👋 Hi, I’m James. Thanks for checking out Building Momentum: a newsletter to help startup founders and marketers accelerate SaaS growth through product marketing.
I recently sat down with Ishara Naotunna, behind the Spill The Marketing Beans podcast.
In 28 minutes, we got through so much, including: my battle-tested positioning process, the types of customers you should talk to and who should be involved, how to test new messaging, how to activate messaging internally, how to know you need new positioning… and much more!
Watch the video below, or read the slightly-edited notes below!
In this post:
On the traditional positioning statement…
I think that the standard positioning format statement that everyone uses is probably the worst thing that could happen in, especially in SaaS, because it reduces our value of our product and what customers, one down to just a statement that gets repeated and parroted.
Nobody really believes in it. It just becomes meaningless words.
On my positioning process…
So my positioning process, I call it customer-led value positioning. Because it does what it says on the tin. It is focused on who our customers are. And we’re trying to understand the value that our product delivers them.
Get assumptions on paper first
So that process generally starts by trying to get all of the assumptions out that our core internal team have about who our customers are, what they want to achieve, and what the value is that our product delivers.
The reason we do this is because otherwise later in the process, you’re going to have all of these biased assumptions come up and you’re going to be finding reasons to include or exclude them later on, rather than having a really honest conversation upfront, and asking, “how confident are we about this specific thing?”. If a CMO or a product manager has this one belief, it’s a good opportunity in the research that we’re going to go do to test whether that is true, or whether it’s just a one-off that we’ve seen in one customer.
We really want to try and find patterns. Positioning is about patterns. And so that’s really cool, getting those assumptions out first of all, super important. The output of that is something called a customer empathy map. And we use that as a really rough basis to guide our customer research that we’re going to do.
Do customer research
I have a list of like 19 questions that I rely on and try and get a good enough spread across all of them from maybe 10, 15 interviews if we can.
Those interviews are with customers. They are with prospects, with people that we know in the market, analysts, other people that have some knowledge around the problem space that we’re solving. Those questions fall into four categories.
The first part is about segmentation. Who was the person that we were interested in? What do they do? What’s their job? Who do they report to? All of the kind of standard stuff that you might as.
The next piece we want to ask about are the general problems that they have, so problem discovery. We’re trying to get a really broad view of who our customers are, what they care about, what’s going on in their day to day, stuff like that.
The reason we do that, and start really broad, is because the literal definition of positioning is to find a space in our customers’ minds that we can occupy. How are we going to do that if we don’t know what is already in their head?
So we have to start super, super broad, and that might be specific software challenges, like they’re trying to do this specific thing with this category of software, or it might be professional goals. They want to get a promotion that’s on their mind at the minute, or they might have really personal goal, to make them more money, or save time so they can go home and do other stuff.
After we’ve done that, we have the opportunity to dig in a bit more on the problem that we think those customers have. And so we’re validating that problem to some extent. And so we’re trying to ask questions about how, does this affect you? What other impact does it have?
And then lastly. in this questioning process, we’re trying to understand, after giving a brief explanation of what our product does, how it would work for them. Would it save them time, how do they think it would change their life? What would the ultimate value and benefits be, from their perspective?
So those four sections give a ton of data. The next step is to just go through and find all of the patterns amongst those and try to understand where are the big things that we might want to rely on later? What are the top important themes that are coming out?
So we’ve got all of our assumptions out, we’ve talked to customers. The next step for me in my process is creating personas. These aren’t personas in the kind of usual fluffy marketing sense.
We’re relying on evidence, not assumptions, and we’re focusing on four key elements: their jobs, so the responsibilities and their day-to-day activities, tasks. Their pains: things that frustrate them, annoy them, they want to get rid of. Elements that they want to gain, things that they would love to have, things that they’re trying to achieve.There’s not always necessarily an opposite pain to gain, but sometimes there is. And lastly, their triggers, or the motivations, what’s galvanizing someone to take action, to search, to switch or to buy something.
So we have a really nice tight understanding of what our persona is. And you might have two of them or three of them, depending on how many people are in your kind of core stakeholder group.
Extract customer value themes
From there we then get to the really important part, which is trying to extract the value the customer wants to achieve, wants to gain. That might be solving a pain. It might be reacting to a trigger. It might be achieving something, or doing a job better.
I have a quite tight definition for what the value should be. I think a value is something that is useful to the customer, it’s a priority for them – so there’s some urgency behind it – and it’s something that’s going to be worth the cost, the time, or the effort to make it happen.
Ultimately the value should meet all three of those. Otherwise it’s, fine, but it’s not going to be as strong as it could be. And so we run all of these values, all of these themes that we’re pulling out in personas and try to identify “does it meet all three” and get some level of prioritization in there as well.
So that’s a really simple way in this process of going from super raw, unstructured data to now, for this customer, we know these are the things that person really wants. These are the things that this person is really going to get use out of. They are really invested in solving it because there’s some urgency behind it. And it’s something that they are going to see a positive ROI from.
Super simple. Then we can get a bit creative, which tries to tease out those values and we put them into sentences statements to try and understand how all of the benefits that our features deliver are all linked together.
I have something called a value nugget, which is the hierarchy between benefits features and proof points. So we try and package all of these up together and you’ll have multiple value nuggets.
But the interesting thing about them is that you can move up or move down really easily. So you can move up by asking “why” and moving down by asking “how”. Say you are starting with the value that we help you save time.
Why is that important? Because of this particular benefit, you’re going to be able to do something else that’s more valuable instead. Why is that? Because we’re going to help you do it through these particular features in our product.
And then you can move up in a similar way, by asking how, and it’s a really easy way to train out as well with sales teams, and really easy to give to marketers, to create website copy as well.
So all of that gets wrapped up in a tagline, a slogan, the typical things you might see on the top hero section of a website page. Just a really brief description of all these things for our customer. How do we summarize the ultimate value and benefits that our product delivers?
And we see how that goes.
Launch, test, iterate
We put the positioning out to test it. We message it according to the different channels, we try to prove out confidence in it. Is it successful in the ways that we want it to be? Whether that’s through the sales reps, through pitch decks, through outbound emails, through Google ads. Ultimately we just learn more, iterate and it just becomes a really nice self fulfilling prophecy. As we get smarter, we get more focused and we get more confident about what we’re doing.
Should you frame customer interviews with assumptions?
Often you’ll start the conversation with something in mind.
The last part of the interview is going to be validating your product. So you’re going to give them a really quick detailed description, and then ask them “what do you think of that? How do you think you would benefit?”
Often you’ll start these conversations and as you learn more about who they are, what’s going on in their life, you will often see a light bulb switch on in your mind, where you slightly twist the description that you’re going to give of your product in a way that opens it up, that is different from what you had originally. And that’s really interesting. We’re start to see how people doing the interview react slightly to what we’re hearing from customers.
And when that happens, it’s actually better than having a really strict and discrete description. Because again, we’re trying to learn, we’re trying to find the edges of what our positioning should be. And that’s really interesting to see happen.
What type of customers should you speak to in the positioning process?
I usually rely on best-fit customers. Again, this is an assumption and there are different ways to look at it.
Best fit for your business might be the ones that deliver the most revenue. Or it might be the customers that are the most evangelistic about what you’re doing, or the customers that have the best product/market fit with today.It really depends on the stage of your business, and what you think you need next — that can be difficult to determine.
But you don’t just want to speak with happy customers, because they’re only going to tell you what you wants hear. So you want to try and understand from customers from across the spectrum really.
But the most important thing I would recommend is to look outside of your customer base. To speak to people in the market. Purely because if you think about the average website conversion, you’re probably only getting 2% or 3% of visitors to your website that convert to leads. That means you’re missing out on 97% of people that came to your website who weren’t interested enough.
And so by really learning from those top of funnel, potential prospects and customers, that’s where you can start to understand where are the edges of my customer base or my ideal customers? Is there more we can do to expand that pool, or maybe we need to be more focused on excluding some potential customers as well?
Who should be involved in the positioning process?
I found that it works best with five or six people maximum. The reason we want more than just two or three is because some of the work we’re going to do is about looking for patterns. And so we want to split up groups so that they can do effectively half the work each, and then review what the other has done to check for mistakes.So there’s a logistics piece in there.
But also by involving people from the marketing team from sales, from customer success, usually someone from product… I also think is important for CEOs to be involved in this process as well, because ultimately positioning is a representation or even a driver of your business strategy. It’s really cool to get that in that kind of opinion into the room, but also make sure that executive level people are exposed to the insights that are coming from customers.
How do you test positioning?
So it really depends on what the company wants to achieve. Some companies will just be like, okay, we need new positioning: we need to get something out there because we know what we have today doesn’t work.
And that will be really quite simple because it’s just going to be shared among internal people. Do we feel confident that this positioning is better than what we have today? Yes or no? We build up from there, we start to iterate and then launch externally.
The other part is when we are maybe taking in a different angle, we’re trying to test it a bit more slowly. There’s a bit more risk involved. That’s when we need to try and break it down into “what are the things that we expect positioning to do for us?”. So it can’t just be a blanket catch-all, “let’s put it out there, see how it performs”. It can’t just be something that is done super discreetly.
It needs to be something where you’re going to get confidence that it’s doing the job it’s meant to do. You think about software development testing. They will have an alpha process where it’s done internally. They’ll have a beta process where they are testing it with a small number of customers.
So that could be I want a couple of people to pick this up entirely, use it in pitches and see how it works. We’ll give them a couple of weeks to see that process run through. Or with our marketing team, can we set up some campaigns, some Google ads or some social campaigns, for example, that rely on this new messaging to see how it performs.
One of the things I think is really interesting is when you can do all this cross functionally, So in my experience, what we’ve done is pulled together a tiger team: a really cross-functional group of five or six people from different teams, give them this messaging, this new positioning and say “hey, go and put this into action with this group of customers, and over five or six weeks, you will have much more information as to how it needs to improve, what works and what doesn’t work, and what you need to do to build more confidence in that.
Positioning isn’t going to be something that you set and forget, it’s something that needs to be visited over and over again. We’re never going to have a hundred percent confidence that positioning is good, or better, or works: it’s just something we’re putting out into the world, building our confidence in over time.
How do you activate positioning in your business?
So let’s imagine that you have done with the testing and you’re really happy with it. Now we’re going to present it to the rest of the business and say, “hey, get on with it”. The worst thing you can do is do an all-hands presentation and expect people to use it.It’s not going to happen, not going to work well at all.
The activation of positioning has a couple of different levels. The core piece should be about making your customer’s lives real in the minds of your sales reps and the rest of your team. So you really have to bring the customer to life.
Literally, if you can, do interviews, do all-hands interviews with customers, interview them, do podcasts, internal podcasts, anything you can do to help the rest of the team, understand who the customer is, what’s going on in their lives, what they care about. That’s really key because otherwise they’re not going to have anything to ground the value that you’re delivering on later, it’s just all a little bit too abstract for them.
So if we have actually done that piece, and that takes time, if we’re starting to make our customer’s experiences real for our team, then we can train out the positioning and messaging. We can do the decks and the templates and all of this kind of stuff. And it’s much stronger, because it’s connected to really core piece of empathy for our customers.
And that way people won’t just repeat it, it won’t just be parroted like the standard positioning statement is. But it’s something that people can connect to and it’s something that they will embody and have more confidence in themselves, and that’s going to help them tell the story better.
How should you position against a sea of alternatives?
Firstly, I think it’s more important to use the phrase alternative solutions than competitors, because if you ask your customers or potential customers how they are achieving a piece of value, they will tell you… If you asked 10 people, half of them will tell you they don’t do that at all. Or they’ve got somebody they pay to do that. They’ve got an agency or a freelancer. Maybe one or two people will tell you they using software to do that. There’s a whole world of other ways people are trying to achieve the same value.
So if we’re looking at that purely on a software-to-software comparative level, we’re not really going to understand, the real ultimate thing a customer is trying to achieve. Often there will be one or two, maybe three or four competitors that have really similar things. Yeah. The only thing I’ve seen successfully done is by focusing the customer segment deeper nicher become more narrow, because that way you’re not just going to have one small differentiator, you’re going to have the differentiator for this customer, and that is going to set you apart. April Dunford calls it being a big fish in a small pond.
That works really, well. And it also, again, gives you a bit more of a strategy. If you are struggling to compete against one competitor, try and niche away, angle away from the same market. And you will see that not only you’re going to win more deals, you’re going to see more momentum in this whole process as well, because they are seeing much more of their own jobs, pains, gains, and triggers represented in the way you’re going to market.
What are the telltale signs that show a repositioning is required?
The biggest signs I’ve seen are the ones that are qualitative, like feedback from sales reps. And it’s tricky, because sales reps act at very one-to-one level: everything is about this next deal or this deal.
So the role of product marketers in this is to actually try and understand from qualitative interviews, with sales reps, what’s not working and then try and look for the patterns that exist within those.
That, I think is probably the best way to find out there’s actually an issue with core positioning. And sometimes it’s going to be a small thing, it’s maybe not the right frame of reference for example.
Other times, you’ll just have a lot of things that you need to redo completely. You don’t know who you are, what you’re doing, why for some customers should choose you.
I do positioning consulting with other companies as well, and I think the number one reason people come to me is because they have 10 sales reps, and every sales rep tells a different story when they get on the phone to somebody. There’s no consistency in that messaging and that narrative and that’s going to make your product weaker. It’s not going to instill the same values in your customers. And that’s really important: the consistent narrative, consistent go-to market story is really really key.
What should product marketers know about positioning?
I think to get a really solid foundation of positioning, product marketers should really double down on the way they connect data and insights from customers to business challenges they are seeing.
We’re trying to get… almost like intuition when you’re talking to customers, like, oh, okay, yeah, I think this might be a thing. And sometimes we would just let it go.
But otherwise, a lot of times you say, actually, this might be impacting this metric over there.
Because positioning is part of the whole go-to-market system. Sometimes it’s a bit too fluffy and intangible, but again, to understand how positioning impacts business metrics I think is really, really core.
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