messaging strategy

12 steps to create a great messaging strategy

Main illustration: Adam Avery

An effective messaging strategy is the bedrock upon which you can build customer engagement.

Unless your customers value what you say, any attempt to persuade, educate, or motivate them to use your product will likely fail. They will either mentally or literally unsubscribe from you, and you’ll lose the opportunity to engage them in any way.

If your message isn’t sent to the right target audience it’ll feel like spam to whoever gets it.

Therefore, customer messaging strategies come in a variety of forms including emotional connection, positioning statement, or unique selling proposition (USP), depending on the overall goal of the marketing strategy.

To create a message strategy that has real impact, ask yourself these 12 questions each time you send a message. Answer all 12, and you can be sure you’re sending the right message in the right tone to the right person at the right time through the right medium.

12 questions to ask each time you send a message

1. What’s the context?

We’ve all been handed a flyer on the street for a restaurant we’ll never eat at. It’s irritating. Not because the restaurant is offering a bad deal. It’s because a flyer about pizza doesn’t matter when we’ve just filled up on sushi. These marketing messages are totally out of place and appear downright rude.

But imagine if they were always accurate; if you only got the flyer when you were hungry and looking for pizza. Carry on imagining. This level of accuracy isn’t possible out on the street. But it is possible for your customers inside your product.

Context is king for communication, so think carefully about your customers’ environment, location, and activity. (You can figure this out easily thanks to tools like FullStory’s Session Replay)

2. Who is the target audience?

If your message isn’t sent to the right audience it’ll feel like spam to whoever gets it. It’s mostly common sense. Don’t send your long-time users a welcome message. Don’t promote feature X to users if they’re already paying for and using it. Don’t contact your freemium users for feedback about your paid features. Don’t invite customers from California to your meetup in New York. You get the point.

This kind of customer targeting is simple with Intercom. You can drill into your userbase to identify the exact groups of users to talk to. Targeting a smaller group means you’ll get fewer replies, but your message will make more sense to more people, so you’ll see higher open, click and reply rates, better quality responses, and fewer negative responses.

3. What should trigger the message?

Maybe you want to send the message to everyone 7 days after they sign up, but only if they’re paying you more than $50 dollars per month. Or maybe you only want to talk to customers on your free plan living in the US. You can trigger messages based on any combination of your users’ attributes.

But what about their behavior? Intercom lets you easily track your users behaviour as Events. You can automatically send them messages as soon as these Events happen. Here are some examples:

  • If a user has just upgraded to your max plan, it’s the perfect time to send them a thank-you message.
  • If you’re looking for customer feedback on a feature, ask your customers as soon as they use it. But perhaps you want to wait until the tenth time to ask them, because you want feedback from more experienced users.
  • If someone was using your key feature every day, but hasn’t used it for 30 days, it’s a good time to check-in to see if everything is ok.
  • Combine as many user attributes and behaviors as necessary to get this right.

4. Where should they receive the message?

In-app messages perform better than email – they’re up to ten times better than email at engaging your customers. It’s because they feel personal and targeted, and they’re in context. We use in-app messages for onboarding our new customers, promoting different parts of Intercom, getting customer feedback, and announcing things in-context e.g. “We’ve just redesigned our Messenger”.

You should target your messages by page, too. If you’re sending a message about changes to your settings, it makes sense to say it when they visit the settings page. Targeting URLs like this is easy in Intercom.

But when does email make sense? Emails can still be targeted to the right user, and can be timed correctly, too. But the problem with email is that it’s rarely in context. It makes no sense to ask your users for feedback about your sign up process 2 weeks after they sign up, 3 hours after they shut your app down, and while they’re checking their email on the bus ride home.

Email does still have its place, though. And the key advantage it has over in-apps is that you can guarantee your customers will receive it. There’s no guarantee an in-app message will be sent (they’re only triggered if a user logs into your app). That’s why email is best for critical communications. At Intercom we use it for billing, re-engagement, and one-off, time-sensitive announcements (e.g. “Today we launched our new product, Educate.”)

It can be tempting to tell your users about every new feature, blog post, or offer. Don’t.

Push notifications are the third channel to consider here. Like email, they’re not inside your product, but they’re more disruptive. Our approach at Intercom with push notifications is conservative. Again, the more personal you are the better: if a social media app like Facebook send me a generic push notification to tell me to add more friends, it’s spam. But if they tell me that Brian has replied to my message, I’m interested.

5. What’s the business goal of this message?

It can be tempting to tell your users about every new feature, blog post, or offer. Don’t. You might have a whole bunch of things you want to ask your users – how is feature X doing, or what features are missing? But there’s a fine line between an optimized, helpful message schedule, and one that feels like spam. By limiting the volume of your outbound communication, you’re forced to be exact with the scheduling and content of each message.

Here at Intercom, each message we send has a specific goal. For example, our welcome message invites customers to a demo, which in turn reduces support requests, enhances the customer experience, and promotes customer success. And our re-engagement emails are designed to increase sessions by users who have quit Intercom.

6. When did you last contact this user?

Getting more than one message in quick succession feels like spam, regardless of the content. If your all-important product announcement arrives at the same time as your less important, but equally attention grabbing research question, both messages will have less impact.

last contacted filter

That’s why we built the “last contacted at” filter. You can stop a message from sending until your customer has not been contacted for at least X days. For all but our most important, time-sensitive announcements, we’ll use this filter: “last contacted more than 2 days ago”. Two days is our minimum; we extend this wherever possible.

7. Are you interrupting your customers?

Carefully consider the impact of interrupting your customers while they’re in your app. Here’s how we handle this:

If you’re sending a message that doesn’t need a response right away, you should send your message via the least disruptive means possible. In Intercom, that means you’d send the message as:

  • A badge (which shows the unread message count).
  • Or as a snippet (which shows the first few words of your message).

message sent as a snippet

This means that customers can read your message when they’re ready. They can finish the task they came to your website or app to do. They can even come back tomorrow and read your message if they want. Instead of being bombarded with messages, they’re in control of the conversation. We reserve more interruptive messages for our most critical messages. It has to be something that a user must see. This could be a notice of planned maintenance or major design changes.

message sent as post

8. Does it feel personal?

We’re all experts at ignoring messages that aren’t meant specifically for us. Animated ads, over-designed pop-ups, or fake offers for “Live Chat” don’t grab our attention. We’ve trained ourselves not to see them. Similarly, mass marketing emails, and generic, impersonal notifications don’t get our full attention either. Its because we know the message wasn’t written just for us, and so we afford it less importance. The content is rarely as important as a direct note from someone.

It’s as much to do with frequency as it is to how they look. How many of these messages do you get a day? How many do you scan over or ignore entirely?

There’s a tendency to over-design and over-send. This coupled with the fact that, until recently, the only way to message many users at once was with a one-size-fits-all mail shot, our communications have been less than personal.

But now it’s easy to send automated mass messages, each personalized to the recipient. This is a better experience for everyone. You accomplish this in three simple ways:

a. Use a personal looking message

Here at Intercom, when we’re selecting a message style to send to our customers, we’ll most often use our in-app chat, or our plain-text email template. It’s because they feel handwritten and direct, and we know they get more engagement than something that looks like it was sent to the masses. When we tested this during some big campaigns, we saw far better engagement rates with plain text emails.

personal looking message

Obviously this will depend on the goal of your message, and there will be scenarios where this rule won’t apply. We send the classic-style marketing messages too, like when we have to include visuals that help explain the message.

b. Personalize your messages using variables

You would never say “Dear customer” to someone’s face. So why would you ever put it in a message to them? “Hey there” is better. But “Hey Sally” is even better again. Intercom automates this, so every customer is addressed by their first name. It’s easy to include their company name, too.

custom messaging attributes

Another powerful way to stay personal is to include custom attributes in each message, specific to each user. For example, you could contact everyone who has nearly reached storage capacity in your photo sharing app, and let them know exactly how much space they have left.

Or why not message users who have incorrect integrations? Maybe you could mail your customers about their incomplete orders? Or, you could message your customers about their unfinished projects to encourage them to revisit them. Here’s a short story where this worked for us.

c. Speak like a human

Business jargon needs to die. Your customers will be acutely aware of the tone you adopt in your messages. So try to be yourself. It doesn’t take much to get this right; it’s actually easier than speaking more formally. Avoid all business-y robotic-type language. You just want to sound friendly, natural, and personal.

9. Is this more important than onboarding?

The onboarding period is sacred. There are far more important things to talk to your users about in the first few days than pushing your new feature, asking for customer feedback, or promoting your super-interesting new blog post. Put some space between sign up and sending these type of messages. Here at Intercom, we block all messages not specifically related to onboarding from sending until 30 days after sign-up. This allows us the time to focus on getting users engaged with Intercom in all the right ways, without them feeling like they’re being spammed with content irrelevant to their needs.

target audience for messaging strategy

10. Is there something more important I could be sending in message #1?

If like us, you place emphasis on user onboarding, your users are likely to receive the majority of messages in their first week or two. As your users’ tendency to engage with these messages drops slightly over time, you might find that your welcome message has the highest open rate. A welcome email is one of those times an email feels in context. Users expect it. Make it count. Give them a solid next step. Maybe it’s to sign up to your webinar, to view your docs, or to update their profile page. Maybe it’s simply to log in to your app. Whatever it is that’s most important for your users to do to get going, put it in message #1. But remember to keep it focused; one clear call to action is best.

11. Have you tested this?

Your messages can always be optimized for better open, click and reply rates. You can test style, tone, copy, subject lines, button colour, and channel. Test everything. We’ve tested a whole bunch over the last year, and we know what works best for us – but you need to test your own messages, to see what works for your business. Iterate fast, and turn stuff off if it’s not working. Here’s how to A/B test your messages in Intercom.

Example of A/B message testing in Intercom

12. Who is in charge here?

As your business grows, one day it won’t be the four of you huddled around the same desk anymore. New teams and layers appear, your roles will shift, and there’ll be more at stake. There’ll be some marketing team members that simply don’t need to be anywhere near your outbound messages. While it’s fine for multiple people and teams to contribute, designate one person to oversee it. They should be 100% clear on your marketing messaging strategy and tone.

Sending better messages is hard

It’s not easy to send well-timed, well-considered, targeted, high impact messages with a true value proposition to your customers. There are 101 ways to get it wrong. So give this the time it deserves. Start by getting in a room with your team for 20 minutes. Make some quick decisions using the above questions and get it down on paper. This is your messaging strategy version 0.1.

Intercom on Marketing – Desktop Article – horizontal 2019