they want to go into the documentation.

As a freelance technology writer myself, I have strong opinions about penny-pinching on writing services, particularly in technology marketing.  I’ve also seen the results of these efforts – and have sometimes been hired to ‘fix’ projects that were first outsourced.

Before hiring the writer with the lowest price, consider the ‘true cost’ of the project. In my experience this includes:

The time you spend getting the writer started.  Is it enough to send some documents and have a phone call? A meeting? Several meetings? The more experience a writer has in your industry, the less time it should take to get them started.

The time spent managing the writer.  Once launched, a good writer should be able to operate very independently, with little oversight from you beyond answering additional questions.

The cost of review cycles and revisions.  How many revisions do you need to get the first draft to a final draft?  If you need many substantive rewrites and you’re paying by the hour, then there’s an immediate cost. If you’re paying on a project basis, you still have to take time to set the writer on the right path.

The opportunity cost of delays. The longer it takes to get a project to completion, the greater the opportunity cost of not having the project completed. Experienced writers may be able to turn around projects much more quickly than inexperienced ones.

The cost of clean-up. When a project is unsuccessful, you may need to hire someone else to fix the project. I’ve done this for a client, and I’m sure that whatever money they saved by outsourcing the white paper was offset by having to hire someone to fix the paper.

Cost of poor quality. Unclear or grammatically incorrect content reflects poorly on your business. If you believe in the power of content marketing, which I do, then you know the importance of quality content.

Price must be considered in the context of value. If you pay very little for an article, for example, but it is ineffective in its purpose, then you have still paid too much. If a white paper generates leads or moves prospects through the pipeline, then paying a higher price may be a great deal, relative to its impact on revenue.

Content templates pit consistency against creativity

Is it a good idea to create content templates for marketing collateral? Or do they stifle creativity and create boring papers and web pages?

I’m not talking about Word templates or formatting templates. I’m referring to writer’s guidelines that indicate how a piece should be structured, how long sections should be, and so on.

Templates and guidelines have been much on my mind lately. One client recently presented me with a 5-page document outlining the company’s guidelines for writing a ‘strategy’ white paper. It included very detailed instructions, including a word count for the introduction and the overall outline and topics to cover.

How much is too much when it comes to predefined content guidelines for marketing collateral like white papers, customer stories, data sheets and web pages?

The case for content templates

As a freelance writer, I welcome guidelines and style guides, as they help me deliver what the client wants more quickly. And I recognize that templates and guidelines can bring welcome consistency to content marketing efforts, particularly if many people are engaged in creating content. This especially important for marketing content such as:

  • Website text: consistency in navigation, style, and content structure helps visitors find what they need most effectively.
  • Data sheet or spec sheet materials – particularly if customers might need to compare across them.

Yet, let us not forget the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

The case against content templates

Very detailed guidelines can actually  slow the content creation process by forcing the writer into a path they may not want to take.  Good writing is never just ‘filling in the blanks’ in a template.

Sometimes, following a set format or template is an excuse for not rethinking or evaluating how the format is working.  This is why you see uninspiring, “cookie cutter” customer stories on many websites.  To tell a customer story, you have to find the narrative thread, and following a fixed format creates a fill-in-the-blank-and-it’s-fine mentality.  Some stories need a different format or approach.

White papers are another case.  You’ll want different formats, styles and approaches for the different audiences you’re trying to reach, at the various parts of the sales cycle. Sometimes a checklist or table will be the most appropriate way to deliver content, other times a narrative or instructional approach will work.  It’s hard to imagine one white paper format that will meet all of your needs.

I know that I’ve just argued both sides of the ‘content template’ question.  The best advice I can come up with is this: experiment, test and measure the results of your content marketing pieces in different situations.  Templates and style guides are useful, but they are no substitute for creativity and good writing.

How to ask a writer for a white paper

I love it when a client asks me to write a white paper. But I am even happier when we both understand exactly what kind of white paper they want.

There are as many different types of white papers as there are buyers and products. I wrote about this a while ago:  When is a white paper not a white paper?

Sometimes clients offer to provide an outline. That actually doesn’t help much–outlining is for me part of the writing process.


5 questions for a successful white paper

What I really want is for the client to answer the following 5 questions:

Who is the audience? Who is the intended audience for this paper?

What part of the lead lifecycle are they in? Do the readers know they have a problem yet? Are they researching alternatives? Shoring up support for taking action?

How will you distribute the paper? Are you using the paper to attract new leads? As part of an email campaign? Or are you just plopping it up in your Resources page. (Hint – that alone may not be quite enough to be effective.)

What’s the call to action?  What action do you want the reader to take after reading it?

What are your SEO keywords: How are prospects likely to search for the solutions you’re offering?

Sometimes the answers are vague, or as-yet-undefined. That’s fine, I make my best guess and continue. But the answers to those questions will influence important decisions in the writing, such as:

  • The proper balance between promotion and education:  The later in the sales cycle, the more appropriate it is to be pitching your own solutions more directly.  Pieces earlier in the cycle need to more more general and build a relationship with the prospect.
  • Tone and style
  • Format:   How important are graphics, callouts, and other scannable features.  (It depends on part on where people are likely to read the paper.)
  • What’s an appropriate length? Even sentence length should be shorter if the piece will be read online.
  • Word choice: Knowing the SEO keywords will influence word selection, particularly in headings.

The next time you ask a writer (freelance or in-house) for a white paper, see if you can answer these questions first. You’re likely to get a much more focused and effective result.