Coaching on the Message Box: 3 signs that you may be misusing the tool

The message box is a powerful tool that can help you construct and deliver customer-ready messaging. Yet it is not the only tool you need in your messaging arsenal. Occasionally, some marketers may be trying to use the message box technique to do too much. Here are three common signs of trouble, and what you can do to keep your messaging on track.

1. It takes you more than 3 iterations to complete the message box

When used correctly, the message box is solidifying agent — it’s the output of well articulated and understood product and marketing strategy. Once the strategy is set and communicated internally to the rest of the marketing team, construction of the 1st draft of the message box may take an hour or two. Expect that refinements will be needed as you socialize the output and clarify each of the four main message components (engagement, solution, reinforcement, and value). However, if the team is continually challenged on the output of the message box beyond three iterations, there may be a deeper problem brewing. OK, perhaps a forth of fifth iteration might be needed, especially if someone brings in some new information or has tested the messaging with customers and prospects. However, if you are constantly challenged with as many as a dozen or more iterations, it’s time for a time out. 

Resolution: Stop what you are doing. There is a problem, and it’s not with the message box. The root problem usually always stems from either the lack of having a solid marketing strategy or a lack of alignment between sales/marketing/business unit regarding the marketing strategy. More iterations of the message box will only cause more internal frustration. This often happens in larger organizations when “everyone can say ‘no’ but no one can say ‘yes’.” To get out of this hole, the marketing leader (either a seasoned campaign manager and/or the VP of marketing or CMO) needs to step in and bring the diverging team members together to resolve this conflict. This is best handled in a small team setting (not a large all-hands-on-deck meeting). The leaders should put the various interpretations of the message box on the table and have a fact-based, non-emotional discussion to determine the true source of disagreement.  Sometimes it is difficult to resolve this conflict yourself. If so, consider bringing in an unbiased marketing expert familiar with your strategy or team to help you reach success. The worst thing you can do is power through with more iterations; it will only deepen the internal divide between organizations. Marketers may then conclude that the message box just doesn’t work. Keep the faith. It does work. As long as you stay on the path to the high ground.

2. Everyone is creating their own message box

The message box is a fun, engaging technique that is intended for two primary purposes: 1) to help marketers figure out the opening dialog with the prospect (i.e. what’s the 30 second elevator pitch), and 2) to understand how the dialog will unfold, over time, with the prospect as they move through their buying process (i.e. what pieces of content will be needed to support and extend each of the four primary message components). Because the technique is easy to understand, constructive, and fun, many marketers may feel compelled to create their own message box when one is not needed or appropriate. For example, a product manager working on a minor dot-release of a major product does not need one. The dot-release does not change the overall value proposition, the target audience, or the prospect’s buying process.  Also, the message box format is not designed for use as an outline for a technology whitepaper or a product history lesson! Having too many marketers working on too many message boxes just creates internal and external confusion. 

Resolution: So, how many message boxes do you need? The short answer is that you will have one message box for each product/target audience combination. The high tech B2B world is made up of marketers who live and breathe each feature. Features do not need a message box. Features are supporting elements that come to life in the reinforcement message. They don’t need their own self-contained message box. Instead of having product managers wrangle their own message box, their energies can be better directed at completing the “features-advantages-benefits” grid and ensuring that the key features (not all features — that’s way to many) and properly referenced in the larger dialog. Product features may require their own datasheet or paragraph on the website, but pushing a message box for each feature is overkill and counter productive.

3. Every month your “story” changes

Does the executive team suffer from “shiny object syndrome?” If so, you may find yourself reinventing your message box story monthly, or even weekly. While achieving agreement internally isn’t a problem, the problem is that the team keeps evolving the message too fast. So much so that the sales reps no longer know what it is they are supposed to sell or say.

Resolution: This is a hard lesson to learn is Silicon Valley where everyone is driven by short-term results. Yet, if marketers are really doing their best work, they need to constantly remind the team that “just because we are bored with our messages doesn’t mean that the customer/prospect is”. In fact, they may have not even heard or digested our messaging yet. The bottom line here is that the primary messaging (that 30 second elevator pitch) needs to clearly communicate the value proposition — and this should not be changing month after month. Sure, new features may be added quarterly, but the story must always be centered around the problem the customer is trying to solve. Remember, the first two components of the message box (engagement and solution) are always developed from the customer’s perspective. These first two message components are NOT about your product, your service, your technology, or your company. They are always about the customer. Always. How you provide value (i.e. reinforcement message) and proof (i.e. value message) are about you, and these messages may be tuned over time, but they better not be changing monthly. Remind the executives, every so diplomatically, that marketing is a marathon, not a sprint. Think in 6-month timeframes. Stay the course. Your business will be rewarded for doing so.

These are just a few of the common trouble spots you may run into. If you run into others, let me know, and I can provide additional coaching tips to help you reach your marketing high ground.

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