Messaging and Voice in the Growth Stage
May 22, 2018
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
― Jane Austen
With apologies to Jane Austen, one can paraphrase that most famous line from Pride and Prejudice and apply it to the communication essentials to growth stage companies.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an growth stage company in possession of a good idea, must be in want of an effective communication strategy.”
Having been involved in companies both big and small, I’ve seen a lot of corporate communication strategy inaction. Sometimes it works well. Other times, not so much. When a company has it dialed in, it’s clear that they have nailed the key essentials in communication: message and voice. It’s what you say and how you say it.
The best company, best products, best services, best value proposition are all moot if customers don’t know about said company, product, service or value prop. Restating the obvious in semi-pretentious economist speak, this is the idea of perfect information on the part of consumers. This means that consumers, whether they be individuals or organizations, have total knowledge of their options, the prices and attributes for whatever it is they’re looking for. It is a fundamental assumption of modern economic theory. It’s also too great an oversimplification and part of why people generally dislike economists.
Unfortunately, marketers don’t get a pass because it’s hard or the assumption is too big. The task of providing information to the customer falls on us. Often in a growth stage company, we don’t have the time to think about this with the day-to-day tasks facing marketing: got to stand up a website, plan a budget, get a PR strategy, define KPIs, make the coffee, etc. However, making time to think about this now will make so many of these other things fall more easily and quickly into a smart, logical framework. So let’s get started.
At its most basic, an effective communication strategy only consists of message (what you say) and voice (how you say it).
Message and voice are simple and intertwined. Get one right and you’ll be ahead of most companies in the growth stage. Get them both right and you can stride the Earth as a god among marketing mortals, smiting your competitors, earning tribute from analysts and journalists and making deep, god-like laughing noises from your positioning throne.
Messaging is the subject of a lot of business literature. Often in young companies, people will say, “we know the answer to this, we have messaging”. Then, when you walk around the office asking the employees, you’ll get as many answers as there are people. Many will cluster around key themes but there is no one “aha” and this is not something you can go free range and hope for the best. You have constrained resources: time, money and people. It’s a rocket. Get your messaging focused and it’s vectored thrust; fail and it’s a waste of fuel.
As high-stakes as it is, at its heart, messaging reduces down to a few simple but tough questions:
1. Who are you?
2. How can you help me?
3. What makes you different from everyone else?
Let’s break these down.
1. Who We Are
This is where you define why you exist. In marketing-speak, this is where people often get lost in mission statement and vision land. Positioning and mission statements are the subjects of a future posts but for now this is a simple-to-ask but complicated-to-answer question. It is the core of your communication strategy. Here are some things to think about to help get you to an answer with minimal existentialist angst.
Why did you start this business?
What do you believe in?
Where do you want to take your customers?
Get on the same page so that everyone in the company has the same core message. This seems like a no brainer and the problems occur when no brains are dedicated to this task. So think deeply about it. Debate. Argue. Adjourn and reconvene. Figure it out and write it down. Talk about it at you next all-hands meeting. Make sure everyone knows it.
Do you want a great example? Ask any employee of the premier hotel brand Ritz-Carleton and they’ll tell you that they are “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” Everything they do flows from that core belief and it shows.
2. Help Me
It’s amazing how often young companies fail to deliver a crisp summary what we do that makes things better for the customer. We are asking them to give us money. What are people getting for it? It’s not enough to use a 50 word description about your service or your product. Tell folks about what problem you are solving for them.
By framing it in the context of the customer’s need, not only do you get the chance to tell your story, you get the chance to establish rapport and demonstrate empathy. A BOGO by any other name, right?
3. What Makes You Different? A Very Particular Set of Skills
In the 2008 film, Taken, Liam Neeson menacingly tells the man who has kidnapped his daughter about his “particular set of skills” that he demonstrates with great violence through the remainder of the movie as he extracts both his daughter and his revenge.
For the purposes of messaging, this wording is a little too vague but it does make the point that your message is not complete without a clear and compelling story about what you do better than anyone else.
Al Reis and Jack Trout talk about this with a great example. Ask people who was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean? Most people will answer correctly: Charles Lindberg. Ask them who the second person was. Only hard-core fans of aviation history (or readers of Reis and Trout) have any idea. This person flew faster, used less fuel and was a better pilot. No one remembers him. FYI, it was Bert Hinkler.
The point here is that it’s easier and better to put your company, your product, or your service in a unique position in the mind of your customer. If you do not think about the position you want to occupy, your competitors, your market, and your customers will do this for you. You may not like where they put you so get in front of the process and drive the outcome.
Answer the question: what do you do better than anyone else?
Once you’ve figured out what you do best, how are you going to tell it? How you write for your marketing materials, your emails, Tweets, your other social media, the copy on your website—all of these points of engagement are a chance for you to create and define your voice.
The voice you pick should reflect your values. Are you reserved and formal? Are you casual and easy-going? Are you counter-establishment and revolutionary? What you stand for, what you do, how you do it all should be reinforced in words you choose, the design of your collateral, even the color of your materials.
I knew a company that promises to make certain processes simple and easy for the customers but when you went to their website, the writing was as impenetrable as a year-old fruitcake. It completely undid what it’s trying to sell. Rather than reinforcing simplicity, it screams the opposite.
It’s a mistake that many growth stage companies, especially those in tech, make. They’ve developed a technology or solution really complicated and cool and so they write about it in a way that is so complicated and uncool that customers can’t see the value.
Remember that stultifying prose does not make a better impression. Let Albert Einstein’s comment guide you. “If you can’t explain it to a 6 year old, you don’t know it yourself.”
To help you keep it simple, try running your copy through this Gunning-Fog calculator (http://gunning-fog-index.com/) to determine how complicated your prose is. It’s not perfect but it’s a good place to start.
Finally, remember that regardless of the kind of voice you want to present, simple, clean communication always wins. Always.
Putting it Together
Once you’ve decided on a message and a voice, stick to it. Be consistent. Go through the exercise to see what you want to say and how to say it. After that, make sure everyone knows it and everyone does it, every day. Every bit of print, electronic and every customer integration is an opportunity to drive this home with your team and to your customers.
Marketing is about storytelling. Focus on message and voice to tell your story consistently and well.