Messaging is one of the hardest things startups do, particularly startups in emerging markets. Your marketing messages need to describe what you do in a way that is both easy to understand and also illustrates the unique value that your solution can deliver. Often the most challenging part for startups is that the market category is not yet well-defined. The messaging therefore, not only needs to describe your product, but the whole reason that product category should exist.

Folks in established markets take shortcuts you may not even notice

Established products, have the luxury of working from an established frame of reference.  For example, when can simply describe itself as the leader in CRM.  Their customers understand what CRM is, why you might want a CRM system, the value a CRM system can bring to the table, etc.  All they have to do it state why they are different, hence you get “The world’s most popular CRM software as a service” or more recently “The leader in CRM and cloud computing”.   Simple right? Now imagine how much more difficult it would be to describe what Salesforce does if you didn’t what what CRM was.

Other really large companies will simply assume you understand what they do and skip that step entirely.  Accenture for example makes no attempt to tell you what it does beyond “High Performance, Delivered.” (although, they do use the phrase “Global Management Consulting, Technology and Outsourcing service as the title text for their home page).  Oracle states that they are simply “hardware and software, engineered to work together” and IBM is just, well, IBM. Frankly, we know what these companies do already, and it’s my guess that they only worry about how customers define that when they are trying to stretch beyond what we think they do.

A frame of reference can help prospects understand what you do

As a smaller company you might look at those companies and assume that you can get away with the same shortcuts, but you can’t. For most startups you’ll have to go through the work of articulating the value you provide in simple terms that are meaningful for your customers.  For some startups this means giving customers a frame of reference so that they understand what you are talking about.  That frame of reference can take many forms:

  1. Your target industry – putting a frame of reference around a particular industry goes a long way to help customers put your value proposition in context.  An information sharing service for Banking for example would be very different from an information sharing service for Hospitals.
  2. Your target demographic or profile – like target industry it can help prospects understand what you do by better understanding who it is for.
  3. Adjacent market categories – this one is a bit tricky to pull off because the minute you mention a category, you will be associated with it but in some cases it can be helpful. Twitter for example was a difficult service to describe at first but the term “micro-blogging” gave people an idea of what it was about when there was little else to compare it to.

A caution: Be careful about using a company as a frame of reference.  I’ve seen some startups describe themselves as “The YouTube of XXX” and in some cases I think that works well but the obvious problem with attaching yourself to a company (rather than a market) is that companies get acquired, change their focus, go bankrupt, and in some cases make colossal blunders that you may not want your brand associated with.

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