Notes from the Show
In this episode we join Lawson Abinanti, founder of Messages That Matter, author and expert on the topic of positioning. Lawson shares his viewpoint on positioning, including:
- The difference between positioning and brand.
- Why it’s critical that your positioning is unique.
- What to do if your best position is already taken.
- How differentiation affects the sales cycle.
Sample Perception Map – located near the end of this article.
Susan: Hi Lawson thank you for being here with me today. So before we dive into this fascinating topic of a positioning, it just in case there happens to be some people listening that are not familiar with you, why don’t you take a few minutes and tell us what you think everyone should know.
Lawson: Thanks for the opportunity, Susan. I look forward to sharing some of my ideas about positioning and message strategy, development and execution. I work with big and small B2B software companies, mostly in the software business because that’s where my experience has been for over 25 years. And I help companies tell a better story about their product or their solution or their offering, a story that matters to the market. Thus, the name of my company is Messages that Matter. I also work with smaller boutique software consulting companies over the years and I have worked with some independent consultants, a learning expert, and then another product management expert. So I do have some experience. And of course I’m a single proprietor myself. So I live in your world, Susan.
Susan: Awesome. Alright. So you know what you’re talking about. I got that.
Lawson: Well I specialize in positioning and message strategy consulting. It’s actually all I do. Let me define positioning so we’re all on the same page. Positioning is a mental space in the target audience’s mind that you can occupy with an idea that has compelling meaning to the recipient. It’s in this mental space where your solution to the target’s pressing problem meet, stick together and form a meaningful relationship. So what that means is you need to understand your target audience as well as you understand your own offerings. The importance of understanding your target audience’s problems can’t be overemphasized. And what it means is ultimately that even when you are communicating in a way that addresses the target audience’s most pressing problem, you need to differentiate yourself or your targeted audience isn’t going to listen to your message. One of the tests of a good positioning statement, which is a declarative sentence, 12 words or less, not including your offering that, expresses a benefit that solves the target audience’s pressing problem.
Lawson: It still needs to be unique and the reason that it needs to be unique or differentiates you as it turns out the decision-making part of the brain notes repetition and it also notes differentiation. It’s actually looking for a way to make a quick decision. And it turns out that contrast or differentiation helps the brain to make a decision much faster, and lack of differentiation creates a buyer confusion. Now I’ve written about that. There’s a book called NeuroMarketing that discusses the importance of differentiation and how we make decisions. I’ve written a two part series on that in MarketingProfs and if you’re interested in that, you can go to the website and read those blogs.
Susan: Okay. We can put that in the show notes for somebody that wants to see them. So let me ask you, you defined positioning. It seems to me like a lot of people use positioning and branding interchangeably.
Lawson: Yeah. In fact, I was a director of product marketing for a software company in Denmark. And we met with our new ad agency after we had positioned a number of our products. And so I presented the positioning of one or two of the products and then they asked to go off and have a discussion on their own. And they came back and they said, you’ve already done our branding. But I knew we hadn’t because the difference between, at least the way that I define branding is that it’s a promise you keep and positioning contributes to the brand. You would ideally do your positioning before you would converge on a brand. Although in a lot of cases you’ve, you’ve got a brand and you’re doing positioning after the fact. Maybe years after you’ve had some kind of brand, but your position may not be on point. So I have a way of determining whether that position is on point or not, as a matter of fact.
Susan: So, what I hear you saying is that we I guess as companies, as people, as products or services need to have this positioning that ideally is identifying one of the primary problems or challenges?
Susan: And then, and matching that to a unique way that we can solve that problem. And it needs to matter to the prospect, right?
Lawson: Well, it matters to the prospect if it’s solving one of their most pressing problems. It also needs to be unique. It needs to differentiate or it’ll go in one ear and out the other. But the importance ultimately gets down to – you determine what you believe or you ask your customers, why did they buy from you, what caused you to become a buyer? And you rank those problems. With some help from as many sources as you can and as unbiased as you possibly can, and determine what you believe to be the most pressing problem. And that’s where you shoot your gun at your positioning statement. And it’s the way you test it as well. I was saying that there’s a way of testing your positioning statement. If it’s important, addresses the target’s number one problem, and unique – only you are making the claim, then you’ve found potentially the right position.
Susan: What if everybody else has identified that same primary problem and they’re aiming at the same place?
Lawson: And that could happen easily. Two options, one is that you might look at how effective they are in claiming that position and determine that you could claim it by being more effective in the way you execute it. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that, but it would be the last option you would have. Now that gets back to consistency and repetition and how the more you repeat it, the more people will remember it. And what may happen is that everyone’s saying the same thing, but because you’re making a stronger claim, you get the position. It would be better to go to problem number two, problem number three or problem number four or a problem they may not realize they have. And you can educate them on that. So that’s why you need to understand that customer well enough so that if in fact everyone, for example, in the business intelligence software market, 13 out of 19 companies all claim insight.
Lawson: I don’t even think insight is the biggest problem the target audience has quite frankly. But, nevertheless, you would look at those key problems and probably in this case, bad example, because you’d go to the number one problem and that would probably be unique. But in the case you just described, Susan, I’d look at problem two, problem three, problem four. Can you come up with a positioning statement that’s compelling and meaningful and matters to the target audience? But differentiation is desirable and almost a barrier to entry for successful marketing.
Susan: So in the research that I’ve done and had done for my company as well as the research that we do for our clients, so many companies show up, seemingly having no positioning at all, and they’re just there. And maybe they’re mentioning I don’t know, benefits or features or they’re afraid to take …
Lawson: Yeah. Too much of that.
Susan: my question is why is that happening?
Lawson: If I knew I could be rich, I guess, I don’t know. No, typically what they’re doing is describing what they do. And for some reason they think that by describing what they do, you can then determine what the benefit is. And the problem with that is that we all interpret information differently and so everyone interprets that what we do differently, therefore no position. I don’t know why people don’t realize that a description of what you do is not a position; but quite frankly, there’s an awful lot of practitioners who really don’t have a great understanding of what positioning is, let alone how to do it.
Susan: You talked about a minute ago – I guess the question would be why should we care about this? And you mentioned that our brains are geared or have been developed to look for something that’s different. That’s how they make a choice, is this something that’s different from everybody else. And when we see all of these agencies or consulting firms or whatever that are saying basically the same thing, the brain doesn’t know how to differentiate, to use the word that we’ve been using, and it gets confused and then doesn’t make a decision?
Lawson: Exactly. That’s exactly what happens. Actually I quoted out of the book, what happens is the mind goes into a state of confusion and shuts off and makes no decision at all. And I’ve always maintained, even before I had read Neuromarketing, that this “me too” marketing “me too” positioning is really one of the main reasons that there are such long sales cycles. The buyer just doesn’t know who to buy from because everyone sounds the same. And I really believe that based on everything I know that the complaint of a long sales cycles, you can almost always attributed to lack of differentiation. And you know, what will happen is, oh, it’s the salesperson’s fault they couldn’t bring the baby over the line. But, ultimately I think it’s a lack of differentiation as well as not just in marketing but in the sales cycle. But ideally sales and marketing ought to be tied together. They should be saying the same thing.
Susan: That would be ideal, wouldn’t it?
Lawson: It would be easier.
Susan: All right. So, not having a good positioning, not being differentiated is going to show up in a long sales cycle because potential clients have a hard time making a decision because we haven’t given them a good enough reason to. If my positioning sucks, where else am I going to suffer?
Lawson: Well, you’re ultimately going to suffer in the bottom line. You’re going to waste more money on your marketing and it’s not going to be as effective if at all. In fact, if you’re not differentiated, you may be advertising for someone else who’s doing a better job of claiming the position, which would really be a bite. But, it’s all ultimately in overall performance. So that’s the best I can give you on that one.
Susan: I think for people that are selling expertise, let’s say, the more that you can make yourself; and I didn’t make this up, I stole it from I think it was David Baker who said that, the more you can make yourself irreplaceable so that there’s no option out there that quickly replaces what you’re doing, the higher price you can command and the more control you have over the relationship. So, is it fair to say that poor positioning and lack of differentiation could bring things to a point where it’s all about price? Because I can’t tell the difference in what you’re, the value you’re offering me, so I might as well go for the lower price.
Lawson: Yeah. Price wars. I can’t decide which one is the best so who’s going to give me the best price? I actually have a graphic that depicts that, starting with no alignment, no one can agree on what they should be saying, through to lack of repetition and consistency, to ultimately no position and confusion. Buyer can’t figure out what to do and, you know, give me your best price.
Susan: Yeah, that makes sense. All of this seems a little bit overwhelming, and I can say that from personal experience of working with you on my own positioning that it gets to be a bit daunting trying to figure out and then articulate what it is that you could use as a good positioning. How much time does a small to medium size professional service business need to dedicate to finding a good positioning?
Lawson: Well, a lot of the time is devoted to the research and if you already have the research, you already know the key customer problems, and if you know who your competitors are, probably an area where I can help very easily and very quickly is to do what’s called a perceptual map that makes it easy to see how your competitors are positioned. That way when you come up with positioning statement options, you can look at the map real easily and see whether it’s unique or not. And then you need to understand – and typically the people that we’re talking to now are going to be doing their own selling – so they know what the challenges are in the channel and how they sell, if any.
Lawson: So, maybe for example, one of the challenges might be that I sell against larger companies. I’ve always got an issue with a size of company. Well your positioning strategy may include some way of addressing that. How do you talk about that in advance to have the story down pat. Those are the three areas that can take some time. Once you’ve done that research, and I would think in a lot of cases that isn’t going to take very much time, there’s a step by step, follow the steps and you end up close to where you’d like to be. But there’s an art and a science to it. And, Susan, I think you know, I tell people I can teach the science and the art but the art takes a little bit longer. But that’s the area where I come in and help out. Sometimes you can get 95% there and the last 5% is a little bit painful.
Susan: Yeah. I found when you did the perceptual map for me it was immediately pretty obvious what I didn’t want to say, where I didn’t want to be because everybody else was there.
Lawson: Right, right. Which means in a lot of cases there’s the open season, you know, because they’re in some fairly obvious positions. Ones that you wouldn’t want to claim anyhow. As I recall, in your case, there was a couple that we knew that wasn’t where you wanted to be. You know, most – well not most but some – people are visually oriented, so it’s very helpful in that sense.
Susan: Okay. Maybe we can put some examples in the show notes so they can see what you’re talking about since we’re not video here to show them anything. What you’re saying is that to do positioning right, you’ve got to look at your prospects and what their pain points or their problems are. Is that right? Is that one of them?
Lawson: Yeah. Although you typically get that from your customers because those are the ones that are easiest for you to get the information from and they know why they bought.
Lawson: But you can get it from prospects as well, that’s great. You know, I mean, in other words, if someone’s doing positioning right now or in the next 45 days or whatever. If you can talk to some prospects, and typically they’ll tell you. You know, I always found that I’ve done my fair share of selling in my career, 25 years in B2B software and it may be more than that. I don’t want to admit it. But, I’ve always found that first conversation with the prospect was like a gold mine, you know. I mean, they told you everything and obviously they were going to tell you why the heck they are talking to you. And that’s why, you know, in larger companies, that’s why it’s critical to get information and feedback from your sales team.
Susan: Right, or the channel. So if we were doing a Venn diagram and we had these circles, one of the other circles would be your competition. And when you’re looking for how the competition is positioned, what are you looking at?
Lawson: Well, I go to the website and I look at the main page, the home page, and I see if there’s any obvious claim they’re making that seems like it’s how they want to be thought of or what they’re trying to communicate. And then I’ll go to a couple of other pages to see whether there’s any consistency or repetition of that main idea I netted out on the homepage. And in a lot of cases there’s not. So I give them the benefit of the doubt, you know, and say it’s that position, whatever they were trying to communicate on the home page.
Susan: So is that the same thing as a tagline or is it what you see in the headline or just the main point?
Lawson: It’s the main point. It’s what really leaps out at you. You know, typically you’ll go to a website and the headline, there’s a big headline. It could be a couple of words. It could be two lines. Probably one sentence or it might be two sentences. It could even be one, you know, big couple of words, big headline and then a smaller explanation of what they’re talking about.
Susan: So we’ve got the customers or prospects and the competition. And was there a third thing to look at or did I make that up?
Lawson: I think you said customer competition and channel. That’s the three. Yeah.
Susan: So channel, that’s the sales people or in the case of much of our audience here, that might be them themselves.
Lawson: Exactly. I call it the three C’s of successful positioning. And there’s a blog I’ve written on that on my website.
Susan: You also wrote a book, right? Positioning,
Lawson: Oh yes. We forgot to mention that. I’ve written everything I know about positioning is in that book, although it is being enhanced and expanded every year. So, it is a work in progress. It’s available on my website for $159. It’s a step by step guide through the positioning framework that I teach.
Susan: So if I was a do-it-yourself type, I could go buy this book, follow the process and then what I would come out with is a beautiful positioning statement and messaging and that sort of thing that would help me differentiate and remember to repeat things.
Lawson: That covers it all.
Susan: That’s all I need?
Lawson: No, but the book does cover literally everything that I know about positioning. I’m a journalist by trade and I was a sportswriter and it’s a good skill to have to write quickly, although sometimes I struggle, but I blog a lot and I basically took the blogs and turned them into an ebook and then had our writing friend Dennis Du Bois, help me with the editing and the rewriting of it. And I’ve updated it a couple of times over the last couple of years, but, it includes exercises, tips, reminders at the end of each section. There is a document that you fill out with your research. So there’s plenty of guidance and I’m actually developing a workbook that I’m going to include as part of the package as well. So it’ll make it even easier to follow the outline in the book.
Susan: Well, I know that as someone that is constantly having to come up against all of the noise and clutter and me too isms that we see on Linkedin in particular, but all over the marketplace. I know that if subject matter experts or business owners would just take the step to get their positioning in place, their lives would be so much easier and you would get so much more notice. I mean, I’ve seen that myself of what the difference is in having no positioning or poor positioning or “me-to” positioning versus something really smart.
Lawson: I’d just add that, in addition to positioning, the position is executed in your message strategy and that message strategy can be very detailed, but it’s an outline for how you talk about your offering. And so you don’t have to think anymore about what to say. It’s how you execute it, how you use it. So that saves you an awful lot of time as well.
Susan: Yeah. If you’re trying to go back to the drawing board every time you want a new web page or blog article or Linkedin status update or whatever, you can just look at this document.
Lawson: I can tell you that when I talk to a B-to-B software marketers, all I have to say is “how long does it take for you to get out a marketing campaign?” And they roll their eyes and then I read off all the things that it takes time to do. And most of it is everyone has an opinion. But we work all that out during implementing the framework and executing it.
Susan: So these people that are too busy to do positioning, you know where I’m going with that one. Okay, Lawson Thank you. If any of the listeners want to get in touch with you later, I mentioned your website, but I don’t think we gave them an address. How could they go about getting in touch with you?
Lawson: It’s www.messagesthatmatter.com or I’m on Linkedin. I have a great presence there thanks to my great Linkedin consultant and –
Susan: Good plug
Lawson: What can I say? I get paid well for this?
Susan: All right. Well anyway, thanks for being here. And feel free to go to Lawson, you guys, with your questions and I’m sure he’ll be helpful with an answer.
Lawson: Yeah, happy to answer and thanks, Susan. Bye.