November 5th, 2012

Writing a compelling key message

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Articulating a key message is one of the foundations of marketing. If you think of marketing as the communication of ideas to various groups of people with the goal of changing their behavior, then understanding what to convey to them is the first and most important step in the process. It’s only after you articulate the “what” that you can execute the “how,” or the creative side of the discipline.

What exactly is the key message? It’s the one thing you want to tell people about your startup. Think of it as a big, bold, benefits-driven statement that grabs people’s attention and explains why they should care, rather than a functional descriptor (“one sentence”) that simly tells what the product does.

The key message is sometimes known as a positioning statement because it positions your startup against competitors. But I don’t like this terminology because it sounds too technical and doesn’t immediately convey its meaning. Classic positioning statements are also structured in a very dry format which doesn’t exactly inspire creativity (eg "For [audience], [company] is the [product/service] that [benefit] because it has [reason]").

A key message sounds simple but it’s not, because it must meet two important criteria:

1. It needs to be independently compelling and believable. You, your company and your customers need to buy into it. No fluffy statements or BS.
2. It needs to be differentiated from competition. It doesn’t matter if your message is compelling if another company is already claiming it. It will fall on deaf ears or simply look disingenuous.

Note that the key message is not:

- A product description or functional spec. These only state what the product does, not the benefit it provides.
- A tagline, manifesto (sorry, Holstee) or ad campaign. These are creative interpretations of the key message.
- A mission or vision statement. These focus predominantly on the future, whereas a key message is grounded in the present.

Not surprisingly, a well-crafted key message takes time. Brand strategists at big advertising agencies spend weeks or months on this one statement, laying the foundation for creative folks who then find clever ways to express it. It simply doesn’t come out of thin air.

But why should startups care? I’ll put things into perspective:

- Most people will not have tried your app before you tell them about it, so your message will be a determining factor in changing their behavior.
- The novelty of the word “startup” is wearing thin as more and more people use the term, so just saying “hey, I’m cool” won’t be enough to grab people’s attention.
- A great message helps to differentiate roughly similar technologies, which is increasingly common in the startup world. Who remembers Gowalla or Jaiku?
- People are already exposed to 5,000+ marketing messages each day, so as different devices and platforms proliferate, their attention span will only get worse.

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WHERE STARTUPS FAIL

The problem is that most startup founders approach the key message in the wrong way. Many write cheesy taglines that don’t do justice to their product. Others craft key messages that are over functional and uninspiring. Still others try to say too much and never figure out what aspect of their product really makes people tick. Their key message usually looks something like this:

1) App X is a private social network for category Y.
This message is too functional and boring. It doesn’t explain why people should care about the product, or why they should use it instead of an obvious alternative (eg Facebook). To avoid running into this trap, think about the reason behind what you built and articulate that better.

2) App X lets you easily share photos with friends.
This message is not the least bit differentiating, as there are dozens of other apps that do the same thing (eg Instagram). Referencing a small feature like photo filters will probably not help - a larger philosophy or process is necessary to stand out. If you still have a hard time articulating your point of difference, you may want to revisit your core product. Note: a category message like “simple photo sharing” only works if you’re a first mover.

3) App X allows you to access your social history.
This message is focused too narrowly on one specific product feature, which means it will become obsolete if the business grows and the app adds new functionality. It would be better to broaden the message to a larger benefit, such as the positive feelings people derive from memories. 

4) App X does A, B and C.
You can only say one thing before you start losing your audience’s attention. So either pick the most prominent statement of the three, or find a thematic link to join them. Note: if you have a two-sided market like Lore, Skillshare and Codecademy (students + teachers) there are clever ways to express both sides of the story in one statement. As this gets into messaging architecture, it will be the topic of another post.

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COMPELLING KEY MESSAGES

So what does a compelling key message look like? To illustrate, I’ve compiled a few examples of top startups (and one VC) and explored several potential areas of focus for each. These statements are based on my assumptions of each business and what I think would grab the attention of their customers.

Duolingo
Duolingo makes language learning accessible to all. (focus: supporting a bigger cause)
Duolingo is a fun, social way to immerse yourself in a new culture. (focus: community)
Duolingo unlocks your potential as you master a new language. (focus: personal potential, game mechanics)

LaunchRock
LaunchRock guides startups through their earliest stages of growth. (focus: guidance, trusted partner)
LaunchRock supercharges the marketing efforts of startups. (focus: value add)
LaunchRock is an expert in launching and growing new companies. (focus: thought leadership)

Branch
Branch promotes high-quality dialogue on the web. (focus: dialogue)
Branch empowers people to engage in stimulating debate. (focus: empowerment)
Branch is your window into fascinating perspectives. (focus: different opinions)

Airbnb
Airbnb lets you live like the locals. (focus: the experience)
Airbnb opens the doors to homes around the world. (focus: access)
Airbnb inspires a richer travel experience. (focus: optimizing travel)

Bitly
Bitly makes web links more powerful and dynamic. (focus: web links) 
Bitly lets you organize and share interesting web content. (focus: organizing information) 
Bitly is the best way to experience stuff you care about online. (focus: experience)

Brewster
Brewster makes you a better friend. (focus: personal betterment)
Brewster creates more meaningful relationships. (focus: better relationships)
Brewster spurs you to take action on your address book. (focus: GSD)

Wanderfly
Wanderfly inspires excitement and anticipation for your journey. (actual key message)

Huntsy
Huntsy helps you realize your professional potential. (actual key message)

foursquare
4sq turns your life into a game. (focus: fun, gamification)
4sq helps you discover new places. (focus: location discovery)
4sq lets you make the most of where you are. (focus: optimizing life)

These key messages reflect foursquare’s evolution from a simple mobile game to a tool that lets you optimize your life better through its understanding of your location. 

Union Square Ventures
USV is the champion of networks that create, empower and transform. (focus: power of networks)
USV promotes an interconnected and open web. (focus: connectedness)
USV fuels the exchange of ideas in a connected world. (focus: idea exchange)

This example is taken from my USV design brief post. In one of my comments, I suggest to Fred Wilson that he should first articulate USV’s key message before doing the logo redesign.

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WRITING GUIDELINES

Now that you have a better feeling on a what a compelling key message looks like, here are a few guidelines for crafting your own:

- Keep it short and snappy. Convey one thing in ten words or less.
- Focus on the benefit. Remember, people don’t care about your product’s functionality, but the benefit it brings them. Get as emotional as possible.
- Use action words. Get your audience jazzed up with words like “empower,” “promote” and “supercharge,” and when possible, avoid passive words like “help,” “let” and “enable.”
- Allow room for future growth. Don’t be so specific that your message limits future communications, especially as you build out your feature set and functionality.
- Use positive statements. Say what you do, rather than what you don’t do. Also, avoid language that articulates your value relative to competition.

In terms of the process, I find that it helps to write out all of your startup’s potential key messages in a Google Doc so you can explore various facets of your product. As you elaborate on each specific message, evaluate its pros and cons to determine what specifically you like about it and what you don’t, as this will help you refine the language. You should then compare the key message against your competition to ensure that it holds up in the market. Once you have a few options, gather feedback from your co-founders and outside parties to help pick the winner.

I can’t stress enough the importance of crafting a compelling key message. It’s the foundation of everything you say about your company. As such, it should be one of the top priorities at your startups, an absolute necessity for getting it off the ground. Just because most startups have crappy messaging doesn’t mean yours should, too.

So take the time to understand the value you’re providing your customers that others don’t. Then craft a killer message that inspires action, sets you apart from competitors and makes it easy to communicate your product to the world.

Note: This post is part of my series on marketing fundamentals.

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I'm a founder, marketer and mobile consultant. These are my thoughts on building and growing technology startups.

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