I was chatting with a startup CEO about marketing messages and how important it was to create a great story. His company has an awesome story and even though they only have a junior part-time marketer on staff, their messages are great. “I don’t get it,” he says to me “I see all this lousy messaging out there and yet we manage to do it! What’s wrong with people?”

That got me thinking. Why is there so much bad messaging out there? Here’s what I think:

1/ The Team Stinks at Message Creation – The company has a good story but the team stinks at message creation and can’t translate that story into compelling messages. In my example above, the company happens to have naturally great storytellers on staff so they don’t have this problem. Not every startup is so lucky.

Solution: Hire or rent some marketing talent. If you go with a consultant make sure they come with super references and make sure you stay heavily involved in the process. The output will be better that way and the team will get a better understanding of how to create messages. Caution: keep reading because this might not actually be the problem.

2/ Marketing Doesn’t Get It – The company has a good story but marketing (or whoever is creating the messaging), although great at message creation, lacks the understanding of either the offering or the market to really understand or believe the story. Messages are then created based on this (incomplete or flawed) understanding, resulting in weak messaging.

Solution: Either spend more time with the marketing folk making sure they get it or if that doesn’t work, hire someone with a background in your solutions and your market.

3/ Message by Committee – The company has a good story but everyone (including the IT person, the lawyer, the accountant and the late night pizza delivery guy) is allowed to edit it resulting in a watered-down mess that is a mere shadow of the great story the CEO tells in a sales meeting.

Solution: Let marketing work on drafts and narrow down the reviewers to a couple of folks maximum. In my experience marketing should create the messages with input from the CEO and a review cycle by the head of sales. That’s it.

4/ The Story Sucks – There is no compelling story to tell about the company or product therefore no matter how talented the marketer is, at best you will get mediocre messaging.

Solution: If you have any market traction at all this won’t be the case but some very early stage startups will land here. Usually there’s a story but you will have to talk to a bunch of happy customers to extract it. If there aren’t any happy customers, well, the offering is the problem and all the marketing in the world isn’t going to fix that.

5/ It’s Cultural – In my opinion, truly terrible messaging (from a company that’s not about to die) results from a perfect storm of institutional indifference and lack of marketing talent. First you have (incredibly bad) messaging created by developers, admin staff, indifferent contractors or pizza delivery folk. Next, the company does not believe messaging is important, thus creating the conditions where these lousy messages are allowed to see the light of day. Or maybe the second condition allows the first condition to occur. Chicken meet egg.

Solution: Marketing talent can only take you so far here and in my experience good marketers won’t stay where they aren’t appreciated. If you figure out how to fix this one, short of fixing the culture, I would love to hear about it.

(Side note: I can almost forgive startups for landing in this last state – if none of your founders have a marketing bent you might end up here. Strangely however, I find the worst messaging happens in mid-sized companies that did some great marketing when passionate founders still had a hand in it but later lost their way through a combination of bored/boring management and not being willing/able to pay for and retain decent marketing talent.)

The Ingredients for Great Messages

All of this points the way to how you create great messages. The ingredients are:

  • A great offering
  • A team that gets that message creation is important
  • Someone on the team that’s good at message creation

Marketing talent alone, isn’t going to cut it.