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Dear Founders: Start with Messaging Dana Oshiro

So here’s the thing: building the messaging framework isn’t a marketing exercise. It’s the act of answering the existential question: Why do we deserve to exist? This means you can’t build messaging by allowing the marketing lead or exec team to create a series of buzzwords in a vacuum. You need to do some discovery to uncover the promise you can make to customers today. You may have a much grander vision for your product or platform. That’s fine. Messaging evolves. But for today’s purposes of user acquisition and the creation of early messaging, you need to land on the basic principles of why anyone should bother trying your product, investing in your platform, and navigating any switching cost from perceived competitors.

A messaging framework, along with your persona document, can help you do a couple of things including:

  • Empowering your team to prioritize around a purpose, identity, and the needs of your core users;
  • Increasing productivity by removing approvals on every site change, sales deck or blog post; and,
  • Reminding you of the public 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.

An example of a messaging framework

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. Some of these discussions will get heated. My suggestion is to schedule a minimum of 3 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 persona (or should). Get specific here. Very few products are relevant to “all developers”. There is probably some technical criteria for success- existing tools, languages, frameworks, size of engineering org, etc. 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 and Supporting Examples: This is harder. Supporting examples might include common comments or frequently cited killer product features from early users, customers, and press. Look for patterns in what OTHERS claim is the reason you’re different. These may not support your aspirations for the product, but you’ll earn that in the future. For now, understand in real terms what you’re solving for and be willing to burn your totems. Once you’ve got some bullet points of real-world supporting examples, try to sort them into 3 thematic buckets. These themes then become your brand pillars. Do NOT start wordsmithing yet. These are just “idea buckets”.

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 founders and core executives are aligned and will use this to inform their direct reports. 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 product is the “first”, “stellar”,  and “best”. That might be true. But if that’s the case, just say what you need to and let the product speak for itself.

  1. Headline Benefits (25 words): Use your brand’s tone of voice and munge each brand pillar theme (and in some cases the core supporting example) into a single sentence. 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. Now check your work. Could the headline benefits be applied to other products? Competitors? Literally Google your benefit statements and see if you can further differentiate.
  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: What is the Big Hairy Goal?

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. This is where you can add the aspirational goals for the org. Create a 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 Messaging 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 build, publish and sell on theme. This should reduce bottlenecks and cut time on manager approvals. This alone is validation that the time spent on a messaging framework is valuable. Further analysis of public comments, customer feedback, site engagement, and search campaigns etc. will also tell you what is effective 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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