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Lousy Marketing Messages: 5 Causes and Solutions

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.




  1. April,

    Great post!

    One more to add to the list (or add under your cultural section)- the CEO/Founder/Product Expert doesn’t get storytelling and wants to tell the entire story all at once. Instead of turning out a creative, on point message to introduce the product, the story becomes bloated, generic, confusing, or desperate.

    I think the root cause of this is not wanting to leave out a feature or a use case that might be important and not being able to prioritize your benefits/targets. This may be also being a function of not getting marketing or really understanding the buying process.



    • Hey Josh,
      Yeah, I’ve been there. I put this into the category of “not getting it” but you are right – this is a specific and common problem.
      I find that a lot of founders don’t want to message for their target segments because they think they might be losing business by not messaging to everyone. This drives me absolutely nuts because by messaging to everyone, you often appeal to nobody. That whole “message to everyone” style of thinking results in throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the message and voila! Horrible messages. I actually think the root of the problem is a fundamental disbelief in segmentation.
      Thanks for the comment!

  2. > All of this points the way to how you create great messages. The ingredients are: A great offering…

    … so now I want to learn how to make a great offer. I searched your site for the word “offer”. I found nothing specifically titled “How to make a great offering”, but I found 14 articles that looked very interesting, some even going back to 2008! Those articles linked to a few more articles until I read about 18 articles ( and 2 external to your site ) within a 1.75 hour period. I took notes and started developing a marketing concept document. I feel I am so much farther ahead compared to the head scratching that I was doing 2 hours ago when I started ” thinkin’ ’bout marketin’ “.

    I hope you realize how valuable your articles are to the average “programmer with an idea – but needs marketing advice” type like me. You are increasing our chances of success. Thank you April!

      • so in between jetting across the globe, can you find time to write an article about how to craft a great offering? 🙂

        i assume it must be a matter of knowing what your competition is offering, and doing it better, but it must also mean really understanding your customer demog mindset, and what is important to them (as in adding more features is probably not what they want…).

        Then what? Is cutting the price or offering a discount the anchor of a great offer, or is the offer something that they can’t get from anywhere else at the price you are selling at, and therefore the perceived value is high?

        Wait don’t answer yet! I’ll also through in this set of Ginsu Knives at no extra cost! and a couple of sham wow towels too!

        • I will see what I can do.
          In the meantime I am a big fan of Steve Blank’s “Four Steps to the Epiphany”. It’s a bit of a slog to read but the process he defines in there of customer-driven development is better than anything I will ever write.

  3. Here’s another way post-startup marketing teams might not get it, and in some cases the solution of more information can make it worse.

    The founders are insanely passionate (and to some extent naively passionate) about their stuff, and they tell insanely passionate stories.

    Time goes on, the company grows, they hire marketing people.

    Somebody asks “Are the stories still true? Are they still relevant?”

    In a panic, they start doing market and customer research to find their unique story.

    But the more they research the more they learn about their competitors, and the more they come to see the industry’s complexities and lose their ability to find a unique and true story in all of it. The more people they talk to the worse it seems to get.

    One way out is to bring in a fresh set of eyes, whether an outsider or a newcomer, whether an employee or consultant or customer, who might have the useful ignorance allowing them to see the shape of the whole elephant instead of its parts.

    April, what other approaches have you seen work to break out of this?

    • Hey Aldwin – that’s a great observation. It’s just awful when a company starts to second-guess their gut on what’s relevant and what isn’t and paying too much attention to what competitors are doing is a sure-fire way to water down your messages.
      I think the fresh set of eyes approach is a good one to start with. In my mind however, nothing beats a well-planned set of face to face customer meetings. Customers know what’s important to them and they usually don’t have a mile-long list. The trick (sometimes) is getting the rest of the team to buy into what the customers are telling you, especially if the resulting messaging is very simple. I think the team really needs to hear it from the customer themselves. If folks in the broader team can’t sit in on interviews, it helps to record them (video preferably but audio works too) so that folks get to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth.

      • Thanks April,

        I’d like to underline your qualifier, “well-planned”.

        It’s easy to drift off course by only getting partial answers. For example, customers might overemphasize what’s most urgently wrong with your stuff today, which might be different than what they really value about your offering once the crisis of the moment has passed.

        I’m curious about your approach to planning and asking the right questions. (I’ll start by checking your backlog.)

        • Hi Aldwin,
          You are right – customer interviews are really, really hard to get right. First of all I wouldn’t suggest you talk about your product at all in your line of questioning. In my experience customers will never tell you what to build. They are experts in problems (it’s your job to find the solutions) so it makes sense to stick to the problems.

  4. I was going to vote for #5, but then really, 2 – 5 are all places I have been.

    In fact, if you get saddled with marketing people who are indifferent to the technology, and can’t be bothered to immerse themselves in it, they will NEVER be able to do messaging. This is far more common than you would expect.

    Back to #5, I have seen this happen when the disease of cross functional team is mandated from the top down. It cultivates a fear of leadership, and decisiveness that really rots a great group.

    • Hey Geoffrey,
      You know, I had seen all of the others but I got my first real taste of #5 a couple of years ago and it was the most soul-sucking environment I have ever worked in as a marketer. There was no way to do great things there, everything was managed by a group that was not only dysfunctional but had absolutely no passion for the business whatsoever. Their main motivator was fear of getting in trouble with the board. I’m getting a terrible feeling just thinking about it.
      When you are in #5 you just have to get out. Only a new CEO is going to solve that problem.

  5. Nice post. Just saw it today and I agree. My biggest concern with bad messaging is how most companies and even their respected “marketers” want to simply “pat themselves on their back” with their message. It usually has nothing to do with the reader, viewer or listener, and that’s where the crime first happens. If you get a moment, have a look at my site and see what happens when Good Messages Go Bad. Check it out here:

  6. I’m firmly entrenched in a #3 situation at the moment. The culture here is well meaning, but the inclusiveness that permeates every decision makes the processes slow as molasses. It also renders my task of “refreshed corporate messaging” quite agonizing at times.

    Any advice? Inclusiveness is a culture that’s been built up here over many years.

    • That’s a hard one. Maybe the way to be inclusive but still move the process along is to include folks later in the process. For example you can present folks with different options and ask their input on which is better. You just want to stay as far away as you can from having a committee working on the starting points.
      Hope that helps,

      • Appreciate the feedback (and all the great content on your site as always). I think your right. Navigating my process around the culture will be a key. Otherwise the messaging risks looking like a series of disjointed top 5 lists from a David Letterman special.

        • Exactly! You can’t ignore the way the company does things and the culture they have (and frankly, it sounds like a nice place to work so nobody wants to wreck that). On the other hand, messaging is one of those things that doesn’t improve with more folks working on it. Giving folks a way to be involved that can move the process along but doesn’t mean everyone gets to create everything from scratch is probably a good way to compromise. There are probably other ways too.
          Good luck and let me know how it goes.


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