I’ve heard people say that startups should build marketing messages that a grandmother can understand (where “grandmother” is short form for “clueless non-technical person”). There’s some obviously uncool stereotyping going on there (I say that as an engineer old enough to be a granny, albeit only if both I and my fictional offspring had managed to produce kids at a young age, but still) but that’s not the only reason I hate that cliche. I hate it because building messages for a fictional clueless person just doesn’t make any marketing sense, particularly for a startup.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for simplicity and if nothing else, the exercise of “writing for your grandmother” gets you thinking about an audience that might not be as technology-savvy as you are. But at the same time, WHO that audience is matters a lot.

Great messaging starts with a deep understanding of the market you are targeting. A market is defined by a common set of needs primarily, but markets also tend to have a common language, a common level of understanding of a technologies/products/services, and sometimes they have a common set of beliefs, experiences or even iconography. Great messages resonate with target markets when they are built with those commonalities in mind.

Here’s an example. I met the guys from Wave Accounting a couple weeks ago – they are a startup that provides an online accounting solution for small businesses. On their home page is a picture of a shoe box full of receipts (it’s a video but that’s what you see before you hit play) and the following message:

Shoebox accounting stops now.

Spreadsheets and shoeboxes full of receipts are a pain. Wave gets you on top of your accounting, fast and easy, so that you can spend your time on…well…anything other than accounting. And Wave is totally free.

So how do you feel when you look at that page? The answer depends on who you are. I can tell you I’ve run a small business and when I look at that shoebox I feel dread. I hate that frikkin’ shoe box! I’m thinking – Yes, Wave Accounting, solve my horrifying shoebox problem, please!

Do grandmothers get the shoebox creeps? They do if they run a small business. The ones that don’t are likely as ambivalent about that shoebox as neurosurgeons, factory line workers, new reporters, 6 year old boys, and anyone else who doesn’t run a small business. If Wave Accounting tried to message to everyone (or a generic non small business running grandmother) they would get rid of the shoebox, and with it, the magic connection they are making with small business owners on their web site right now.

I know what some of you are going to say next. “That’s fine for those guys but we’re the next YouTube so we HAVE to market to everyone because our market IS everyone!” It’s true that there are products out there that have a user base and a market so broad that they might have to market to pretty much anyone. But that isn’t you. You are a startup trying to get traction. The best way to do that is to focus on the market segments most likely to buy your stuff. At the very early stages you are marketing to early adopters within those segments. Early adopters are by definition not like everyone else! In fact they hate stuff that’s intended for everyone. ¬†You want to construct marketing messages that work for your target segments, not an imaginary grandmother stereotype.

So please, give my granny comrades a break and stay focused on your segment.