April Dunford has advised countless companies, from startups to scale ups, on positioning their products and she details all of it in her book Obviously Awesome.
This week on The Inbound Success Podcast, positioning expert April Dunford breaks down the process she’s used to develop positioning that helps her clients stand out and win customers.
April has a long history as a startup marketer, having worked as VP of Marketing for a number of technology startups. It was that experience that taught her the importance of getting positioning right before investing heavily in the development of a lead gen engine.
Today, she works exclusively as a positioning expert and has documented her approach in the book Obviously Awesome.
Check out the full episode, or read the transcript below, to learn exactly how April approaches the development of positioning for the companies she advises.
Resources from this episode:
April and Kathleen recording this episode
Kathleen (00:01): Welcome back to the Inbound Success Podcast. I am your host, Kathleen Booth. And this week, my guest is April Dunford who is the author of Obviously Awesome. Welcome to the podcast April.
April (00:57): Oh, I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Kathleen (00:59): I am so excited to have you here. True confession, I have been a fan girl for a long time. I saw you speak at HubSpot’s Inbound conference a really long time ago. It was a really long time ago. And at the time I owned a marketing agency and you talked about positioning and I sat through your session and like the light bulbs were going off in my head and I was like, somehow or another she just made a very complicated topic, incredibly straightforward. And now I’m going to use this approach with all of the positioning exercises I do. So if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then, then I’ve flattered you tremendously for a very long time now.
April (01:44): Well, that’s cool because, you know, back then I was in the early days of working through how to teach this stuff. So you would’ve gotten the money first version of this on like, you know, unlike the version I’m doing now, which has a lot more polish on it than it did back then. But yeah, that’s, that’s neat to hear that.
Kathleen (02:03): And, and, you know, it’s funny because the reason I started this podcast was that I used to go to a ton of marketing conferences and, and I would go to these sessions by the so-called experts and you know, all excited to learn stuff. And I would feel when I left the session, like they had done a good job of getting me charged up about why I should care about their topic, but not really leave me with enough to go and do anything about it.
And so I was like, I’m going to interview people and actually leave listeners with enough information to go do something. And that’s what I felt you did in your session, which is why I think I liked it so much. So I will stop now fawning all over you. And what I would just ask is maybe you could talk a little bit about who you are and what you do. So for anyone who isn’t as familiar with your work as I am and explain maybe a little bit about Obviously awesome.
April (02:56): So this has been kind a long road for me. I spent the first 25 years of my career being a repeat vice president of marketing at a series of startups. I think I did seven of them. Six of those startups got acquired.
About four or five years ago I decided to switch gears and move to being a consultant now. And that’s what I do now. I only do positioning work. I don’t do messaging. I don’t do lead generation campaigns. I know there’s, there’s a laundry list of things that I don’t do. And the only thing on the list of the things that I do do is positioning.
I work mainly with tech companies, mainly with kind of growth stage startups and and yeah, positioning is my bag. The book is, is kind of my attempt to take my framework and methodology for positioning and write it down so that anybody can use it.
Kathleen (03:53): Yeah. And it’s a great book. I got my copy as soon as it came out and because I do love what you do so much. And I think the reason that I, that I appreciate your work so much is that I’m sort of like who you were before you went out on your own. I am a serial startup VP of marketing.
And so every place I go very often I’m the first like true marketing leader they’ve brought on. And so there’s always this exercise of molding the raw clay and trying to help them figure out how to present themselves to the market. So it is a really helpful framework.
I want to just start out by actually talking just for a minute about why positioning is so important, because I do think that there are a lot of marketers who come in and they focus so much on demand gen and they, they think of demand gen a little bit too narrowly as lead generation, but there’s so much more to it. So what’s, what is your take on that?
April (04:44): Yeah. You would know this because what you’re doing now is very similar to what I used to do, but like you, you come in as the new VP marketing and, and here’s the thing, what everyone wants is demand gen, right?
So they’re like, get me the lead, fill the pipeline leads, build the pipeline, get going. And what you learn from doing that job a bunch is that you’re like, okay, I’m happy to go and build you lead generation campaigns, but there are a set of questions you’re going to have to answer for me first.
So question number one, who do we compete with? Even that question? Yeah, that question. A lot of the companies I worked for there, you know, they’d say, Oh, well, we compete with this, this, this, and then you go fast. The head of sales, head of sales says something different.
April (05:31): Had a product, says something different. Founder says something different, somebody over in customer success, something different. And you’re like, Oh, so we don’t really know. And then it was like, well, who do we compete with? How are we different? What’s the differentiated value that we can deliver for customers? Oh, by the way, who are these customers? Like? What is the profile of the ideal customer we’re trying to go after?
What is the market we intend to win? If we cannot answer these questions and clearly I can’t build you good lead generation. These are the fundamental inputs. And so, you know, if I don’t solve that first, then what I’ve got is, you know, mushy garbage coming in, mushy garbage is all you’re going to get coming out. So if we really want to do lead generation, well, we needed to be focused and targeted around.
April (06:24): You know, we need to focus it on the folks that we’re trying to get to. We need the messaging and everything that we’re doing inside of those lead gen programs really resonate for those folks, which means we need to understand how we’re differentiated, how we’re better than the actual alternatives.
And so if you don’t have that, then you know, all the great marketing, tactical execution is going to save you, right. You can be doing perfect tactical execution, but if you’re a little mushy on who you’re going after and a little mushy on what you’re going to say, once you get them kind of, doesn’t matter if you keep foundation
Kathleen (06:59): Yourself effectively, and if you’re not differentiated in the minds of your prospective customers, then the only thing you have left to compete on is price, right. You know, become commoditized, which is a terrible position to be in.
April (07:16): And prices, you know, people don’t realize it’s hard to even compete on price, right? Like everybody can drop the price, right. Well-funded startup up the street, they don’t care if they make any money on, on customer acquisition. They’ve got VCs with deep pockets that are going to pay them for that.
Let’s drop the price to zero. Well that sometimes you’ve got big companies you’re competing with and they can just include everything in the thing. Because they’re going to get the money out of you later with something else so they can drop it to nothing. Like even competing on prices is not easy.
Kathleen (07:47): Yeah. That’s so true. And it’s just a race to the bottom anyway. So race to the bottom. So positioning, it’s a big topic. I think it feels intimidating for a lot of marketers because it feels like, you know, it seems like these days in marketing, there’s the science side of marketing like the performance marketing and then there’s the quote unquote dark arts, right?
Like, do you have to be, you know do you have to be like a creative genius to come up with great positioning, great branding whether that be visual or otherwise, but you, what I liked about your approaches that you took, what some people consider to be a dark art and you made it more like scientific, which is so great.
April (08:33): And you know, I have an engineering background and so, you know, when I approached positioning, I was a bit like this can’t we can’t just be making this stuff up. Right. It’s gotta come from somewhere.
And that was kind of my driving thing at the beginning, when I was trying to figure out how to do positioning, I was like, it’s funny. We have this concept positioning everybody in marketing and about, it seems like it’s super foundational, but when I ask people, how do we actually do it? I get a lot of this like art department stuff.
Kathleen (09:07): Don Draper came in and invented a creative position
April (09:12): And that just didn’t sit with me and my little engineering brain. I was like, that can’t be how we do it. That can’t be how we do it. And so I got really obsessed with the idea that, you know, we, we should be able to have a methodology with this with steps, right?
Here are the steps we’re going to go through. And so, you know, my way of thinking about it at the beginning was, you know, if we look at positioning, can we break it apart into pieces and then solve for the component pieces and then put it back together.
And then we get the positioning. And it seemed to me that we could, because, you know, if you read all the stuff on positioning, we didn’t argue too much about what the components were. And so the components of positioning, you know, even, even when I started out and all I knew was a positioning statement as a way to get positioning done.
April (10:01): The blanks on the positioning statement are essentially what we, what we agree are the components of positioning. And so there’s five things. There’s, who’s your competition or competitive alternatives.
There’s differentiated features. What do you got the competitors don’t have, there’s differentiated values of, so what for customers, why do they care about those features? And then there’s customer segments. Like what customers are we talking about?
And then the last one is market category, which is, this is the market we intend to win. And so the way I looked at it was all right, we’ve got five components. We should be able to figure out what the best answer is for each of these components, smash it together. And that’s how we’re going to get good positioning. And when you
Kathleen (10:40): Talk about the five components, you’re referring to what I like to call. I think the marketing Madlibs, that famous kind of like positioning statement with the, with the fill in the blanks that you see everywhere,
April (10:52): The dumbest thing ever. Yeah, yeah. Like that, like that thing just drove me crazy. Like, you know, and again, maybe it’s just my engineering mindset. Like people are like, okay, we need to do positioning. And I’m like, all right, how are we going to do it? And they say, well, we’ve got this thing.
And it’s like, fill in this thing. And I’m like, what? Wait, like, you know, the first company I ever worked at, we had this product that it was originally positioned as desktop productivity software is going to be like compete with Excel and Microsoft access. And it was a loser.
Like we couldn’t sell any of it. The thing was a dog. We almost pulled the plug on it, but before we did, we did this experimental repositioning, and we repositioned it as an embeddable database for mobile devices, pretty different market category.
April (11:39): So we repositioned as this thing. And the thing took off and we sold tons of it and it was super successful. We ended up getting acquired. The thing got bigger and bigger and bigger. It was hundreds of millions of revenue at its peak.
Anyway, this taught me that, you know, I’ve got a product that positioned in this market looks pretty bad, but you take the same product position in this market looks pretty good. But the other thing it drove home was, okay if I’m supposed to do positioning by filling in the blanks of a positioning statement well, one of those blanks says market category.
So how do I know that my thing is better in this category versus this category? Because as far as I can tell most of the things I worked on and they can be positioned in multiple different categories. So just writing it down, doesn’t tell me which one is the best. So how do we get to that?
Kathleen (12:31): I always also hated that. And it’s funny because a lot of the analyst firms are big proponents of that fill in the blank framework. If you use that, your positioning statement is going to sound like everybody else’s right?
April (12:48): That’s what I think is so dangerous about it, right? It’s not even just a useless exercise. And in my opinion, it’s pretty useless exercise, but it’s also kind of dangerous because it tricks you into thinking, well, if this is the way we do it, and all I have to do is write down the market category.
ell, the most obvious one or the first one that pops into my mind must be the best one. And in my experience in quite often, that is not true. So quite often the root of your positioning problem is because you’re falling into some kind of default positioning. And that default positioning is actually weak and therefore everything else is everything else is hurting as a result.
And so that positioning statement exercise has really, really bugged me. You know, first came across that I was like, like this, not only does this not work, I think this will actually mess you up if you do it.
Kathleen (13:45): Yeah. That makes a ton of sense. And it’s really interesting to have this conversation at a time when so many marketers are also out there trumpeting this notion of category creation, because like, if you want it to be, and I have mixed feelings about that, I’ll just copy cat it. But if you want it to be a category creator and you went to try and fill out that positioning statement, like, again, by definition, you’re putting yourself in somebody else’s category. So it’s cool.
April (14:10): Let’s say you’re a category creator, and you’ve just decided, okay, my category I create is floop flummer. And I just write that down in the, in the blank, that’s it? We’re done.
Kathleen (14:20): Yeah. That makes sense. Right?
April (14:24): What I hate about it is it’s not a methodology. It’s a, it’s a, it’s a, at best, a way to write down positioning and not even very good way to capture it. Really. If you wanted to capture it in a way to share it with the team, you wouldn’t be putting it into this gobbledygook Frankenstein statement of pseudo English.
You would actually want to write it down in a document or something that captured some of the nuance of how did you actually get to where you got to on this. But yeah, no positioning statement, not a fan.
Kathleen (14:54): We could hate on that all day and probably do an entire podcast on it because I feel the same way, but that would not leave our listeners with anything practical. So I love that you approach this with an engineering mindset.
It, now that you’ve said that it totally explains the whole thing and like, why I’m so drawn to it. So you’ve in your book, you break the process down into 10 steps. Maybe you could like walk me through how this works because it’s very,
April (15:23): So I, I can give you, I could give you the abridged version of it.
Kathleen (15:27): Because there is an entire book on this.
April (15:29): Right. So the, so if you think about it this way, like, so my starting point was, okay, I know that positioning statement is not going to work. Right. And I, I know from trying it, it doesn’t work. So again, could we take positioning, break it into component pieces and then figure out how to solve for the component pieces.
That was my first idea. So I was like, okay, do I know what the pieces are? Well, kind of, yeah, there, the blanks and the positioning statement. Now, if you go studying positioning statements, there’s lots of different versions.
And so I, you know, I did the tour through all the different versions, but we kind of circle around these five components, right? So competitors differentiated features, differentiated value, customer segments and market category. Those are the five things. So then I said, okay, all I’ve got to do is solve for each of those things.
April (16:18): So when it’s the best answer for each of those things and put it together, but when you start thinking about it, that way, the first thing you realize is that all of the components have a relationship to the others. So if I pull something out, like let’s say value, the unique value add your product can deliver to costumers is completely dependent on your differentiated features, right?
You can’t, I can’t separate those two, one flows from the other, but then I, if I think about it, my differentiated features are only differentiated when I compare them to my competition. So those things are related.
And then if I think about it, my best fit customers, these are the people that care the most about the value that I deliver. So I, you know, I can’t pick one without the other. And then the last bit is market category, which is a little bit more esoteric.
April (17:09): But if you think about it, the best market category for a given product, this is the category that we position our product in, that makes this value kind of obvious to these people we’re trying to target. So I can’t really figure out my best market category until I understand differentiated value in the market segment I’m going after. So all of these things are going to relate to each other. So you’re like, well, this is a bit of a pickle.
Kathleen (17:36): It’s very chicken and eggy.
April (17:37): Right? Like where do I start? And so for a long time, I thought that the way you did it was you, you picked the starting point and differentiated features is usually good one. And you work your way around the circle and you’d get candidate positioning, and then you would go out and test it the market and see if it worked.
April (17:57): And if it did, great, you just ran with it. If it didn’t, then you throw it out and you’d develop another candidate positioning. And so for a few years, like literally two, three years, that’s what I did was I worked my way around.
We can take our best guess at it. And then we would try that problem though, is, you know, I’m working at startups, so we don’t have all day to test this stuff out. And if you’re doing B2B startups, like sometimes it would take you a while to do a task because your sales cycles are long. And yeah.
And so people were getting impatient with me. And so I was like, man, we gotta, there’s gotta be a better way to do this faster. And what happened was I actually went way down the rappel reading Clayton Christensen’s stuff, and I got really into kind of jobs to be done.
April (18:43): And anyways, and after reading all that stuff, I had a bit of an epiphany where I realized you had to start with competitive alternatives. If I started anywhere else on the circle, I would end up with positioning. That potentially sounded really good in the office, but doesn’t actually win out in the market because it’s not differentiated.
And so you had to start there. So then I decided the way the process would work, as you would say, okay, I’ve got something it’s out in market already. People are buying it. If my stuff didn’t exist, what would the customer do? And that’s kind of my competitive alternatives. So that, that sort of includes status quo.
You know, like maybe they use a spreadsheet, maybe they hire an intern, but it also includes anybody that the customer might put on a short list when they go looking for solutions.
April (19:35): So that’s the first one, the competitive alternatives you’d start there. Well, once I had that, then I had sort of a stake in the ground and I can say, okay, well, here’s what we’ve got to beat. And if I know I got a beat, then I can say, okay, theoretically, let’s look at my product.
What’s my product got that they don’t have feature function wise. Right. And I can write those down and there might be thousands of things, but I can write it all down and fill up a whiteboard with that. That gets me to differentiated features.
Once I have differentiated features that I can say, well, how do those features map to value? And so for each of those features, I just go down the list and say, so what, so what for customers, we can do this. And then what you’re trying to get to is a set of value themes, like two or three value themes.
April (20:21): This is a bottoms up way of doing of developing value propositions. But what it gets you to is differentiated value because you started with, here’s what I’ve got to beat. Here’s how I’m different. This is the value for customers in that differentiated stuff I can do. Now, once I got that, now I got value.
Then I can say, well, what are the characteristics of a target account that make them really care a lot about that value? And that’s literally my definition of a best fit customer. Yeah. That makes sense. So those are kind of a bottoms up way of doing segmentation. Once I get segmentation, then I can say, you know, at that point I can lean back and say, all right, so I need to position this product in some kind of market context that makes this value obvious to these folks.
So is it better if I position this as email or chat, is it a database or a business intelligence system? Like, and that’s how I do it. So in the methodology, I’ve got, you go step by step by step through those things. But you start with this idea of competitive alternatives as a stake in the ground, and then you flow through the rest of it. That’s how it works.
Kathleen (21:28): You know, you mentioned at the end, they’re positioning something in context. And that’s the part that I think is so interesting.
I feel like that’s the part that I really enjoy listening to you talk about at Inbound because you had this like really fascinating way of breaking down the, I think it was, if I remember correctly at the time, at least I know it’s evolved since then, but you had like four different approaches to putting your positioning in context, within a broader market.
And I seem to remember some of the examples you gave were like, you know, you could, you could try to take on Coke with a competing product, or you could be the Coke for dogs.
Kathleen (22:08): Another one was like, you used the example of Tesla with electric cars and just changing the changing the game I think was right. Put it, you know, changing the conversation and changing the focus from like battery life to sexy design and speed for fun.
And there were all these different frameworks and I just, I loved having those mental models to use and understanding the different ways that you could contextually place your own offering within the broader market. So maybe you could talk a little bit about that and how your thinking on that has evolved. Do you still use those same frameworks?
April (22:43): Yeah, I do. And you know, and there’s a section in the book that talks about that. And, and the way I thought about it was I’d always get this question, like, how is it different if I’m positioning in an existing market category versus making up your own new market category? And so the way I looked at it is there’s kind of, I used to talk about four, but I’ve kind of narrowed it down to three now.
Like, so basically you either the market category exists or you’re going to have to go make it. If the market category exists, you’ve got two choices. You either position your stuff in such a way that you’re going to position in the existing market category. And your intent is to take on the whole thing.
Did I call this the head-to-head? So that’s like saying, you know, I’m email, that’s it I’m email, no qualification on that and not email for a particular sub market or anything.
April (23:33): What I have here is the world’s greatest email as basically like announcing your intention to take on Gmail and outlook, you know, the email. So, you know, an example I’m used to that and talk with Coke, like I’m Cola and that’s it, no qualifier. I’m just the world’s greatest Cola.
Well, that’s like, basically say an ID, declare war on Coke. I’m going to go get those guys. And that sounds stupid, right? Like, like, are you actually going to be Coke from nothing? Like if you’re a startup and you’re just starting out.
Kathleen (24:04): Although it’s funny. You used the example of email and immediately in my head, I thought, well, this is like Basecamp with Hey or Superhuman. Like there still are people trying to take on the Coke of the email world.
April (24:15): They are, they are, but Superhuman’s a great example. Yeah. If you look at Superhuman and particularly the early days of when they were like, you applied to get Superhuman and you didn’t get it, if you didn’t meet their criteria, like they were not trying to be emailed for everybody. They were trying to be email for people that thought email was too slow.
There was this component of speed. And if you didn’t answer the questions, right, you didn’t get home, they didn’t get it. So they were very specific about that. They were like, we’re not email for everybody. We’re email for people that think they wish they could do their email faster.
Because that’s the only problem we solve because there’s all a bunch of stuff that Superhuman doesn’t solve. Now, if you look at Hey, Hey’s a great example too, right? The Hey folks have come out and said, we’re the email for people that actually care about, about privacy and control over who hits your inbox and who doesn’t.
April (25:14): And, and even more specific when the thing first came out, they, they couldn’t even do business email. It was personal email only because you couldn’t do your own domain and all the rest of it. That actually drove me nuts. Cause I didn’t, you know, they weren’t explicit about that.
And so I signed up and paid it and everything else. And then I was like, Oh, I can’t use this. It’s not for businesses. They shouldn’t have told me. Now I think they got a business version, but it doesn’t have calendaring and a bunch of other stuff. So it’s the, you know, it’s not forever.
Kathleen (25:42): That’s a tough, that’s a tough market to crack with how kind of insidious email is in our daily lives.
April (25:48): I think they’re trying to be everything. I think they’re more this style too. So the style to it. So head to head is like I’m coming in and I’m going to take on the leader from nothing. And that literally never works. Right? What works better is to say, I’m going to go in and I’m going to shave off a part of the market that is underserved and I’m going to serve those people.
And I’m going to eat the email for X right. Email for people that want speed email for people that care about privacy now, because you know, because the other guys like Gmail, isn’t going to do that ever. This is so, you know, it, my alternative is Gmail. I got them beat. They can’t match my feature. And I’m going to dominate in this sub segment of the market that really cares about that.
April (26:34): And so the vast majority of companies that we know and love today started out serving a sub of an existing category. Like Salesforce was CRM for SMBs, SMBs that didn’t have an IT department. And you don’t worry, you don’t need an IT department cause this one’s no software, man. It’s a, you can just have it run and you don’t have to worry about it. I keep looking after it.
So I mean there’s so there’s loads and loads of examples, almost every startup that later becomes successful, starts out being in a niche in an existing category. In fact, I did a little spelunking around because you know, category creation is hot right now. So everybody likes to think about style three, which is I’m going to create a new category. And then somehow I’m going to dominate that. But if you go back and look at tech IPO’s of the past five years, so this is IPO.
April (27:28): So if a company gets big enough that they, you know, they’re more than a hundred million revenue, they’re going to go public. If you go through that list of tech companies that are YPO in the last five years, over 90% of them at the time of IPO are a niche play in an existing market.
Kathleen (27:49): That makes sense.
April (27:49): Over 90%, which surprises most people because there’s this idea that, you know, you can’t get big unless you create a category and then position yourself within that category. And it’s not to say that doesn’t work. That does work in very limited cases, right. That you actually carve out a new key. You say my thing is so new, so different. So I don’t know. And none of the existing categories really work for it. So I’m gonna make up a new category and then position it in there.
Kathleen (28:19): Yeah. There’s I think there’s a lot of BS around category creation. Like everybody says, they’re doing it and there can’t possibly be that many categories. It’s just invented word, word art.
April (28:32): Yeah. And some of them are saying they’re category creation when that’s not even what they’re doing. Right. Like I like, so I had some guys call me the other day and they said, we’re a social media man. We’re creating a category. And I said, Oh yeah, what’s the category. And they said, we’re social media management for agencies. Okay. One category, social media management for agencies. That’s a niche play. And they’re like, yeah, but nobody else does it. So we’re creating it. I’m like, yeah. Okay. So first of all, you’re not creating a category.
You’re basically leveraging what we already know about social media management and say we’re social media management, but for agencies, that’s why it works so well is I don’t have to teach you what social media management is. I just have to teach you why agencies need a different kind of social media management. Then the category leader can give you. And then I just dominate my little bit. That’s it?
Kathleen (29:26): Your first approach is the head-to-head.
April (29:30): The only time it works is if the, is if you know, if the market is created in the minds of customers, but there is no established leader. So an example of that might be smart glasses, right? Like, you know what smart glasses are, we all, you know, we don’t remember Google glass had that thing.
They did a great job establishing that category and then they just kind of exited it. So now if you wanted to buy smart glasses, who would you buy them from? No idea. No idea. So that’s an example of, we kind of know what smart glasses are, but it’s a dog fight out there right now. There’s a thousand companies trying to do it.
And eventually someone will emerge as the clear category leader there, but it hasn’t happened yet. Yeah. So that’s kind of wide open market. And if you had a, you know, there was a company here in Canada that raised a pile of money and took a good run at being the dominant player in the smart glasses market.
April (30:22): It didn’t quite work out and they got acquired by Google. But if you were to raise a bunch of money and take a big run at it, you might actually emerge as the leader in that space. So we know what it is. And we can say smart glasses and everybody gets it. But we don’t know who the leader is. So that’s an example where you might do, you’d say like when my guys were trying to do it, my Canadian guys were trying to do it. They weren’t saying we’re the fashionable smart glasses or we’re the smart glasses for manufacturing or the smart glasses for anything else you might want to use them for. They were just like, no, we’re smart glasses. Whereas our glasses where everything. So that’s, that’s head to head Denise plays where you say, no, you know, instead of saying I’m Coke, you know, like, you’re, you know, I’m going to say I’m Coke for dogs, right? So you’re like, okay, I know what Coke is. So I got a mental image of that, but it’s for this chunk of the market that Coke’s never going to dominate in and you’re going to, you know, your intention is to go dominate there. And the last one is you create your own category, where you stay, you know what? I’m not smart glasses, I’m not Coke. I’m a flu flummer.
April (31:29): And you say what the heck is a flu flummer? And I say, I’m glad you asked. Let me tell you, look, we got email and we got this and we got this. And then there’s this space in the middle. And we call this the flu flummer.
And that’s what we are. And let me tell you why you need a flu flummer. And the hard part about category creation is you essentially fall into this thing where you’ve got to evangelize the problem. Because if people knew they had a problem, there would be solutions to solve that problem already.
And so first you got to sell the problem. Then you got to sell people on the idea that you’re the best solution to that problem. The real risk in category creation is that the history of Silicon Valley teaches us that the most likely outcome is you pour all your time, energy, effort, money into creating the category.
April (32:26): And the moment the category starts to emerge, you kind of end up in that style one, don’t ya? And then it’s a dog fight. There’s a thousand other companies show up and they come in and steal the category from you after you’ve already created. That’s why we don’t use ask Jeeves. We use Google.
That’s why we don’t use my space. We use Facebook. Like there’s a thousand examples. All the companies, you know, in love, they didn’t create the categories they’re in. They get whipping in at the last minute after the hard work of category creation was already done. So I don’t know why everybody’s so keen on category creation. It’s literally the hardest one to do.
But you know, but there are examples of folks successfully doing it. Like in my book, there’s an interview in there with Mark Organ, who was the original founder of Eloqua, you know, who did create the category marketing automation. And so he talks about how he did that. So it does work sometimes. It’s just, it’s rare. And it’s fraught with peril.
Kathleen (33:23): And it’s funny, cause there’s a lot of debate in the marketing world over what really is category creation. Like, because there’s, and I was on a conversation.
April (33:32): So a lot of people come to me and they say, they’re doing a gray area. And I know you’re not. Yeah. I just read this book about category creation and everybody was telling me, Oh, I read this book April. You know, it’s going to tell you how to create categories and I’m reading it.
And I’m like, tell me kind of a compelling case know, but the first example they give is Salesforce. And I’m like, what are we just going to ignore? What happened for the first 200 million revenue? We’re just gonna ignore that part. Like they didn’t become a category creator until they were massive company.
They were a niche play in the CRM market. There was a 2 billion revenue company publicly traded in CRM when they started create CRM. Are you kidding me? And then yeah, you can argue about, they’re creating a category now of like, you know, platform as a service, whatever, but that’s different.
Kathleen (34:23): That’s like hindsight is 2020, right.
April (34:26): They were a group and company by the time they did that. So most of the examples that people give me, I’m kinda like, well, yeah, like once for the absolute dominant player in your market, then you get the luxury of moving the goalposts and defining what exactly the market is.
And that’s different. But if you’re a little startup and you’re just starting out, you don’t, you don’t get to do that. Yeah.
Kathleen (34:47): Well, one of the things that you talk about in the book is forming a positioning team. And I just wanted to take a minute and talk about that because again, I’m always all about making sure there are some really like practical, actionable takeaways.
So beyond the framework that you discussed, like organizationally, what is the best way to kind of get the team organized in order to move forward on an exercise like this?
April (35:10): Yeah, so, so I included a bunch on this in the book for a reason. And it’s because I think a lot of positioning efforts fail because the, the marketing team or the product team decides they’re going to fix positioning and they’re going to do it in their department without involving anybody else, which I think is crazy.
So, you know, if you think about it, like, I’ll give you an example. Like the one I mentioned earlier, the first I worked at and we repositioned it, like we thought it was basically desktop productivity, sell it for a hundred bucks compete with Excel and Microsoft access.
We ended up repositioning this as an embeddable database for mobile devices, which we would sell to, you know, at a much higher level in the organization. We would sell a hundred copies at a pop because you’d be arming your entire sales team with this thing.
Or you put it in every device that you had completely different, go to market, completely different pricing, completely different sales model, everything different. Could I make that decision myself as the person running marketing? No, I think the CEO would want to talk about
Kathleen (36:24): Well and the sales team. I mean, it’s the same thing. Like with, I just went through a pricing exercise in my company. Like you, there’s all these things you can do in a silo, but unless you’re you get the buy-in of your sales team to go out and like evangelize it in their conversations with prospects, it’s not going to do you any good.
April (36:40): This is it. So a lot of these things end up like a shift in positioning often ends up feeling like a shift in the whole company strategy. And so if you’re going to do this properly, I think marketing is in good position to lead a positioning effort, but they’re not going to be able to do it themselves.
And so what I recommend is you get the heads of the teams together. So you need sales, you need product, you need customer success, you need the CEO, the founders and anybody else who’s important in your company and you need to get everybody together. So that’s the first thing.
So I need to establish a team. And then once I’ve got that team, there’s a few things need to happen. One. I need to convince the team to at least look at it so that the team has to kind of let go of their positioning baggage and say, you know what?
April (37:33): Like I know we’ve always said, we’re a database, but for this exercise, open your mind to the idea that, you know, we could be something else. Maybe we’re a data warehouse. Maybe we’re a business intelligence tool, maybe we’re something else. And so that’s, so we’ll get to get the team together.
I got to get the team to kind of put their positioning baggage aside. And, and then the last thing I gotta do is if we’re going to do it, and we’re all going to get together, we need to follow a process. We can’t just get together in a room and say, okay, so what’s our market category. Like that’s just going to become a war of opinion. And if it’s a war of opinions, let me tell you marketing never wins that war.
Kathleen (38:14): Right. Opinions and some very long meetings that have no end in sight.
April (38:19): Right? So what we need to do is follow a positioning process that for as much as we can takes the opinions out of it. So that’s what my process attempts to do. Like you know, we could get together in a room and we can agree on what’s the status quo in all the accounts.
Who else are we competing with when we are in a competitive deal? So that establishes who our competitive alternatives are, that we’re going to work through the rest of it without kind of asking for your opinion. It just sort of is what it is. Yeah. So, so those are the things I think you need to have in order to have success. You know, I need to, I need to get the gang together.
I need to get everybody to kind of leave aside their positioning baggage. And then if we’re going to do it, an exercise, there needs to be a structure and a methodology to that exercise that kind of takes the opinions out of it. Otherwise, we’re just going to get, well, I think it’s this one off. I think it’s this. Well, if we all have an opinion, I like mine the best.
Kathleen (39:17): How long do you generally, like when you’re setting expectations with your clients, how long do you generally tell them that this process takes
April (39:24): Well in the work that I do? Like? So if, if the company comes and hires me, I act as the facilitator for this exercise. So there’s a bit of prep that happens ahead of time. Like sometimes we’ll pull some data depending on what the company’s like.
Most of the prep is literally for me to get up to speed enough on the market and the product and the landscape so that I’m not so that I’m able to facilitate the exercise without slowing everybody down. And then we used to do this as the, as a two day thing. I used to fly to you. We’d all lock ourselves in the boardroom and we just bang it out in two days.
Now since, since, since COVID hit, I’ve gone to doing these things virtually. And one of the great things about that is we can take a bit more time about it because I’m not flying in. And so what we do now is we spread it out over a series of sessions across a week, but we get it done in a week.
Kathleen (40:18): That’s great.
April (40:23): Efficient, right? Like doing it yourselves, the companies can, you know, again, get into big arguments and fresh around on that stuff for months. And when I was internally at companies, it was not unusual for us to thrash around in it and his mom for months. I think, you know, one having a methodology and process to having an outside facilitator that can walk you through it and help you through it.
You know, again, not everybody qualifies to work with me. Like some people come in, I don’t think they’re ready to do it, or I don’t think positioning’s even their problem. But if you do have a positioning problem and you look like somebody I’d work with that, we get it on the counter. And yeah, we, we bang it out in a week. And then what do you do?
Kathleen (41:02): To tell your clients about like, they spend that week, they come up with their positioning? What then, because I would venture to guess, I mean, you already talked about Salesforce and how they started out being kind of niche, and then they moved to category creation, quote unquote you know, do you have like defined points where the group gets back together and evaluates and checks in and the process evolves?
April (41:27): Yeah. So, so here’s, here’s how, how I instruct everybody, like, you know, what should happen? We’re done. So we get the position and we do two things in these workshops to actually, so we do the positioning and then we do an exercise where we take the positioning and when we translate it into a sales narrative. So how do I actually tell the story of this product?
If I’m sitting across from a prospect that doesn’t know too much about it yet. So, you know, this is how we tell the story, and then that’s what we do in the workshops. So we got positioning, we got the sales narrative. Then I leave now what other people do when I’m gone is they take that sales narrative, they turn it into a sales pitch. So it’s usually slides and a demo or some kind of a script. So they worked that into a sales pitch and then they go test it with some prospects.
April (42:16): So that’s the first thing I recommend. I’m going to take it out and test it. Usually it works. I got the smartest people in the company sitting in the room. We don’t usually get it wrong, but it often needs a bit of tuning because customers are weird. So, you know, so we tune it up and then once we’ve got a tune, then the positioning plus that sales narrative together goes over to marketing and then marketing can work on messaging.
And so I recommend you build a, make a messaging document, but most folks will do that, or they’ll work on the messaging for the homepage and off they go. Now let’s think about positioning is we don’t get to just set it and forget it because you know, everything’s changing. So our product is changing as we put new features into the product and new things happen.
April (42:57): Sometimes we make an acquisition. So our stuff is changing at the same time, the market’s changing. So we got competitors coming in and out of the market. We’ve got you know, the landscape itself has changing.
Like COVID is a great example where all of a sudden your buyer’s priorities might have really, really shifted and positioning that didn’t work pre COVID maybe does now or vice versa.
So so because everything’s changing, you need to check in on the positioning. You can’t just set it and say, well, that’s it. You know, we’re done positioning. Don’t have to think about that anymore. So my recommendation is about every six months.
So when I was a VP marketing, we would do the workshop. We go through the process of testing it, get the messaging sorted out and everything else. And I wouldn’t have a standing meeting with the same group of people every six months.
April (43:46): And so we’d all get together every six months and we get together in the room and say, okay, has anything changed? So if we think about competitive alternatives, do we have different competitors? Are we seeing different things in sales accounts? Is the status quo the same as it always was.
What’s changed there. And we’ve got new stuff in our product. Has that changed our differentiated features at all? And if so, you know, does it change it enough that we actually going to have to update what we’re talking about in terms of value? And if it’s really updated, does that change our target customers that we’re going to go after? If so, it may even change our market category.
So we’ve got to check in on that regularly every six months, sometimes we all just get together and we’re like, Nope, Nope, Nope. Everything’s the same. Okay, good. And then, you know, it’s a short meeting. Yeah. Sometimes you get it together and you’re like, Ooh, actually stuff is changing.
If we have the standing meeting, then we’ll catch it early and we won’t be caught flat food and trying to react to something that is actually causing us pain revenue wise. We’ll get to it earlier. Cause we, you know, we had the standing meeting over six months to go in and review it.
Kathleen (44:52): That makes sense. I like having that kind of cadence already. Pre-Planned. Well I could talk to you about this forever, but we’re going to run out of time. So I’m going to shift gears and ask you the two questions I ask all of my guests the first and they’re softballs. The first one is, you know, the podcast is all about inbound marketing. Is there a particular company or individual that you think is really knocking it out of the park when it comes to inbound marketing these days?
April (45:18): Well, you know, the one that comes to mind when you say that and you know, and, and I think they’re just killing it in marketing in general is I sit on the board of a company in there called Samplr and I’ve been super impressed watching the way that this company has reacted to the change in the market that had happened because of COVID and how they’ve managed to shift that and turn it into this massive opportunity for them.
So what sampler does is they they do digital product sampling. So if you think about, if you ever remember when we used to go to the grocery store. People would hand out samples at the grocery store or they would have, you know, people on the street corner giving you samples of granola bars or snacks or something. Consumer packaged goods brands spend billions a year on product sampling campaigns.
April (46:11): What Samplr does is it is a digital way of doing that. So they match people with samples and then the samples come in the mail and they can actually, you know, survey the people afterwards and find out did you like to sample, did you buy this stuff later?
And so it’s just a way smarter, digital way to do it anyway. So that’s what they’ve been doing for years COVID hits. And what happened in COVID was the big CPG brands were just like, we can’t sample anymore because all the things are thing. And so we’re just not doing sampling at all. We’re done.
Kathleen (46:48): I would think they’re tailor made for this.
April (46:51): You can imagine they had all this stuff in the pipeline, all this stuff, and all their customers were just like, yeah, no.
April (47:02): What Samplr did was, you know, they are clearly the solution to product sampling if we can’t do it in the store. Right. So, but you know, but at the beginning, the customer companies just didn’t want to hear it. And so what they did, they did a very good job of crafting a message around contactless product sampling and the future of product sampling.
And what would it, what was it what’s product sampling gonna look like if we truly digitize it and do it in a way that doesn’t involve direct face-to-face human contact and they dominated the story around this for months where you, you know, when every reporter in the land was looking for a, what’s going to change because of COVID story.
And there was Samplr saying, well, let me tell you about this thing. We’re never testing the lipstick tester at the Sephora ever again. Oh
Kathleen (47:56): Yeah. That’s so true. I can’t even.
April (47:58): Let me give you a different way. We could sample lipstick, right. We could send you a sample in the mail and here’s how it would work. So they do this really good job of being everywhere. And then within two months, their business was absolutely taking off and they raised around and financing and, you know, in the early days of COVID, which was, you know, again, pretty fantastic. And if you look at what they’ve done is just amazing. And so I think they’ve done an amazing job.
Kathleen (48:24): Ooh, I’m excited to go check them out. That’s my favorite part. One of my favorite parts of these conversations is learning about new examples like this. My other question that I always ask guests is that marketers commonly cite one of their biggest pain points.
As you know, the landscape of digital marketing is changing so quickly. It’s really hard to keep up with it and stay on top of everything. How do you personally kind of stay educated and keep yourself on the cutting edge?
April (48:48): Yeah. You know, so I, so I read a lot of books. I’m, I’m big on books and, and so I’m reading a lot of books. I’m also kind of, you know, one of the things that I think is really interesting about COVID is there’s been sort of this emergence of these kind of neat online communities. I feel like that’s really accelerated.
And so in particular I’m kind of on the product marketing side of things like positioning a sort of product marketing thing. And so one of the communities I’m kinda active in is the there’s these folks called the product marketing Alliance.
Kathleen (49:21): I’m in that group. Yes. It’s great.
April (49:23): It’s cool. Right. And that thing came out of nowhere. Like that was like, that was like not a thing. And then all of a sudden they had 12,000 people in a Slack, in a Slack community and I’m like, well, how the heck? And so I’ve been really enjoying the stuff going on in that community.
The other one that I, that I’ve, you know, more recently been engaged with is and I was engaged because they reached out to me and asked me to write a thing for them, which I did. And then I was like, Holy cow, look at this thing.
Which is more on the product management, but again, product marketers side is there’s this guy does a newsletter called Lenny’s list. And so I, he reached out to me last year and said, Hey, do you want to write an article for my newsletter?
April (50:04): And I was like, Oh man, I’m really busy. And he kind of pestered me and I said, well, you know, I got Christmas break coming up. And so maybe I’ll write something when I’m on the break. So I wrote this thing and then it turns out he has this massive community. These is huge subscriber lists.
He started a Slack community. And so that’s been neat me and just sort of crack into these communities where smart people are hanging out and doing things. And there’s a lot of neat ones popping up now. Yeah. I couldn’t agree more to a lot of paid newsletters now just because I think they’re cool. And there’s a lot of qualities.
Kathleen (50:41): Yeah. There’s a lot of great innovation on the product side. I’m going to have to check them out too. I have so many good new ones now. Well, all right. Before we wrap, if somebody wants to learn more about you and what you do, or if they want to buy the book what’s the best way for them to do that. Yeah.
April (50:57): The book’s available wherever you buy books, like there’s a, there’s a paperback book or an ebook or an audio book, if you want to, Oh, you can listen to three and a half hours of my Canadian accent. So yeah, most people just buy it off Amazon, but if you’ve got a local book seller, usually they’ve got copies too. So I’m in distribution all over the place where you buy it online.
My website is Aprildunford.com and if you’re interested in, you know, if you think you need a consultant or something, you can find me there and then I’m not too active on social media except Twitter. So I’m @Aprildunford on Twitter. So if you want listen to me, I don’t know, listen to me talk to them about cat jokes or whatever you can follow me on Twitter.
Kathleen (51:46): Great. Well, the book is Obviously Awesome. Thank you so much for joining me April Dunford. This was fun.
April (51:51): I’m glad. Thanks so much for having me.
Kathleen (51:54): Yeah. And if you’re listening and you liked what you heard, or you learned something new, you could head to Apple podcasts and leave the podcast a review. And of course, if you know someone else who’s doing amazing inbound marketing work, tweet me @workmommywork, and I would love to make them my next guest. That’s it for this week. Thanks April.
April (52:10): Thank you.
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