What Malcolm Gladwell vs. Morton Grodzins can teach us about marketing and sales messaging
By Tim Riesterer
An obscure political science professor by the name of Morton Grodzins actually first conceived of “the tipping point” more than 40 years before Gladwell released his book. Yet, Grodzins didn’t make millions of dollars.
Malcolm Gladwell then went on to sell millions of copies of his book, “Outliers,” and he made millions of dollars, again. One of the key principles he described was a concept called “deliberate practice.”
You guessed it. The original theory was developed by someone else. He’s a Swedish psychologist, K. Anders Ericcson, who toils in academic anonymity, while Gladwell hits the big-dollar talk show and speaking circuits.
Gladwell “Messaged it Great”
What did Gladwell do that these other guys didn’t? Why was he able to make millions, while Grodzins and Ericcson never hit the mainstream?
He messaged it great. Malcolm Gladwell was able to take very geeky, academic concepts and connect with the the buying public and get them to part with their money. The other guys didn’t.
Have you ever been frustrated that you and your company have been beaten by lesser competitors? Are your customers continually trying to commoditize you? Or, maybe it’s you who needs to outsell a more innovative competitor.
Regardless, you as a Marketer are charged with creating your company’s story and getting it told in a way that drives growth. It’s your job to message it great.
5 Lessons for Messaging it Great
Here’s what you can learn from Malcolm Gladwell… You need find something inside your company that is inherently great and make it more apparently obvious to the customer. Buried in your company and your offerings are bright ideas, capabilities or concepts that just need to be messaged great.
Then, you must apply these five lessons:
Lesson #1: Your customer lives in your story, don’t force them to live in yours
The single biggest thing that separates successful companies from unsuccessful ones is the story you tell when you are communicating with a prospect in the buying cycle. Do you force them to understand and love your company story, or are you engaging in a compelling dialogue about their story?
The real challenge in the customer’s story is what we call the “status quo barrier.” It keeps your prospects from wanting to change. You need a message that not only differentiates you from competitors, but first convinces the decision-maker they need to do something different. Your message needs to be about how the customer’s current story is changing, and how your strengths line-up in response to the changes happening to them.
The kicker is that you often need to tell the customer something they don’t know, about a problem they didn’t even know they had, if you want to break through the status quo barrier. Your story needs to be a little challenging, dangerous and fearless instead of safe and self-satisfying. Too many of today’s value propositions are too impotent to provoke a response, let alone business opportunities.
Lesson #2: You must translate your brand positioning into customer messaging
Brand positioning is typically about what we feel our brand should be, what we want to be known as, why we come to work each day, what we promise to do for the customer, and what customers like about us. Companies tend to we, we, we all over themselves when they create brand messaging.
It becomes 30,000-foot hyperbole that rarely separates you from your competitors, is difficult to translate at the 3-foot level where a customer conversation takes place, and almost never compels a customer to do anything different. Companies test whether customers like their brand position, but they don’t test whether it will actually cause them to change behavior. I like the way Sergio Zyman, former Coca Cola CMO and author of The End of Marketing as We Know It says: “We can’t live on virtual consumption.” (He said this after his brand advertising won many awards, but failed to change their market share.)
Bottom line is that branding, especially based on voice of the customer, will rarely offer up a compelling story that creates commercial impact. Customers can’t actually tell you what they want, or need, that will get them excited enough to do something different and be willing to go through the pain of change. When it comes down to actually creating selling opportunities and activity, you must translate your brand into something truly compelling and remarkable that breaks the status quo barrier.
Lesson #3: You need to offer a distinct point of view, not just more content
I got major heartburn at a recent conference on content marketing. The biggest topic of conversation seemed to be how to create the quantity of content needed, in a timely enough fashion, to fill all the holes in the demand generation and sales enablement content map. There were presentations and products about how to source third-party content from analysts and outside writers, and how to manage that process.
Not once, did I hear a speaker address the issue of how to make your content more distinctive and drive action. Seriously, if you are going to become an aggregator of industry analyst information in your marketing programs and customer portals, what value do you add? What should a customer do different because they found someone else’s content on your site or in your emails. Is being a content clearinghouse for other people’s generic content going to move the needle for you?
Gladwell didn’t just report on Morton Grodzin’s discovery. Gladwell made it meaningful to you and me. He made it useful in our lives and jobs. He took an esoteric concept and made it pragmatic and applicable. Likewise, you must add value in the messaging content you create. You need to offer a distinct point of view. Your story must show customers the relevant impact that the latest trends, issues, challenges, problems and changes will have on their desired outcomes. And, then how your organization can help them avoid the risks and maximize the opportunities
Lesson #4: Focus your messaging energy on the right enemy
Think of the “status quo barrier” we mentioned earlier as your biggest competitor when you build messaging content. (It’s not your arch rival competitor.) Before you ever get to an opportunity, you need to break through and create a buying vision.
Here are four challenges causing the status quo barrier that you must confront with your message:
· Attention Economy – Time is the new currency. It’s almost impossible to get someone’s attention. You can’t be timid. And, they don’t have time to play the 20-question game. In fact, you will need to tell the customer something they don’t know, about a problem they didn’t even know they had. Be provocative and fresh to get your listener to the edge of their seat.
· Change Burden – No surprise here, customers loathe change. So much so, they are often willing to live with the pains they got because they perceive the pain of changing to a new solution as being worse. Breaking through the status quo barrier means you have to clearly show them how the pain of not changing is worse than the pain of change management.
· Risk Aversion – Pay attention here. People respond better and faster to the threat of risk/loss than the potential for more gain. That’s why your feature/benefit stories and your ROI calculations aren’t enough to break through. You must show them where their status quo is leaking and squeaking. They must see it as “unsafe” before they will move away from it.
· Entrenched Competition – Incumbency has its advantages. If there’s traditional competitor or in-house solution in place it’s safe and comfortable. No one is standing still, so they won’t give up their customers willingly. Your messaging job is to clearly show the contrast of your approach from the status quo. Prospects must see enough contrast to consider changing.
Like a spaceship trying to make it out of the earth’s gravitational atmosphere, breaking through the customer’s status quo barrier is going to take booster rockets in these four areas.
Lesson #5: Great, where it counts.
When Gladwell messaged it great, the measuring stick was how many books were sold. This isn’t about critical acclaim or awards from peers. It’s about connecting with the buying public and getting them to respond and choose you. It’s about selling millions or toiling in obscurity.
Messaging it great matters in demand generation and sales enablement – the moments of truth where your company is participating in, and looking to take the lead in the customer decision-making process. These are easily tracked and measured messaging activities. We’ve been able to demonstrate improvements in response rates, pipeline size, deal size, and quota attainment when companies message it great.
There’s a bulls-eye on Marketing’s back. Now that senior management knows that these things can be measured, there’s no room for subjective or pre- funnel objectives. It’s not about followers, or clicks, or impressions, or opinions. It’s not about the volume of sales materials and training you put out. It’s about revenue performance and the metrics that matter to the bottom line.
Are you Malcolm or Morton?
It’s not overstating the point to say that “messaging it great” is critical to corporate execution. All the best ideas, innovations, investments and introductions your company makes will mean nothing unless your customer says “yes” to them. And, the one thing that separates you from relevance or irrelevance is developing and delivering a compelling enough story to get them there.