Messaging Balance: Two Traps to Avoid

Developing messaging for your company at any stage can be fraught with difficulty. Even when it seems straightforward, marketers tend to fall into one of two traps. These are well-illustrated by how companies in my industry, technology, have approached talking about themselves and their offerings.

Trap One: You Say You Want a Revolution …

This is the most common messaging mistake technology companies make, and I’ve seen this across many other industries. You want your offerings to be not only different, but also new and exciting. So you start making claims about how you will transform your customers’ lives or businesses, or about how your offering is the newest, most exciting thing anyone has ever seen. In tech, this sometimes takes the shape of claiming “you don’t even know you need this yet.” While there are some companies that can pull this off (Apple, historically), most can’t.

My friend and colleague, Martina Lauchengco, writes, “The Revolutionary Messaging Fallacy happens when those creating messaging make leaps into benefits or transformational language as if what their product did and why someone should care is already accomplished and understood” in her article cautioning against claiming to be too revolutionary.

The problem with trying to be revolutionary is that it’s limiting — often very limiting. Yes, some markets are ripe for disruption (and not necessarily technology-based), the vast majority of customers in most markets are looking for something to solve a particular problem (see Christensen’s book Competing Against Luck about how products are hired to do a job), and to solve it in a way they know and understand.

Side note: If you want to understand how much of your market is looking for proved vs. revolutionary solutions, consider a research project based on those suggested in Moore’s Crossing the Chasm.

Unless your intent is to address the small part of your market that can accept something revolutionary, stop trying to say you’re revolutionary. You’ll just scare off everyone else in your market.

Trap Two: Walk the Line

I’ve been around the technology industry long enough to see not just the disruption that can be created, but also the bandwagons on which everyone else tries to jump to get a piece of that disruption — whether in market share or in reputation by associating with the lead disruptor.

One of the trends most interesting to me as a marketer is the way companies try to become part of a particular trend or movement. The first one I was a part of was the “dot-com” trend of the late 1990s. For most companies, it wasn’t just a web address, it was how they told their own story. Even the largest companies wanted to jump on this bandwagon (do you remember when Sun Microsystems was “the dot in dot-com”?).

Then there was a bust, the dot-com market died, and in its place was the cringe-worthy “Web 2.0,” reflective logos and all. Even I am guilty of jumping in this bandwagon with “Learning 2.0” and “Sales 2.0.” Then Zuora showed up and wowed everyone by being the platform for the “Subscription Economy.” Every company wanted its own economy, and some jumped on the bandwagons of the “gig economy” and the “sharing economy”’ and even, in environmental circles, the “circular economy” referring to the market for reused and recycled products. Now, “economy” is running its course, and I’m starting to see companies calling themselves “the <blank> transformation,” as popularized by the book The Fourth Transformation (by Israel and Scoble).

If you haven’t guessed where I’m going here, the trap marketers can easily fall into is sounding like everyone else in the market. If a prospective customer who knows nothing about you can’t tell the difference between you and your competitors, and you can’t explain it in a sentence or two, you’re not going to win them over.

Balancing Act

If you can’t be revolutionary and you can’t be like everyone else, where should you be? To me, the answer is simple: What difference do you make in the lives of your customers?

I don’t mean that you save them $x or y minutes in some task. That’s not life-changing.

Here’s an example of what I mean by “life-changing”: When I sold a solution for sales leaders to better predict results, I would address a fear every single sales leader has: walking into their CEO’s office and telling her they were going to miss this quarter’s number (maybe, again). When we took away that fear and that conversation, we made a difference in their lives.

Ask yourself what difference you make in your customers’ lives. Explain how you do that better or differently than everyone else. Distill it into a story everyone can understand. Make that the crux of your message.

And let everyone else fall by the wayside as they fall into one of the traps.

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