SaaS business leaders routinely seek Georgiana Laudi’s help with what they perceive to be their company’s core problem.
“We need more leads.”
“We need improved marketing channels.”
“We need better top of funnel.”
After talking for a few minutes though, it often becomes clear that the root of their troubles lives upstream: They have a brand positioning problem, not a marketing or sales problem.
In other words, the space their company occupies in the marketplace in the minds of consumers is muddled. The way the company talks about what it distinctly offers — and for whom it uniquely exists — comes across as blurry or bland. No wonder people aren’t signing up or sticking around for very long.
So Laudi, co-founder of the consultancy Forget the Funnel, proposes these companies rethink their positioning before investing a dime in customer acquisition channels, “because there’s no point in spending money on sending traffic to a website that poorly articulates what you do.”
Positioning is much more than changing a name, raising prices or slapping some ubiquitous geometric cartoon people on a homepage.
So how does it work exactly? We asked product marketing experts to break the positioning process down.
Bad Positioning Has Common Symptoms
Many founders and marketers may not even realize they have a positioning problem. That could be because of the tendency to focus on the product and its features, which means less attention is paid to how the brand resonates with customers.
In any case, there are some common symptoms that stem from lousy positioning.
One is that sales cycles are long — like really long, according to Melinda Wilken, a positioning strategist at Firebrick Consulting. Anytime the sales process is elongated — with lots of back and forth, discount offers thrown in, complex demos and decks shared, and comparisons to competitors’ product features being made — there is likely a positioning problem afoot. Otherwise, it probably wouldn’t be so laborious to close a sale.
Other signals include suspiciously quick customer churn, as well as a steady stream of support requests from confused customers who are unsure if they can use the product to accomplish their goals. Those are telltale signs your customers don’t really get what you do — or more importantly — they don’t get what you’re supposed to do for them.
Company ‘Inflection Points’ Often Require Repositioning
Some companies may not have a problem due to positioning that’s poor, per se. But in some cases, they may be facing an inflection point that requires a change.
Maybe it’s an early stage tech company that’s seeing viral success and organic growth, and that raises lots of money and scales up its sales team to go after enterprise accounts. Or perhaps it’s a large, established company that’s been selling to the same sort of buyer for years but has made an acquisition or is expanding its product suite.
In either case, the company is going to need to position itself differently. Not because its existing position is wrong but because the new circumstances means the buyers will be different than before. So the messaging needs to be tuned to the right frequency, to speak the language of the new buyer, which in these examples, is likely an executive buyer.
Ideal Customer Profiles Can Help
Creating an ideal customer profile (ICP) is a helpful starting point in the positioning process, said James Doman-Pipe, senior product marketing manager at Remote and writer of the Building Momentum newsletter.
An ICP is a document that outlines what sort of customers (think companies, not personas) are a good fit for a business to market and sell to. It includes firmographics information — like industry, geography, size, revenue, tech stack, goals and challenges.
Creating one helps to align the company around a set of shared assumptions. It’s helpful for documentation purposes. And it’s a living, breathing document that’s meant to be revised often, Doman-Pipe said.
The Competition Might Be a Spreadsheet
Any competitive landscape contains direct competitors, indirect competitors and alternative solutions. When it comes to positioning, it’s important to determine which one is most relevant to potential customers.
In the B2B SaaS realm, at least, Laudi has noticed that founders and product marketers often pay too much attention to what their direct competitors are doing. But when it comes to potential customers, what your direct competitors are doing doesn’t matter or occur all that much to them.
“That’s not the lens through which your potential customers are evaluating you,” Laudi said.
“I venture to say that, eight out of 10 times they are firing a spreadsheet,” she added. “They’re not firing your competition.”
In other words, customers are trying to upgrade from their current (slow, manual) solution. They mostly care about the job your tool does, not the features it has that direct competitors don’t.
Laudi gave the example of Calendly, which positioned itself as a scheduling solution that would replace virtual assistants, not as an alternative to similar scheduling software.
Customers Offer the Sharpest Insights
“The definition of positioning is to occupy a space in your customer’s mind,” Doman-Pipe said. “How are we going to do that if we don’t know what they are already thinking about?”
He suggests product marketers and company founders have conversations with 10 to 15 customers, including those from companies they’ve recently closed deals with (and some they’ve recently lost deals with).
The conversations should help uncover:
Who at the customer’s company is responsible for the problem area.
How they perceive their challenges.
What their experience with the problem looks like.
How the product resonates with them.
Laudi recommends conducting surveys and interviewing customers from whom “you would have to pry your product out of their cold, dead hands, who saw the value in your product very quickly and easily, and who would never in a million years let you go.”
Some of Laudi’s go-to questions include:
What was going on in their world when they first experienced the problem the product eventually solved?
How else did they try to solve it?
What were their initial motivations and objections when choosing the product?
Value, Benefits and Features Are All Different
When it comes to the topic of positioning, there’s a tendency — especially among B2B SaaS companies — to focus on features. Blazing fast. Comprehensive integration. Powered by AI.
But that doesn’t cover everything.
After gathering tons of data about what customers think, do and feel, Doman-Pipe likes to distill his findings into what he calls value nuggets. It helps him connect the dots between features, benefits and value. And it’s the basis for coming up with strong messaging.
A value nugget is made up of three elements:
Value: A vision the buyer hopes to realize.
Benefits: The advantages the buyer gets from the features.
Features: Pieces of functionality the product offers.
In his newsletter, Doman-Pipe gives an example of the value nugget in action, using Xerox’s school-selling strategy as a case study:
Value: Broaden the spectrum of learning in the classroom.
Benefit: Color printing supports different learning styles.
Feature: Color printing.
“Instead of training teams with details they won’t use — or will forget,” Doman-Pipe wrote, “value nuggets provide an opportunity to distill your product into a format that’s memorable with a hierarchy that can be traversed in real-time.”
Executive Buyers Don’t Care About Product Features
“No executive buyer at a tech company wants another tech vendor,” Wilken said. It’s costly for them to switch. It’s work to maintain.
Therefore, SaaS businesses, she added, have to craft compelling reasons that go beyond what the product’s features are and how they work for someone in the C-suite to give them the time of day.
And if individual contributors are the ones who typically first encounter the product?
“You need to arm that champion with that [strategic] story to take to their boss, so they can sell it into the organization,” Wilken said.
For this reason, Doman-Pipe favors using more “aspirational” value messages when he knows the buyer is in a more-senior position. These messages tend to be a bit more ambitious and flowery and light on technical specifics. But they speak about how it’s going to absolutely change the buyer’s world for the better, which speaks directly to the guts of high-ranking decision-makers.
… But Individual Users Do
That said, SaaS businesses absolutely do need to speak the language of individual contributors and middle managers who are actually using the product day in and day out — in instances when that’s who’s signing up for the product.
“You do have to understand the right level to message out,” Doman-Pipe said.
He learned that lesson the hard way. One time, he and his team rolled out a product launch with new, aspirational positioning and messaging meant to appeal to executives and decision-makers. The hero copy on the website read, “Keep customers. Win customers. Be a hero.” Problem was, the bulk of their customers weren’t executives and decision-makers. They were everyday individual contributors.
Predictably, their numbers nosedived. So they went back to the drawing board, talked to customers again and realized they were alienating lots of customers who actually wanted more tactical, boots-on-the-ground messaging from them.
So Doman-Pipe and his team tweaked messaging across the website, collateral and sales deck to better cover the functional benefits of the product.
“Help desk software to grow personal customer relationships,” it read.
The numbers turned right around.