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Dear Founders: Start with Messaging Dana Oshiro

So here’s the thing: building the messaging framework isn’t just a marketing exercise. Don’t hand it to your PR agency or marketing leader to deal with while you’re off building features or closing sales. And don’t just sit in a boardroom for an hour and poof random tag lines into existence. A messaging framework, along with your persona document, can help you do a couple of things including:

  • Increasing productivity by removing approvals on every site change, sales deck or asset;
  • Aligning your team around your core persona, brand pillars, and overall mission; and,
  • Mapping key features to the promises you’ve made to end-users.

Sound interesting? In this post, I’ll walk you through the simplified version of building your first messaging framework. If you’re not familiar, this format is pretty standard.

But marketing experts like Reify suggest building a messaging framework from the bottom-up. Based on the above image, I have to agree. So here’s the actual order of how to build a messaging framework.

Building a real messaging process

  1. Choose the Minimum Viable Stakeholders to Start: This probably includes the CEO, product leader, CTO, and the customer-facing head of support, marketing, or community. Each individual brings a different lens to the exercise. Schedule at least 3 meetings with all stakeholders in the room and set meeting objectives on how far you want to get in each meeting. Some of these discussions will get heated. My suggestion is scheduling a minimum of 4 group meetings in order to truly gain consensus.
  2. Start with Target Audience & Tone of Voice: If you don’t have product/market fit, then you probably just have one core audience (or should). You probably also have a tone of voice (Eg. playful, professorial, informative, straight-forward). Aim to gain consensus around these two sections with the stakeholders in the room. This should be a fast exercise as most of it should be fairly uncontroversial.
  3. Now work on Brand Pillars & Supporting Examples: This is harder. Every brand pillar represents a differentiator and why your users choose you. And every stakeholder in the room will WANT the brand pillars that support their aspirations. But this section isn’t about aspirations, but about what is. It’s for this reason, that every brand pillar is created with several supporting examples. Do NOT start wordsmithing yet. These are just “idea buckets” (mostly nouns) and supporting examples. Sometimes supporting examples are your high-use features, and sometimes they’re common comments from press, customers, and even dissenters. At Heavybit we’re currently working on refining our messaging. We never wanted to call ourselves an “accelerator” because there are weird early-stage connotations to the word, but the reality is that press and portfolio companies still say it. So yeah – we’re an accelerator for seed and Series A companies, and that’s one of our brand pillars.

It’s likely that it took you a while to gain consensus on the brand pillars and supporting examples. It might’ve even taken multiple meetings. Don’t take shortcuts here. Gaining consensus (or at least willing compromise) means your founding team and core executives are aligned and will use this to inform their teams. This next section is a good time to set new meetings and break out the thesaurus.

Commence wordsmithing!

The point of the next stage of the exercise is not to sprinkle all your good teamwork and “idea buckets” with nonsense adjectives. Everyone thinks their baby is the “first”, “stellar”, “brilliant”, “superior”, “best”, “brightest”, and most attractive baby that ever crawled the earth. That might be true. But if that’s the case, your alpha baby doesn’t need no stinking adjectives. This baby stands alone.

  1. Headline Benefits (25 words): Use your brand’s tone of voice and munge each brand pillar into a single sentence. I limit this to 25 words max. This encourages brevity. Saying something quickly and plainly is the most respectful thing you can do for end-users.
  2. Elevator Pitch (55 words): The elevator pitch is 2-3 sentences that speak to your target audience. In this section, munge together the best parts of your headline benefits. This is sometimes referred to as your boilerplate. I limit this to 55 words max and it’s always written in 3rd person objective point of view.
  3. Positioning Statement (25 words): This is often just used internally, but it’s still good to craft in Mad Libs style as a single sentence at max 25 words. Eg. For [target audience], our product provides [brand pillars 1,2,3] because [short-form headline benefits].
  4. Brand Promise (10 words): This is basically your tagline. Use all you’ve wordsmithed above, reduce word count even further, and make it pithy. It doesn’t even have to be a proper sentence. Eg. github: how people build software

Mission Statement: Are we just typing here?

Making The World A Better PlaceSome early startups just build their benefits and elevator pitch and create their mission in a completely separate exercise. That’s fine, but the point is you need to be ready to discuss a higher purpose and you can’t just say “Making the world a better place through [list of features].”

  1. Mission: Unleash the BHAG! (big hairy audacious goal) All your effort to deliver customer benefits and value should roll up into something really meaningful. Create the single sentence that rallies your employees, users, and community. Eg. Environmental Defense Fund: To preserve the natural systems on which all life depends

You are Not done

Once you’ve come to an agreement on the above (or even most of the above), you should have a working messaging framework. This needs to be revisited as you release new products, launch platform efforts, or when there are major inflection points in the company’s growth. But for now, you’ve got what Betty Junod calls, “your source of truth.” Here are some common ways to cascade the messaging framework:

  1. Headline Benefits: These 3 sentences often form the 3 hero images and text on an early company’s website. They’re also incorporated into site nav, given separate landing pages and case studies, can be made into separate nurturing campaigns, become paid text campaigns, and can be used as swappable modules in the sales deck depending on a customer’s needs. Even if they can’t be recited in their perfectly wordsmithed form, your employees and community should be able to repeat the key tenets of these headline benefits.
  2. Elevator Pitch: The elevator pitch is generally the sentence that gets appended as the boilerplate on a press release, is at the top of your “About” page, and is carried over to your company LinkedIn, Crunchbase, AngelList, and gets added to signature lines for every employee.
  3. Positioning Statement & Brand Promise: These often appear on field marketing banners and signage, SWAG, short-form descriptions like the corporate Twitter description and meta tags, presentation titles, and as snippets.
  4. Mission: There’s a reason most messaging frameworks offer this at the top of the document and move on to the “how” and “why” your business exists. Your company’s mission statement can be used at all-hands, off-sites, in larger community and user conferences, and becomes the rallying cry that positions you as a positive player in a much larger industry or global narrative.

Testing Your Framework

Once you’ve landed on a messaging framework and your execs have shared it with the team, you’ve given everyone the tool and permission to launch more assets into the world. This should reduce bottlenecks and cut time on manager approvals. This alone is validation that the time spent on a messaging framework is time well spent. Further analysis of public comments, customer feedback, site engagement, and search campaigns etc. will also tell you what is sticking and what needs further tweaking. In essence, you’re never quite done with messaging, but you need to start now. If you understand what it takes to build a sustainable and useful developer or enterprise startup, then you also understand that all aspects of your company will continue to evolve over time. Messaging is no exception.

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