Craft a clear message strategy in 3 steps
By Lara Zuehlke Hollers
I can’t help but chuckle remembering my early career as a magazine editor (in the late 1990s) when I would receive media pitches by fax. Product marketers had to be savvy to stand out in the ream of paper that collected on my desk. In some ways, the stakes were higher back then. There were only a handful of media channels (with virtually no blogs and zero social channels). So, getting your product or service noticed forced marketers and communicators to be clear—really clear—with their message and overall message strategy.
Now, with endless channels blasting content 24/7, we’re tempted to quickly move straight into thinking about how we say something in that presentation, on Facebook, or in a video. But in the process, it can be easy to lose sight of what really needs to be said. We can get so hung up on the technology and the channel that we fail to focus on the message—and especially the overarching communications strategy and intent behind what we’re saying.
I’ve seen this time and time again with clients over the years. Clients come to me so excited about moving their idea directly into production. Yet invariably that excitement wanes when I stop and gently ask, “so who are you targeting? And how will your message resonate with them?”
To capture the hearts and minds of audiences, it is essential to step back and clearly assess what we want to say and how that aligns with what they need to hear through our messaging.
How to Create a Clear Message Strategy
Investing the necessary time and resources into crafting your message strategy is a critical first step to ensure your presentation or project lands well with your most important audiences. Because what good is that beautifully designed keynote if it fails to move your audience to action?
A clear message strategy provides the critical roadmap to guide your audiences through a journey—one that educates, engages, and inspires them. Based on my experience, there are three critical components to keep in mind:
1. First, REALLY know your audience
The most important step to engage your audiences is to understand them—on their terms. Go beyond the jargon and marketing lingo to truly put yourself in their shoes. Who are they? What motivates them? What keeps them up at night? And what do they need to hear from you that matters to them?
In Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate, she says, “The audience is the hero who will determine the outcome of your idea, so it’s important to know them fully. Jump into the shoes of your audience and look carefully at their lives. Painting a picture of who they are in their ordinary world helps you connect with them and communicate from a place of empathy.”
It’s always amazing to me to work with clients through Duarte’s audience mapping process. I love the looks of surprise and the “ah-ha” that follows when clients take the time to really dig in and consider their audiences not as a composite group, but as real people. For example, what is their personal credo? What are their hobbies or interests? What do they fear the most? What objections might they have?
Without understanding your audience fully, your message will likely fall flat and create a disconnect, which may leave you talking to yourself.
If you really know your audiences, you should have a good handle on their needs. If it’s an audience you’re unfamiliar with or don’t know intimately, you’ll need to make some generalizations. You can get a rough framework by answering the seven questions in this Audience Needs Map.
2. Then ask, “What do they need to hear?”
Once you understand what makes your most critical audiences tick, you can then get clear about which messages would resonate with them. And if you’re unsure, ask them. Take the time to conduct interviews to gain clarity about what your audiences need. To build a solid message framework, you don’t necessarily need deep quantitative data—but you do need enough qualitative feedback to nuance your messages. For example, you need enough input to surface recurring themes around why audiences work with you/buy from you, common fears, or immediate objections that must be overcome.
Often, customer-facing teams within your organization can serve as a proxy for these customer voices. Consider bringing in your key sales or customer success team leads, who are on the front lines every day listening to customers, to provide feedback. This could include answering questions such as: What do our customers see as the most important value we deliver to them? Or what’s missing for customers in our communications?
Finally, consider how granular your messaging needs to be to reach your audiences, because one size will not fit all. High-Level messaging may focus on value drivers and benefits, whereas audience-specific messaging could ladder up to more detailed benefits of your unique product or service.
For example, your messaging may include a theme around how your product or service provides cost efficiency. Yet, a CIO would need to hear a different message than the Director of HR. While they both worry about cost efficiency in their lines of business, the CIO would need to hear a message about how cost efficiencies impact security or service delivery. On the other hand, the Director of HR would likely need messaging around how cost efficiencies impact employees. So, it’s essential to take the time to understand these differences and craft a tiered messaging architecture that addresses their unique goals and needs.
3. Now for the fun part: building your message strategy
If you’ve done due diligence to identify and empathize with your audiences to understand what they need to hear, the message strategy almost writes itself. In other words, in your interviews, conversations, and feedback, you will begin to see how the key themes lend themselves to overarching messaging—and then how to distill that message even further by audience.
At this stage, one of the biggest challenges can be garnering internal alignment around what’s most critical to include in your strategy. That’s why it is essential to think of your internal stakeholders early and often—doing so can save a lot of time and heartache. It’s essential to form your internal stakeholder team at the start of your messaging project and then engage them at critical intervals, such as after initial feedback has been gathered and themes have emerged, after the first draft is complete, and prior to finalizing. These roles include:
- Contributors: Contributors are your critical subject matter experts and front-line proxies (such as customer success managers, sales leads, etc.) who can provide valuable insight and need to have direct input into the message strategy development.
- Reviewers: Reviewers are often subject matter experts, and their input is essential to ensure the message is framed correctly. Their input is important (especially for internal buy-in) but the project does not hinge on them. Ask yourself, “Who can stop or redirect this effort if they are not included?”
- Approver(s): Who has final say in the message strategy? The approver(s) is the person (or few people) who can approve the strategy before it is finalized and implemented.
While the product marketers of the past had to work hard to penetrate that small pool of channels, today’s communicators have endless opportunities to distribute their messages—and right to the palm of your hand. Yet, at the end of the day, an effective message strategy—based on what your audiences most need to hear—is what will ensure your message makes music, not just more noise.
Lara Zuehlke Hollers