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Don't Make These Value-Proposition Mistakes

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You think your value proposition is as strong as it needs to be because you are making sales, right? But you may be selling in spite of, not because of, your value proposition.

When you talk to a prospect on the phone or when you meet with a prospect, you have a few minutes of that person's attention.

When a prospect glances at a tradeshow sign, a piece of collateral, or a Web page, you get a fraction of that time and attention to make a powerful connection. Your value proposition has to be clear and succinct enough to succeed in those instances.

In B2B companies, there are always more tasks to complete than there are resources to do them, so many deliverables are judged "done" as soon as they are "good enough." But you should be willing to invest more effort in your value proposition, to make it clearer and more relevant.

Beware the Confirmation-Bias Trap

Confirmation bias is an unfortunate human tendency to give greater weight to evidence that supports our hypothesis than to evidence that refutes it.

We may pay more attention to people who quickly "get" what we mean by our value proposition than to those who ask us to elaborate or guess incorrectly at what it means.

How to Tell If You Have a Problem

B2C companies have an easier time testing their value proposition—they can run A/B tests with select value propositions on their websites to see which ones aid conversion the most. B2B companies often lack the volume of Web visitors and strong offers that are needed to test effectively.

If you are confident that you have a great value proposition, show it anonymously to 5-10 target prospects and ask them what the company does and for whom. You'll know whether your value proposition isn't clear or doesn't impress them.

What Makes a Good Value Proposition?

Before doing anything, your prospects want to easily determine whether you can solve their problem in a way that makes sense to them.

To do that, you have to do the following:

  • Use language they use. Don't force them to learn new buzzwords or acronyms, and don't assume they are as familiar with analysts' terms as you are.
  • Keep it simple. You get only a slice of their time and attention. Don't waste it.
  • Convey clearly and specifically how you will help them.
  • Indicate who you solve problems for.

Case in Point

Here are two ways of conveying the value proposition of a hot startup, XYZ:

Which version is simpler to digest, is more credible, and makes you want to investigate further? Might a reader extrapolate from "if I can complete more design cycles faster" to "I can do better work, faster"?

Can you tell who the audience is in each version?

What Not to Do

Don't use jargon and buzzwords

As vendors, we are comfortable with industry terms and buzzwords because we use them frequently. It's easy to assume prospects are equally as familiar with them.

I can report from dozens of focus groups that prospects are often two years behind vendors in learning industry buzzwords and category names. Don't assume your prospects are as up-to-date on industry terms as you, analysts, and thought leaders are. Unfamiliar jargon and buzzwords make people stop reading.

Don't overemphasize new categories

Avoid forcing prospects to learn acronyms or new category names to understand your value proposition.

Maybe you have a paradigm-shifting new product or service. But it will take a while to get the word out—often until you have direct competition.

A new category might sound grand to you and your employees, but it might convey an unproven technology to your prospects. The revised text in the XYZ example communicated the value proposition without mentioning the category.

HubSpot has invented and popularized a new marketing discipline—inbound marketing—that is larger in scope than search-engine optimization (SEO). HubSpot uses a category label but also specifies its customers and what it does for each one.

"HubSpot is inbound marketing software that helps your business get found on the Internet by the right prospects and convert more of those prospects into leads and paying customers."

If you have a paradigm-shifting solution, your category name must be self-explanatory and written in simple language. If you don't have a paradigm-shifting solution, don't invent a new category.

Don't mention product names if you're a one-product company

If your company's revenue is less than $100M in sales, your prospects can absorb your company name or your product name, but not both. Which do you prefer they learn and remember?

Here's an example of how a vendor could simplify its value proposition by leaving out its product name and category:

Don't use taglines

What's the harm in using taglines? Since prospects rapidly scan your materials or website, if they are distracted by content that doesn't support your case, they may not get to the content that does.

For most technology vendors, a tagline of 3-7 words is too brief to convey your value proposition. Avoid wasting the slice of your prospect's attention on a tagline.

In a mature market, it's valuable to tout that you are the leader. In an emerging market, it doesn't buy you much.

A vendor uses "Data. Intelligence. On Demand." as its tagline. Can you tell what the vendor does?

Advertisers have recognized for years that the more you say, the less people absorb. Don't take the risk. Toss the tagline.

Don't claim top-line or bottom-line impact

Many vendors try to tie what they do with having a major impact on their customers' top or bottom lines. But B2B prospects are highly skeptical of vague claims that your product or service will impact their top or bottom lines. They're more willing to believe results that are tied closer to the task you accomplish for them.

For example, if you have an online reference collection for engineers, it will be easier for prospects to believe that you help engineers find information faster rather than get products to market faster or win market share with more innovative solutions.

That thinking is counterintuitive to the way many sales and marketing executives think. We were taught (by some expensive sales trainers) that prospects won't buy unless we can show how our product or service can have a significant impact on their business problem.

That is still true, but a sales executive shopping for a customer relationship management system may be more focused on boosting sales productivity. Maybe he or she can increase sales or maybe just keep sales flat while reducing the size of the sales force.

We're safer claiming the more immediate and concrete effect.

Don't waste a minute

Many B2B companies tune their websites repeatedly for SEO while overlooking an ineffective value proposition that inflates abandonment rates and suppresses conversion rates. Shift some resources to strengthen your value proposition.

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Kathryn Roy is managing partner of Precision Thinking (, a consulting firm helping B2B technology companies boost the effectiveness of their marketing and sales organizations. Reach her via or Twitter (@karoy1).

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  • by dave conover Tue Dec 1, 2009 via web

    Good article. When our firm rebrands companies we begin by identifying the company's archetype which leads to the value proposition then the tagline. It always seems to be a logical progression when chronologically developed.

  • by Paul McKeon Wed Dec 2, 2009 via web

    Great tips and advice. I would add that a B2B company's existing clients are an excellent resource for articulating the value proposition. The simple question, "Why did you buy from us?" can elicit an answer that is valuable to prospects and stated in their language.

    We found several humorous and surprising examples of "what not to do" in our Jargon Quiz,

  • by Peter Cohen, SaaS Marketing Strategy Advisors Wed Dec 2, 2009 via web

    Very useful.

    Peter Cohen

  • by chris marentis Thu Dec 3, 2009 via web

    We find that reverse engineering the digital footprint of your customer and competitors is a great way to better understand your market, what customers are searching for and how competitors are converting them. That provides a nice basis of intel to make strategy decisions...great post!

  • by Kathleen Hayner Thu Dec 3, 2009 via web

    Well written with useful examples.

  • by Pam Sullivan Thu Dec 3, 2009 via web

    Great article and interesting take on something so many rely on - taglines and bottom/top line ROI - I will rethink my assumptions on both!

  • by terry Thu Dec 3, 2009 via web

    The website stopped after 1 star and wouldn't let me edit it, but I wanted to give this article 5 stars. I thought it was terrific.

  • by Janet Nicholas Fri Dec 11, 2009 via web

    An excellent article and useful for both for-profit and not-for-profit marketing.

  • by Susana Sun Dec 13, 2009 via web

    Article quite helpful and well written! meant to give it a 5 star rating but, as a new user, did not realize one can only click once. My applogies to the author.

  • by Stephen Turcotte Mon Dec 14, 2009 via web

    Thanks Kathryn, This advice makes sense. it also challenges some ideas that have become automatic to most marketers. Thanks for explaining the subtle strategies when marketing to B2Bs in a mature market vs. an emerging market. I think your differentiation will save us lots of time in the future.

  • by Paul Tue Dec 22, 2009 via web

    Kathryn - great stuff here. Way too much money gets spent on utterly forgettable taglines.

  • by Marie Mon Apr 19, 2010 via web

    Excellent overview. Many companies are too focused on their product, not the customer and end up with confusing or non-existent value propositions on the home page. The internet has taught us we have less than five seconds to engage. Investing in getting your value proposition right is more valuable than any other marketing tactic.

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