Do Not Build Startup Messages for Your Grandmother

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.

51 thoughts on “Do Not Build Startup Messages for Your Grandmother”

  1. April,

    I totally agree that your messaging should be aimed at your target segment. It needs to resonate for them.

    However, I often see people that are so focussed on their niche that they forget to explain what they do in a way that everyone can understand.

    Why does this matter?
    1) Your whole network can pass the message on if they know what you do (yes, even your grandma)
    2) Many people you work with, including employees of your clients are not specialists (think HR, Accountants, Lawyers, Landlords…) your path will always be smoother if they understand
    3) Technical jargon may not translate well internationally and across industries
    4) Most importantly keeping your explanation simple, enables you to get your message across to your prospect quickly

    So yes, aim for your target but it’s even better if you can also keep it simple enough for Grandma.

    1. Hi Giles,
      I understand your point but that’s exactly what I am arguing against.
      The problem with targeting your message at everyone is that it is less likely to really resonate with the group that is most likely to pay money for your product or service. I don’t care if my whole network passes the message along to grandmothers if grandmothers aren’t my target market.
      I agree that you want to get your message across to your prospects quickly and using technical jargon is rarely helpful. But that doesn’t mean that a message that they understand quickly will be the same as a message that the whole world will understand quickly. The example I have above tried to illustrate that.
      What I am saying is that aim for your target, not the whole world.
      April

  2. I think you are spot on with this. I think that people think that they have to target everyone all of the time and it gets watered down to the point of utter ridiculousness. I think the biggest example is the brainless TV advertising you see that has been dumbed down beyond all recognition.

  3. If I’ve heard this once I’ve heard it a thousand times…that and “talk to your audience like they are six years old”. Seriously? So if they don’t get it and have a tantrum (i.e. don’t get me and don’t buy) it will be okay to give them a “timeout”?

    Ensuring that your message is being delivered to your target market in the manner – and the language – that they wish to receive it (in my mind) beats “cliche’s” anyday. Great food for thought April. Andy

  4. I don’t think that the notion of describing something “in a way your grandmother can understand” means what you think it means. I think that the spirit of the axiom is that should be able to communicate what his company does in a succinct message and not necessarily using language outside of the business vernacular.

    Nevertheless, I agree with your position. You’re 100% correct that the message should clearly state the value proposition to your target customer.

    At my last startup we sold enterprise architecture software that begged the use of esoteric terms like metamodeling, reified relationships, and governance concepts. In simple “grandma terms;” The company finds computers and software its customers can eliminate in order to reduce costs and risk. I firmly believe that if one cannot express his business in a simple way, then he doesn’t understand it.

    Thanks for a great blog I’ve been watching for years!

    –Ray

    1. Hey thanks Ray,
      Yes, there is a line to walk I think between dumbing it down completely (as a previous commenter noted) and making it simple for your target audience to understand.
      LOL – OMG – I’ve been doing this for years!?! 🙂
      Thanks!
      April

      1. From what I understand, that’s the battle of marketing. Getting the message across to your market.

        Saying it has to be readable by your grandmother is like saying, “it has to be simple enough for everyone to understand.” Everyone might understand the words their reading, but the marketing message won’t work for everyone who reads it.

  5. By marketing to the right people and not “everyone” you are probably going to be choosing and using the right keywords too.

    Rather than a watering down that might totally miss those you are targetting.

  6. Pingback: Do Not Build Startup Messages for Your Grandmother « The Best of Product Management

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