All walk and no talk? How to grow your product’s voice

Main illustration: Kati Szilágyi

The way we interact with the world is increasingly determined by the software we use, but despite that growing dependence, we only truly connect with software on an emotional level when it speaks to us in a distinctly human voice. So, how does software take on a personality of its own?

That’s typically where marketing comes in. At eFounders, we launch 4 new startups each year. That means building multiple new products, each with their own signature brand voice. As the head of content marketing at eFounders, I’ve come to rely on a loose framework to make these products talk, interact and connect with their users, each with their own, readily recognizable voice.

Find the ‘why’

In the early stages of a company, while the first lines of code are still being written, the product discussion revolves heavily around “what” your product does and “how” it does it. Marketing needs to develop its own line of enquiry into “why” – why does the product exist? Why does the problem it addresses warrant a solution? Above all, why should anyone care? In addressing the “why”, marketing needs to feed off of the underlying discussion within the product team.

Some features participate more to the ‘why’ than others.

When I start working on a new project, I sit down with the founder to map out the problem we are solving and what we envision as the solution to that problem. To keep the discussion aligned with the product, which might not even exist at that point, I start from the features on the roadmap and regroup them by the area of the problem they address, rather than chronologically. Including the roadmap seems like a detail, but it’s key to making sure your messaging sticks and, ideally, increases in relevance as more features get shipped. It also gives features more depth by placing each of them in context, thereby setting up the building blocks for your story.
Product Roadmap and Product Mission
For example, Slite is a new collaborative tool which eFounders released last year. The product is structured around two microservices: first, the API which provides all of the resources like users, notes and channels that are consumed by the app; and second, a real-time editor which allows users to work on the same note in real-time. Yet, by listing the problems and mapping out the features, it became clear that Slite’s mission was structured around 3 distinct pillars: create, collaborate and access. There isn’t an exact, one-to-one correlation between features and these pillars. In other terms: some features (which may have required less development time) participate more to the “why” than others. Identifying those and reframing them in terms of the value they provide is the first step of building a unique voice.

Build the narrative

Reframing features in terms of the problem they solve and the value they create doesn’t in itself constitute a story. At least not a compelling one. Instead, the component parts of the “why” are the touchstones that help construct a narrative framework.

Start with a hypothetical: What if we had to run a Super Bowl ad?

To build the coherent, overarching framework that ties it all together, I like to start with a hypothetical: “What if we had to run a Super Bowl ad?” This isn’t to say that a Super Bowl ad is the be all and end all of marketing, or even that this type of advertising would be advisable for software companies. The point is rather akin to Amazon’s “write the press release first” advice, but instead of thinking about the headline, it asks you to think about what an average viewer would take away from it.

The results of this thought experiment usually articulate a full-fledged world-view that all stems from a piece of software. Your mission, the obstacles on your path, the greater movement that you are contributing to, the feelings that the tension between these elements evoke: the resulting picture includes all of the constitutive elements of a story. A story that includes all the key messages that you derived from your roadmap. A story that strikes a chord deep within your users. A story that only you can tell.

One of eFounders’ most recent products, Station, was often likened to a work browser. Yet, by fleshing out their story, they managed to build a framework that not only supported each feature, but also tied them together with a unifying sense of purpose: to become the first smart workstation for busy people. Pushing deeper than surface-level, feature-based marketing, Station tells its story by contrasting their vision for the future with the current state of affairs. It goes beyond your run-of-the-mill “how our product will change the world” narrative. The narrative is designed to appeal to the new generation of knowledge workers, and extend an invitation to become a part of a broader movement.

Suspend disbelief

In growing your product voice, a useful concept to rely on is “suspension of disbelief” – which is theater-speak for the audience’s continued acceptance that the scene playing out on stage is real. It stretches beyond what marketers refer to as “on brand”: even when they don’t have lines, the actor must stay “in character”. The main issue with software is that a lot of messaging is automated, which easily breaks the spell. If your goal is to build a genuine voice, start by acknowledging that the message is automated.

A useful concept to
rely on is ‘suspension of disbelief’

One of the most ubiquitous types of automated message is the standard, post-signup welcome email from the CEO. Folk, a new eFounders product aimed at solving contact management for teams, finds its raison d’être in frustration with existing tools that include complex layers of automation and are unadapted to networking-type relationships. Given this backstory, it was imperative that the welcome email feel personal despite being automated.

The way we did this was through a simple disclaimer at the top of the email: “Full disclosure: this is an automated email, however… feel free to reply and I’ll get back in touch with you personally.” Not only is it good practice to include this information, as it sets expectations for your customers in their future interactions with your team. It also reaffirms Folk’s unique purpose and story: allowing users to connect more deeply with their network and harnessing automation to facilitate – not replace – those individualized connections.

Do what fits

For any startup in the very early stages of its existence, the product is still malleable. Messaging is likely to change as the scope of the product grows and as some messages prove more impactful. What should remain consistent, though, is brand development. “The only constant in the universe is change,” as the saying goes, and the same applies to your product’s voice. There is no ultimate stage in branding. Only constant reworking, readjustment and readapting.

At least that’s how we at eFounders like to think of it. With so many projects rushing out the gates, we are reminded every day to not give too much weight to the latest top tips to build your brand, or the few dozen reasons why you’re failing at everything. Startups will do what fits. Until it doesn’t.

Want to learn more about how to build your brand and sell more products? Download a copy of our book, Intercom on Marketing:
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