How can we get customers to understand the value of our product when it’s new in the market?
That’s where your product positioning comes in. In this episode, we’re joined by April Dunford to talk about how to get a new product in front of your target audience.
She’s a keynote speaker and a consultant for growth-stage startups in the tech industry. April has worked on 16 successful product launches and shares her lessons learned from the experience in this interview.
listen to this episode
- The most common mistake companies make with positioning
- Why it’s valuable to hear an outside marketing perspective
- The reason why step one is analyzing competitive alternatives
- How to determine the key unique features of your product
- Why you must link values to your product features and benefits
- Three styles of market positioning (and which one is most common)
- Why learning foundational marketing is the most important step
- Marketing Without a Budget: Grow Your Revenue with 0 Credibility or Advertising
- How To Use Jobs To Be Done to Read Your Customers’ Minds
- 26 Ways to Stand Out In Your Customer’s Mind with Ulli Appelbaum
- Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind
- Play Bigger
- The Information
- Recode Decode
Louis: Bonjour, bonjour. And welcome to another episode of EveryoneHatesMarketers.com, the market podcast for marketers, founders and tech people who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.In today’s episode, you will learn how to position new products so that they shine for your best customers. I didn’t come up with this sentence, that’s actually my guest who came up with that and I literally just copied it.
My guest today is an accomplished tech executive, entrepreneur, a board member, angel investor, advisor with 25 years of experience, so she’s kind of a big deal. She’s launched 16 products into market and grown revenue from zero to hundreds of millions. She’s also an established speaker and spoke to basically all the conferences you can think of. She’s a consultant as well who works with tech companies to help them improve their success rate when introducing new products.
And according to my good friend Claire Suellentrop, who was on the podcast before, she says that my guest is equal parts fantastic stage presence, equal part hilarity, and equal part valuable insight, so let’s see what you’ve got, April Dunford.
April: Well, that’s an awesome introduction. Thanks so much for having me. I love the idea of this podcast so much, Everyone Hates Marketers. I told everybody at the office, I said, “Oh, I’m going to do this podcast right now. It’s called Everyone Hates Marketers.” They’re like, “Why are you doing that?”
Louis: That’s the point. It’s not really, we don’t really hate them. We try to change the market.
April: We hate some of them. We’re allowed to hate some of them.
Louis: Oh, we do. And trust me, we do hate a lot of them.
April: A lot.
Louis: I’m not going to mention names, but there are a few. We can maybe, during this episode. So diving into the topic, which is like positioning those new products, again, you can launch it and shine. We talked about this topic a few times in the podcast. Just to let you know, we talked about brand positioning in general. We talked about positioning as consultant or freelancer, how to position yourself in the market.
We talked about 26 types of positioning as well in one of the other podcasts. But we never really talked about product positioning and using that to introduce a new product to market. So this is absolutely a new subject for listeners. So I’m super curious to hear what is your definition of positioning?
April: Yeah, it’s so interesting that positioning is this super old topic, right? Like the concept of positioning was invented in the late 70s. This sort of seminal work on positioning is this book called Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Ries and Trout. That was first published in 1982, like well before the internet.
And yet, we have almost no clue what positioning is. It’s hilarious. There’s so much information and misinformation about it. Like I would swear that positioning itself, as a concept, has a positioning problem.
I personally do not believe in brand positioning. I don’t think brand positioning is any different than product positioning. There’s just positioning. That’s it. And what positioning is, is it’s figuring out exactly what are the competitive comparables in the minds of customers to what it is that you’re doing.
Why are you better? What’s your secret sauce? What are your key differentiators? And then figuring out who cares the most about that stuff that you’re really good at, which is another way of saying customer segmentation.
And then overall saying: If this is what we’re really good at, this is the people that really care, so the people we need to communicate to. What is the best way to position this thing or a context we can put this thing in so that those people understand our value? That’s what positioning is all about.
It’s kind of a big idea and the Ries and Trout book, I think, did an excellent job of explaining what the idea is about. But they didn’t give us any clue how to actually do it. So we all kind of feel like, positioning, been there, done that. But nine companies out of 10 that I work with do not actually, explicitly position their products. They’ve never done it. And so because we don’t do it explicitly, we tend to mess it up.
Louis: So what are the ways companies tend to mess it up?
April: Well, there’s a myriad of ways. But the most common way is they do what I would call sort of a default positioning. So they’ll say, okay, we wake up in the morning and we say I’m going to make a better email system. You know what’s wrong with email? It’s terrible to use and blah, blah, blah. So they start trying to make a better email system. And so they add features, they take it away, they put it in front of customers, they iterate on the thing.
At the same time, the market for email and communication in general is changing. New products are entering the market, things are leaving, things are amalgamating. Let’s say you finally get this thing and your real differentiator is that it’s real time, I can see who’s online and who isn’t, I can tell whether or not someone read my message. It’s better than email, right? It’s like email plus, plus.
What I just described to you is actually chat. That’s not email at all. But if you go out to the market and say, “No, no. This is special, special email. It’s email but it’s different,” then you are basically positioning in this default manner. And you know what? Email does lots of things that you don’t do, and everything that’s cool about you actually makes you chat.
The mistake that companies make most often is they have this kind of idea in mind of what market they’re in and then they bring that with them, you know, even when the thing that they’ve actually got could be positioned much better in a completely different market, make way more sense, highlight their strengths way better.
But they just can’t let go of the original idea of where they came from. That’s the biggest problem people have.
Louis: Right. Because you work mostly with tech companies in the last few years, I assume that you probably talked to founders who were maybe techies or oriented in the tech side and not really the marketing side. Therefore, they make this mistake quite often because of this, right?
April: Yeah. And you know what? It’s not just tech founders that are bad at this. I think generally, internal in a company, we sell ourselves on an idea of this is what our product is. This is what it’s all about. It’s obvious, right? And it’s hard to put it out in the market and then pretend you’ve never seen this before. Pretend you have no clue what this thing is and you’re coming at it from the first time.
It’s really hard for us when we’re inside the company and we’ve been heads down working on it to be able to take a big step back and say, I don’t know. Is it really email? Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s something else.
I think it’s true for marketing people too. We sometimes get married to concepts that we need to just let it go and open our minds. So maybe there’s a different way to think about this thing.
Louis: Yeah, I wouldn’t say sometimes. I would say every single time because it’s insane. That’s what I’ve understood in the last few years, you know, it’s like to value. I used to devalue or not put a lot of value on consultants or coaches or business coaches or marketing coaches because I thought, what are they doing? They’re just like, from an outside perspective guiding you and you’re supposed to know this kind of stuff.
But in fact, I’ve realized working in the industry that you need people outside or customers or ways to get to those people to understand your business. Because you’ve lost track because you’re so much in it you don’t know what’s going on anymore. Or what are your biases that you just can’t remove?
April: That’s right. Yeah, that’s exactly it. Outside perspective sometimes, you know, sometimes it hurts but you need it.
Louis: Yeah. That’s the issue, right? It hurts and some people are not willing to seek this, to seek the discomfort of knowing that actually, the way we’ve been describing the product for the last three years isn’t the best.
April: Right, that’s exactly it. Really, really hard sometimes to change. Founders in particular, even if they’re technical or not. Technical, they tend to get really married to an idea and that idea dies hard. And so sometimes it helps to have an outside person come in because the inside people know it but they’re too scared to kill the dream for fear of getting fired, which just happened.
Louis: Let’s kill the dream together. Let’s go through your methodology of really positioning products so that they shine, as you said, for your best customers. So I’m pretty sure you have a step-by-step sort of methodology.
April: I do, I do.
Louis: Let’s dive into it and try to take examples throughout so that people can really picture that in their head and how to do that themselves. So what is step one? Let’s say the typical scenario for you, is it more introducing a new product to market? Or is it more like something that is already existing? Which one do you want to go for?
April: Well, so usually the companies that I’m dealing with fall into one of two camps. So they’re either a startup that’s got something in market and it’s got a bit of traction because it’s really hard to do positioning if you don’t have some experience with paying customers. So it’s got to have some traction.
You have to have some customers to pull on for information. So either it’s that and usually it startups sort of between seed and Series A, or maybe they just raised an A and they’re about to hire sales people and marketing people and they want to make sure they don’t mess it up.
April: Or it’s bigger companies that have an established position in the market. But now they’ve got something new they want to launch and they’re worried about how that impacts the overall company position. So it tends to be, the folks I work with fall into one of two camps.
Louis: You need to choose the two?
April: Well, I mean we could do either one. It doesn’t matter. They’re kind of the same thing, although I would say the startup one is probably an easier example to walk through because a lot of people with an existing product in market will be able to relate to kind of the scenario of what’s going on.
Louis: Let’s go with this. Before we dive into the startup scenario, just define for us what you meant by Series A. It’s like how many million, like how do we qualify Series A? How much is it?
April: We could probably do a whole separate podcast on how the weird venture capital nomenclature, but typically the customers I’m working with have maybe around a million in revenue. Sometimes less than that. But they’ve got more than, you know, if their business to business companies they’ve got more than two or three customers. If they’re really big ticket more than two or three customers. If they sell for less money, they maybe have a few dozen customers.
The key is, they need to have enough that they can start seeing patterns around what people like and don’t like about the offering. How people view the offering. There need to be enough customers so that you could do a little bit of pattern recognition across, you know, these are good customers for us and these are bad customers for us.
Louis: Right. Let’s say you start working with such a startup that has like one million plus in revenue around that. They are raising a Series A, so they are scaling. As you said, they might hire salespeople and a proper marketing team and they need to sort of define their position in the market, right? So what is the very first step you take?
April: The first step I take is we look at what customers would consider a competitive comparable. So we do this kind of mental exercise where we say, “Look, if your product didn’t exist, what would you use?”
And the answer to that question is funny because, you know, as startups we’re usually really obsessed with looking at other startups that are doing things that are kind of like us because that’s our competition for fundraising.
But if you go to customers, most of the time they haven’t of your startup, they haven’t heard of anybody’s startup. And if say, if you didn’t exist, what would you use? The customer says, “Well, I’d use Excel. I’d use Word. I’d hire a couple of interns.” Or the worst one which is, “I’d do nothing because it actually isn’t that big of a problem and I’m doing okay without doing anything. I’ll just suffer through it.”
Usually what we do is we sit down and in order to figure out what’s unique and cool about you. Nothing’s unique and cool unless you compare it to something else. So we kind of have to start with the comparables. We say, okay, if you didn’t exist, your customers would be using things like Excel or an intern.
Now what’s interesting about that is a lot of startups will tell me their big differentiator is they’re super easy to use. And you’ll say, “Well, not compared to Excel. Excel’s pretty easy to use. You know what’s really easy to use? An intern. I just have to hire one and they do their own thing. It’s amazing.”
In order to get at what your real differentiators are, you need to understand what the real comparable is. So comparables are the first thing.
Louis: Now, how do you do that? Do you sit down with the founders and you brainstorm that and you really don’t get out of the building. Do you survey existing customers? How do you do it?
April: If we have the budget and the time–which startups never do–but if we have the budget and the time, the ideal way to do it is customer interviews. You can try to do a survey but you don’t know how to ask the right questions.
I find that a customer interview on the phone is a lot better. Interestingly, for most of the companies that I work with, if I have the right people in the room, this will spark a really interesting conversation about what the actual comparables are.
If you have the Head of Customer Success in the room, if you have the head of sales in the room, maybe a couple of salespeople in the room, people that are dealing with customers every day they know it in a way that often the CEO doesn’t have the insight into that. Same with your head of development. They need to be in the room too because they need to hear it.
But if you have people in the room that are dealing with customers day in, day out, they’ll tell you. They’ll say, “Oh, yeah, no. When we talk to customers we say, ‘How are you doing this now?’ And they say spreadsheets. Nine times out of 10, spreadsheets.”
It’s an interesting discussion to have with the team, but usually, the team knows already. They aren’t used to thinking about it that way. So drawing it out of the team and getting it down is kind of the first step.
The second step. Once you have that piece, the next step is to say, well if that’s what you compete with, what’s so great about your thing? It ain’t that you’re so easy to use most of the time. Sometimes they’ll say, oh, well we’re really cheap compared to other startups.
It’s like, dude, Excel is free. You’re not cheaper than free. You cost money. And you know what’s really cheap? Interns. It’s like half the time, interns aren’t getting paid either. It’s terrible and despicable and people hate marketers for that.
Louis: Let me interrupt you there and come back to the number one. So the deliverables of this, let’s say, this big discussion with all the people that you want to be involved is what one main alternative that they use instead of you, that they would use instead of you?
April: No, no. It can be a bunch. In fact, it normally is a bunch. And normally, the competitive alternatives, I would say, cluster.
So you might have a certain kind of company that says, “Well, our competitive alternatives are Word, Excel, email, Microsoft Project.” Another type of customer would say, “A little Excel but mainly interns.” And another type of customer might say, “Do nothing.” As in competitives do nothing.
The important thing is to kind of get them into buckets and then it’s a neat thing to actually stack rank it as well and say well, if it’s 99% of the time it’s Excel, it’s Excel and let’s just talk about that. People will get distracted with edge cases like, “Oh, there was that one time we lost to another startup.”
Forget about those because they’re outlier data and again, if the majority of your customers would say Excel, then the real competitor’s Excel.
It’s usually an interesting discussion to make the long, long, long list and say like, okay, if I was to cut off everything that’s less than 10% of what do you see, what do you get here, then you generally have two or three options.
Louis: I will fuck up with your steps a bit and say the step is actually to cluster those into like, clusters. Usually, from your experience, you can see one or two clusters that just scream at you. Before we go into step three or step two that you wanted to mention, I want to make the point about this because it’s super fucking interesting and super, super important in marketing. As you said, your competitors are not your competitors.
As you said, it’s not because another startup across the road has raised the same amount of money as you and doing around the same thing that they are your competitors. As you said, sometimes your competition is doing nothing, it’s inertia. Sometime and most of the time, it’s like Excel or hacking things together in the system.
Louis: It’s very rare that people leave you for another tool. Or most of the times say that the one thing that they do is use another tool because that would mean, in my opinion, just from my small experience that the market is so saturated and so mature that you basically have no option. So I’m thinking of internet providers, phone providers.
Louis: You can’t switch to anything but a competitor.
April: That’s exactly it. If the market was that mature, you wouldn’t be in it as a startup. So by definition, if we’re startups and we’re in markets that are emerging, that are growing, it’s because there’s unsolved problems there. And the problem isn’t just oh, this thing is too expensive, I want a cheaper one.
Louis: Right. We know now what type of alternatives people use instead of our products, would use instead of our product. What is the next step?
April: The next step is where we say okay, now that we’ve level set on that and we’re not competing with the little startup next door that raised 10 million more than we did, we’re actually competing with Excel. Now we can have a conversation about what our key unique features are. We’re not getting into value yet, we’re just getting into features. This is stuff we can do that the alternative can’t.
You know, I can save a profile in my software and I can’t with an intern. Or I can’t with Excel. Or I can do a calculation on this and I can’t do that with Excel because Excel doesn’t support that. And so this usually results in a giant list of things. Just a giant list of things. We’ll brainstorm on it and it’ll be probably 20, 30 things. Here are all the things we can do that Word doesn’t.
This is why you want to get off using Excel and use our thing instead. There’s all this stuff you can do. And this tends to be the easiest piece of the exercise.
Louis: Yeah, because people love talking about features, right?
April: Oh, everybody loves talking about features. The neat thing about it though is you’re trying to make sure that you’re doing the right comparables. So the things that, again, if you looked at their website, what their lead feature is, it’s often things like beautiful to use user interface, whatever. That doesn’t make it on the list because we’re comparing it to Excel. So all these other things do.
That’s the next step, and everybody’s happy at this step. We make this great big list of things and it’s happy and everybody in the room is kind of techie and yay, we’re talking about features. We make this big list of features.
Then the next step is to think about, well, customers don’t care about features. They care about what the features enable for them. We have to do this features enabled benefits. Benefits enable value for the customer. What’s that value that it’s enabling?
What’s interesting in the next stage is when you start going down feature by feature by feature, this enables a customer to do this particular task faster, so that saves them money. Or this enables the customer to remove four people out of this process so there’s less mistakes made, and that saves them money in this way.
When you start going down that list, again, you will very quickly see a set of themes emerge. The themes will be: I’m going to streamline your process for doing whatever so they could do it faster, more efficiently, whatever. I’m going to be able to do it with less manual labor. That means less cost for people and whatever your thing is.
You’ll list those things out and it will very quickly, it’s almost never when I do this exercise with the team do we end up with more than three things. Almost never. Even though the list of features was like a hundred things long. There were things in the list of features that were all contributing to one particular point of value.
This stage is usually painful because the team wants it to go a certain way and they want it to map with what the website says right now. It almost never does. And most of them are, “Wait, wait about this ease of use thing?” And it’s like, it’s actually not your value.
Louis: They spend six months building this new website and then they realize actually, no. We said stuff that weren’t that connected to value. Let me repeat something, because you said something super interesting. And I love when I interview guests like you who know shitloads about a specific topic.
You tend to, like the guest would tend to speak about something very fast and this is where the value lies. So if you said something very quickly that has super valuable, you said, features enable benefits that enable values, like that link to values.
Louis: This hierarchy is super important. Let’s take an actual example and talking about this example of Excel versus our software. Let’s say our software is, I don’t know, invoicing, just for the sake of it, right?
One of the features is that you can’t really do in Excel is to maybe design … An invoice designer, where he can really create something that is cool in one page. I don’t know. Maybe you can come up with a better example.
April: Right. You could say, let’s take invoicing as an example, right? You could say, well, the alternative to that is I just hack something together with Excel and I just do it manually. And I send you an email that says hey buddy, you owe me 50 bucks.
Using our stuff, I could put my logo on there, it looks all professional, I can enable PayPal, I can do all this stuff. I’ve got three or four features there, right? Design, I can put a logo on it. I can enable different payment methods like Excel, have that be automatic. I can send automatic reminders. I can list out this big set of features.
The benefit of that is, you know, it all looks better. So you look more professional. But what’s the value of looking more professional? You can charge more because you don’t look like–
Louis: Make more money.
April: Right. You can charge more money for your services because you look legit and you don’t look like some dude working out of his mom’s basement.
I’ll give you another example of this because in tech … This is often a very difficult concept for technical people to understand because in tech, in many ways, we’ve been trained to do the translation between features and value.
Because of that, we often get it confused. Iif I’m talking about a camera on your phone, for example, and I say, “Well, which one would you like? Would you like the one with 15 megapixels or the one with eight megapixels?” And you say, “15 megapixels is better.”
You know that because you’ve been trained to do the translation yourself. Well, I know more megapixels means a clearer picture. A clearer picture means I can zoom in on it, I can print it and it looks better.
We’ve been trained to do that translation. But you don’t have the luxury of that in your business because you’re not this big mature market where you could just say megapixels and everybody just knows more is better.
You have to actually walk people through like, so what if I can put my logo on it, right? What if I could do PayPal? I’ve been getting along find without that. And so you generally have to prompt for that. So as techie people or people inside the company, we’re like, well that’s freaking obvious.
Doesn’t everybody want that? And the reality is no, it’s not obvious. No, not everybody knows how that translates into something good. If they did, they’d be buying your stuff already.
Louis: Usually values are what? You save time, make more money, what are some of the other ones?
April: Ideally, you’ve got to be more specific than that, right? Within your context. I used to have a boss that used to joke about that. That he’s like every B2B company on the planet is either, saves time, saves money, makes money, it frees up some time. It needs to be more specific than that.
So if I’m talking about, I have invoicing and it’s for small businesses. Like, so what to a small business? You need to, you know, saves time how? Saves money where? You need to be able to make it more specific otherwise it becomes so generic it’s like, what does that mean? Saves how much time? When? Where? Why? And so you need to get more specific than that.
The thing about value is it needs to be something that’s very applicable to me. And in business to business cases, that’s like something super applicable to my business. I don’t care if you save time generically for small businesses. If I run a consulting business, I want to know how this helps consulting businesses, period. That’s also things that will save me time.
Louis: Right. So that sounds like almost the step after.
April: Little bit.
Louis: To split it with the use case or the person, the buyer person now that you have, right?
April: But you don’t want to get too specific on that. We don’t quite know yet, where we’re going on that until we get a good idea of value. Let’s say for example, again, if I come back to my invoicing question. If I say, “Well, I can customize it with my logo and I can enable PayPal, whatever.”
Then you would ask the question, “Well, so that’s going to make it look more professional.” And then you would ask the question, “Well, what kind of businesses care a lot about looking professional?” Everybody wants to look professional, right? But some people really got to look professional.
Let’s say you’re a designer. You want the invoice to look like it’s been designed. You look like a moron if it’s not designed. So you care a lot. You care a lot more than a freelance developer. I expect a freelance developer’s invoice to look like crap, and it’s fine.
Louis: It has to. It has to.
April: Yeah, it’s almost a benefit if it looks like crap. If I’m a marketer, if I’m a designer, if I’m anything to do with graphics, I care the most. If I was a startup that had that invoicing software and that’s my key differentiator, then yeah, I could go and market to anybody on the planet, but why wouldn’t I start with marketers and designers because they’re the people that feel the pain the most.
They’re going to be the easiest buyers. They’re going to be the ones that are screaming for this thing and saying, I’m dying here, people, because I can’t put my logo on it. I’m in the logo business.
Louis: This step, we have the list of features, we list the benefits, and then we link values to them. And you mentioned a number. You said like three values, roughly?
April: It almost always comes out to less than three. Sometimes we only get one. Interestingly, I’ve done a few where we come and it’s one thing. Like that’s why you buy us. It’s this one thing and if you don’t care about this, we aren’t going to bother to market to you. A lot of times, it’s two. Quite often, it’s three. But it’s never more than that. It’s never more.
Louis: Let’s say we have a maximum of three values. One, two, or three. What is the next step?
April: The next step is you say, okay, yes, I know your project is magic, amazing, and I can sell it to anyone because everyone needs this magic, amazing thing. But when we look at that value, some people care about that stuff a lot more than others.
If I want to be efficient in who I market to and who I’m going to bother having my salespeople chase, why wouldn’t I just go after the ones that are the easiest to go after first? And then when I’ve exhausted those, then I’ll start working on the people that are just, you know, this is okay, not amazing.
That thought exercise of saying, all right, who’s desperate for this? Is just another way of doing segmentation but it’s a doing a segmentation where you say, who is our best fit customer? Who is our customer that I don’t have to explain to them why it’s important to put the logo on the invoice?
They’re like, of course you got to have it. We’re logo people. We believe in logos. You don’t have to sell me on that.
Whereas a developer might be, “I don’t know. I’m doing all right with no logos. It’s fine.” That’s the exercise you’re doing. What you want to do is say well, anybody that cares about graphics. Well, who cares about graphics? People who do graphics. You start listing these things and then you will also find that those clusters.
You’ll say, well, there are companies like this and you might end up putting all these caveats on it. Well, if it was this kind of company but they were really, really big then they would probably use a different software for that because it would be included in those other software.
You’ll start putting boundaries on it, like customers that meet these criteria. The ideal outcome of this is that you’re essentially doing this really tight segmentation that if I came to you and said, “Hey, we got to close $20,000 worth of business by Friday. Who should we call?”
That you could make a list and say, “These are the companies that we should call because I know companies like this understand our stuff intuitively, dig our value intuitively. They close quickly. I don’t have to sell them that hard. They never ask for a discount. These are our people.” That’s what you’re trying to get to.
Louis: How do you find this information? You will still have the same people we mentioned at the start of this conversation on the room and you basically assume that those people know they’ve talked to customers.
Louis: They kind of have a sense, a gut feeling for okay, those other people.
April: Right. Now in this step, we sometimes have ideas about stuff that require more research. So because we just haven’t encountered customers like this and we don’t know. I did a workshop recently with a software startup that has an application that has something to do with payments. Specifically, the value is it makes it really easy to do payments if you have lots of contractors.
We were kind of brainstorming well, what kinds of businesses have lots of contractors? There were some things in there that, you know, nobody had any experience with.
Somebody said, “Oh, it’s standard practice in engineering consulting for a big construction project that nobody’s an actual employee. Everybody’s a contractor.” We’re kind of like, sounds cool but more research required because none of us actually know that.
But the exercise of saying companies with a lot of contractors, and now we’re going to figure it out is a good one. Sometimes you need to go and do a little bit more research.
The important piece you’ve defined is this is the characteristic of this category of companies. Then I can just figure out what other category of companies do I not know that actually have this requirement that I can go and do the research on? It’s easy enough to figure it out.
Louis: Right. You would have this list of characteristics and I’m surprised because most of the time when we go through this type of process, usually one of the first steps is to interview your best customers and understand that.
What’s good about your method is that you actually don’t start with that and you don’t get too much into the research first. You actually get to talk to people that need to be talked to, identify things, and then you can move things forward from there.
April: Right. At the end, you’re going to go confirm this stuff and pitch your positioning to customers and you’ll know whether it works or not. How I came to this methodology is it’s probably a reflection of my startup background, in that I was a serial vice president of marketing at seven different startups.
What happens is you land in the vice president’s chair, you’ve got a team, everyone’s looking at you and they’re like, “Okay, so everything sucks. We’re not selling enough stuff. All our marketing sucks. Wave your magic wand and fix all this shit.”
And I don’t have time to do a big research thing. Normally the way I would start is I’d say, okay, I’m going to spend a week and I’m going to talk to customers on the phone. Then I would spend a week. I’d talk to customers on the phone and then I’d go to the CEO and the head of sales and whoever else was around and say, “I’m hearing that this is the comparable. I’m hearing that this is what we do and this is why people buy us. Therefore this is the value.”
And everybody would look at me like I’m an idiot and go, “Of course. Yeah, we already knew that.”
I started thinking well, as a consultant, if I could just bring that out in a way that structured it well, maybe I didn’t have spend a month with the company doing customer research and finding this stuff out.
Are there gaps in it potentially? Yeah. But again, we can do a workshop this way in two days and get to something in two days that looks pretty good that you can then get out in the field and start testing. Which, you know, again, a lot of the times it works perfectly the way it is and I don’t have to go through this great big research thing because the information’s already there.
Louis: Right. So we have the values. We have the people that connect the most with those values but we still don’t have a positioning, do we?
April: No. The last piece is the tricky piece. You get to the last piece and you say, okay, so this the value I’ve got. These are my key differentiators that drive that value. These are the people I’m trying to talk to. What is the best context to put around this thing so that people understand what it is? What I mean by context setting is kind of like our discussion earlier.
If I say this thing is email, then you go, oh, you make a bunch of assumptions, right? You say oh, well I assume you compete with Gmail. I assume you compete with Outlook. I assume you have these features. You have an inbox, you have a spam folder … I just make all these assumptions and I make a bunch of assumptions about what you cost and everything else.
So if I pick the wrong context and none of these things are true about you, then you’re making a bunch of bad assumptions and I’m going in there going, “No, no, no. We’re not like that. We’re special email. Let me just unwind that email thing.” But it’s too late. Cat’s out of the bag. You said it was email and now you’re email, dammit. And so what you want to do is say, okay.
There’s an example I use–I used it in the last Unbounce conference we were talking about earlier–but there’s an example from early in my career where I got hired as the Vice President of Marketing for this database company. And we had always positioned ourselves as a database.
But had we gone through this exercise, we would have seen our special sauce, like what people really bought us for. And in fact, the only thing that we could do that was any good at all was we could do a certain kind of analytic query on a mountain of data fast. Like minutes versus hours.
Our original going in thing was: We’re a database, but we’re a database that’s really good at that one thing. But every time we went in and said, “Hey, we’re a database,” everyone’s like “Ugh, database. We’ve got databases. We got Oracle. We don’t need you. Why do we need another database? We’re all certified on Oracle. We’re good. Yeah, I get you do that one thing, but do you do this other checklist of huge things that Oracle does?” Well, no, we don’t do any of that. But, you know, we’re special.
If we’d done this exercise, we would have said, well, what are we really good at? We’re really good at analytics. And who do we sell to? We sell to people with a mountain of data that need to get an answer really quickly out of that.
But when we started looking at that, not everybody that does an analytic query on a mountain of data cares that they could do it in minutes instead of hours because they only run the query once a month. Or they only need to do it on Mondays so they run it over the weekends. No big deal.
Then we started looking at it and said the only people that care about getting the answer really fast is if you need to answer a question for a customer. It’s actually a customer service situation where you care about having the answer really fast.
When you’re saying, okay, you know, if we were trying to explain that to our customers, we would never call this thing a database. We’d call it an analysis tool. It’d be business intelligence. Maybe you’d call it a data warehouse in some cases. But you would never call it a database because we just weren’t a database at all, even though that’s what our founders set out to build, that’s what it always was.
The last piece is you’re trying to say, okay, if I understand these folks and I’m trying to communicate this value, what’s my best starting point where all their assumptions about what we do actually map to what we do, instead of being a handicap for us.
Louis: It sounds like the exercise is to … once you have the value that you want to bring, once you have the people that would connect with this value, you kind of want to look at the use case or the context of this particular use. I’m trying to paraphrase what you are saying.
April: It’s a little bit use case, yeah. It’s a little bit use case but it’s a little bit more, look, if your value is this, is that what everyone thinks when they think email? Or do they think that with chat?
You have to do a bit of a mental exercise where you’re like, you know what? There’s all sorts of markets we could be in, but whether or not we look good depends on what market you put us in. As a database, we’re a pretty shitty database. Like we don’t do, like there’s this checklist of stuff we just don’t do.
We don’t want to compete with Oracle in the database business. That’s nuts, right? That’s like saying I’m going to go into the cola business and I’m going to out-cola Coke. Ain’t gonna happen. You’ll be better to say, look, we’re not that. We’re something else. If you can key in on the value and say, well, this is who it’s for, then I think it’s pretty easy to take a step back and say, well, okay, we’re definitely not that.
Even the process of ticking markets off to say no, we’re not email. We’re not a project management. We’re not this. Well, what’s left over? And then you’ll have to decide what it is. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, we’re not actually going after the whole market, we’re just going after a sub-segment of the market.
I worked at another company where we had always positioned ourselves as enterprise CRM. But when we went through this exercise, it turned out the value that we were providing was really only interesting if you needed to model a mini to mini relationship inside your CRM, which almost nobody needs to do. But you do if you’re an investment banker.
So we repositioned ourselves. Instead of saying we’re enterprise CRM and competing with every enterprise CRM out there, we said, “No, we’re CRM for investment bankers. We’re the only game in town.”
The great thing about that is yay, investment bankers. They’ve got lots of money. We jacked the price way up. We went in there and said, “Look, you guys are special. You got special needs, we got this special thing.” And then we show them the mini to mini relationship thing. Everybody gets excited. And we kind of positioned everybody else as generic, you know, call center CRM. You don’t want that stuff. You’re captain of the universe, Wolf of Wall Street. You need something special, and we got it.
Sometimes even that positioning just in a sub-segment of the market is enough to give you an edge over your big competitors.
Louis: So is it one of the three styles of positioning you would have, like the going niche?
April: Yeah. You’re either saying I’m going to go in to a market where people understand the market and I’m going to take on the leader head on. That’s like my, I’m going to the cola market and I’m going to beat Coke.
You never want to do this one unless if the market is emerging and people kind of know what the market’s about, but they don’t really have an idea of who the market leader is, you can go great guns in there and try to prove yourself as the leader.
That’s kind of style one, which is sort of head to head, I’m going into an existing market. I’ve got to battle with everybody else in this market. It’s okay style, but you’ve got to have money and you got to be prepared to go fast because it’s a super competitive dogfight.
Style two is you say, “You know what? I can’t take on the whole market because the leader’s too strong and I don’t have any good stuff for the whole market, I just have good stuff for a sub-segment of the market.” So that’s like you getting into the cola market and saying, “No, no, no. I’m not Coke. I’m Coke for dogs.”
You say the great thing about being Coke for dogs is Coke is never going to get into the Coke for dogs market because it would damage their brand, but I’ve got special stuff for Coke for dogs where, you know, my Coke is just like Coke. It’s brown, it’s fizzy, but it tastes like bones. And that’s my differentiator and I’m just for that sub-segment.
Then the third type is where you say, “You know what? What we’re doing is so amazing, it’s so wild, it’s so out there, it’s so revolutionary, it doesn’t fit in the bucket anywhere, so I’ve got to create my new market to do it.”
This is actually the most difficult style where you first have to prove to people that your market deserves to exist, and then you’ve got to position yourself in that market as the best choice, as a solution in that market. Again, it takes money, time, effort.
April: The reward is great because you define the market to be perfect for your solution. If you convince me it exists, you got a good shot at being the leader of it. But it’s hard. Generally, this is only big companies are good at this.
Venture-backed startups with deep pockets with very mature, patient investors are the only ones that can actually pull that off. Needless to say, I’m a fan of the niche market thing because that’s how almost everybody starts out.
Louis: Either you go head-to-head in an existing market, or you go niche in an existing market, or you create your own market. For the creating your market there is a great book, I’m going to forget which one … Play Bigger, I think is the one that talks about this new category creation.
Louis: I read this book and then I came back to my full-time job and I was like, “This is what we need to do.” But exactly as you said, as soon as you understand you need deep, deep, deep pockets. You need an army of people educating people.
April: An army.
Louis: Sponsoring conferences, events, doing podcasts and writing three pieces a day, it’s insane. So yes, definitely like as a step between nailing a niche market positioning is already pretty fucking good right?
April: Yeah. People are scared to do the niche thing because they think it’s so small. They’re like, “Oh, my God. I’m supposed to be a billion dollar business here. How am I going to be a billion-dollar business? I’m only selling investment banks. That sounds bad.”
The reality is, look, you’re only selling to investment banks right now, but once you get investment banks, then you’re going to get insurance companies. And once you get insurance companies, then you’re going to go get retail banks. And you’re eventually going to get the whole thing.
This is Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm bowling pin strategy, right? You knock over the lead pin and then there’s all these adjacent pins that you can now knock over because now you got credibility and traction in the market. And that’s how every big company starts, practically, is where they say, “Well, you know, we’re just going to get this one thing and then when we’re bigger and we have more force behind us, now we can take on a leader in something bigger.”
But when you’re just little, you just need to survive. Most of the startups I work with, they’ll say, “No, that’ll be too small.” I’ll say, well how many deals do you need to do this year? 10? Let’s just make a list of a hundred companies we go after, just do 10 deals. Don’t worry about where you’re going to be 10 years from now. Let’s just survive this year and nail our number this year, and then we can expand it out later.
It’s not like we’re saying, oh, this is our positioning for all time. This is our positioning for the next six months dude, and we’re going to run it that hard? And then we’re going to look at it six months from now and say, you know what? That’s too small for us now because we’re so cool. And we’ll broaden it out.
Louis: I wish we could talk about positioning for hours but unfortunately, we cannot.
April: We could. We could.
Louis: We could, but I only have a few minutes with you and I want to make it count. I have one interesting question. But before, your accent reminds me, and I don’t want to insult you here because I might be wrong. The way you go when you’re very passionate about something, it reminds me of those TV shows Fargo, or the movie Fargo?
April: All Canadians are offended right now. All Canadians.
Louis: I know.
April: The Canadians are all like, “Oh, dammit.”
Louis: But that’s my French ear. At least I’m able to recognize accents now because before–
April: No, it’s very good actually. But yeah, we do sound a lot like people from Minnesota.
Louis: Ah, thank God.
April: I have this big Canadian accent. Like, it’s big. It’s big. I lived in New York for six years. When I first moved to New York, I would start talking and everyone would stop and then they’d be like, “Where are you from?” I would have to do this thing. The worst part about … You can’t hear your own accent, right, until you’ve lived somewhere for a while and then you hear it.
After I was in New York for three years, I turned on the TV once and there was a hockey game on and all hockey announcers are Canadian. The hockey announcer comes on and he starts talking about out in the house and stuff like that. I was like, “Oh, my gosh. That’s what I sound like. Oh, no.” It was a terrible realization.
Louis: Same thing when my French friends come to Ireland and speak to my wife with their fucking thick accent. And I like, no it’s not me, I don’t speak this way. And she’s like, “Yeah, you do.”
April: But everybody likes a French accent, that’s the thing. Canadian accent, you sound like, I don’t know. Well, you sound like the people in Fargo. That’s the problem.
Louis: They’re nice.
April: Oh, yeah, we’re so nice.
Louis: Right. I didn’t want to insult you. Before moving to the three questions I always ask my guests, there is one I really want to ask you. And maybe the challenge is, you have to try to answer it as rapidly as possible. But what is the biggest marketing fuck-up in your career?
April: Biggest marketing fuck-up? I don’t know. Early on, I was big on running experiments, right? Because at a startup, you can’t fuck up too much because you can’t bet the whole budget on something and then have it go wrong. But there were lots of small fuck ups that you’re like, “Oh, man, how did I mess that up?”
One was we were trying to run an experiment on print advertising. I like to say this because this drives the youngsters crazy. They’ll tell me, “Oh, you can’t A/B test the print ad.” And I’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, I did.”
And the reason I remember doing it is because I messed it up. We were trying to A/B test a print ad. So I had convinced the publisher they were running half the print run, had an ad and the call to action was a phone number. The other half of the run had a call to action with a different phone number. Then I was going to count how frequently the phone rang and whatever.
The thing goes live, and you know, half a day later my A test is everybody’s calling and my B test, no one’s calling at all. They haven’t got like a single phone call and I’m like, wow, my A test is clearly running. My B test sucks.
Then I get this call from this guy and he’s in tech support and he’s like, “I don’t know what’s happening, man, but my phone is ringing off the hook all day and people want to order this thing.” I was like, oh, no. We actually put the wrong phone number in. Everybody was going through to tech support and when we counted those, it turned out the B test actually, totally won.
April: We transacted no business because the guy in tech support was like, wrong number. Sorry. Click.
Louis: If that’s the biggest marketing fuck-up of your career, then you are having a very good career so far.
April: People were pretty angry about it, I’ll tell you. I got into big trouble because it was a very expensive ad to run. Like that’s the problem with print, right? It’s kind of all in one big shot.
Louis: You can’t stop it as soon as you realize it’s fucking up.
April: It was too late. It was too late. But yeah, that’s the first one that comes to mind was that, ugh, wrong phone number on the ad. Whoops.
Louis: Thanks for sharing. Definitely interesting. What do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next 10 years, 20 years, 50 years?
April: I mean, obviously I think positioning is super important. It’s like this foundational thing that if you mess that up, everything downstream is bad, right? Like if I don’t know what my key differentiators are, then I’m doing a bad job at expressing the value. If I don’t really get the value, I’m doing a bad job at segmentation and then everything’s bad.
People come to me and they say, “Oh, we’re just not selling enough stuff.” I say, well who are you trying to sell to? It’s like, oh, your segmentation’s terrible. Why is your segmentation terrible? Because you don’t actually know what your value is. How come you don’t know that? Because you don’t really know who you compete with. So this kind of foundational stuff, you got to get really good at.
The second thing I would say is, I mentioned this earlier but having a repeat VP, if you want to get really smart really fast in a brand-new job, you should get really good at getting on the phone with a bunch of customers.
If you talk to 20 customers, 30 customers, you’re like already twice as smart as pretty much everybody on your team because the marketing team doesn’t do nearly enough talking to customers. Like even just pick up the phone, shoot the shit.
Don’t try to sell them anything. Just like, hey, how’s your day? What’s going on? Even a conversation like that is super valuable. You’ll be that person on the next meeting where the sales guy will say, “Oh, I don’t think customers care about this.”
And you’ll say, actually Joey at whatever, I just talked to him yesterday. He cares a lot about that. He was telling me. And so you’ll be really smart. So being to do those two things. Like think about your positioning, getting good at that. And then being really good at doing regular, just customer discovery calls, talking on the phone to customers. Those two things, you’ll be a genius.
Louis: What are the top three resources you’d recommend to listeners today? So they could be anything like books, podcasts, conferences, anything.
April: Well, you know, earlier we were talking about the Unbounce conference, the call to action conference. I love that conference. I think they do a really good job of curating the speakers, and I don’t say that just because I’m a speaker, but I really enjoyed being an attendee in the audience listening to the speakers.
I got introduced to a bunch of people that I didn’t know before that I think are super geniuses and now I follow really closely. So I think they do an amazing job of curating the speakers for that conference and I can’t say that about every conference I go to.
In terms of, you know, podcasts are interesting. Just recently I did a podcast. I’m going to speak in Dublin at this … SaaS conference.
April: SaaStock, yes.
Louis: When you are going?
April: What’s that? You’re going?
Louis: When is it?
April: I think it’s in October.
Louis: I’ll be in Dublin. I’m not going to go, but I’ll be in Dublin.
April: So anyways, I didn’t know too much. I’ve never been to that one before, so that’ll be a first one. But they called me and said, “Hey, do you want to do the podcast?” And I said, yeah, sure. So I listened to a bunch of podcasts just as prep, and their podcast is called the SaaS Revolution and I thought it was really good.
Again, there are a bunch of people on that podcast that I know, but the ones that I didn’t know were really fascinating. Like, they were super smart people. I think they also do a really thoughtful job of curating the speakers for that conference and then it carries over into the podcast.
Of course, this podcast, which I did the same thing and listened to a bunch of people here. I thought, I really like the concept of it. Again, I think you guys are doing a thoughtful job of picking not just famous people, but people that are really deep on their subject and can talk about something in a super smart way. I’m really into that, people that aren’t just general people grew people. I like people that are real experts at their one little thing.
Louis: You know what? It’s interesting because I’ve discovered there’s a name for this. They call it the specificity strategy, which is at the start of this podcast, I used to go a bit too wide with each person. So it felt like each person knew nothing specific. It was just a bit too broad. But I realized it was all my fault. It’s funny because you know other stuff than just positioning, right? You can talk about other stuff, even though you specialize in it.
But when I interviewed Seth Godin, for example, I chose to go into a very, very specific problem that I wanted him to go after. H’s obviously a fucking marketing genius about a lot of stuff, but he was able to be super specific and I was surprised by tha, because I thought he would just be able to go everywhere without going specific. I think it’s down to the interviewer, really, at the end of the day that makes it specific or not.
April: It’s you. It’s your genius that’s making this thing
Louis: I wanted you to say it. So there we go. We have it.
April: On that note.
Louis: On that note, thanks so much for your time. My podcast doesn’t really count, so you still have one to answer.
April: Oh, I don’t know. Because I deal a lot with startups, I try to keep up with the news and see who’s releasing what and who’s raising money, and what’s cool and what isn’t cool. I have a subscription, for example, to the Information, which is a paid newsletter that sort of keeps on top of a lot of news things. And I think it’s super valuable and worth subscribing to. But I can’t read freaking Tech Crunch every day. It’s just too much and so much of it is just garbage.
But I really like Kara Swisher. I think she does an amazing job. I think Recode Decode is an amazing podcast. And I think she’s got that magic touch of just doing a really good interview and pulling something out of somebody that I don’t think other interviewers get.
I think her podcast makes the news because people will say things on her podcast that nobody else even is smart enough to ask those questions.
Louis: Right, thanks so much. The last question, April … I mean, by the way, you’ve been so amazing. And what I said, what Claire said, and I’m not trying to say it for the sake of it, she said, “Fantastic stage presence.” I mean it was just one to one, but I could feel that, yeah, you’re quite comfortable talking about your stuff. Hilarity? Yeah, you’re quite funny. And valuable insights as well. So tick, tick, tick. Thanks, Claire.
Last question: Where can listeners connect with you and learn more from you?
April: So I’m in the middle of a site relaunch. It’s aprildunford.com. It’s going to look great in a couple of weeks, maybe by the time this podcast comes out. We’ll see. I’m gearing up towards launching a book and so you’ll see a lot of action happening at aprildunford.com in the run-up to this book which will probably be available early next year. But there’ll be sort of a marketing campaign that happens there, so you can follow along from there.
Louis: Ooh. You’ve heard it first here.
April: It’s very exciting.
Louis: So yes, by the time this episode is live, aprildunford.com will be updated. Once again, April, thank you so much for your time. It was a great pleasure.
April: No problem. Thanks for having me, it was great.