Sunday, March 27, 2022

The Secrets of Good Messaging

So many companies say they need help to raise their game in messaging. The CEOs and CMOs all believe that they have a great product that delivers incredible value but they are failing to communicate it. Having the right messaging, they say, will solve many of their GTM challenges. 

So, what are the secrets of great messaging? I’ve been working on messaging for a long time and I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly and I’ve made my own share of mistakes. As I write this post, I don’t want to try to describe the structure of a positioning statement or how to build a story arc. For that, you should read some of the works by Al Ries, Geoffrey Moore, Simon Synek, and Andy Raskin. I read them too. Instead, I want to impart a few tips of a different kind: 

Messaging is not a magic spell 

I have heard Sales leaders ask many times: “How do we message our solution?”. What they seem to always expect is a script. A precise language that every AE will learn to win every deal. It’s like a magic spell that needs to be uttered exactly the way it is written in the Book of Spells. Once we train and certify everyone on that exact language, then we have our messaging. 

Alas, that’s not how it works. The exact language doesn’t matter. It must not matter. What matters is the substance. Messaging needs to be a convincing argument, not memorized lines. Your sales reps are all different individuals, everyone with her and his own personality. That personality includes the way they speak. To be credible, they need to deliver your messaging in their own words. 

Also, chances are that a good number of your sales reps are in others countries. They speak German, French, Italian, Japanese, or Hindi. They have no choice but to translate your messaging into their own words. If the messaging substance is there, they can do it easily. If your messaging is trying to mask the lack of substance with fancy lines, you are hoping for a magic spell.

Of course, specific words matter. For instance, productivity, efficiency, and utilization are all referring to the same message - you can accomplish more work with the same resources. That’s the substance. Your messaging should decide which of those words you will use. Consistently. But how you describe the problem and your solution, that your personalized delivery.

Messaging is strategy 

Your messaging is an important strategic tool. But, of course, it has to reflect your strategy. For that, it is required that a) you have a strategy and b) your product marketers understand that strategy. Strategy is usually developed by the CEO and his closest team. Andy Raskin always talks about how he likes to talk to CEOs. Well, they also have the biggest budget. But a strategy is only effective when all stakeholders are aligned. If your Product Marketing team is out of the loop, your messaging will not be in line with your strategy. 

You might think: “Of course we have a clear strategy!”. Most CEOs believe that. If you really do, congratulations! But there are many companies that are not really aligned, even if the CEO thinks otherwise. Just ask yourself questions such as: 

  • Are we a platform vendor or an application vendor? 
  • Do we want to grow our professional services business or do we want our partners to handle that? 
  • Are we vendor agnostic? 

Think about these questions. If your alliances team pushes partners but your sales team sees them as competitors, you don't have a clear strategy. In that case, don’t expect your Product Marketing to magically solve this problem with some fancy messaging.

Messaging has to be differentiated  

All the pundits, from Al Ries to Andy Raskin agree that at the heart of your messaging need to be your competitive differentiator. Why should someone buy from you? From the business issue to the challenges to the solution description, good messaging is designed to “land” on your competitive strengths. Product marketers can help you tease them out, validate their uniqueness, and tell the story. 

But only if you have some competitive strengths. 

Because if you don’t have any strengths or you are not aligned on what they are, you can’t expect Product Marketing to make them up. Also, your competitive claim must have a proof point, which can come in the form of data, independent validation, or customer testimonial. Beware of vague statements such as “we know this industry better than anyone else” or “our solution is easy to use”. Your CEO might be able to make those statements and get away with it, but coming from a sales rep, these claims will be challenged or (worse) ignored.

Messaging has to be relevant 

Even if you have solid messaging that has some substance, is supported by your strategy, and lands on your competitive strengths, it won’t be effective if it is not relevant to your audiences. It has to refer to something they care about. I know, good marketing is supposed to convince prospects that they have a problem even if they didn’t know about it, but that’s an illusion apart from a few fashion trends. Usually, they do know they have a particular problem but it was not a priority or they didn’t think there was a solution for it.   

A good example is the content management space that has been trying to message the need for information governance for over two decades. Sure, there are some highly regulated or litigious industries such as pharma, oil & gas, or aviation that need to address compliance. But 80% of companies just don’t care and happily share their documents through Slack all day long. The content management industry has been latching onto every new regulation, from SOX to FRCP to HIPAA, and yet most companies eventually find an easier way to address compliance than by implementing a corporate information governance strategy. The information governance message is just not that relevant.

Messaging won’t replace your product 

At the end of the day, the customers are buying your product. Not your messaging. No matter how great and compelling your messaging is, if the product doesn’t deliver, it will fail. You may sucker a few customers into buying your weak product for a while, but it will catch up with you eventually.  

Yes, there are companies that are successful with aggressive over-selling tactics. Usually, we say that they sell their vision, spending more time on their future roadmap than on the current capabilities they can provide today. They get away with it, because they have already established that they will eventually deliver a good product that will catch up with what their sales and marketing promised. And even that only works with existing customers, who have already purchased a good product previously.


Good messaging is hard to create. It requires understanding the products and the target audience with its trends, issues, and challenges. Good messaging can be very powerful, making it easier for marketing campaigns and sales reps to connect with the buying audiences. That is a huge competitive advantage and an enormous factor when scaling your company.  

Good product marketers can create good messaging. But the entire company has to contribute to good messaging. It’s not just words. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Usage vs Subscription

Usage-based pricing models are all the rage these days. Buoyed by the impressive success of companies such as AWS, Twilio, and Snowflake, VCs across Silicon Valley are quick to say that usage-based models are the only way to go. These are useful conversations to have, but unfortunately, I think that many of them are based on a flawed premise.
Why? Because subscription and usage-based pricing are not an either/or choice. A subscription is a business model that enables an ongoing relationship with a customer. Usage-based pricing is just one of the many pricing options a vendor can offer to sell that subscription. There is no law that says that a subscription can only come at a flat fee per month.
Fundamentally, a subscription is an open contract. The customers – subscribers – enter into open-ended relationships with vendors to purchase their services. As long as the use of the services remains within the boundaries set in the initial contract, and the customer finds value in the service, the vendor will continue the ongoing relationship.
It doesn’t matter if the open-ended contract stipulates a flat fee for each billing period, or if the charges are based on a consumption basis. The “usage” can be pretty simple – Docusign might charge you for the number of documents you sign within a given period, for example. It can also be fairly complex — a rideshare service might charge you for miles traveled at a given location, during a specific time of the day, and using a certain type of vehicle. There are all kinds of ways to charge for a service.
Many subscription companies take advantage of consumption metrics in their pricing. For example, you might have an “unlimited” contract for your mobile phone with a flat charge for calls, data, and text messages. But a trans-Atlantic call will be metered at a rather costly price per minute (unless you have a more expensive international calling plan).
Similarly, your monthly home electricity bill will never drop to zero, even if you’re out of town for an entire month and you’re not using any power. The utility company still needs to amortize the cost of all their infrastructure, and so they’ll charge you a nominal fee.
In short, usage-based pricing isn’t a new concept. From mobile phone carriers to utility providers to Internet Service Providers, usage-based pricing has been around for decades. In fact, Zuora’s research shows that subscription companies that take advantage of some amount of usage-based pricing grow faster than others.
Does that mean that you can’t have a really fast-growing company with a flat monthly price? Not at all. For some businesses, that might be the best way to go, while others are better off with usage-only or with a hybrid model.
Either way, they are all subscriptions.
Note: This blog post was originally published as a post on the blog.

Monday, March 29, 2021

What Running Marathons Taught Me About Sustained Performance

It’s been over a year now since we shut down our offices and began working exclusively from home. To the surprise of those who were skeptical about remote work, the world hasn’t collapsed and we have demonstrated that we can be productive while telecommuting as individuals and as teams.  

Yet the one complaint I hear from everyone is how much busier we are. With the lockdown, the line between work and home disappeared and the work-life balance shifted precipitously towards work. Our days have become daily marathons of Zoom calls and many folks are worried about the sustainability of our pandemic lifestyle. As a hobby marathon and ultra-marathon runner, I’ve learned a thing or two about sustained performance and I thought I’d share a few pieces of marathoning wisdom that are very relevant to the workplace: 

It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon 

This sometimes-overused phrase was the first thought that immediately came to mind – because it is so very true. While a sprint is a run flat-out at the highest possible speed, running a marathon requires a very disciplined approach. The distance (26.2 miles or 42.2 km) is very long and to sustain high performance over this distance, you have to literarily pace yourself.  

Pacing yourself is actually very difficult because if you trained for a marathon, the first 10 miles feel really, really easy. I remember how after months of training and a couple of weeks of rest, my body would be primed to run far and fast. But if I run too fast in the first half of a marathon, I’d pay for it dearly in the second half. Experienced marathoners know how to select the right pace that will be the highest speed they know they can sustain until the finish line. Finding that pace is one of the most addictive things about marathon running. In every race, even many professional athletes get it wrong and flame out in the second half. 

The same is true for sustained performance at work. Working long hours and weekends might yield some short-term results. It might feel easy, even enjoyable for a while. But that’s just the first half of a marathon. No medals are awarded for the first half. Over the long distance, we can’t sustain this pace and we flame out or at least our overall performance ends up weaker than if we had paced correctly from the start. 

It’s not a series of sprints either 

Many business leaders love to use the term “sprint”. Originally introduced by the agile methodology used by software development teams, sprint is referring to a relatively short, time-boxed set of activities that are part of a larger project. Yet the term sprint is a rather unfortunate term, as its meaning is run at full speed.  

You’ve probably seen the enigmatic sprinter Usain Bolt run a sprint. Yes, he was incredibly fast. In 2009, he ran a 100m world record of 9.58 sec that still stands today. And four days later, he set a world record for the 200m that is also still standing. But how many sprints like that could Mr. Bolt run in two hours? Five, ten, maybe 20? He was probably capable of running several world-time results in two hours – maybe not all of them world records but for sure under 12 seconds. But could he cover the Marathon distance like this in two hours? No way! 

The current marathon world record is 2:01:39, set by Eliud Kipchoge in 2018. This pace translates into 17.3 sec over 100m, which wouldn’t impress any sprinter, even though most of us can’t run this fast for much longer than 100 meters. Yet Mr. Kipchoge was able to sustain this pace 422 times to cover the 42,192 meters that make a marathon. Now, that is a sustained performance! But he didn’t do it as a series of sprints. He did it at a much slower, and albeit amazing pace.  

Think about that at work, the next time you use the word sprint. Yes, there may be time to sprint to finish a project – but that effort is hopefully followed by a week of vacation. We can’t follow a sprint with another sprint and expect sustained high performance. 

Sprinters don’t run marathons 

When you compare the physique of the above-mentioned world record holders, you notice some obvious differences. The muscular, tall body of Mr. Bolt (6’5” and 207 lbs.) stands in stark contrast to the short and skinny Eliud Kipchoge (5’6” and 115 lbs.). Yet both are absolutely exceptional athletes, both considered the greatest of all times in their field. 

The explanation is fairly simple. Sprinters require well-developed fast-twitch muscles that tend to be large and heavy, while marathoners rely on their slow-twitch muscles that are light and slender. The sprinters need strength and they train their body accordingly. The marathoner, on the other hand, needs endurance and doesn’t want to have to carry excessive muscles over long distances. My point is that even though they look very different, both athletes are capable of amazing performance. They have just optimized their abilities for a different type of job.  

The same is true at work. Different jobs require different skills. Some of us may be better at short, high-intensity projects while others are better at a more deliberate pace that we can sustain over a long period of time. Don’t assess everyone by “how big their muscles are” ...and don’t expect the sprinters to run a marathon. 

Rest is part of training 

Every marathoner knows that to sustain high performance over those 26.2 miles, you have to do more than training yourself to run the pace. During the race, you need to keep drinking fluids, even if you don’t feel like drinking, and you keep supplying carbohydrates, even if you don’t at all feel like getting down another gel. Good execution in a race means controlling the pace, sticking with your nutritional plan, and staying focused at all times. 

Moreover, running marathons requires several months of well-planned, methodical training that includes days of hard tempo runs, easy runs, and long runs. But it also includes rest days and easy weeks in between all the tough build-up. This part is really critical. To deliver sustained performance, you have to plan for some rest.  

The same is true at work. Sustained performance requires us to keep building our endurance over time. That in turn means that we regularly schedule an easy week or even complete rest. And so, all of you who haven't taken any vacations in a year, think about that. We all need some easy weeks to keep getting better!

Me at the Boston Marathon 2013. Yes, that Boston Marathon...

Peak for the peak race 

When athletes train, their mind is not on a single race or a tournament. They look at the big picture of the entire season. They want to peak at the right time – to show up at their best for the most important competition of the year. In an Olympic year, for many athletes, it’s the Olympic competition. Other examples are world championships, world cup finals, or a specific competition at which you really want to do well. Does anyone doubt that Rafael Nadal plans his season to peak at Roland Garros? 

The simple reality is that you can’t be peaking every week. It takes months to build up for sustained high-level performance and so it’s logical that you won’t be at your best during the build-up time. That doesn’t mean that you can’t perform. You often want to enter races to test your fitness and to add some fun to all the training. But not every race is the Olympics and you want to show up at the Olympics at the peak of your abilities.   

The same is true in our work life, even if we really struggle to admit it to ourselves. But we know that our season has usually key milestones – if you are in Sales, each quarter-end is important, but the year-end is really the time to peak! In Marketing, the peak performance may be required for the annual Sales Kick-Off, the customer conference, or for the Gartner Magic Quadrant survey. Sure, we all want to always deliver work that exceeds expectations, but some projects matter more than others. That’s called prioritization!

A marathon is won in the head 

Running a marathon is the ultimate experience in overcoming adversity. Emil Zatopek, one of the greatest distance runners of all times, once famously said before a marathon race: ‘Men, today we die a little”. And every marathoner knows that at some point in the race comes what I like to call the Great Suck. I’d be feeling great until somewhere around mile 16, I’d start to realize that running a marathon just plain sucks – it would seem to me like the stupidest thing on the planet because I’d be feeling miserable and what I wanted the most was to stop. 

And that’s the moment when the head needs to take over. The mind needs to suppress the pain and discomfort and it needs to keep pushing the body forward. Your mind needs to believe that your body will be OK despite the discomfort, and it needs to remind you of the motivation that made you embark on this journey in the first place - for most of us mortals, it’s usually qualifying for some other, even more challenging race.

The same is true in the office. The daily grind can get to us and it is the mission and the purpose of the work that gets us over the tough spots. This motivation factor shouldn’t be underestimated. Only employees who believe in what they are doing can overcome the moments when work sucks and can power through those rough patches. 

My distance running credentials.
As you can tell, there is a lot about sustained performance at work that we can learn from the world of endurance sports. Delivering top performance over a long period of time is not simple. It requires planning and a deliberate build-up without which we simply succumb to the daily grind and our performance will be average at best. 

Because remember, it’s not the distance, it’s the pace that kills you.