As promised in my Message Planning post, here is the first post in my series on message planning. If you don’t know how to put together a message platform, this platform will help you understand some of the components most commonly found in them. If you already know how to create a message platform, I hope you’ll pick up a tip or two that you can use the next time you have to put one together – and I hope you’ll chime in with your suggestions for the less-experienced readers of this post. Please keep in mind that there are many different approaches to developing a message platform. Not all platform components outlined in this post are necessary or appropriate for every organization. I’m providing these suggestions as guidance for those going through this process for the first time. It’s up to you to evaluate and decide which components will help you best meet your communication goals.
Rather than drone on about all the reasons why you should create a message platform for your organization, I’m going to assume you have already gone through that process. If you need a reason, I think a message platform is a great way to get everyone in your organization on the same page with who you are, what you do and how you want to communicate all those things in various formats inside and outside of your organization. Let’s get started….
Message Platform Summary and Communication Goals
When your message platform is complete, it will live in a final form somewhere within the walls of your organization. It will serve as a reference document for everyone in your organization – including the people that join your team after today. For these reasons, I suggest you summarize the goals of your message platform on the first page of your formal message platform document. This will remind your existing team members why the document exists, but will also help new employees get up to speed faster with minimal effort on your part. It’s a good idea for your message platform to live in one, easy-to-update place in your organization. Put it on your intranet if you have one. If you don’t, put it in Google Docs or some other place easy for all your team members to find it. You may want to email a PDF version to everyone in your organization the first time you complete it, just so they all have a copy.
As far as your communication goals go, it’s a good idea to suggest how each component of the message platform could be used by various members of your team relevant to the work they do. If you have an approval process for external communications (e.g. marketing has to approve the “about us” paragraph or PR has to approve press releases), make sure that is clear in your message platform document. This is your one chance to define the rules of the road when it comes to your communication. I’ll touch on specific suggestions for each component of your message platform as we go through them below.
Most message platforms include a variety of internal statements that help your organization rally around a central purpose or theme. The Vision Statement exists to inform your people on the vision for the organization. It’s a forward-looking statement, typically 3-5 years out, that clarifies where you’re going as an organization. If you want to be the leading manufacturer of widgets in North America in three years, this is the statement that addresses this vision. I’m often amazed by how many organizations don’t have a vision statement. Pick any organization that you perceive as being successful and there’s a good chance they have a vision statement. Organizations that clearly communicate their vision across the organization seem to flow better as a team. Everyone knows what the company is striving toward, and it gives people a bar to reach for. Don’t overlook this component of your message platform, it’s a useful exercise for your management team to go through. The same can be said for the mission statement, which I’ll address next.
While your vision statement forecasts where you want to be as an organization, your mission statement clarifies your reason for being. It’s another internal statement that helps your team members gain clarity around their purpose as a member of your team. Why do you go to work everyday as an organization? This is your mission. Your mission statement is something employees can use to evaluate their current efforts and ensure they are aligned with your central purpose. If your vision as an organization is to summit Mt. Everest, the mission defines how you’ll climb the mountain. To be more specific, the mission statement should establish the “how we do it” for your team. Take Zappos as an example. Zappos’ mission statement is to provide the best customer service possible. See how simple the mission statement is? If you’re familiar with Zappos at all, you know the organization lives their mission everyday. The company is known for having the best customer service around, at least among e-commerce businesses (but I’d challenge you to find any organization that lives its mission better). The vision and mission statements help to guide the other components of the message platform – don’t overlook these two important statements, they’re critical for aligning your organization around a central vision and purpose.
What do you do better than anyone else as an organization? That’s the ideal starting point for developing your positioning statement. There are a lot of different models for developing your positioning statement, but the one I like most answers the following questions:
- What do you do?
- Who do you do it for?
- Why is your approach different from the competition?
- What will they get out of it?
Taglines and Slogans
These aren’t required components of a message platform, but they are useful vehicles for reinforcing your core message. If your organization has an existing tagline or slogan, you should include it in your message platform and describe how they should be used. If you don’t have a slogan or tagline, this might be the time to create one. Taglines and slogans are a great way to reinforce your message and help audiences understand what you’re all about. I personally like taglines and slogans that are descriptive in nature. This is particularly effective with business-to-business companies that do something complicated. A tagline can help you understand what the company does in an interesting and engaging way. If I can use the Zappos example one more time in this post, their tagline is Powered by Service. See how they’ve carried their message through all the components available?
If there’s one component of your message platform that’s going to get used the most, it’s your “about us” paragraph. If you work in some marketing or PR capacity, you know that you have to provide an about us paragraph often for just about everything you do. If you sponsor something, your ad rep is going to ask for your about us paragraph. If you’re going to speak at an event, you’re going to be asked to provide your about us paragraph. Since this paragraph is going to appear in a dozen, hundred or thousand different locations, it’s a good idea to get it right. If everyone pulls the about us paragraph from your message platform, you’re going to achieve a tremendous amount of brand consistency by defining the about us in advance of all those requests you’ll have.
A good about us paragraph explains what your company does, who it serves, how long you’ve been in business, where you’re based, how many people you employ and where people can go to find more information (your website address hopefully). It’s a good idea to have a couple different length versions of your about us paragraph – 50, 100 and 150 words should serve most requests you have. This will make it easy for anybody in your organization to respond to requests for your about us paragraph. Want an example to copy? Here’s Facebook’s about us paragraph:
Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.
If you didn’t already know what Facebook did, this paragraph would help you understand a little more about them. Notice how the mission extends into the about us for Facebook?
The boilerplate is a modified about us paragraph. It’s most commonly used as that slug at the end of press releases. Again, to maintain consistency, you should use a consistent boilerplate across all those press releases you’re sending out. Since most press releases appear all over the place on the Web, it’s a great opportunity to maintain a consistent response to the “what do you do?” question in press release form. Here’s a good example of a boilerplate from a recent Apple press release:
Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with the iPad.
I would normally advise that you keep your boilerplate factual and avoid statements like “best” in your company description. Apple can get away with this, because they have the sales numbers to back up their claims. If you can make such claims, by all means, do so. If not, keep your boilerplate to claims you can back up.
Key Messages a.k.a. Talking Points
What are the three to five messages you want everyone to know about your company and the products and services you sell? These are your key messages. You should document your key messages so everyone knows what the most important things are for you to communicate through your discussions or other communications with external audiences. If you don’t define your key messages, your spokespeople will be left to guess about which messages are most important. They’ll most likely focus on the messages most important to their area within your organization. To define your key messages as an organization, you need to get all of your senior leaders to agree on the messages that best serve the goals of your organization. This isn’t an easy assignment, but can usually be accomplished over the course of a couple of hours to a couple of days depending on the size and complexity of your organization.
Your key messages don’t need to be organization-focused, they might be specific to the products and services you offer. You’ll know which messages are most important to communicate across all your channels once you bring your teams together to work through it.
For each of the key messages you identify and agree upon for your organization, you need to be able to back them up and to answer the inevitable “so what?” question that follows. The message platform is a great vehicle for going through this exercise. If one of your statements is that you have been making widgets longer than anybody out there, you should have a supporting statement that talks about the year you were founded in relation to the main competitors in your space. Maybe your supporting statement is third-party research that validates your claim or the receipt of an impressive industry award or certification that your competition can’t claim. The same goes for your product statements. What can you claim about your products that the competition can’t? These are powerful statements that will make anyone in your organization more effective in their communications.
As an extension of your key messages and supporting statements, it’s a useful exercise to share the key messages of your primary competitors in the message platform document. You know what your competitors are saying out there, don’t you? How do you deal with those competing messages through your ongoing interactions with prospects, partners and other important external audiences? By defining these messages in your platform, you help everyone in your organization address the competitive questions that are bound to come up. Some questions you’ll want to answer in the document include:
- What makes your products and services better than XYZ company?
- We’re currently using XYZ company, why should we switch to you?
- I really like this thing that XYZ has – do you do that?
- You say that you’re the best at Y, can you explain that to me? – while this is addressed in your supporting statements, this question is often asked from the perspective of having familiarity with another vendor
FAQs and Prepared Responses
Beyond the basic competitive questions, there are dozens of questions you’ll hear all the time from people you talk to. This varies for every organization, but when you get everyone in the room, it’s easy to home in on the ones most frequently encountered in the field. Which questions give people a hard time? Which questions does support get most often? Sales? Marketing? PR? Go through the departments and identify the 3-5 most common questions each department head has to deal with – then answer them in the document. The best person to answer the question is often the person that has to answer the question a dozen times every week. Then again, there might be a better answer the group as a whole can agree upon, that’s why this exercise is so valuable. Once you go through this process with your team, create a central repository for FAQs and approved company responses. This can be in a shared Google Doc, a wiki, or some other shared resource everyone can access and add to over time. It should be easy for your team to search the database and find the answer they’re looking for. Take things an extra step and define the go-to sources for answers, in the event a question doesn’t exist already. If you’re a larger organization, it might make sense to invest in a more sophisticated knowledge database. Most off-the-shelf support platforms support this type of workflow. It will make your organization more effective at dealing with the questions you encounter, but it will also make you incredibly efficient and consistent in your responses (the point of this communications exercise).
There are a variety of communication vehicles that fall under the sales bucket. You may or may not need these in your message platform, but I’m going to share some of them here and let you decide. The value proposition is one such statement. Typically reserved for product or service communications activities, the value proposition communicates the value of your product or service in the mind of the prospect. This is where you are able to communicate the tangible value of your products or services for the prospect. Few organizations get specific here – if you can be specific, it will become a differentiation for your organization. Walmart has an ad campaign running right now that encourages consumers to compare the items they purchased at a different retailer to see the savings they could have found at Walmart. They even created a calculator on their website where you can upload your receipt from another store and compare the savings. I haven’t used the tool, but it’s a perfect example of communicating Walmart’s value to consumers. I just assume Walmart has lower prices based on the message they’re sending me. Do they? It doesn’t matter – they’ve made me believe it already.
You should have a benefits statement for every product or service your company sells. This messaging will guide your marketing communications for these offerings, and help your buyers better understand the benefits delivered for their purchase. What is the benefit of buying your product or service? Peace of mind? More efficient energy consumption? Safety? You know this better than I do – but are you communicating the benefits for your team? Does everyone in your organization understand the benefits? If they don’t, it will be much harder to communicate that to your buyers. The better your team understands those benefits – and your value proposition – the better your end users will understand. Your people are your most effective media.
Is this post the end all, be all for developing a message platform? No. Is it a good starting point for getting all of your messaging in one place for people to work with? I think so. Don’t over-complicate the process of developing your message platform. Keep it simple. Get some stuff on paper and work through it as a team. You’ll be in a better place than you were last month – and you’ll quickly find that everyone in your organization is saying and writing things in a consistent manner. Before you know it, you’ll meet somebody at an event and they’ll say, “I know what you guys do, you do XYZ, don’t you?” You’ll smile, and realize this exercise was worth the effort.
What Do You Think? What would you add? What components of your message platform do you find most effective across your teams? What questions do you have after reading this post? I want to hear from you.
Want to read more on this topic? Here are some other posts I’ve seen that might be of use to you. Feel free to share other resources in the comments below.
- A Messaging Platform Will Make Your Life Easier – By Justin Rubner, Copycation
- Building a Marketing Messaging Platform – By Todd W. Greene
- The #1 Way Corporate Writers Can Do More Work In Less Time – By Andy Bartling
- 4 Cornerstones of a Message Platform That Connects – By Nancy Schwartz