7 Steps to Better Startup Value Propositions

Marketing messages and value propositions are notoriously difficult to create for startups. Startup founders have a tendency to focus too much on features and not enough on the value those features deliver. They also often spend too much time talking about features that don’t really differentiate them from their competitors or are simply irrelevant for their target markets. When working on marketing 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 method for getting to a simple set of value propositions that has worked for us: 1. List your target market segments. The more detail you can get around this the better – for example “Small Businesses” is not a segment, “Mid-sized law offices in North America” is. The segment should be well-defined with a clear need your solution addresses. For early-stage startups, you will generally only have 1 or at most 2 target segments. If you have more than that, you likely don’t have the resources to really go after them. 2. For each segment identify the primary buyer. For complex deals there will be multiple folks that influence a sale but for a simple value proposition exercise, it helps to start with the most important decision maker (you can come back and worry about messages for other buyers later). Again, this person should be well-defined which means you will likely have more than just general demographic data (i.e. people in their 20’s versus University students in Canada that spend more than $100 a year on games). 3. For each segment list...

Extreme Customer Insights: A Startup Marketing Secret Weapon

In my first startup marketing job I was given the task of attempting to call a couple hundred customers to try to rustle up a dozen or so customer references. That task opened my eyes to how important customer insight was for our startup’s marketing efforts. I quickly learned that there we things things we spent a lot of time talking about in our messages that customers simply didn’t care about. I learned that some of our assumptions about how customers made purchase decisions was deeply flawed. And I learned that there were a host of smaller improvements that I could make to our marketing as a result of the insight I gained on those calls. Since then, in every company I worked in, I’ve tried to create programs that helped us as a marketing team develop a “talking to customers” habit. This week I did a talk at Communitech’s Strategic Marketing Peer2Peer meeting and my topic was how to develop this habit, what questions I think marketers should focus on in these interviews and how you can use what you’ve learned in ways that go way beyond the traditional customer case study. Here are the slides (and scroll down for a summary of some of the key points). Extreme Customer Insight: Mastering the Marketing Secret Weapon from April Dunford How Do You Make Talking to Customers a Habit? Startup Marketers are busy folk dealing with shifting deadlines and priorities. Setting aside time to interact with customers and prospects can easily get pushed to the bottom of our priority list. Making customer interaction a habit often involves taking a...
Startup Storytelling and Media Coverage

Startup Storytelling and Media Coverage

Mark Suster had a great post recently on whether or not a startup should announce their funding that was really more about what are considered “newsworthy” stories for modern blogs and media outlets. Mark makes a good point that it used to be that funding was not really a story in its own right and today it is. This week I also had a related set of conversations with startups that went like this: “We know media coverage works for us because when we first announced we got a bunch of media coverage resulting in a slew of new signups. Now we have nothing to talk about. What should we do?” The solution to this problem is in changing the way you think about what is a newsworthy story versus what isn’t. Audience First, Story Second The first step is to list the blogs/media outlets that your target prospects read and pay attention to. Next you can categorize them into the types of stories they cover. For example you might have a small business payments solution and your media list includes sites that cover startup news, sites that cover news related to small businesses in general and others that cover e-commerce related things. The stories for these sites may have some overlap but there are probably big differences too. For example the startup site might be interested in a story about how you assembled an advisory board for your startup and your lessons learned from that. The Small Business site might like a story about what your customer data tells you about how different small businesses are doing payments. The...

Startup Branding and Selling to Martians

This week I read a couple of blog posts on the topic of Branding for startups that bothered me. Both posts tried to make the same 2 points about startup marketing: Branding is THE most important facet of startup marketing Branding is about how your offering resonates EMOTIONALLY with the buyer NOT the benefit you provide. The example used was home cleaning products where the benefit was “cleaning the house” where the “branding” focus should have been “creating more family time”. This a classic example of advice that would be very good for a company in an established market but disastrous for a startup. Positioning in an established market is very different from positioning in one that isn’t. Startup prospects are starting at a different spot on the purchase path. If you are selling soap, you don’t have to worry about defining what soap is, what it does or why you might want to buy some. The biggest worry the soap seller has is differentiating themselves from the other soaps out there. Since soap is all pretty much the same it’s going to be hard to do on technical merits (although there are loads consumer products that attempt to do just that such as dishwasher soap with “breakthrough multi-chamber technology” and  toilet paper that doesn’t leave little bits behind) so getting to the intangible stuff right away might be your only hope. Most startups don’t operate in established markets – they are either breaking ground in new markets, operating at the intersection of markets, or trying to re-define a market. Selling in markets like these is a bit like...
A Value Proposition Worksheet

A Value Proposition Worksheet

Creating a great value proposition is a critical step in building good marketing messages but writing effective value propositions isn’t easy. Marketing schools still teach the standard for creating value propositions from Crossing the Chasm that looks like this: For (bulls-eye customer), Who (purchase motivation), Our product is a (customer language), That (benefit), Unlike (competitors), Ours (differentiators), At a price (vs. competitors). I wrote a post on this style of value proposition a while back and another on how you might craft a set of simple value statements. Lately however I’ve been thinking that there’s a step missing from the way we traditionally create these, namely the step that shows how you got to the value proposition in the first place. Why a Value Proposition Worksheet? Your value propositions will be based on a set of facts and assumptions. The assumptions will shift or become facts as you run experiments and execute on marketing programs. The facts will change too, as you evolve who your ideal target customers are, as new competitors enter the market, and as your own product changes with additional releases. I’ve been using variations on the template (I sometimes refer to this an “offering template”) for a while and I think it works:   What Do You Do? – this is the simple statement that describes what you offering does. This isn’t the value you provide (that comes later) but rather the starting point of how you would frame what you do for someone you have never pitched before. Competitive Alternatives – this is what a prospect would see as an alternative to using your offering. It could be “do nothing” or “hire someone” or...
Startup Marketing: Does the Competition Matter?

Startup Marketing: Does the Competition Matter?

I have heard people make the argument that startups shouldn’t think about their competitors. I agree that many spend too much time worrying about how their feature set stacks up against another offering’s feature set. On the other hand, prospects are evaluating your solution against alternatives (which may not be products) and communicating how you are better than those alternatives is a key part of great startup marketing. Simply put – you should care about competitive alternatives if your prospects do. Startups are not Big Companies I very rarely see useful competitive analysis done by startup marketers, mainly because they are trying to do it like big companies do it. The big companies I’ve worked for have had departments dedicated to creating large detailed check mark matrices that showed how our feature set compared to competitive offerings. These matrices almost never included any feedback from customers. Needless to say, the products and their markets were very mature. This approach completely falls apart within the context of a startup. Your competitors, from a customer point of view are almost never so easily defined. For startups, your offering is often competing with “do nothing”, “hire someone to do it”, use spreadsheets/documents/paper, or some other solution that might be completely unsuited to the task but is free/easy/what has always been used. Comparing features of one of these alternatives to your startup’s offering to makes absolutely no sense in this context. A More Customer-Centric Approach In the context of a startup the only competitive analysis that makes sense is the one that is happening in side the heads of your prospects. The more you...
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