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Are You 'Messaging It Great'?: Five Lessons From Malcolm Gladwell and Morton Grodzins (Who?)

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • How one author "messaged" someone else's theory and made millions
  • How messaging your ideas, offerings, and strengths to appeal to customers is pivotal to success
  • Five key messaging lessons

Malcolm Gladwell sold millions of copies of his book The Tipping Point, and he made millions of dollars on the concept he wrote about. But, he didn't discover it.

An unknown political science professor, Morton Grodzins, first conceived of "the tipping point" more than 40 years before Gladwell released his book. Yet, Grodzins didn't make millions of dollars.

Gladwell went on to sell millions of copies of his book Outliers, and he made millions of dollars, again. One of the key principles he described was a concept called "deliberate practice." And, you guessed it. The original theory was developed by someone else—Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericcson, who toils in academic anonymity while Gladwell hits the big-dollar talk-show and speaking circuits.

Gladwell 'Messaged It Great'

What did Gladwell do that those other guys didn't? Why was he able to make millions while Grodzins and Ericcson never hit the mainstream?


He messaged it great. Gladwell was able to take very geeky, academic concepts and connect with the buying public, getting them to part with their money. The other guys didn't.

Have you ever been frustrated that a less-dominant competitor beat you and your company? Are your customers continually trying to commoditize you? Or, maybe you're the one who needs to outsell a more innovative competitor.

Regardless, as a marketer, you are charged with creating your company's story and getting it told in a way that drives growth. It's your job to message it great.

Five Lessons for 'Messaging it Great'

Here's what you need to learn from Malcolm Gladwell. You need to find something within your company that is inherently awesome and make it obvious to your customers. Because buried in your company and your offerings are bright ideas, capabilities, or concepts that just need to be messaged great.

And you need to apply the following five lessons.

1. Your customers live in their story; don't force them to live in yours

The biggest thing that separates a successful company from an unsuccessful one is the story it tells prospects during the buying cycle. Do you force prospects to understand and love your company story, or are you engaging them in a compelling dialogue about their story?

The real challenge in the customer's story is what we call the "status quo barrier," which keeps prospects from wanting to change. You need a message that not only differentiates you from competitors but also convinces the decision-maker that she needs to do something different.

Your message needs to be about how the customer's current story is changing, and how your strengths line up in response to those changes.

To break through the status quo barrier, you often need to tell the customer something she doesn't know about a problem she didn't even know she had. Your story needs to be a little challenging, dangerous, and fearless rather than safe and self-satisfying.

Too many of today's value propositions are too impotent to provoke a response, let alone a business opportunity.

2. Translate your brand positioning into customer messaging

Brand positioning is typically about what we feel our brand should be, how we want to be known, why we come to work each day, what we promise to do for the customer, and what customers like about us. Companies tend to we, we, we all over themselves when they create brand messaging.

Brand positioning becomes a 30,000-foot hyperbole that rarely separates you from your competitors; it's difficult to translate for the three-foot level—where the customer conversation takes place—and it almost never compels a customer to do anything different.

Companies test whether customers like their brand position, but they don't test whether it will change behavior. I like the way Sergio Zyman, former Coca Cola chief marketing officer and author of The End of Marketing as We Know It, says, "We can't live on virtual consumption." (He said that after his brand advertising won many awards but failed to change Coca Cola's market share.)

The bottom line is that branding, especially based on voice-of-the-customer, rarely offers a compelling story that'll create commercial impact. Customers can't tell you what they want or need that will get them excited enough to do something different and make them willing to go through the pain of change.

To create selling opportunities and activity, you must translate your brand into something truly compelling and remarkable that breaks the status quo barrier.

3. Offer a distinct point of view, not just more content

I got major heartburn at a recent conference on content marketing. The biggest topic of conversation seemed to be how to create the quantity of content needed, in a timely enough fashion, to fill all the holes in the demand-generation and sales-enablement content map. The conference included presentations about and products for sourcing third-party content from analysts and outside writers and managing that process.

Not once did I hear a speaker address how to make your content more distinctive and how to make it drive action. Seriously, if you are going to be an aggregator of industry-analyst information in your marketing programs and customer portals, what value will you add? What should a customer do differently because she found someone else's content on your site or in your emails? Is being a content clearinghouse for other people's generic content going to move the needle for you?

Gladwell didn't just report on Grodzins's discovery. He made it meaningful to you and me, and useful for our lives and jobs. He took an esoteric concept and made it pragmatic and applicable. Likewise, you must add value to the messaging content you create. You need to offer a distinct point of view.

Your story must show customers the relevant impact that the latest trends, issues, challenges, problems, and changes will have on the outcomes those customers desire. And then your story must show them how your organization can help them avoid risks and maximize opportunities.

4. Focus your messaging energy on the right enemy

When you build messaging content, think of the status quo barrier as your biggest competitor. Before you ever get to an opportunity, you need to break through and create a buying vision.

Your message must confront these four challenges that cause the status quo barrier:

  1. Attention Economy. Time is the new currency. It's nearly impossible to get people's attention. You can't be timid, and they don't have time to play the 20-question game. In fact, you will need to tell customers something they don't know about a problem they didn't even know they had. Be provocative and fresh to get your listeners to the edge of their seats.
  2. Change Burden. No surprise here, customers loathe change. So much so, they are often willing to live with their current pains because they perceive the pain of changing to a new solution as being worse. Breaking through the status quo barrier means you have to clearly show customers how the pain of not changing is worse than the pain of change management.
  3. Risk Aversion. Pay attention here. People respond better and faster to the threat of risk or loss than to the potential for more gain. That's why your feature/benefit stories and your ROI calculations aren't enough to break through. You must show customers where their status quo is leaking and squeaking. They must see it as "unsafe" before they will move away from it.
  4. Entrenched Competition. Incumbency has its advantages. If a traditional competitor or an in-house solution is in place, it's safe and comfortable. No competitor is standing still, so they won't give up their customers willingly. Your messaging needs to clearly show the contrast between your approach and the status quo. Prospects must see enough contrast to consider changing.

Like a spaceship trying to make it out of the earth's gravitational pull, breaking through the customer's status quo barrier is going to take booster rockets in those four areas.

5. Be great, where it counts

When Gladwell messaged it great, the measuring stick was how many books he sold. That metric isn't about critical acclaim or awards from peers; it's about connecting with buyers and getting them to respond and choose you. It's about selling millions vs. toiling in obscurity.

Messaging it great matters in demand generation and sales enablement—those moments of truth when your company is participating in and looking to take the lead in the customer decision-making process. Those are easily tracked and measured messaging activities. We've been able to demonstrate improvements in response rates, pipeline size, deal size, and quota attainment when companies message it great.

Marketing has a bull's-eye on its back. Now that senior management knows that those things can be measured, you can't get away with subjective or pre-funnel objectives. Success is not about followers, or clicks, or impressions, or opinions. It's not about the volume of sales materials and training you put out. Success is about revenue performance and the metrics that matter to the bottom line.

Are You Malcolm, or are you Morton?

To say that messaging it great is critical to corporate execution is not an overstatement. All the best ideas, innovations, investments, and introductions your company makes will mean nothing unless your customer says "yes" to them.

And, the one thing that determines your relevance or irrelevance is having the ability to develop and deliver a compelling enough story to get customers to say yes.

(Image courtesy of Bigstock, Young Man.)


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Tim Riesterer is chief strategy and marketing officer of Corporate Visions Inc. He is the co-author of Customer Message Management and Conversations that Win The Complex Sale,

LinkedIn: Tim Riesterer

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  • by Tea Silvestre Tue Nov 29, 2011 via web

    Great article. I think most of us (marketers) get that we need to be remarkable and have a unique point of view...the challenge is HOW to do that. Finding your Secret Sauce is a task that takes time, creativity and a whole lot of work. One of the things I do to help my clients accomplish that task is through a series of exercises that help them inventory all that they have to offer (via their passions, talents, skills, emotional strengths and yes...weaknesses, too). Yes, it's important to not to "we" all over the place, but you've got to start with the nugget that is you and then build on it and see where it overlaps with what your ideal customers want/need.

  • by Paula Rivers Tue Nov 29, 2011 via web

    Thanks - this article brings up some very good points to consider when thinking about messaging. What would make the article even more helpful would be to include specific examples that demonstrate excellent messaging - and why they work in their space or conversely, terrible messaging and why it doesn't work....It's easy to state messaging needs to be compelling and grab attention and convince decision makers to move away from the status quo but much harder to actually do it well. Anybody with some great examples?

  • by Auri Biswas [Art-of-Innovation.com] Tue Nov 29, 2011 via web

    Good points ... with actionable advice esp. in section 4. It brings up the issue of Theory / Advice vs. Practice / Implementation.

    One has to start with sound, well thought out theories & concepts -- but then the real challenge is applying them with a good understanding of the specific realities of a particular business (and balancing conflicting goals e.g. brevity for humans vs. enough text for search engines.)

    And becoming aware of, and overcoming, hurdles and shortcomings (external and internal, organizational and individual) that come between an envisioned solution and its execution.

    Regards, Auri Biswas

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