A startup needs more to be successful than a brilliant idea and funding to turn that idea into reality. It needs strong messaging and branding to help it make a name for itself from the jump. A record-breaking 5.4 million businesses filed applications to found new businesses in 2021—how many thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of those are your direct competitors?
With so many businesses taking off every year, startups need as many differentiators as they can get to pull ahead of the pack. Obviously, having a great product is essential—without that, powerful messaging, no matter how evocative, can only get them so far. Assuming a startup has a strong product, effective messaging can give a brand the boost it needs to stand out.
Unfortunately for startups—but fortunately for marketers!—there isn’t a simple formula for powerful messaging. Lots of difficult-to-measure stuff goes into making messaging effective: a strong brand voice, robust content strategy, talented marketers, flaring passion, accumulated knowledge; the list goes on and on. But a big part of producing effective messaging is encouraging a generous and generative approach to messaging at the root of a startup’s business philosophy.
In other words, it all begins with a perspective shift.
A lot of businesses think of messaging as primarily what a brand says about itself. While that’s true, in part, what makes messaging as effective as possible begins with listening, not speaking. The value of careful, concentrated listening to the audience you’re hoping to reach can’t really be overstated. What products can’t that audience live without and why? What are their biggest pains? What brings them joy?
An effective overall startup messaging strategy can be roughly divided into three main categories that, used together, will give your company the underlying structure it needs to improve its messaging—and, ultimately, grow its business. The three categories are curiosity, clarity, and consistency.
It’s true: being a lifelong learner, being open to new information and experiences, is an important part of growing as a person. Well, it’s also true for businesses.
Curiosity is all about consciously and purposefully inquiring about how your customers use products similar to yours, what they feel is missing from those products, and how they feel about your competitors. Asking questions is a vital step to understanding the who, what, when, where, and why of the campaigns you’re planning to run. And it’s equally important to be open to the answers—whether or not they confirm your own biases about demand for your product.
Don’t forget to be curious about what your team thinks about your brand, too. Internal feedback isn’t just for temperature taking about employee satisfaction. The people who work in your startup are the people with the most to gain and the most to lose from whether or not your messaging resonates. Ask them what they think!
Scour every corner of the internet, keep notes on what brands you admire do well, and send out cost-effective, email-based surveys to ask specific questions of specific audiences if and when you can.
Curiosity is ongoing, not just the first step of your messaging. It’s the foundation on which you build brand messages that strike a chord and separate your brand from thousands of others.
Many startups think they can explain exactly what their product is to anyone. But when yours is a niche tech product in a tiny corner of the colossal tech industry, can you describe what your product does in a line or two?
For example, trying to explain cloud computing can leave even the most competent marketer a little tongue-tied. Running through the exercise of trying to explain what your product is in just a line or two can shine a bright light on potential strengths and weaknesses of brand and product messaging.
A couple years ago, WIRED ran a video series called “5 Levels” where, in each video, a subject matter expert would attempt to explain their thing—the concept behind blockchain, what a black hole is, or how memory works, for instance—at five different levels of complexity: to a child, a teenager, an undergrad majoring in the subject, a graduate student, and a colleague. How would you explain your product at five different complexity levels? How would you explain your product to a 5th grader? To a high schooler? To another expert?
Having that deep clarity of what your product is and what your brand is all about is essential to developing a messaging strategy that will carry your brand up and over your competitors that stumble over the clarity hurdle.
Now for the most challenging—and probably most important—bit to any messaging strategy: consistency. Curiosity and clarity are key to developing strong messaging for your startup, but without consistency all of that hard work won’t serve you nearly as well.
Just as blogs live and die on the regularity of their posts, you need to provide a consistent drip of marketing messages into your field. Some of us would love to post a link to our brand new homepage once on Twitter and be done with it, but being in the online social spaces where your customers already are and proving your ongoing presence is extremely important to gaining traction in crowded fields.
Sure, some folks can pay to win with huge ad spends—but that strategy can backfire. Especially if a brand doesn’t have the right content in place to move that influx of visitors down the funnel toward actually spending their hard-earned money. Having a trove of persuasive, interesting, brand-building content in place—published day after day and week after week—will make a difference.
Lots of brands think they’re the special ones that can somehow sidestep publishing consistent content in every relevant channel. Some even think they don’t need an active presence on social media, or that they can leave a rickety website in place to “save money.” Unfortunately, it’s the rare startup indeed that can survive, let alone thrive, without those key functions in place. Your brand can and will be an asset if you put some muscle into publishing content, running campaigns, and pushing messaging consistently.
Getting your brand messaging to be as effective as possible is an ongoing journey. There’s no one best way to get exceptional results every time—not without spending money that many startups simply don’t have. With a commitment to curiosity, clarity, and consistency, though, you’ll soon be running ahead of the pack.