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Burning Down the (Messaging) House

by Hank Barnes  |  May 28, 2019  |  Submit a Comment

When David Byrne, the lead singer of the great band, Taking Heads, discusses the lyrics for their song, “Burning Down the House,” he regularly says the lyrics don’t make sense as a story.  They are a series of lines that fit the music behind the song–the music came first.   Each individual phrase makes some sense, but they really don’t fit well together.

Source: pexels.com

Hmm…that could describe the vast majority (I hesitate to say every, but it’s pretty close) messaging document or messaging house that I’ve seen from clients.   It feels like too many marketers are marching to the same beat and expending ALOT of energy on something that ultimately has little value.

Why is that? Messaging Documents/Houses are consistently:

  • Narcissistic.  They reflect what vendors want people to hear, but rarely provide the context as to why they should care.
  • Undifferentiated.  They have so many messages, without any comparative quality, that it is hard to find what really matters.  Even the top level messages suffer from this.
  • Forgettable.   Again, the volume of messages “information’ in these documents is overwhelming.  By the time you get to the end, it’s hard to remember anything (see “undifferentiated”).
  • Ignored.   They usually get created around an ‘event’ (e.g. new product).  And after a burst of energy, are quickly ignored (see “forgettable”).   I’ve yet to find anyone who audits materials against their messaging documents.   I’m pretty sure I know what the results would be.

Here is a quick way to evaluate your messaging doc:

  • Customer Focus: Does it reflect who your target customer is?  Not just personas that you might target, but the companies (thinking B2B here) that you target, your ideal customer profile.   And with that does it talk at all to what they might be dealing with to drive potential interest.
  • Competitive Alternatives: Do your claims of differentiation provide with them the alternative–what you are differentiating from.
  • Connection: Does it ever connect the messages together across personas into a cohesive collection of information?

The answer for most of these evaluations that  i do is: Rarely and Barely, Barely, Never. I’d be happy if I never saw another one again (at least in its current incarnation).    Part of me wants to banish the term “messaging”–at least in the context of “something vendors create.”

If this happened, what is the alternative.   It’s stories.

Yes, stories.

Instead of a messaging house, create a story library.

Start with a strategic story that expresses a unique point of view  (thanks, Ken Rutsky).  In that story, start with the context of where you target customer is today and the implications of that current state that drive a need to change.  Then you can talk to how your product/service makes that change possible.

From that strategic story, you can then create stories that appeal to different constituents, whether that be buying team members, partners, or employees.    Use the strategic story as the “big idea” that ties everything together.  Pepper the stories with your facts and proof points.

You may “discover” some key messages that emerge through story development (and yes, I believe that traditional “Crossing the Chasm” positioning can be used as a strategic exercise to help clarify strategy–as long as you don’t blindly believe that positioning is your story.  It’s not.  And you could even highlight those.  But it is the story that matters.  Messages are by products of great stories.  Without the story, most messages are meaningless.

Great stories are not narcissistic; they bring the customer into the heart of the story. They reveal differentiation by setting up contrasts versus the status quo and known alternatives. They are memorable.  And, they are less likely to be ignored.

So, with all respect for Talking Heads, here are my modified lyrics for the messaging crowd (My changes are in italics):

Watch out you might get what your after
Self-focused, like looking in the mirror
There has got to be a better way
Burning Down The Messaging House

Here’s your ticket pack your bag
Stop following the crowd
The Opportunity is here
Tell a story make more sense
Help others 
know why to care
Finally break free

My (messaging) house. Is just  so ordinary
That’s right. Doesn’t really help nobody
These things sure can be a huge sinkhole
Burning Down the Messaging House

Here’s your ticket pack your bag
Stop following the crowd
The Opportunity is here
Let them know what to expect
Tell a story provide context
Finally Connect

If I see you at Gartner’s Tech Growth and Innovation Conference next week in San Diego or the following week in London, maybe we can sing a few lines together.

And start to shift our thinking from messages that we want to say to stories our customers want, and need, to hear.

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Category: go-to-market  new-customer-acquisition  product-marketing-impact  product-messaging-and-differentiation-it-services  product-portfolio-marketing  

Tags: burning-down-the-house  messaging  positionings  stories  storytelling  talking-heads  

Hank Barnes
VP Distinguished Analyst
6+ years at Gartner
30+ years IT Industry

Hank Barnes explores the dynamics, challenges, and frustrations enterprises face when buying technology products and services. Using that customer-centric lens, he advises those responsible for marketing technology products and services, general managers responsible for product portfolios, and startup CEOs on next practices to drive success for their customers and their business. Read Full Bio




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