Defining positioning and messaging is easy. The first is the strategy of where you fit in the market and who you serve; the latter is how you tell the story of where and how you fit in.
Simple as the definitions may be, putting the concepts into practice is a whole other story. In fact, many businesses, especially in the B2B tech landscape, struggle with something as straightforward as explaining to customers what they do and the value it brings.
Emma is not only the Chief Strategist and Co-founder of Punchy, but she also developed the Meaningful Message approach, which simplifies the messaging creation process. She is an award-winning copywriter and the host of Adventures in Messaging, a series of conversations with Product Marketing experts.
Who better than Emma to talk about why positioning and messaging are everything when it comes to marketing, sales, and possibly even business?
What Does your Product Do?
This is a question that all companies should be able to answer, but, shockingly, not all of them do. That’s the root problem of most positioning issues.
Emma recalls her first job working in B2B marketing as a Creative Director for an agency. She was working with an enterprise data backup and recovery solution platform and was having a hard time grasping the complexity of the product. She commented with the CMO that they must be “selling to geniuses” given how complicated the product and the documentation were. He replied that most people in the company didn’t understand what it did.
In the B2B tech landscape, this happens more often than you’d think. Emma notes: “It never ceases to amaze me how many companies struggle to simply articulate what they do. I go to software, websites, I read the homepage, and I'm like, what does this product do? I still don't know.”
Looking at it from a customer’s perspective, not knowing what you are selling right off your website’s homepage is far from ideal. Not just that, if you’re not able to clearly explain what your product is, you’re not likely to be able to convey the value it brings to the table or even know who your ideal customer is.
Finding your Value Proposition
So what does value proposition have to do with positioning? It’s simple: positioning is about framing your product as being able to provide a value that a person or group of people care about. “A weak positioning is always a sign that you are not conveying value,” Emma adds.
The question is, how do you identify weak positioning?
Emma answers: “A sign that your positioning is off is, you’re having trouble with sales, you’re not getting best-fit prospects, and your sales cycles are taking forever, your messaging isn’t landing.
Tech companies don’t always identify this as a positioning problem. They are quick to blame it on marketing or sales or on the outgoing messages to prospects not being good enough. Often, though, it’s a matter of not setting the right strategy from the beginning and not positioning their product in a way that effectively shows its value to the right people.
Another common struggle is tech businesses getting wrapped up in their features and the technology side of things, thinking that explaining right off the bat what the science behind the product is is what adds value to it. But however interesting those tech specs may be — and they might be what makes your product stand out from competitors — they are not what’s going to sell it more.
The Difference Between Value, Features, and Benefits
As a starting point to defining one’s value proposition, it’s helpful to delineate the difference between value, benefits, and features. “It's rudimentary, but it's always a good reminder that feature is that thing that is very functional. The benefit is what that feature enables you to do. So you can now do X because of feature Y. And the value is how does that benefit map to a broader, more aspirational goal, a larger goal that the customer has.”
Looking at both her agency days and her experience at Punchy, Emma detects a frequent problem — companies getting these concepts mixed up.
Many of them try to think of their top three best features as benefits and slap them on their homepage, thinking it’s what will grab customers’ attention. In the tech world, “seamless,” “all-in-one,” “consolidated” often come up as product features that are supposed to stand in as benefits. But in Emma’s own words, “[prospects are] not walking around, ‘I'm really looking for a consolidated platform for all these disparate tools.’ That’s not where they’re at. But they may be feeling stressed, you know, from having all their work in different places, or they may be wanting to save time, whatever.”
The solution comes from mapping your product’s features and benefits to your prospects’ most motivating challenges or desires. It’s about connecting the dots between what they’re looking for and what your product can deliver. Once you do that, you’ll be able to understand precisely the value you’re bringing to the table and state that on your homepage.
“I am a firm believer that your value proposition at the top of the homepage, your headline, and your subhead should not only convey the core value that you offer, but very clearly state what you are.”
Categorization vs. Segmentation
At this point of the process, the challenge is to state what your product does in an obvious way. Which, as we’ve already established, not all companies can do, especially tech companies that sell very complex products.
Your product category can do the heavy lifting here — it explains what you do from the get-go. For example, if your product fits into the CRM category, you won’t need to elaborate further and can focus on telling a story that will captivate your audience.
Now, if you are still playing by the old B2B SaaS Playbook rules, this might come as a surprise. Shouldn’t you create a new category for your product to position it as something unique in the market?
Even though creating categories is trendy, Emma thinks it’s gone too far. “I think it's gotten a bit silly and out of hand, like, how many categories of one can we have? Like we've never had more software. [...] We've never had more software companies. And so, how can we have, how can everyone create a new category?”
Creating a new category might bear the promise of unlocking exponential growth, so it might be on every CEO’s or investors’ radars. However, in reality, it takes a ton of work explaining a new category to a market. Is it something companies can really afford to do, especially start-ups that are not yet recognizable?
Emma doesn’t think creating a new category is the easy way to go. Given that many companies struggle to explain what they do at all, describing a new category on top of that ends up being counterproductive.
When she comes across clients who want to try it anyway, she does the following exercise with them: “I kind of show them what it looks like to stay in your existing category, or maybe tweak it, or here's what a new one could look like. And a lot of times when they see it, they're like, ‘that doesn't make any sense, you know, that phrase.’ And they kind of see this is just like an empty phrase. And we're going to have to put meaning into it for people. And that's going to take a lot of time and budget. And so a lot of times, they kind of shy away from that, because they see that it really is just an empty phrase that you have to pour all the meaning into, and hope that it works.”
Instead of obsessing over a new category, companies should focus on winning their segment of an already-existing category.
Emma mentions ConvertKit as a great example of finding and winning your segment. ConvertKit operates in the marketing automation and CRM space, which is totally flooded. There is no shortage of options when it comes to email automation and marketing automation solutions for small businesses. Instead of coming up with a new category to stand out in the market, ConvertKit made a move to position itself as a marketing platform for creators. Rather than targeting small businesses or entrepreneurs, they’re going after customers who define themselves as creators. “They’re taking a well-known thing, and they’re saying ‘hey, we’ve crafted this especially for you.’” And it’s working for them.
It’s not that category creation should be completely off the table; it’s just that not all companies can afford to do it. Smaller businesses and startups especially should really be asking themselves, “how can I get super focused and win a slice of that category and use this understanding of what this category is and then play off of it and differentiate it?”
There’s time to create a new category, but only when and if it makes sense, and only if you have the time, budget, and enough data on your customers and prospects to back it up.
Understanding and Speaking to Your Prospects’ Pain
When it comes down to it, it doesn’t make sense to create something the market doesn’t want. And in order to know what it does want, you need to know your customers — their needs, pains, motivations — and then position yourself in a way that offers value by solving whatever is creating friction.
Emma is currently working with a client at Punchy, a project management tool, with whom she discussed this same topic, as she had done a lot of research on this client’s customers. She learned that the people who decided to buy the client’s software were feeling a very sharp pain. She elaborates: “These are people who don't want to adopt technology, they're like, not really into software, but their business is getting so disorganized, that they're making expensive mistakes, they're getting super stressed out. And that's what's actually driving them to go out and find a solution because the pain is so bad; otherwise, they would not get the software.”
In this case, it made sense for Emma to bring this pain point into her client’s positioning. Of course, it’s not supposed to be phrased in a negative way, but it needs to be called out because the pain is what motivates customers to go out and find a solution.
If she hadn’t spoken with any prospects or customers, Emma would never have come to this conclusion, so she stresses the importance of having these conversations. This is also how you’re able to find what she calls your ”raving fan customers.”
Who are they, you might ask?
“The people who are using your product, loving it, loving it so much that they're naturally referring you — that's a real fan.”
By speaking to them, you’ll figure out how they’re using your product, what similarities and differences there are between each usage, how they talk about it. That’s powerful information that you can use to then refine your positioning.
That’s right: positioning is not a one-off thing. Emma’s advice is that companies should look at their positioning and messaging every 6 to 12 months and tweak it to keep up with the market and what customers want.
After you’ve found your value proposition and defined your position, comes the time to get your message across to customers.
But where do you start?
For Emma, a good first question to ask yourself is, “how can I help the reader?” Then, anything you write needs to have a clear goal, so before you even start putting pen to paper, think of what you want to achieve and how you want to sound with your words. Keeping the reader in mind, in Emma’s opinion, you should strive to sound clear, human, and helpful.
Her second tip — and her favorite — is to write as you speak. There’s a tendency to put pressure on the written word because people assume it needs to be professional, or sound smart, or use certain vocabulary. But that’s not always the case, and when it comes to copywriting, it’s best to think of how people speak in their day-to-day. Emma suggests asking: “How would you explain this to your colleague? Or how would you write this in an email to a friend? Because a lot of times when I say to someone, can you just explain it to me like in normal terms, and they'll just like, explain it to me really well.”
Another tip she offers is to aim for being clear over being clever. You might just happen to be a great copywriter or have one on your team. But to get your point across to your customers, it’s much more important to focus on clarity over showing how good a writer you are.
And finally, Emma suggests keeping a swipe file on good copywriting. There are a lot of companies doing great messaging and copywriting, so “look at brands who are doing it well, take screenshots, read it, look at it and think like, ‘why is this good?’. You will start to come up with these ideas yourself, when you start studying other great best practices.”
A weak positioning might be at the core of a lot of your business problems, but a strong and clear one is one of your most valuable assets to get across to prospects and drive sales.