In today’s market, positioning is everything. Although it’s a cliché, it can make or break your business. It’s almost as important as your product or service itself. The market is too crowded for a company to risk being too generic to matter. Not even your personal brand can escape this reality. In fact, positioning your personal brand needs as much strategy and attention as a company product or service.
April Dunford, a positioning consultant for growing tech companies, keynote speaker, and book author, knows “a little” about it. Her experiences helping early-stage startups find their go-to-market strategy and large companies introducing new products are close to legendary.
So, April is a positioning expert, but how did she succeed in positioning herself as one?
In this week’s episode of Ungated Marketing, Fernando Amaral interviews April Dunford, not about her much-discussed positioning methodology, but rather about her journey in establishing and positioning a personal brand that advertises itself.
Personal Brand Positioning: Understanding the Alternatives
A personal brand doesn’t just shape itself overnight.
Even in April’s case, it took a bit of figuring out: “I don’t know if I ever spent a lot of time thinking about my personal brand or what that actually means. But I did spend a few years trying to figure out exactly what I was doing as a consultant. What were my offerings going to be? How was I going to sell that? How was I going to price it? Who my target was going to be for that?”
It might take some time to find out where exactly you fit into the market. April believes you should start with a simple positioning exercise to understand “what the alternatives are to what you do.”
To demonstrate the importance of who you compare yourself to, she offers the most common positioning mistake committed by marketers switching to consulting:
“A lot of people move through this thing where they say ‘Oh, well, I’ll just do the same thing I was doing as a job. And I’ll do that as a consultant.’ So, you’ll see a lot of people come out and say, ‘I’m a fractional CMO [...] So I’m like a part-time CMO basically saying the comparison is a full-time CMO and I’m an alternative to that.’
What’s the underlying problem with this positioning?
April explains: “If you’re comparing yourself to the full-time CMO, the expectation is you’re going to deliver like a full-time CMO, which you absolutely are not going to do because you are only part-time. So, the expectation then is, ‘Oh, great. I get full-time CMO results for part-time. Perfect!’ And the consultant, I think, is saying ‘No, no, no! Uh, I’m just going to do part-time stuff for part-time money!’” Whichever way you look at it, the consultant will always be compared to a full-time CMO and make it impossible for himself or herself to measure up.
What did April do differently?
“In my case, I was trying to look at what could I do that was differentiated. You know, there are so many marketing consultants on the market. What do I get that’s different than anybody else? And one of the things that I had a lot of experience doing [was] positioning new products in the market.” Through that self-reflection, she realized positioning is not something she just had an experience with but could also “codify” and teach people how to do it, or at least facilitate an exercise through that.
The strength of differentiating and zeroing down on something specific is “the value you can offer is that you’re really, really good at that one little thing.” Incidentally, that’s the very same thing April ended up coaching her clients: “It’s much easier to market something when it’s very narrowly targeted than it is to try to be everything to everybody.”
The second layer to her initial positioning was being selective about her clients. Since April’s background was in B2B and enterprise B2B, where a salesperson is involved in the selling process, she spent a lot of time refusing the type of clients that didn’t fit the profile she understood and knew how to work with. Thanks to that, “even though people didn’t know me at the beginning, they knew me pretty fast because the work I was doing was good. And then that builds a bit of word of mouth, and then founders talk to founders. And that helps you build an initial pipeline if you’re a consultant.” She specifies: “From the beginning, I treated my consulting offerings like a product and positioned them just like I would position any product I was launching.”
Hence, don’t stop your positioning exercise at defining what you are best at but expand it to the type of clients you take on as they position you by association.
Attracting Your First Customers
Once you differentiate your personal brand from the rest, how do you go about getting your first clients?
According to April, when coming into a new market, “one of the things you got to think about is where is your audience? Like, where does your audience hang out and where do they find out about stuff?”
She offers her personal ‘for instance.’ Since her target audience is CEOs, she very early decided to leave email and social media on the back burner: “My gang doesn’t really read email, they might subscribe to some very specific newsletters, but email was never a channel that I felt like really worked with my folks just because they get a lot of emails. Their inboxes are already overflowing.”
Similar reasoning applies to social media. While CEOs are on social networks, they are not usually as active or involved as marketers: “They’re on social media, and they hear about things on social media but not as much as the marketers do. If you want to sell to marketers, I think LinkedIn is a great place to go [...] same with Twitter. So, [in my case], I think there’s a little bit of awareness you can generate on social media, but it’s not necessarily going to be a big source of leads .”
So, where do CEOs hang out?
One of April’s lead gen strategies turned out to be conferences: “CEOs would often find out about people like me by going to conferences. They’d be at a conference speaking. There’d be other speakers there. They’d meet each other. So that was a good avenue.”
Next, she was also leveraging the power of word-of-mouth.
“They also would hear about people like me through people in their network. The word would go around amongst other CEOs. Who’s good? Who’s not good? Who are you helping? Sometimes they would get a recommendation from an investor or somebody sitting on their board.”
Besides going to conferences and sharing recommendations, CEOs are also known to be book readers, which led April to create the biggest demand generation tool in her arsenal — her book.
A Book as a Demand Generation Engine
A book can be a potent lead generation tool if used in the right way and context. In other words, when April decided to publish a book, it was a strategic move to help cater to her target audience while smoothing over her lead generation pipeline.
A Pipeline Roadblock Buster
Sure, one of the prompts behind April’s decision to write a book was the fact that her target audience does indeed read. However, there was more to it: “One of the big problems I had in my pipeline was [that] the CEOs would hear about me from another CEO and then they would call me, but in general, the CEOs didn’t know a lot about positioning. And so I would get them on the phone and have to give them this big speech about here’s what positioning is. And here’s why it’s important. This is what it looks like when it’s bad. Here’s what it looks like when it’s good. And here’s how I think we could fix it. And that’s a long phone call, and it’s a lot of stuff to get through on one call.”
Avoiding this phone call is why April enjoys conference speaking. She could divulge all that information during her talk, and certain CEOs in the audience would realize they had this problem they didn’t know about and approach her after the talk armed with a certain base knowledge. In fact, this is precisely what inspired her to write a book on the topic.
“I thought, well, that works so well in a conference talk. It’d be great to have a book that did the same thing, where it basically gives me an opportunity to explain what positioning is.”
She thought of the book as the missing stepping stone. When the CEOs read it, they can agree or disagree and, based on that, seek help or not. In essence, it’s a lot like conference speaking but with greater reach.
Sharing Your Know-How Openly
You might be thinking, “If I share all I know in a book, no one will need to hire me.” In fact, there are many experts who think that way, probably most.
However, April believes the complete opposite: “I don’t actually think everybody needs to work with me. I think a lot of companies, with my book and my framework, can do their positioning themselves, and they don’t actually need to hire a consultant to come in and do it for them [...] Companies call me, and I’m like, ‘Have you ever tried to do this yourself? And [if they say no, I say] ‘Maybe you should try and do it yourself and not pay all the money to the consultant.’”
It seems counterproductive and controversial, to say the least. But is it?
One of the advantages of positioning yourself clearly is knowing the instances in which you deliver the most value — which will also reflect in customer satisfaction and word-of-mouth later.
April is confident: “I’m very clear on what the value is that I bring. It’s not the methodology. You can get that for free.” In other words, the book is not her competition but rather a qualification element. If you read it and try it and still think you need help, then April might be the right consultant for you.
There are two central values April believes she brings in as an external consultant:
The first one: “Sometimes, companies try to do this themselves with an internal team, and there are disagreements between folks on the executive team. And so having somebody from the outside come in and facilitate that exercise is often really, really helpful to get agreement and alignment across the team.”
The second one: “Doing positioning is a bit of a rare event. You’re not doing positioning every day inside your company. [...] So generally, what you’ve got inside a company is a team of folks, and they don’t have a lot of experience doing this stuff. So, they can read my book. They can get the methodology. They can read through it, but if they get stuck, they don’t have a lot of their own personal experience to rely on to get them unstuck.”
Knowing your value and what you bring to the table allows you to use complex demand generation elements like books or courses to share what you know and build your authority without hurting your business.
Writing a Book Customers Want to Read
So, a book can be a valuable asset to your pipeline. However, to do that, people must want to read it. It must connect with its intended audience.
While April already had her manuscript, she treated it more as a means-to-the-end product rather than just a personal project that reflects her views: “I had spent a lot of time researching my readers. I interviewed 50 CEOs about what [they] like [and] how [they] like to read. And one of the things that came out of that research was [that] most business books are too long for CEOs that they, just annoy CEOs [and] are too full of fluff. They’re too hard to skim. They’re way longer than they needed to be.”
That realization gave her a clear view “of exactly what I wanted this book to look like as a product. I wanted it to be shorter. I wanted it to be skimmable. I want it to be something you could pick up and, you know... [if] you’re going on a short-haul airplane ride, you’d be done by the time you hit the tarmac.”
When creating more complex materials like books or courses that are meant to generate leads, consider the needs and preferences of your target audience not just in terms of content but also formatting and delivery.
The Publishing Game
Writing a book is one thing. Getting it published is another.
What’s interesting in April’s case — and a rather teachable moment, if you ask me — is that when she approached publishers, they seemed “to be really caught up in history. They were like, ‘Your book has to be this long’ and I [said] ‘I don’t want to write a book that long. I don’t think my readers want a book that long.’”
In that instance, April felt like the publishers were going to mess up her product, so she decided to self-publish: “In the end, I hired a company that I worked with to build the book with me, but I paid them to build the book the way I wanted the book to be built. And then I essentially did all the rest of the stuff on my own without a publisher.”
Self-publishing seems to have a bad rap in general as it implies your book was not good enough to be taken on by a publishing house. However, that is not always the case, as the publishing industry comes with its own set of challenges.
Whichever way you decide to go, your decision should be informed and strategic. Don’t be blinded by the prestige of going with a publisher or the financial benefits if you make it on your own. Assess the advantages and disadvantages of each given path and see what works best for you and your target audience.
Finding Your Worth
Lastly, one of the most important aspects of personal brand positioning, and perhaps one people struggle with the most, is pricing. How do you put a price tag on your skills without undermining or overestimating your value?
April offers up a pretty good hack: “When you’re thinking about pricing, it’s really good to decide what you want the pricing anchor to be, meaning what does the person who’s going to hire you… what do you want them to compare you to?”
She tells a story from her early consulting days: “The first thing I learned was that almost every CEO, when I had a conversation with them, would literally pull out the calculator and try to figure out how much money per hour they were going to pay me versus what they would pay a regular full-time CMO. And they wanted that hourly rate to be the same.”
Needless to say, being paid as an employee when you are an outside consultant is not good for business. So, April tried a different approach and refused to be compared to a full-time person.
“You literally can’t find a full-time person that does this specialist thing, and I’m not doing everything,” she says. “So, I used to — very specifically early on — say, look, how much do you pay your PR agency? And that was always a great comparison because most startups that I was pitching to were paying their PR agency $10,000, $8,000 a month. And almost everybody universally thinks their PR agency is absolutely useless and delivering nothing. So, I’m like, ‘Okay, in the last three months, what have you paid your PR agency? Oh, $30,000. Oh, well, you know, you get me for cheaper than that, and I’m going to produce something.’”
That would be the first step. Though, your pricing can evolve as you find your footing in your niche. April explains: “One of the things I discovered from working with a lot of companies is that there is a kind of a sweet spot moment around series A, series B of a venture-backed startup, where the positioning is very, very important to get right. And so, I started working more with companies in that space, and they’re a little bit bigger, and they could pay a bit more.” In that stage, it’s imperative to get the positioning right because they are about to pour a lot of money into marketing and sales. So, if the positioning isn’t right, they are “going to waste a lot of money, potentially millions of dollars.” That’s where her expertise is awarded very highly.
Hence, when trying to assess your own worth, look for the right pricing anchor to compare yourself to so the client understands your value. Most importantly, never stop reevaluating that value as it can grow significantly given the right timing and opportunities.
Personal brand positioning can be as complex as positioning a company or product. It all comes down to defining your value, differentiating yourself from the rest, and finding your sweet spot in the pipeline where your expertise is most needed and appreciated.
If you want to hear more about April’s personal journey to positioning herself as the positioning expert and learn what she has to say about blogging and social media presence, listen to the full episode below or tune in on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts.