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Startup Messaging and Market Frame of Reference

Messaging is one of the hardest things startups do, particularly startups in emerging markets. Your marketing messages need to describe what you do in a way that is both easy to understand and also illustrates the unique value that your solution can deliver. Often the most challenging part for startups is that the market category is not yet well-defined. The messaging therefore, not only needs to describe your product, but the whole reason that product category should exist.

Folks in established markets take shortcuts you may not even notice

Established products, have the luxury of working from an established frame of reference.  For example, when can simply describe itself as the leader in CRM.  Their customers understand what CRM is, why you might want a CRM system, the value a CRM system can bring to the table, etc.  All they have to do it state why they are different, hence you get “The world’s most popular CRM software as a service” or more recently “The leader in CRM and cloud computing”.   Simple right? Now imagine how much more difficult it would be to describe what Salesforce does if you didn’t what what CRM was.

Other really large companies will simply assume you understand what they do and skip that step entirely.  Accenture for example makes no attempt to tell you what it does beyond “High Performance, Delivered.” (although, they do use the phrase “Global Management Consulting, Technology and Outsourcing service as the title text for their home page).  Oracle states that they are simply “hardware and software, engineered to work together” and IBM is just, well, IBM. Frankly, we know what these companies do already, and it’s my guess that they only worry about how customers define that when they are trying to stretch beyond what we think they do.

A frame of reference can help prospects understand what you do

As a smaller company you might look at those companies and assume that you can get away with the same shortcuts, but you can’t. For most startups you’ll have to go through the work of articulating the value you provide in simple terms that are meaningful for your customers.  For some startups this means giving customers a frame of reference so that they understand what you are talking about.  That frame of reference can take many forms:

  1. Your target industry – putting a frame of reference around a particular industry goes a long way to help customers put your value proposition in context.  An information sharing service for Banking for example would be very different from an information sharing service for Hospitals.
  2. Your target demographic or profile – like target industry it can help prospects understand what you do by better understanding who it is for.
  3. Adjacent market categories – this one is a bit tricky to pull off because the minute you mention a category, you will be associated with it but in some cases it can be helpful. Twitter for example was a difficult service to describe at first but the term “micro-blogging” gave people an idea of what it was about when there was little else to compare it to.

A caution: Be careful about using a company as a frame of reference.  I’ve seen some startups describe themselves as “The YouTube of XXX” and in some cases I think that works well but the obvious problem with attaching yourself to a company (rather than a market) is that companies get acquired, change their focus, go bankrupt, and in some cases make colossal blunders that you may not want your brand associated with.

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  1. I think a lot of online startups need to just focus more on the real value they can deliver and forget about trying to be things they aren’t. You are either a “game” or you aren’t and just adding a bunch of badges to your service doesn’t make it a game.

    • Hi Grayson,
      Thanks for the comment. I would tend to agree with you that putting a bit of game mechanics around your app doesn’t make it a game and certainly customers will see the difference. That said however, it’s interesting to look at apps like Foursquare, where they specifically never say the word “game” and instead focus on the word “rewards” which is ultimately where Foursquare delivers value to many users.

    • April,

      Great post.

      I have read all your posts since Scott Sehlhorst suggested I check out your great blog a few months ago. You’re awesome.

      As the founder of a firm that has created a product in a “market category [that] is not yet well-defined,” I enthusiastically agree with the thrust of your article. You mentioned examples related to the business behemoths Accenture, IBM, and Salesforce. Can you think of additional examples beyond Twitter in which start-ups have done a good job with messaging when their markets are not well-defined?


      • Hi Justin,
        Thanks so much (and sorry this took me a day to post, your comment got caught in my spam filter for some reason).
        I think that Foursquare is doing a good job of describing what they do right now – they aren’t really talking about a category per se but I love the simplicity of “a new way to explore your city” (versus some sort of mumbo jumbo about location-based services or talking about it being a “game” which in my opinion it really isn’t). I liked what Groupon did – they could have talked about “group buying” (a category that folks were talking about at the time they launched) and instead they distilled it down to “local daily deals”. It sounds simple, but the emphasis on “local deals” versus “group buy discounts” is significant. Unfortunately I can think of a ton of negative examples and very few positive ones – this stuff is really, really hard.

  2. Good post… it’s probably worth mentioning that there is a longer road as well – building a category.

    Dharmesh Shah and Hubspot being a great example in the creation of “Inbound Marketing”.

    It’s costly… but once it’s built, you own it.

    • Thanks for the comment Andrew. I’ve worked on a couple of products where we built a category and it’s true that once you get there it’s a great place to be. That doesn’t mean you can’t measure what you are doing on the way there. I’m sure the hubspot guys are tracking conversions and sell-through rates and all of the rest of it. Building a category doesn’t exclude measurement.


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