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Start your marketing with why: Getting your story right

VP of Commercial Product Strategy, Intercom

Matt Hodges

@mattnhodges

Main illustration: Dani Balenson

No matter how good your product is, if you can’t tell a cohesive, compelling story about it, you’re going to have a very hard time getting people’s attention when you actually do take it to market.

Companies like Amazon understand this well and are rightly famous for their “work backwards” philosophy. You start by writing the press release, to articulate how the world will see your product, and then work backwards until you get to the minimum set of technology requirements to achieve your goals for the product.

Our approach to crafting a story begins with asking “Why?”

Why are you building this product, and why does it matter? People don’t typically discover and buy a product just because of its features. They buy a product because it solves a problem for them and delivers value in doing so. That’s why it’s really important to think about the end-to-end story you need to tell to capture attention and motivate action, before you build anything.

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
– Simon Sinek

For decades software was sold using feature-based marketing: start with what the company wants to sell, and then tell people why they need it.

But SaaS has changed that. It’s easier than ever to build a product, which means the market landscape is increasingly competitive. The result is that differentiating yourself on product alone is harder than ever. To succeed, you need to reverse your marketing.

Sinek's Golden Circle

The “why”

Why does your company exist other than to make money? Many people can’t succinctly answer that question, which is a problem for marketing. In order to tell a compelling story about your product, you need to have a crystal clear idea of what your company stands for.

Make internet business personal
– Intercom’s why

This story starts long before you’ve designed or coded anything. It’s written as soon you decide you’re going to build a company. It’s the pitch deck you’re giving to investors, the application you’re sending into Y Combinator or the story you’re telling to the person next to you on the plane. When I joined Intercom, the first thing I did was to sit with the founders and try to understand the mission and vision of the product: Why did they create Intercom? What problem were they trying to solve? Why does that problem exist?

Marketing, at the end of the day, is not just about a company’s mission. It’s about understanding why a customer would care about that mission, and translating that understanding into a story that will compel someone to start a trial and ultimately make a purchase.

The “how”

As the Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt put it, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” People don’t care about you,  people care about themselves and their problems. A good story is a lot like the strings on a piano: when it hits something of the same frequency, it resonates and your story sticks.

Jason Fried tweet

To start with, you need to have a clear understanding of who your target customer is. From there, you need to understand what problems you can solve for them. These have to be real problems they are looking for solutions to, and you need to be able to clearly articulate a world in which using your product or service solves those problems for them, in a manner better than anyone else has.

For example, around the time Apple launched the iPod, MP3 players were a dime a dozen. The problem was marketing. Everyone else was saying “1GB storage on your MP3 player” – falling into the feature-based marketing trap we discussed above – but nobody was talking about how their product would make customers’ lives better.

Apple went ahead and focused on the customer benefit: 1,000 songs in your pocket. By deliberately avoiding talking about the tech (the storage capacity), they enabled people to avoid having to figure out what 1GB actually meant for them. At a time when MP3 players were competing with CD players and 1,000 songs on a device was a novelty, customers could clearly see the advantage the iPod would bring.

Jason Fried tweet

The “what”

Once you’ve sold someone on your story and shown them how your product can solve their problem, you should back it up with hard claims about how effective your product will be in solving their problem to accelerate their decision making.

Take buying a car: You might understand why you need a car spacious and safe enough for your family, but when it comes down to a split decision, you might select the one with the heated leather seats, or the one that gives you 100 miles to the gallon. Features can often connect the dots and put a story into a greater context. They do this in two important ways:

  • Justification: In B2B SaaS, you’re stressing “bottom line” results that can be achieved by applying your product’s features to solve a particular problem. If you can demonstrate that the customer will be a hero because your product will save their company $120,000 a year and help them achieve better results, you’ve got an excellent shot. Show them how customers like them have actually achieved those results with your product.
  • Differentiation: In a crowded market, your features can help you stand apart from the competition. Take our conversation ratings feature, which is our way for businesses to measure and understand customer satisfaction. What’s most compelling to a buyer isn’t how they can measure customer satisfaction, but rather how they can take specific actions (or not) based on that insight. They can set new messages to be triggered based on a customer’s satisfaction level, or decide to put customers who are dissatisfied at the front of the queue. Features help us back up our story in a compelling way that our competitors can’t do.

Product and marketing are two sides of the same coin. A pizza delivery service that promises pizza in under 30 minutes can’t have customers waiting an hour. A bank that says it cares about its customers can’t have 20 people waiting in line with only two tellers on duty. Create your story in isolation of product, and customers who might be interested initially will be ultimately disappointed. Get your marketing and product teams in sync and you’ll have created an advantage that nobody else can copy.