Message Is the Most Elusive, But It Shouldn’t Be

Many of the issues I have described are intimately linked to message. Message is perhaps the most important and confounding challenge faced by most HCM tech startups. We are passionate about message at The Starr Conspiracy — so much so that we’ve spent more than 15 years refining our model to create distinctive messages and we have placed message at the center of all of our marketing, advertising, and sales work for our clients. Companies frequently approach us to develop new names, new brands, or new campaigns. But if their message isn’t solid, we just won’t do it (because what we create without a strong core message simply won’t be effective for the client). We believe that even names and logos are expressions of your core message. So we insist on getting message right before moving on to anything else.

Companies fail because they can’t get their message right. It happens all the time, and I would go so far as to argue that convoluted or bland messages, or messages that change frequently, are among the leading causes of startup failure in the HCM tech segment.

Messages should be simple things. A message should focus not on a target market, but on a target buyer within the target market (what we call the radical buyer).

Radical buyers are the subset of buyers within a target market who share your attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. They bond with your company because of your worldview and will often overlook missing or lackluster features because of their belief in your vision.

Connecting with your radical buyer gives you the freedom to create provocative messages that are very attractive to the right buyers while repelling the wrong buyers who will simply waste your precious time and resources while never buying from you; or even worse, they buy from you and end up becoming a detractor customer because they didn’t get what they were expecting.

Radical Buyer

Your radical buyer is not a chief learning officer in a U.S.-based company with more than 10,000 employees. Your radical buyer is an irreverent champion for change who believes that corporate learning is a joke and that her employees need access to alternative learning resources that deliver sustainable value. Or your radical buyer is a compliance freak who believes that protecting his company from lawsuits is HR’s highest calling. Or your radical buyer is a small-business owner who believes in traditional American business values like loyalty between companies and employees. Turns out, your radical buyer is a lot like you.

Besides defining a radical buyer, companies also need to pick the right category, define their essential value, position against the right competition, and promote a single choice factor. None of these things are easy, but they are critical. If you need a bulleted list for the variables that comprise a message, here it is:

  • Radical Buyer — the smaller segment within your target market that shares your attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs
  • Category — the defined category that you intend to play in or to disrupt
  • Essential Value — the most important outcome that you deliver to your customers
  • Competition — the obvious alternative to buying your solution (which may be a category competitor or a different way of doing things)
  • Choice Factor — the single reason your radical buyer will choose you over the obvious alternatives

Companies fail when they over-complicate their message. They also fail when they don’t express their message in language that is appealing to their radical buyer. How you say it is as important as what you say. Often, it’s more important. One of my favorite messages ever in the HCM tech segment was created by a small performance management company from New Zealand called Sonar6 (which was eventually acquired by Cornerstone OnDemand). Its message was simply, “Performance reviews that don’t suck.”

Before you dismiss Sonar6’s message, consider that it was wildly successful and resulted in a dynamite acquisition.

A deconstructed Sonar6 message:

  • Radical Buyer — people who think traditional performance reviews are at best ineffective and at worst demeaning
  • Category — performance reviews
  • Essential Value — performance reviews that actually benefit employees, managers, and the company
  • Competition — traditional performance reviews
  • Choice Factor — a radically different approach

The message doesn’t say all those things. But it certainly implies them. For example, the message doesn’t say, “Sonar6 takes a radically different approach to performance reviews.” But who could read “performance reviews that don’t suck” and think anything other than this is a company that would provide a very different (and perhaps irreverent) approach to performance reviews?

Defining the elements of your message is not enough to gain the tone that truly differentiates your message and appeals to your radical buyer. To create messages that appeal to radical buyers based on attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs, you must delve into the authentic attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of the company. I hear people complain all the time that competitors steal their messages as soon as they publish them on their website. To them I say, “That’s your fault. You should have created a message that people are scared to steal.” How many performance review companies do you know that would have stolen the message “performance reviews that don’t suck”? Not many. But I know a lot of companies that would steal messages like, “For large companies, Time2Hire is a talent management platform that helps attract, hire, and retain top performers. Unlike other talent management platforms, Time2Hire leverages artificial intelligence and sophisticated matching technology to identify your best candidates.” That message sucks. I’m not going to lie; it hurt my soul a little bit to write it.

The Starr Conspiracy has a very unique process for capturing the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of your company and your radical buyers and turning that information into a unique tone and style for your message, brand, and campaigns. But it’s kind of our secret sauce for creating great messages, so I’m not going to publish it in this paper. However, I will say this: Companies fail in this space because of boring, overgeneralized messages. If your message doesn’t make you at least a little bit nervous, then buyers aren’t even going to notice it. An effective message has to make you feel like you’re turning some buyers away and leaving money on the table. Trust me, it’s bad money anyway, and you don’t want it.

Action: Create Messages that Don’t Suck

Try to define the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of your radical buyer. Do this by taking stock of what you believe and then take stock of the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of your happiest customers (your promoters). Then try to pick a single category for your solution that buyers are already familiar with, even if it feels like you’re leaving so many things out. The same goes for defining your essential value; try to capture the one outcome that you provide for customers. Finally, ask yourself what the obvious alternative is to your solution — the one that most people are more likely to buy than yours — and then identify the single choice factor that will make your solution more appealing to your radical buyers than the alternatives. String all of that together in a succinct and profound brand statement that reflects your attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs, and voila — you have a dandy message.