10 traits of successful messaging

The web has proven to be a huge benefit for getting product and service messages to prospective buyers faster, easier, and more cost effectively than many traditional marketing vehicles. Google estimates that as of June 2008, there were 1 trillion unique URLs on the internet at once, and it's not stopping there. This expansion has given rise to even more marketing real estate in the form of banners, sponsored links, blogs, etc. To sum it up, there's quite a lot of marketing content out there. The question is: Are your customers getting it?

As the web is the great equalizer, most companies have launched a multitude of marketing pages, resulting in a deluge of pitches, promises, and promotions. As if that weren't enough, business messages have infiltrated social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and are now competing with recreational favorites such as video, music, and chatting.

With a growing floodwall of messages rushing at customers, how are they handling it? Well, if you buy into the rationale that we all have way more to do in less available time, prospective customers are drowning in information. Additionally, the current economic climate has decreased the number of purchase decisions being made, giving prospective customers fewer reasons to take notice. The amount of noise in the marketplace has increased drastically, but opportunities have diminished. Consequently, marketing messages today must be razor sharp to cut through the noise and be compelling enough to immediately hook prospective customers.

Here are 10 characteristics of good messages that get results. Incorporating these attributes into your messaging will help you get heard, be remembered and, most importantly, prompt customer action. Effective messaging that reaches out, grabs the intended audience, and draws them in typically contains a number of the following:

1. Targeted
Good messaging first identifies the audience you're attempting to reach and answers the question, "What's in it for them?" Once you define who the audience is, state the value they can expect from your product or service in terms they can relate to and understand. Keep in mind that your message may have to be restated for different audiences. For example, customers may want to know how your offering will save them money, while partners want to know how it will make them money. On the other hand, analysts and investors are interested in the financial benefits and how stakeholders will profit. Don't assume that your audiences understand the value they'll receive -- make it clear by specifically targeting your messages for each one.

2. Simple and brief
With today's onslaught of messages aimed at your target audiences, there is limited capacity for customers to remember who you are and the value you can provide. Some experts contend that humans can typically remember phrases containing up to about seven words. Beyond that, most memories are challenged. There are numerous taglines and sound bites that have been able to effectively convey a key message with a minimum of words. The California Milk Processor Board's "Got Milk?" and IBM's "e-Business" are great examples of how keeping it short makes it stick.

3. Compelling, bold
Making a bold statement gets your audiences' attention and allows you to stand out from the crowd. A good example is Ford's 1980s message, "Quality is Job 1." At the time Ford was trying to overcome some hits to its image it had taken for quality problems. The message was extremely successful and went on to become a household slogan.

4. Credible
Provide real evidence that your offering has a true advantage and delivers value. Beer manufacturers have been telling us for years about their "cold filtering," "3 step brewing processes," and "mountain spring water" as proof of their great taste. There's no better way to build credibility than by placing your unique advantage right in the main message. KFC's website touts its "Original Recipe chicken -- made with the same great taste Colonel Harland Sanders created more than a half-century ago." The headline on the Toyota Prius website states simply "$22,000 51/48," referring to the vehicle's starting price and mileage for highway and city driving. Give your audience a reason to believe your product will truly deliver value.

5. Memorable
Send a message that they can't get out of their heads. Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" and Sun Microsystems' "Sun is the dot in .com" come to mind as incredibly memorable messages. I was working at Compaq at the time the Sun message hit and was surprised at how the employees there were offended that Sun could make such a claim (whatever the claim really meant). Unfortunately, Sun's recent misfortunes have caused critics and competitors to use the phrase against them. Memorable is a good thing -- as long as you can continue to deliver the goods.

6. Highlights what's important
In addition to keeping each message brief, the number of key messages should be kept to a minimum. Beyond three key messages on a web page, or on any other marketing vehicle for that matter, it becomes difficult for readers to take away your story. Make sure the messages are contained in the title, headings, and subheadings. Often this is all the reader will have time to read. Don't believe that just because you have compelling messages in the body of your pages that everyone will take the time to read it.

7. Ubiquitous
Make sure your key messages are everywhere and repeat them frequently -- in the title, the headings, the bullets, and the main text. Research has shown that the average person needs to see a message 7-10 times before they are comfortable making a purchase. You may wish to state it a little differently each time, but be sure prospective customers walk away with what's important -- the value to them. In addition to your web pages, the same messages should appear in all of your marketing materials, including customer presentations, web and print ads, and videos.

8. Communicates your advantage
Placing your key competitive advantages right in your main message leaves no doubt that you're offering something better. Arm and Hammer's new Teeth Whitening Booster Toothpaste's key message contained on its packaging and web site takes this approach:

"Easier, Faster and 2x More Whitening Agent than leading whitening strips."

The advantages against the unnamed (but presumed) leaders are clearly stated, leaving no doubt to the product's strengths. Keep in mind that to make these types of claims you will need backing evidence, such as product tests, benchmarks, customer survey results, etc., to substantiate your claim in the customer's mind and very importantly, to avoid potential litigation from competitors.

9. Honest
Your products and services must live up to your messages, otherwise the messaging will backfire, jeopardizing your credibility, and making your customers suspicious of all your future communications. My broadband provider just sent me a postcard stating that my internet speed has doubled. While this sounds great, I, nor anyone else in my household, has experienced a discernable increase in internet performance in our home. Is this message honest? Maybe by some unstated criteria they feel they can make this claim. But if it's not obvious to the customer, it will cause more harm than good.
 
10. Consistent

Your messaging should support your company's strategy and be consistent with all of your external messages. In other words, avoid conflicting messages at all costs. Inconsistent messages coming from the same company just confuse customers and can pit your products and services against each other leaving customers wondering what to buy. For example, a computer company touting the "world record performance" from two different lines of servers would cause customers to question how both can have world record performance. Instead, the messages need to clarify and position the differences, e.g., "world record performance for web applications" and "world record performance for database applications" to avoid conflicting impressions and confusion.

Building an online messaging architecture is an effective way to ensure message consistency across your organization and that the right messages are appropriately matched to your company's offerings. The messaging architecture not only positions how your company wishes to be viewed by the external world, but it also serves as a repository of current messaging vehicles. Using an online messaging architecture, employees throughout your organization can easily access approved messaging and use it to develop additional marketing content for websites, customer presentations, press releases, analyst meeting, advertising, etc., while maintaining overall message consistency.

The messaging architecture should begin with the top level, enterprise messages which communicate your company's overall value. From there, messages for key initiatives and solutions you are delivering to the marketplace should be stated in a manner supporting the company's main message. The next level contains messages for products and services, programs, etc., which are complementary of each other and the support higher level messages.

Messaging architecture

Using framework like this, a messaging architecture will help ensure that all your messages are consistent and support your company's strategy, while providing the "de facto source code" for all external marketing communications.

Integrating these important characteristics into your messages and building a messaging architecture to assure consistency and focus across the organization will allow your business to cut through the noise, get heard, and prompt customers to act.

Bill Jacobs is a marketing professional.

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