It’s not merely quaint to think of Samuel F.B. Morse, and his eponymous Morse code, as the first guy to imagine the internet. Morse code, and its dots and dashes, was of course a binary digital mechanism. While it didn’t avail itself of the full potential of the compressive power of communicating with bits and bytes, it kicked off a mathematical revolution that ties directly to the problem of messaging.
For the first time, it was possible to listen to people who weren’t there at that moment. But the fidelity of their message was complicated by a non-digital transport: morse code was information transported by an imperfectly binary system. Use of magnetic frequencies introduced noise.
Hence, a math problem: dots and dashes had a seemingly stable ratio; magnetic frequency thresholds were not discrete. But the same non-discrete properties enabled the mathematicians who established the foundations of information theory, starting with Harry Nyquist’s straightforward computation, in 1928, of the maximum available information capacity of a channel for a given unit time (2x the bandwidth, generally speaking), through to the role of error correction in establishing
“a bound on the maximum amount of error-free information per time unit that can be transmitted with a specified bandwidth in the presence of the noise interference, assuming that the signal power is bounded, and that the Gaussian noise process is characterized by a known power or power spectral density.“
In remote communications, Signal to Noise Ratio represents the likelihood that the receiver of a signal will get the information in it. It uses physics and everything.
In other words, the amount of error free information that you can transmit per unit time is less than 100% of the receiver’s capacity, because their attention is limited and you will never get all of it. In fact, when it comes to human capacity for receiving inbound communications, the telegraph likely is a closer proxy for the human Nyquist rate than more modern transports.
So how much attention do you really need?
Do you get it now? So what?
Let’s pause for a moment. How important was it convey the history of signal-to-noise modeling in order to point out that it’s hard to get attention?
I mean, duh: the receiver of your signal is a human, neither wholly digital nor wholly analog. And it doesn’t much matter whether preceding 300-word disquisition into the quantitative roots of signal-to-noise computation launched you into nostalgia or Wikipedia. There is a limit to the capacity of your receiver. A 300 word message is definitively not the correct answer. That moment of recognition helps, but “I get it” is not the only test you need to apply. It’s worse: you’re out trying to reach people who are predisposed to ignore you.
From a marketing perspective, a message is simply a memorable, repeatable idea. Not memorable or repeatable to you, but to people who are predisposed to ignore you. Even if they ‘get it’ like you got the S2N ratio analogy, it’s highly likely they’ll go back to ignoring you.
In the positioning statement we formulated earlier, we set forth a context in which there should be a clear and present need for the benefits Thing 2.0 provides. We also touched on the fact that novelty alone is insufficient.
So what makes a message repeatable and memorable? Much ink and money has been spilled on how individuals respond to the valence of a message. In the B2C world of impulse purchases, there’s a great deal of focus on cutting the cycle of action between the message and the action: get the message, buy the thing. You are targeted by some visual, verbal, olfactory signal. You made the decision, gave them money, and bought one.
But we’re in the world of Multi-Influencer Considered Purchases. You cannot rely on instant gratification to take a commercial transaction successfully from start to finish. At the same, time the same humans whom you are appealing to with the many and various virtues of Thing 2.0 surely have made impulse purchase decisions.
In fact, there is in fact some room for use some of the same principles that apply to impulse purchase, with respect. The mass markets created in the wake of the industrial revolution, broad-spectrum communications and the growth of consumer populations turned out to be a great proving ground for some basic principles that we can use here. Let’s take a look.
Remembering in the context of acceptability
For a surprisingly long stretch of the 20th century, logo and industrial design were dominated by Raymond Loewy, who was responsible for a broad spectrum of iconic visual designs. He designed the look of Air Force One, the Shell and BP and Exxon oil corporate logos, the Coca-Cola bottle, an innumerable number of Detroit-made cars and more — singlehandedly creating a look we instantly recognize as mid-century American.
Loewy referred to his approach as the “MAYA principle: Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.” In an age where innovation was more ‘Mythbusters’ than ‘Silicon Valley’, he recognized that assertions of a totally awesome tomorrow notwithstanding, people can only take in a limited amount of newness:
“The adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.”
The conditioned acceptance of a particular norm is a powerful way of describing context. For your audience to be ready to take in a message, they must have some set of norms into which the idea you wish to communicate to them must fit. It’s no accident that Loewy was particularly renowned for his design of logos:
“I’m looking for a very high index of visual retention … We want anyone who has seen the logotype even fleetingly to never forget it.”
Aiming for the intersection of ‘high index of visual retention’ and a fleeting glimpse is a high threshold for you to hit with an attention-penetrating message.
But it’s not magic: To improve the odds of penetrating your audience’s mechanisms for defending their attention from your efforts, aim your message squarely at a segment where there is “conditioned acceptance of a norm” relevant to your product. Context is king. Context lowers the incremental cost to your audience of sacrificing the attention they were paying to other things before you showed up.
When the a technical audience responds to the ‘great marketing’ of one offering or another, it is this resonance with context that underlies their appeal.
Certainly, there are other contexts besides a set of problems at work that might draw in an audience (the example I detest most vehemently: staffing tradeshow booths with women who know nothing about the topic at hand on the theory that most of the attendees are men). There is power to adding emotional context to any message in pursuit of memorability and repeatability.
Bear in the context of a complex technical decision, you rely on these emotions at your peril, because over time, they take on a life of their own, and the continued expenditure of emotion can tire your audience. Think how many great decisions are made with a sustained rush of adrenaline. At most, it’ll offer a short term boost. And relying 100% on emotional context signals your audience that the ideas alone are not enough to command attention.
Weaponizing your message
Let’s focus, then, on the repeatability and memorability of your message.
You’ve done the work of segmentation as described earlier to figure out exactly who you are (and are not) going after. You’ve even figured out some more about the context that constitutes the day-to-day norms in which your prospects live. But you still don’t have their attention. Why not?
When we allocate attention to one input or another, we’re making an active choice to ignore those things that are not important. It’s a normal defense mechanism: put up barriers to distraction by inputs you consider to be irrelevant. Most humans are good at this, adults more so than kids, and so forth. We use this mechanism to avoid the false temptation of multi-tasking, for example.
We can call the goal of getting past these defenses ‘weaponizing the message’ or ‘weaponizing the value proposition’. The name of the game is Establishing sustained repeatability and memorability means you don’t just need to get it past the defense of the first person who receives it; rather, it needs to reach more and more and more members of your target audience.
Since you’re aiming a benefit at a group of people who influence the decision, whoever gets your message is going to have to relay it to the other members of their team. Getting the attention of your first prospect is necessary, but not sufficient, because everyone they talk to about your offer is going to deploy the same defenses and hope to ignore what that other guy from the next cubicle is saying.
In a way, it’s good that each person who receives the message is equipped with the same types of defenses. The memorability and repeatability of your message has to pass three simple tests — so simple that they are comprised of a grand total of four words:
- So what?
- How so?
- Now what?
When you’re weaponizing your message (really your value proposition), you’re not just competing for one buyer’s attention. You’re arming an insurgency by which each member of your audience can successfully relay to others in their organization who need to be on board to get the company to give you the money.
Remember the surgeon who was alone with you in the operating? Context is rarely, if ever, limited to just one person in a complex Multi-Influencer Considered Purchase.
Your positioning statement helped you set forth the context in which Thing 2.0 can deliver enough benefit to make it worth the price you want to exact in the user’s attention. Let’s dig into our four-word/three question test.
- So what? establishes the difference between before and after, and requires you to package in just a few words the benefit you alone can deliver. It can speak to the consequence of buying or not buying what you’re selling. When you’re selling to a business, there’s a business problem behind every purchase, whether it’s about increasing profit, decreasing cost, or improving competitive advantage (it’s unlikely that your message will succeed by focusing directly on those questions, but you can’t ignore them).
Prospect Theory, the framework for evaluating human decision making in the face of risk devised by Kahneman and Tversky, established that perceived loss or gain are fundamentally asymmetric (in other words, negative value of loss increases at a rate greater than positive value of gain). A message that describes how Thing 2.0 reduces pain will often resonate more than a message that promises more awesomeness alone.
It is nice, but by no means an absolute requirement (in human decision-making, there are no absolutes), at least articulate the basics of differentiation in answer to so what. In fact, “so what” can just as easily construed as “What difference does it make?”
- How so? Assertions of differentiation are one thing, but establishing credibility with your audience means that you better be able to back it up. How do they know that what you say is true? How can you prove it?
Again, transmitting that proof into terms that your audience will understand, recall, and be able to repeat is absolutely essential. You may find yourself needing to provide the business justification to accompany the direct virtues of your product. If it requires a significant level of technical expertise to realize its benefits, you’re going to have to back up those more-better-faster capabilities with their impact on other considerations that the business has. You might start with the business motivations described earlier, but be sure to also to speak to how it would affect more than just one person in the organization.
Let’s risk another look at the consumer marketing toolkit: marketing copywriters are fond of saying that appeals must fear, greed, desire, guilt, exclusivity, anger, salvation, or flattery. That can reduce even further to exactly two sources of appeal: sex or death. (I hope you know which one you prefer.) Each of these has its appeal in the organizational context: more efficiency can speak to either less waste or more yield, and so forth.
In the section on the benefit hierarchy below, we’ll expand some more about how to choose the set of supporting benefits that best answer the ‘How so’ question. For example, you’d want to the engineer who’s going to buy this to be able get a meeting with the VP of IT in order to explain to her how the process of integrating this new software into the datacenter is going to be good for her, too.
- Now what? With impact and substantiation (that’s ‘so what’ and ‘how so’, but with more bits) , you’ve already accomplished much of what you set out to accomplish with your message. And you’re feeling proud of yourself that you’ve eloquently set forth the proposition for Thing 2.0 and could readily garner applause on stage. Congratulations, you’re ready for a career in stand-up marketing.
In all seriousness, stand-up marketing is an important skill, because the fight for attention is no joke. Comedy can work. People will feel good.
That’s not the goal. The goal is to get their money and make them successful.
In fact, it is here that most marketing efforts fall flat: there is no next step. Everyone came, cried, laughed, and got the t-shirt. Then the money ran out and the VCs sold the assets and tossed the employees out on the mercy of COBRA or the ACA (until that vanishes, too).
The most critical test of context in a marketing message is its ability to bring about a next step. The first, and most important step is repeatability, one of the two defining attributes of a message.
It is in the ‘Now what’ phase of the test that the context of your message faces its biggest challenge. At a minimum you have established the context of your value proposition and weaponized the message effectively, you’ll get more than repetition. You’ll get the best kind of attention there is: sustained, motivated attention.
The common understanding that words matter less than actions is rooted in the relative effort expended in each. When your message lands in the context of something that members of your audience are already doing, you win by telling them that they were moving in the right direction just by noticing you exist.
Having shared a mutually rewarding moment, what next? If you guessed ‘take a closer look at the dynamics of the complex Multi-Influencer purchase in its organizational context,’ you’re right.
If you were hoping that the next step would be an excited phone call from your prospect saying “WE GOTTA HAVE THAT! HOW MUCH MONEY DO YOU WANT,” you are getting ahead of yourself.
And even if you get a phone call, or an email, or even a website visit to download an e-book, real success will have your prospects discussing Thing 2.0 at a meeting. (You might even be invited.)
Let’s make sure you’re ready for that meeting.
The Benefits Hierarchy
Sequence vs. Hierarchy
Who doesn’t love a meeting? (The answer is ‘everyone’. Everyone doesn’t love a meeting.) Like it or not, meetings are the unavoidable side effect of the division of labor, and the necessarily imperfect assumptions that come with it.
(Won’t Slack or some other AI chatbot thing replace meetings? One can hope, of course, but don’t hold your breath. As we’ll see later on, it is the very similarity of ‘enterprise social networking’ (heaven help us all) to meetings that makes them important).
Whatever you might think of meetings, they happen either because someone doesn’t know something, someone doesn’t believe something, or both. Often that someone is more important than you, at least in some small way.
The good news about meetings is that they present a golden opportunity for you to set forth your value proposition. But there are at least two accompanying items of bad news that go with this. First, you might not be invited. Second, not everyone at the meeting is going to be predisposed to take your value proposition at face value. They’re going to ask for proof.
All of us have been to the meeting with That Guy Who Argues About Everything. It could be that arguing makes him feel better; charitably, it may be that he is out to ensure We Don’t Do Stupid Things (the latter is a powerful motivation; it has even been used to undergird a strategy for foreign policy in geopolitics that spans multiple theatres).
By dint of the excellence of your value proposition, you already have a willing advocate in the room, and they’re prepared to try to get other people nodding, and even repeating your message. However, everyone at the meeting is subject to one irreducible constraint: time. It’s limited and it’s strictly sequential, in a single direction.
What it means for successfully weaponizing the value proposition of Thing 2.0 is this: you are going to need more to back up your message, and those back-ups are the next thing to come into play after your message has been transmitted.
But what about the differentiation? The segmentation? The context? Wasn’t the message all about finding that most compelling single point to drive the prospect to swoon over Thing 2.0?
In the complex Multi-Influencer Considered Purchase, cycle time is never instantaneous. Everyone at that meeting is going to be forming an opinion about Thing 2.0, and you want that opinion to stick.
Didn’t the “How So” test of the message already provide sufficient validation of the claim you’re making for Thing 2.0? It did if you’re lucky, but only until the claim arrives at the meeting and has to face That Guy Who Argues About Everything.
Persuasion is nothing new; Aristotle wrote the book on it in the 4th century BC. He called it Rhetoric, “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” In the intervening 2400 or so years, efforts to describe a comprehensive schema of the means of persuasion have created a list of about 160 different types (people clearly had more time on their hands), from ‘acalectic’ to ‘zeugma’.
At least one of them refers indirectly to rhyming; none include painting yourself blue. And at least one enterprising advertising agency in Australia came up with 42 examples of such ‘proof points’ in marketing campaigns.
Feel free to cross reference them with Aristotelian rhetoric archetypes in your spare time. Now, let’s get back to the meeting, folks?
At the core of your is a problem statement. Your messaging claims that you can credibly aspire right to world domination in solving for that problem. It has to be the most compelling reason to even be on the meeting agenda. And you made it!
But it isn’t enough to get on the agenda, because in reality, your audience will have begin a deliberation, tied to the nature of sequential time. The series of benefits of Thing 2.0 is going to be discussed one item after another, as meeting participants work their way through a single conversation in which they put the claim in your value proposition to the test.
This is the part where they consider: they decide whether your proposition is plausible, confirmable, or busted, by working their way through three concerns:
- Allocate their precious time rather than ignoring it
- Get comfortable with the risks of choosing to buy it
- Make it work after the purchase
Saying it does not make it so: you need to identify additional ways in which to let other people in on the reasons that your claim for Thing 2.0 is credible. Those secondary benefits is what you want those people talking about.
Putting secondary benefits to work
That’s right, it’s time for consideration and Multiple Influencers. Given that the single most compelling reason to buy it has already been set forth by framing it as the benefit implicit in solving the problem (“Too slow? Thing 2.0 is faster!”), you’re going to have to provide secondary supporting benefits that address the risks of buying it (or not buying it) and using it (or not).
What makes this set of benefits ‘secondary’ is that no meaningful technical problem exists in isolation. And by giving some thought to your primary problem, you can generally come up with related concerns that will be on the agenda.
This is where you to have to come up with additional benefits that you can add to the discussion at the meeting. Let’s look at examples, cited from a handful of websites for technical products:
|Product: Splunk Cloud, http://www.splunk.com
Product: Tableau Desktop, http://www.tableau.com/products/desktop
Product: Applied Microstructures MVD-100E, http://www.appliedmst.com/mvd-100e/
Product: Packet.net, http://www.packet.net
Product: Identified Technologies Drones as a Service, http://www.identifiedtech.com
One thing you’ll notice is that secondary benefits — and in some cases the primary benefit — can be stated as a feature, a thing the product has rather than does. While much classic marketing and sales thinking advocates “selling the hole and not the drill”, this is a two edged sword.
For many technical products, a feature equals a benefit. Imagine you are selling a screwdriver. Which of these benefit statements would you consider an insult to your intelligence?
- A: Because our screwdriver is equipped with a phillips-head bit, you get increased torque and less rotational slippage
- B: It’s a Phillips-head screwdriver
The fit-for-purpose nature of a lot of technology means that you can credibly speak to a its utility by saying ‘it has one of those’. Another reason that you can blur the line between features and benefits is that it’s likely that there’s some technical talent sitting around the table, and they want to know how it works.
Where the sword cuts in the other direction is that certain technologies generate a lot of enthusiasm by like-minded technologist to the point where their names start to sound like magic words:
“using Artificial Intelligence!”
While the technical accomplishments of the phillips-head screwdriver have not generated much enthusiasm in a couple of centuries, marketers and engineers have successfully whipped one another into a froth on a fairly regular basis with magic words like these.
Some contend that the benefits of such technologies are self-evident; it’s best you don’t fall for it. Try adding Artificial Intelligence to any of the above product examples. The fact that it fits pretty much universally indicates it’s a waste of precious attention, and does not advance your objective of preventing your claim from getting busted.
There’s a more important reason to avoid these universally applicable techno-buzz-phrases: you’ve forsaken the opportunity to win more of those Multiple Influencers to consider your value proposition in light of additional problems they would like to solve.
Is the security guy at that meeting? Let’s hope he’s not That Guy. And even if he is, and you think there’s a reasonable chance he’s worn down the opposition to His Highly Valuable Perspective before, show him some sympathy and include his problem in your secondary benefits.
Great news! The meeting is now over, and thanks to your clever orchestration of a benefits hierarchy you’ve accomplished the following:
- Established the repeatable, memorable idea that Thing 2.0 can solve a problem common to many of the Multiple Influencers and build consensus around to do that Considering
- Got each of the Multiple Influencers can feeling special about you, because the secondary benefits that solve supporting problems made them feel like there is something for everyone.
The reward for this successful outcome, you guessed it, is another meeting. More meetings constitute an increased commitment of time, which means your value proposition is sticking. And if it’s really working well, you’ll definitely get invited — or at least that sales person with the glib one liners, the great hair and the expensive car will go to help the Multiple Influencers Consider how to hand over money.
A good benefits hierarchy will help that salesperson learn even more about the set of problems that the prospective customer has. If you’ve been extremely effective, the guy or woman from sales can spend more time learning about what really makes solving those problems worth a whole bunch of money.
World domination awaits.
And if there isn’t a successful meeting?
Notwithstanding the meeting scenario above, getting a meeting is really hard. If it goes the way it described above, you will have well and truly nailed it. But be prepared: it probably won’t.
What could go wrong? We’ll outline those alternate scenarios in just a moment. Before we do, please be reassured: much in the topics covered in the chapters ahead is targeted exactly to that more likely scenario, in which you do not get the meeting, at least not on the first try. Since failure to Get That Meeting is the most likely scenario, you’ll likely find those useful.
Now, let’s deal with the fallout of not getting that meeting. What happened? Here are several scenarios:
- Imperfect fit of messaging and benefits hierarchy: This is the most likely reason that there has not yet been meeting to deem your claims confirmable and worth big bucks to all concerned. The most immediate remedy is to admit that you have not yet gotten the benefits exactly right for a target market, and try a different combination.
- (1) demote the primary benefit and promote a different secondary benefit
- (2) reconsider which of the potential customer’s problems merit mention in the benefits hierarchy altogether
- (3) reconsider whether you have aimed at the right potential customer to begin with.
- (4) Do more research with existing customers or experts in the field to see whether the benefits you set forth seem valuable
In fact, unless you are in a mature marketplace where everyone understands all there is to know about Thing 2.0, you are going to have to apply these remedies again and again.
More often than not, you’re going to tackling market opportunities where not all the rules are written and common assumptions are still wide open. The benefit hierarchy will need continuous refinement. And that’s okay. Every time you expose your benefits to potential prospects, you are testing the value proposition, positioning, and benefits. More testing means more learning.
- There was only one person at the meeting besides you: So much for winning the popularity contest on the first round. Why was there only one person? First, consider the possibilities of the previous scenario. More likely, however, you’ve not been able to reach the person who gets to call meetings, or the one person is not yet persuaded she should get you in front of a larger crowd. Maybe you are not talking to the right person at all, and it was a mistake to go to the meeting?
Despair not. This is an outstanding opportunity to learn more about what problems surround those that you solve, and to get super specific about what financially valuable success for that one person’s company might look like.
The answer could be ‘never mind’; but if you’re in that meeting, learn about people who go to other meetings that you might profitably reach. Some of those people will have the power to decide to spend money on you. Mind you, they won’t do it because of your charm; they’ll do it because the problems Thing 2.0 can fix are worth more money to them than they plan to pay you. The more you know about who’s going to contribute what perspective to the complex consideration by the Multiple Influencer purchase, the better prepared you can be.
The worst case is that you talking to this person was a complete waste of time, and you learned nothing from them directly. Even here, despair is uncalled for. You have practiced presenting your value proposition, and can safely invest your time and efforts other customers.
- There was no meeting at all. The ugly truth is that this is the most likely scenario. People are busy, and as we established before, everyone does not love meetings. Doing something they do not love is a high bar, and they’re already getting paid by someone other than you to do other things. Perhaps the problems that Thing 2.0 solves are not urgent enough to merit more attention, for that customer. Are they for other customers?
Have you understood the problems of Thing 2.0 in the eyes of the customer? This is a more common adjustment of nuance than you might think. Referring to something as ‘faster’ and ‘more productive’ may mean the same thing to you, but it may not to your customer.
Consider the following scenario for the different two different meanings. For some arbitrary customer, the benefits of Thing 2.0 accrue to the Vice President of Business Outcomes; she measures her success in how quickly she can turnover her inventory.
However, within her company, she depends on the Vice President of Making Things Work. For him, he has a staff of Technical Types who will actually use Thing 2.0 every day, and they’re already working 60 hours a week, so ‘faster’ doesn’t really appeal. His biggest headache is retaining staff. For him, the job satisfaction his staff will get in using Thing 2.0, and its ability to speed things up by eliminating drudgery from Making Things Work, is the most valuable problem you can solve.
Getting a meeting with a member of the Making Things Work team is more likely when you talk about productivity than speed, in this scenario. Your benefits hierarchy may need to be adjusted to suit different kinds of meetings, or explicitly address different types of people.
- They didn’t believe your value proposition and still didn’t call a meeting. Wait, what? Wasn’t this one of the two reasons for meetings? In fact, what’s happened is that the proof points in your benefits hierarchy didn’t pass the ‘plausible’ test. It calls for providing different proof points, often exogenous to the product itself. In other words, go beyond explaining what the product has or does. Often, these proof points are complements to the benefits hierarchy rather than substitutes for it.
Alternate proof points:
- Expert quotes: If you are in an industry where there are recognized, relevant authorities, a citation from one of them about the merits of Thing 2.0. Some experts will provide testimonials from money, but are generally recognized as shills rather than objective critics. Words are good. Numbers are also good, although everyone knows that Your Actual Mileage May Vary, and numbers may exaggerate focus on one benefit at the expense of others.
- Media Coverage: If you have been written up in media source in some positive way, that helps your credibility and helps your potential advocates share ‘news’ with others.
- Logos from other customers: Some people like to go first. More people like to go second. Showing that others have taken the plunge can inspire some confidence, though it may not be possible to disclose details of that they’ve done.
- Quotes from other customers: A quote can require more work than a set of logos, but having someone who gave you money say good things about gives your propsects something to identify with, as in “If she did well with Thing 2.0, I bet I could too!” Quantifying their success is ideal, but just some adjectives from elsewhere works too.
- Explicit testimonials from other customers: What’s even better than knowing that someone else succeeded with Thing 2.0 is hearing how she did it. Again, quantification is good, but the fact that one of your other customers liked it so much that they would invest time to explain what they did is a single of value.
- Bakeoff! Explicit comparison to competitors can sometimes work, though they have limitations. In technical markets, it’s generally well understood that a list of features that you have but they don’t was crafted to exclude the ones they have that you don’t. One way this can work is if you tie performance to price — Thing 2.0 does as well as Brand X at 90% less money.
What ties all these meeting failure modes together? They are all opportunities for you to leverage a truly suite of different marketing vehicles in pursuit of your prospects’ attention. We’ll explore those in the sections ahead.