This is part of a series of interviews with B2B revenue leaders. This interview is with April Dunford, Founder of Ambient Strategy.
Note: at the time of the interview, April was a Managing Partner & CEO of Sprint.ly.
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m April Dunford and I’m a managing partner at Sprint.ly which is a agile project management tool for start-ups and agencies.
I always see you correcting people online about the difference between positioning and slogans - where does positioning come in?
You know what - I hate slogans. You know what kind of slogans bug me the most? Three word slogans like Innovate, Collaborate, Accelerate. Almost every conference I’ve ever been to has a 3 word slogan where one of the three words is “connect”. Like there's a conference that doesn't have an objective to connect people - and so it's actually illustrative of the difference between slogan and positioning. Most 3 word slogans for conferences don’t do anything to position that conference as anything more or less or different than any other conference.
Positioning is not just one sentence - it's actually a process. It's the way you think about your product as something that is uniquely good at something, for a particular market that really cares a lot about that thing you happen to be particularly good at. So the process of positioning is this constant iteration because your market never stands still. It’s looking at “What do we have that we’re amazing at?” and “What do people want?” and finding where those things intersect.
A slogan in my mind is a useless three words with periods between them that don't mean anything and people ignore. A lot of times people feel like in order to have good positioning, they need to have this short phrase that embodies what they're all about. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you can say what the product is like at the beginning of this podcast when you asked “What do I do?”, well I’m Sprint.ly and so what I told you was “I’m agile project management for startups and small development shops”. Otherwise you wouldn't know how I am any different from Pivotal Tracker or Jira - they’re also agile project management, but what I squeezed in there at the end was if you're a startup or if you're a small custom dev shop, my stuff is different. I didn't tell you how, because I don't have time to do that... but I at least gave you a clue to that's what it is by explicitly telling you what my market is.
Often with slogans, we are attempting to give the audience an idea of what you'd like them to remember but a lot of times they are so vague, the audience is left with nothing. It doesn’t tell me what you do or why you should care in a meaningful way. Like connect, convince, convert, accelerate - accelerate what? connect whom? How? Most slogans are meaningless to the audience you are trying to reach.
A lot of people do positioning exercises that turn out really clunky phrases…
Oh yeah I’ve got a real hate on for those too. So when I learned positioning, there was this phrase that you had to do, and it says we are a blank, for blank, that does blank, unlike blank, and so you had to fill in these blanks. I’m really against that. I think the components of positioning that you really need to understand are simple.. and trying to fit them into a phrase is pointless, and in fact leaves you with a phrase that's difficult to remember and nobody uses anyways.
A better way to do it is to think about what our strengths are and what are we uniquely qualified to do - what are things that we are amazing at that no other competitor in our space can say that they do. Then think about your target market, your target market isn't going to be everybody. If I tried to sell Sprint.ly to everybody it wouldn’t work - Jira is a hugely popular product, they’re orders of magnitude larger than we are. They meet the needs of a lot of potential customers. It’s unreasonable for me to say you should always pick Sprint.ly over Jira - there are a thousand different reasons to pick them over me. But at the same time, we have very happy customers that have moved off of Jira because there is a particular type of customer that we are very well suited for. If you’re in my space, there’s a bunch of things that we do better than them - we are very simple to use, you can get up and running with us very quickly, we support different levels of access to the product. If you're the kind of company (startups, small agencies) that cares a lot about those things, then you should pick us.
That's the exercise you need to go through, where you think about what are the things we’re really amazing at, who are the people that really, really care about that stuff, and then how do I communicate that. That's what positioning is.
Why do so many companies get that wrong?
One thing is that they like to think that they are going to sell everybody on the planet. So they don't want to tighten up their positioning because they're worried that somebody will come to their website and think “Oh, this stuff is not for me!”. So they want to say our stuff is for everybody. The problem with that is what really happens when people come to the website, they’ll make up their own mind about that and they'll look at it and say “this seems like it's for everybody, but I’m a car dealership so this probably isn’t for me.” or “this seems like it's for everybody, but I'm a startup, we’re special, not for me.”. So unless you're a giant company that says “Look! We’re the market leader, you should buy us because everybody does.”, you need to be more be explicit and say if you have these problems or care about these things - we’re for you. But people are terrible at it because they think they're giving away revenue by doing it - but the reality is, it's the best way to start getting some traction.
So it sounds like building the customer profile and knowing your market is where you have to start. How do you go about assessing your customer profile?
If you've got customers already then you can start with them. But you have to pick up the phone and talk to them. It's hard to survey your customers and get any good answers about anything because you don't actually know what questions to ask. There's no real substitute for open ended questions done over the phone or face-to-face. Asking people about why they chose us, what do they love about us, if they had to describe use what would they say, why they switched to our product, why did they do that, was there something that triggered it, etc. Those sorts of interviews are really interesting to have.
Differentiation is one of the key components of your position. What's the right or wrong way to talk about how you’re different than your competitors?
It’s the reasons that people choose you over other options, those are the things you have to focus in on. If you’ve got a product and it’s got 9 features, and your competitor that everyone in the market knows has 8 features, there’s no point in talking about the 8 where you overlap - just talk about one where you’re better!
Particularly in B2B it's rare that someone makes a purchase without at least doing a little poking around to see what's out there. Your job is to make sure for those people that you think you can get (the ones you are best suited for) - you look better, or you at least look different in a way they should care about.
So you're saying highlight your differentiator and let table stakes be table stakes. But how do you avoid losing out on those table stakes?
This is the worry and this is the reason that everybody talks about every single feature they have, because they think that if they don't say it all then customers will think its not there. I think what you do is you either say “we have all the things other people have” and you leave it at that and find a nice marketing way to say that. Or if you're really nervous about it - not on the homepage, somewhere else - that way if someone is saying “I wonder if they have that thing that everyone else has” they can click on product and there's some giant checklist that just says “Everything! Check, check, check, check, check... ”. So if you're really worried about it, you can put it there and cover it off.
I’ve never seen a startup err on the side of talking about too few features, where I have seen some startups go to town talking about every single thing they do, and the real cool stuff gets buried.
Highlighting your differentiators can also be hard because things that were not table stakes a year ago, become table stakes and also you are constantly releasing new features and nobody likes doing a complete website refresh all the time. Another trap is getting caught up in is over communicating features that took a lot of development effort to do, but are actually not that important from a sales effort. For example some features are more for customer retention - not a customer acquisition feature. So the marketing executive has to make sure that people on the team understand that just because it isn't on the homepage doesn't mean it's not important to the product and the business overall.
That’s an interesting point because in my past role, we always had this debate about what the job of the homepage was. Is the job to introduce the company for the first time or is it to highlight your latest news?
The homepage has very different jobs for different products in different markets with different customer acquisition strategies. You have to look your sales strategy how that works, and then make sure the website is tailored to that. So how other people in your space have their websites designed maybe completely irrelevant to how yours is designed because they may acquire customers in a different way than you do.
How often should you be re-evaluating your position in the market?
It's a thing you always have to be doing. You have to be on the lookout for signs that your positioning has gone stale. Sometimes there are external forces, like the economy gets crappy or you have some giant company that decides to get into your space, and all of a sudden everything is different. But sometimes it's things that have nothing to do with your market that seemingly can change the way people look at your market, and so how do you position against that or around that.
What resources do you recommend for people to learn about positioning or even evaluate their own?
There aren't great resources, but there are some books where you will learn things that will be helpful for positioning. The bible of positioning is this book by Rise and Trout that was written in the early 80’s called Positioning: The Battle for your Mind.
It's so old, and the examples are really old - but if you want an introduction to what positioning is all about, that's the place you should start. Unfortunately, it doesn't tell you how to do positioning - it's not actionable, it just gives you a bunch of examples. So I tell people to read it but then they're still left struggling with what do I actually do. There are other resources too that are interesting. Crossing the Chasm, again an older book but with an updated version which I haven't read yet. There's a lot of stuff in there about positioning and in fact that horrible positioning statement with all the blanks comes from there.
Blue Ocean Strategies is one that product people all read which is about entering new markets versus incumbents. Of course, there’s Lean Startup but it is surprisingly light on advice related to marketing and sales. Four Steps to the Epiphany is a better book if what you're trying to get good at is customer discovery.