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.

Top 5 reasons to create a product messaging map

I was talking with a client the other day, who told me that he’d gotten some pushback for creating a product messaging document.  Some people didn’t understand why he was spending the time creating an internal messaging document rather than diving right in to creating the outbound content.

It may seem that I am stating the obvious in this blog, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated!

So, with no further ado, here are the top 5 reasons for creating a product messaging map—and getting consensus on that messaging—before beginning content development:

5.  A message map makes your marketing team more efficient.

When product marketing gets agreement on key messaging, the marketing team does not have to re-invent the wheel every time it sits down to create new content. The document informs everything from big pieces, like white papers or webinars, to blog postings and press releases.  It also helps with the many tedious small tasks like filling out partnership forms, online marketplace profiles, award applications, and directory listings that ask for the same information in slightly different ways.  With approved messaging and wording for essential benefits and features, everyone will work much more smoothly, with less review required.

4. It makes it easier to use freelancers.

Need to hire freelancer writers, webinar creators or others to build out your content? With a messaging map, they have the guidance to create material that supports and elaborates on your essential positioning.  Your freelance relationships will be more effective, giving you more bang for your freelance buck.

3. A message map keeps the sale team in line.

If marketing cannot give sales everything they need, enterprising sales staff will make up what’s missing. I’ve seen some really interesting emails from individuals in sales–and not always interesting in a good way.

You can discourage improvisations by giving the sales team the essential guidance they need in a useful, accessible and approved messaging document.  Ideally, the document should make it easier for the sales team to create any one-off presentations, individual letters or emails that they might need.

2.  [Corollary to #3]: It’s a great place to collect sales input.

Some of the sales team’s improvisations are worth keeping.  They are interacting with your target audience. They understand the buyer. They may discover information about business pains and buying factors that you did not have before.

By maintaining a common ‘message map’ and soliciting sales input on the messaging up front, you can integrate sales input into the overall marketing strategy.  It will make everything else that flows from it better.

And, finally, the top reason to use a message map:

1.  A message map accelerates content creation and content marketing.

Any time spent up-front in developing the message map will be repaid in full during the content creation cycle.  Content creators don’t have to spend time figuring out which are the most important benefits. Reviews won’t get stuck on messaging issues, but will focus instead on execution.  With fewer iterations and faster development cycles, you can more easily develop what you need to support a successful content marketing initiative.

Those are my choices for the top 5 reasons, but I’m sure there are others. I’d love to hear them in the comments! Maybe we make it a Top 10 list instead.