Products can be like babies for founders and we all know what babies are like.  When we’re talking about MY baby, I’ve got a lot to say.  Look at her remarkable crawling technique! Her charming smile! And she smells like flowers!  Meanwhile there isn’t much to say about other babies that are just doing regular baby stuff like crawling and smiling and stinking like poop.

Much like proud parents, founders often go overboard with messaging by talking a lot about features that are either non-differentiating or irrelevant for their target market.  When working on messaging for startups, it’s often harder to get agreement on what NOT to say than it is to decide what should get talked about.

Here’s a strategy for getting to a simple value proposition that I’ve used that seems to work.

1.  List out your target segments and stack rank them.  If you don’t have a released product yet or are in the early stages of getting customer feedback, you won’t know exactly what these are but your research should give you some clues.  Here’s a hint – the whole wide world including people without a computer is not a segment.  I’ve yet to work with a company where we couldn’t identify at least 5 potential target segments that we could stack rank according to which ones we thought we had the best chances with.

2.  List your key differentiated points of value.  This isn’t a feature list.  It’s is a list of unique benefits that your features provide.  Things on this list should look like “Gives network managers better network visibility to stop a virus before it spreads”  or “Let’s you place a call to anyone without having to remember a phone number” or “Lets users create high quality videos they can share with their friends”.  It should not say things like “provides layer 4 visibility”, or “includes an identity repository” or “HD support”.  You are listing why customers care about the feature, not the feature itself or how it was implemented.  They also need to be different from what your competitors provide.  If alternative solutions for your segments provide the benefit (even if they do it in a different way), leave it off the list.

3. Rank the points of value against your target segments – Putting yourself in the customer’s shoes, rank the importance of that benefit to each of the segments as High, Medium or Low.

4. Pick the top 2 or 3 benefits and craft a value statement – Look at which ones ranked the highest for your segments, pick a couple and write your messages around them.  Be brutally honest at this step.  Customers coming to your site won’t read past bullet point #3 and if your top 3 benefits don’t get you a meeting with a client, the next 5 won’t either.  You can hit them with the longer list and the details later.  What you are trying to get to here is the essence of why people should be interested.  You are moving customers from “What the heck is this thing?” to “Tell me more.”  Craft a value statement that describes the key couple of benefits that your product provides for your most interesting segments and leave the rest out.  Coming back to my baby analogy – I can easily look at a couple of photos of your baby and decide for myself if he’s cute or not.  Showing me another 50 isn’t going to change my mind.

5.  Refine it forever – The simultaneously fantastic and horrifying thing about messaging is that you are never done.  Messages can always be better.  The more you interact with customers and collect feedback and see the way your product is being used, the more you can refine (and sometimes completely re-write) your value statements.  If you haven’t touched your messages in a month, I can guarantee you they need an update.

I’ve covered traditional value proposition creation in my post Value Propositions 101 and how to create a corporate one-line description in Can You Tell me What you Do?

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