The following process clarifies your product’s positioning like no other I’ve found in 10 years of marketing . . . and a clear idea of your product’s positioning makes all the difference.
Positioning is a marketing strategy that aims to make a brand occupy a distinct position, relative to competing brands, in the mind of the customer. A typical positioning statement looks like this:
For __ (target segment) who __ (statement of need / opportunity). The __ (name of product) is a __ (product category) that __ (statement of core benefit; i.e. a compelling reason to buy). Unlike __, (competing alternative) our product __ (key point of difference).
A well-chosen positioning statement helps inspire better messaging, identify effective marketing channels and, of course, build better products. On the other hand, a poorly-chosen positioning statement all but guarantees failure, by cementing faulty customer assumptions.
Therein lies the rub. Most positioning statements are never seen by customers. At best, they are validated indirectly. Often, they are never tested at all.
So, if you haven’t tested your positioning statement, you’re betting the house on an incredibly risky game.
A founder friend recently came to me with a marketing problem. After listening to the specifics, I recommended that he publish content that established his company as a thought leader in their industry.
The first article I suggested was one that highlighted other — non-competing — products that could also help their customers. As it turned out, writing this article profoundly changed the course of his company for the better.
Recommending other products to his audience clarified how the market was segmented, and the specific needs felt by that segment. His company completely overhauled their product’s positioning, communications and feature set, validating their position in the market.
This is the process you can use to write a similar article for your customers. By the end, you’ll be able to craft a bulletproof positioning statement, gaining a deeper understanding of your target segment and the reason they’ll select your product over competitors’.
What role is your customer playing when they use your product? For example, when I use Trello to organise my product backlog, I’m playing the role of Product Manager.
Sometimes the customer plays multiple roles. Today, when I use Skyscanner to find cheap flights, the role I’m usually playing is ‘Traveller’, but in the past, I was playing the role of ‘Management Consultant’. If your customers play multiple roles, choose one role to focus on in your positioning statement — the role where you believe your product will be most valuable.
Take it in: You’ve just identified a key aspiration of your target user — to succeed in this role.
What activities does your customer’s role encompass? For example, as a Product Manager, my activities include understanding users, analysing user data, managing a product backlog, supporting development workflow, and communicating with the team.
You’re aiming for a list of six to ten major activities, one (or at most two) of which your product or service addresses.
If your product addresses every single activity, you’ve defined the role too narrowly. For example, if your product is an email client, the role of ‘email reader’ is too narrow. Try to zoom out, and ask yourself what role is the ‘email reader’ playing. Remember, choose just one role for this exercise.
Take it in: Your customers have a lot going on in their lives and your product plays a relatively small part.
Which products would help your customer perform this activity better, faster or cheaper? You’ll find there is always a spectrum of products to help customers in each activity.
As a Product Manager who needs to support development workflow, products I find useful include: Post-its and a whiteboard; Google Sheets; Trello; Jira; and Pivotal Tracker.
Don’t be afraid of researching areas unrelated to your product. It’s an opportunity to discover the ways other companies are addressing your target audience.
However, if you find your product is the only one listed under a particular activity, this is a red flag. Ask yourself these questions: how do people perform this activity without your product? What happens if they don’t do this activity at all? Is this really a stand-alone activity, or is it part of another activity?
Take it in: Look at how many other companies are competing for your user’s attention.
How would you advise a customer to choose the right product for their needs? How would your customers make recommendations to others? Go and ask them which solution they’d recommend for each activity, and why.
To illustrate, here’s how I’d recommend Product Managers choose the right product to support their development workflow:
Notice the ‘if’ statements. I naturally segmented the customers around a small set of criteria — the size of the development team, and whether they are co-located or not. These dimensions determine the different needs those customers have.
Hopefully, the positioning statement above is now much clearer. The target segment isn’t everyone that performs this role . . . it’s based on the same criteria as your recommendations. Their need is specific to them, not some generic need for that activity.
When you come to recommend within a chosen activity, what are your ‘if’ statements? Are they similar to other activities? Which segments are you not competing for? Great positioning requires you to choose who isn’t your customer.
Take it in: Only a few dimensions actually affect how customers position a product in their heads.
At this point, you can write your positioning statement in the following format:
For Product Managers on small, distributed teams that need to support and collaborate with their development team, I’d recommend Trello, an online workflow tool that allows teams to create online Scrum boards. Unlike other online workflow tools, Trello is free, easy to use, and very flexible.
You want to be as concise and specific as possible. Remember, you aren’t positioning for the whole world, just for the user role you believe your product adds the most value to, as you defined it in Step 1.
You’ve identified the activities your customer performs in their role and the products that can best help them. Now it’s time to share your recommendations with the world.
Choose a title that explicitly identifies the role your users are playing. For Product Managers, the title might be:
Structure the article around the key activities and discuss your recommendations for each one. You can make it personal or formal, depending on what you think is easiest to read, and who your audience is likely to be. I’d suggest including your product category early in the piece, to maximise the number of readers exposed to it.
At the bottom of the article, ask for feedback, leave your business email address, and make it clear which company you work for.
Take it in: You’ve subtly shared your positioning with the world.
This is where the tire hits the road. Your goal is to get as many eyes on this content as possible, to learn where it can be improved.
Here are just a few things you can do to get exposure:
Every step of the way, absorb reader comments and update the content accordingly. Are there products you’ve missed out? Are there any objections to your recommendations? Have you neglected any activities? Make it easy for people to give you feedback and thank them for reading. It’s very likely that people in your target audience will read it, so you may even win some new customers.
Take it in: Feedback on this article will help you iterate your positioning statement.
I’ve used this process several times, and each time it reveals new insights and a deeper understanding of the target market. It can be used for any product, in any industry, and it works for mature products just as well as it does for new product ideas.
How long it takes to complete depends on how much you already know about your customers and how quickly you can write. I estimate it’ll take somewhere between one and three days to do a good job, but it can move your understanding forward by months, so it’s an excellent use of time.
If you decide to try it out, share your article below. If you browse the articles of others, share any feedback you have for them. Feedback is, after all, how we improve.
Thoughtful essays on growing teams, building products and raising money by Serial Entrepreneur and Investor, David Bailey.