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As a product marketer, it’s hopefully no secret that it’s our responsibility to decide how we talk about our product. While we may not control every piece of marketing communication or sales scripts, it’s our responsibility to equip customer-facing teams with the “bumper lanes” they need to craft a consistent, impactful message about product. This core messaging should be treated with the utmost care.

In my past roles, this core messaging has already been in place and required minimal alterations given the maturity of the product. When I joined VTS, the existing messaging framework we had (which was for the most part a list of features) rapidly became out of date given product development was happening at breakneck speed. After conquering our pricing and packaging overhaul, my attention turned to ensuring we were articulating the value and ROI of our product so that we could command our new, premium prices.

I hope this article is helpful for product marketers finding themselves needing to create a product messaging framework from scratch or revise their existing one.

Your product will grow out of its messaging just like a child grows out of his clothes every year

For those of us operating in growth stage companies, this responsibility becomes more challenging. Products evolve at what seems like a breakneck pace. Your product will likely look completely different in 6 or 12 months time. The product expands, contracts and sometimes pivots into new territory. As this happens, the messaging “clothes” that fit it earlier in the year are likely too small, tattered or torn.

I’d venture a healthy guess that most companies don’t “buy new clothes” often enough. Even if your product’s messaging “clothes” don’t “fit,” are they still “in style”? Yes, your bell bottom jeans from the 80’s may still fit, but are they portraying your product in the best light? The only constant in technology and software is change itself, so it’s important to keep up with the times and the changing behaviors of your buyers. Messages that resonated a year or two ago may be “table stakes” now.

When’s the last time you looked in the mirror to see if your product needed a new messaging “suit”?

How often should you re-evaluate your product messaging?

Like pricing, collateral and sales enablement tools, product marketers should review messaging regularly. How often you should revisit messaging will be governed by the pace of 3 things – how fast your company is growing, how fast the market landscape is moving and how fast you’re developing product.

For early stage companies, I recommend you revisit brand and product messaging quarterly. Nascent companies are like baby giraffes trying to walk for the first time. There’s a lot to learn from the market and you’re going to be making changes frequently, to just about everything. It’s important that you update your brand and product messaging as your product changes and you learn more about your audience.

For growth stage companies, I recommend revisiting messaging 1-2 times per year. While you may not be stumbling all over the place anymore, there’s still plenty of learnings from the market to incorporate into your messaging. Make sure you’re gathering feedback from prospects on win/loss calls, keeping a pulse on how competitors are messaging their solutions (and how this is changing over time) and what angles your salespeople have found resonate best.

Have ideas of your own that you think may be a better way to describe your product and its value? Beta test them with a customer advisory group or market panel. Messaging can also be scientific!

Product marketing plays a role in brand-level positioning, because much of your brand is your product

Software companies are built around software products. All companies are built around products. Without products (services are “products”), companies wouldn’t exist. For this reason, much of a company’s brand-level messaging will be determined or influenced by product messaging, and vice versa. The two need to be sisters, not enemies. Ultimate ownership of brand-level messaging varies from company to company. Most companies I’ve operated in, Product Marketing has owned product- and brand-level messaging.

That said, I often observe a power struggle between Marketing and Product Marketing in regards to brand-level messaging. Aside from being frustrating and counterproductive, this can be incredibly damaging to a company’s reputation and perception in the market. Why? Because inconsistent messages erode trust.

Sadly, these power struggles are usually the product of valuing opinions over data or being trapped in a culture of consensus. What’s the best way to fight this? Data. Test all of your messaging with customer advisory groups or prospect panels. Talk to Sales and ask which messages are working. Talk to customers and survey them on which areas of the product are most valuable to them. Document the feedback you’re getting and use it to overrule opinions. Create a culture of testing and continuous improvement to replace the one of consensus.

A centralized messaging document is the best way to create consistency and unity

Impactful messaging is beautiful. It feels really good to arrive at a story that resonates with the market and does your product justice. But don’t stop here!

Even if companies have tested their way to optimal messaging, I’ve seen it all fall apart because there’s no internal resource where the messaging is eternalized. Without a stylebook of sorts, it’s easy for people to “leave the trail” and start telling (butchering) their own version of your perfect messaging. Easiest way to prevent this and hold people accountable? An internal messaging doc.  

Ideally, this doc covers brand- and product-level messaging. Doing so covers all bases and makes it easier to hold everyone accountable. Mailchimp has a great example of an internal style guide (though it doesn’t really cover their product).

Whatever yours winds up looking like, it should cover brand-level items like overall brand voice and tone, company positioning (short/medium/long), grammar decisions (do you write ebook, e-book or Ebook?) and practices for writing a variety of customer-facing communication. It should also contain product-level items like descriptions for each product, value pillars with supporting points and other snippets people can copy/paste into whatever they’re working on.

If done right, all verbal and written communication about your brand and product is consistent because everyone is referencing or copying/pasting from this document. Viola!

The bottom line

Your product will outgrow its messaging over time. Make sure you’re re-evaluating your messaging at least annually and giving it a refresh when needed. Ensure that brand- and product-level messaging are sisters, not enemies. Use data and feedback to make messaging scientific. And finally, for the love of keeping your messaging sacred, install a centralized ‘source of truth’ to get everyone speaking the same language.

Need some more help with messaging or curious what my tools have looked like? Email me.

 

Justin Topliff

Justin Topliff

Director of Product Marketing, VTS

Justin is a product marketer specializing in venture backed early- and growth-stage tech companies. He has a decade of experience in product marketing, marketing and operations from a background spanning tech, venture capital and management consulting. Justin was recruited to start, build and scale product marketing at VTS after OpenView’s $21 million Series B investment and prior to Insight Venture Partner’s $55 million Series C investment. Before VTS, Justin helped build the product marketing function at Infusionsoft and grow the company from $60-$100 million in revenues throughout Series C & D investments from Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital.