Developing a positioning statement is often done as a fill-in-the-blank “Mad Libs” exercise. The power of insightful positioning, however, goes right to the heart of how you are creating value, and for whom.
In marketing 101, you’re often instructed to create a positioning statement. It often looks something like this one, provided courtesy of the good people over at Zendesk (they have some excellent examples of positioning statements on the website referenced here.
Here’s the problem, as world-class positioning expert April Dunforth points out: This isn’t doing much to help you define your positioning, which needs to be at the very center of how you want your offering to be present in the world. Much of this article is based on April’s work, and I’d like to give her full credit for that.
Your initial positioning hypothesis is probably wrong
When you are launching something new, you are basically making hypotheses about what value your offering will create, for whom, and what you should get paid for doing that. As I have written about elsewhere, a huge part of the discovery driven planning process is testing as many of these assumptions as possible as you are building out your offering. But no matter how much you test, trial, beta and focus group your way into the market, there are always going to be surprises when your offering comes in contact with actual customers. A crucial part of the early launch process, therefore, is keeping your ears open to understanding how you might need to reposition your offering as you discover which customers are really passionate about your offer. You’ll also want to be cognizant that your early adopting customers may not be your eventual mainstream ones (as Geoffrey Moore has written about in his iconic book Crossing the Chasm).
The history of Twitter, is an example of how a venture whose founders thought it would do one thing ended up doing something entirely different once they were exposed to the market. As some recall, Twitter began as a sort of podcasting concept called Odeo. Once Apple got into the podcasting business, in 2005, announcing that it would include a free podcast network on iTunes and build it into every one of the millions of iPod music players it planned to ship, that spelled disaster for the fledgling business.
One of the team, Jack Dorsey, came up with an idea for a pivot – going from sending voice messages that Odeo would turn into Internet material to sending messages to people that would update their status. The team had a working prototype for Twitter by March of 2006.
The “light bulb” moment for how consequential the product could be happened in August of that year, when a small earthquake shook parts of California and Twitter users took to the platform to communicate with each other about it. The platform really took off in the Spring of 2007 when it featured prominently at the SXSW conference. Today, of course, we take Twitter for granted, but it wasn’t obvious at the outset that it would come to have such an outsize impact on communication, politics, and the national conversation.
This article describes other such post-launch pivots.
Working through positioning
That much being said, you have to start somewhere and be prepared to adapt. I’m following April Dunforth’s methodology here, which you can read all about in her blog. I can also highly recommend her book, Obviously Awesome on this topic.
1. Start with jobs to be done
The jobs to be done theory, which I’ve written about elsewhere, is also a great starting point for your positioning exercise. As April recommends, start by asking the question, “if you didn’t exist, what else would customers use?”. And don’t forget – the alternatives to whatever you are creating might be to simply do nothing, to hire an intern, to use a spreadsheet or to stick with whatever you’ve been doing forever, regardless of how effective, or not, it is. Further, sometimes the job you think you are solving for your customer is not the actual job, and sometimes solving the actual job won’t be attractive because it will make someone look bad.
For instance, an entrepreneur I know had this great product that could analyze when companies paid too much for stuff by comparing actual prices paid with prices listed on contracts. He found millions in savings in some instances! You’d think any large corporation would love to buy a product like that, right?
Not so fast. As it turns out, the product would fall under the administration of the procurement department. And that department is the one whose operations would have been revealed to have been overpaying for years! It’s not surprising that procurement leaders weren’t lining up to buy the software. My entrepreneur had to pivot his product from selling to procurement to selling to more financially-motivated buyers like private-equity firms who used it when they first took over a company to find cost savings and efficiencies.
You can think of this step of the process as creating the context within which your customer will come to understand what you’re offering. Analogies are incredibly helpful – for instance, when Siri was first incorporated into phones, the analogy was to a human personal assistant. That helped people put into context what the thing did.
2. Now connect the jobs to the features in your offering.
You need to be able to succinctly describe what it is that your offering does that solves a very specific problem in a unique way.
Hubspot, for instance, was one of the first software as a service offerings to capitalize on the ability to manage “inbound” marketing flows and support entire customer journeys for smaller organizations that couldn’t afford or manage something like Salesforce. By combining marketing, outbound communication and sales tracking, it enjoyed substantial growth and is a fairly dominant player in the “marketing automation” business today.
3. Describe the value this creates
So you’ve connected a job to a feature or attribute. That’s great. But how much value does that feature or attribute actually create for the target customer (remember, the alternative is always to do nothing or to do what you’ve always done)?
Presentation platform mmhmm offers an interesting example. In a pandemic structured world of endless Zoom calls and dull presentations, Mmhmm allows for playful positioning of yourself as a speaker, integration of presentation materials with interesting backgrounds, and recording of content that can easily be positioned and repurposed for other things. For me, that creates enormous value for videos I’m recording at home – instead of endless Zoom recording or Powerpoints in squares, the product lets me do things in a different, fresher way. I’m using it to build interactive videos for an online course I’m developing and it has been a lot of fun!
4. Who cares a lot about that value?
At this stage, you should be able to be incredibly specific about who in the organization really, really, cares about the problem you are solving and how you are solving it.
For instance, with the on-line courses I’m building, the person who really cares about them is the person who has to figure out how to get the right mindsets and behaviors associated with innovation established across the organization. Existing solutions – read a book, send someone to a training class, learn by trial-and-error – are all inefficient and not very hands on. The course, in contrast, lets learners dip in to exactly the lessons they need (for instance, how to position an offering!) when they need it, in manageable chunks that are short enough to do on a break or at lunch. If you’d like to learn more about when it will be launched, write to email@example.com and someone from the team will get back to you.
5. What is the market you can win?
Now you have to put your positioning in context – what exactly is the market that you can lead, given all of the above. Note, don’t fall in the trap of defining the market too broadly or along industry lines. The more specific you can be about this, the more helpful it is to your customers, but also your team, because this is the final step which will determine the shape and nature of your go to market strategy.
For example, RingCentral is a cloud-based provider of various communication services, including phone calls, video chats and other forms of communication. It replaces legacy on-premises PBX systems and offers scalable and cost-effective ways for people to work together. All that’s great, but what’s the real benefit? I like the one described on their web site, as quoted by Eric Callagher of SoFi, their telephony engineer: “Getting our scattered phone systems streamlined and centralized was like straightening out a giant ball of string.” A very simple benefit that flows through the presentation of RingCentral’s marketing approach. As a Forbes headline pronounced, “Ring Central is Positioned for Growth in Work From Anywhere Era.”
There’s no time like the present to start thinking about how you intend to position your offering. Best of luck getting started!
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