Blog post

Messaging to Market Stage

By Hank Barnes | August 16, 2022 | 6 Comments

tech buying behavioral insightsProduct Messaging and Differentiationgo-to-market

Models and frameworks provide the most value when they are thoroughly understood and applied consistently.  Unfortunately, all too often people seem to get focused on the headline or basics of the model and choose when and where they will reference it or apply it.  This inconsistency leads to less than optimal results.

One of the most common cases of this happening is with market adoption curves.   We readily acknowledge that different buyers with different motivations are active at different market stages, but rarely do we adjust our strategies to reflect that.  The most obvious breakdown is with messaging.    How often do you see products in established markets emphasize innovation and breakthrough results?  Probably too often considering that many mainstream buyers find innovation risky.

Here is my recommended guidance of where to focus messaging by market stage.  We’ll start by using the market adoption curve (with both chasms)–which reflects adoption of discontinuous innovations.

Source: Gartner, Inc.

At the early stage of the market, when the most active buyers are techies and visionaries (or in our Enterprise Technology Adoption Profile world the Agile Leaders), you want to emphasize the opportunity for significant competitive advantage.  You don’t need to have all kinds of proof, but you do need to highlight where the breakthrough opportunities could be (and these customers are likely to find their own).   As a corollary to this, a discontinuous innovation that only provides incremental gain opportunities is probably not worth launching.

As the market matures and moves toward the mainstream, with pragmatists (and ETAs of Fast Followers and Disciplined Followers), advantage matters, but the focus is more about a proven path to ROI and value.   These customers are looking for examples and guidance that helps them get value from their investments.  They invest when they can see a strong business case and are fairly committed to proving that business case post implementation.  Their risk appetite is lower so it is time to tone down on the “breakthrough”, “cutting edge”, “bleeding edge” type messaging.  Frankly bleeding edge messaging has no place on the market.  Your immediately implying “be prepared for pain” which no one really wants.

As you hit the second chasm, later in the mainstream and approaching the laggards (with profiles like Reluctant Followers and Conflicted Laggards most active, another shift should occur.   These customer aren’t confident, hate change, and are very risk averse —mostly about the risk to them and their carries.  A strong emphasis on value and the ability to document and prove it may be scary to them–that means they are accountable.   Instead, the focus should be on low risk change as their focus invest because they have to, not because they want to.  Don’t ignore value opportunities, just don’t sell “the art of the possible”.  Instead, position “the art of the practical” or better yet “the art of the (highly) probable.”

When looked at through this lens, I strongly question whether we should still be talking about digital transformation.   Those that pursued it for advantage are long gone.  Those that followed have made progress.  The remainder are likely to look at the word “transformation” and say “that sounds like big change, how can we avoid it.”  Instead, it is probably time to talk about practices that ease the road to digital and positions the changes that follow as easy and simple (given everything we have learned).  The story should be about risk avoidance in making progress.   Even as reports talk about the acceleration of digital transformation due to COVID, I wonder how many of the companies that have invested unwillingly are going to be the next wave of “big tech failures.”

All of that being said, there is another scenario to explore–that is improvement through continuous innovation.   Products in this area are best suited for a replacement market or for mainstream buyers that have been hesitant to buy.   This is also important to recognize that even if you are launching a new product, if it is going into an established market, then you aren’t targeting early adopters.  You are addressing the buyers for the stage that the market is in.

The messaging does not really need to be about advantage opportunity (real advantage comes from discontinuous innovation) and value is a secondary concern (if the market is established, the value opportunity should be generally –if not perfectly– understood).  The real focus here is about comparison.  Being very specific about the issues with existing products and approaches that frustrated customers and introduced risks and challenges.   This isn’t lofty messaging.  It is practical clear statements that make people say or think “yes, that does drive me crazy.”  Or helps people discover you when they go searching for a better opportunity.

Does your messaging reflect the market stage you are playing in and the customers you are courting?   If not, consider some adjustments.


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  • You said, “Does your messaging reflect the market stage you are playing in and the customers you are courting?”

    I’m now thinking, based on your assessment Hank, that your point about “risk avoidance” is in line with why so many CIOs have had to react to line-of-business leaders who bypass the IT organization in their quest for modern business technology solutions. It’s inevitable.

    I’m also thinking market stages are perhaps not the main issue for vendors that are experiencing sales process disruption, it’s their inability to appeal to the “outcome” articulation requirements of the primary business decision makers.

    • Hank Barnes says:

      Fair, but there are business leaders that are change resistant as well. if the org culture is resistant to change, too strong an outcome orientation may drive indecision.

  • Mark Weiner says:

    Very useful — and practical — advice as always, Hank!

  • Understood, regarding the common resistance to change. However, since most IT vendors often encounter a perpetual “no decision” stalled sales process with indecisive CIOs or other senior tech decision makers, the risk of choosing to focus more on business outcomes seems minimal to me.

    So, is it really any more risky to reach out to the business sponsor of a project, rather than stick with status quo GTM frameworks that consistently fail to deliver improved results? Does Gartner have evidence that the risk is greater?

    • Hank Barnes says:

      We have not looked at it that way, but I would say that anyone still trying to win by solely selling to and through IT is likely getting diminishing returns (unless it is truly and IT only decision). As you reach to business sponsors, the key will be to understand their priorities and connect with the critical ones while helping build their confidence that they desired value can be realistically achieved. Where it may get trickier is when the involved and impacted parties extend beyond the business sponsor–as they may be resist if (a) they think the change is too hard or (b) they feel their specific needs aren’t being met.

      I am very hesistant to put the burden on an individual (e.g. an indecisive CIO). The majority of purchases today are made without the CIO having the final say (and in some cases any say), but we still see stalls, delays, and no decisions. The org culture is the biggest influencing factor here.

      I’m rambling a bit, but I think the key is to (a) identify the high impact value scenarios and the orgs with the greatest needs in those areas (b) Understand the attitudes and behaviors that shape decision making in the customer base (c) adjust your engagement approach accordingly to focus on either the path to accelerated outcomes or the path to low risk outcomes.

  • Thank you, Hank, for sharing that additional insight. The rationale for (a), (b), and (c) is very helpful. Much appreciated.