How to build consensus for your positioning and messaging

Lack of consensus about the marketing message is one of the most common problems I’ve experienced in my B2B software career. The best way to overcome this problem is to adopt a positioning process that seeks input and feedback throughout the organization, and includes executive management approval of your positioning strategies.

Here’s a typical scenario I’ve encountered when working for B2B software companies in a marketing capacity and as a consultant:

A president will tell you his or her sales and marketing teams just don’t get it. If only they’d listen to the president’s story and use it. Ask the VP of Sales and the VP of Marketing why someone should care about the company’s products or services, and you’ll get two different stories. The top sales person has another great pitch, and so it goes. Sales and marketing efforts are diluted, and far less effective than they could be. That’s why getting organizational buy-in to your message strategies is a key contributor to successful positioning.

In this blog, you’ll learn how to get everyone in your company using the same message strategy by involving as many stakeholders as possible throughout the process of creating it. Make everyone aware of the process and let it be known that you are seeking input and feedback from start to finish. Start with a diverse team tasked with converging on a proposed message strategy, which is then thoroughly socialized throughout the company. Expect to go through a number of iterations before you get final approval from management.

Building consensus takes time, lots of it!

As you can tell, building consensus takes time – lots of it – and is likely to increase your frustration level. You’re dealing with a sensitive subject – your message to the market. Everyone has an opinion or a bias. It’s not easy to get agreement on one, compelling, benefit oriented positioning statement along with three to four support points.

You probably have already experienced how painful and time consuming it is to get buy-in on the copy for just about any marketing communication. If your company is like most, you and others in product marketing, marketing and management spend a lot of time reviewing, editing and debating marketing copy. It’s what I call positioning-on-the-fly – attempting to learn to fly while the plane is in a nosedive.

The time spent on a disciplined positioning process concentrates the input and feedback where it can do the most good – in building a solid foundation for the position you want to claim in your market. It’s also when you have the most time to listen to valid input and respond to criticism without the pressure of publication or production deadlines.

Build consensus by involving as many stakeholders as possible

By taking the time to listen to and consider valid input from as many stakeholders as possible, you increase your chances of building consensus for your message to the market. Here is how you do it:

  1. Create a team of four to eight people responsible for developing your positioning strategy. Select a team with key members from product marketing, corporate marketing, sales and any other department that expresses interest in participation. Add at least one “wild card,” a strategic, creative thinker who understands your product, target customer and competition.

Select other participants, including your harshest critic, with the goal of achieving consensus during team brainstorming even if it is painful and time consuming. The harsh critic might be a marketing or sales person or a member of the executive team.

It may sound like herding cats, but there’s a reason for enlisting difficult people on the positioning team. You’re striving to discover reality – what’s really going on in your market. “Difficult” people, with all their opinions, may know something that’s invaluable, and they may better reflect what’s going on outside the palace gates. Plus, once you get them on your side, they become valuable allies when seeking approval from others in the organization.

  1. Involve as many stakeholders as possible – especially sales – during the research phase of the positioning process. Seek internal input on what I call the 3Cs of successful positioning. You need a thorough knowledge of your customer, channel (how you sell; direct or indirect or both) and competition. Ask stakeholders to identify key customer problems, the ideal customer profile, challenges in the sales cycle, and why you win and lose to name just a little bit of the evidence you need to gather to converge on the right position for your product or service.

One of the first steps in your quest to achieve consensus is to involve sales or you channel or both in your positioning process. This blog explains the importance of involving your channel during three stages of the process: information gathering, consensus building and on-going feedback about the effectiveness of your message strategy once you put it to work.

  1. Brainstorm positioning statement options within the team and converge on a strawman. The team’s goal is to come up with a positioning statement that conveys a benefit; it needs to solve the target’s No. 1 problem and be unique; only you are making the claim. Brainstorming works best when there’s agreement that there are no bad ideas. Anything, within reason, is worthy of consideration as long as it is unique, important and believable.

After considering just about any concept the team can imagine, narrow the choice to two or three options, and then select the one that best meets a criteria described in this blog. After flushing out your message strategy with three to four support points, you’re ready to socialize it    internally and externally.

  1. Present draft message strategy to as many stakeholders as possible with conviction and an open mind. The iterative process of converging on the right message strategy is when you need to walk the fine line between having conviction that your proposed option is the best while always seeking a better approach. It’s conviction with an open mind. Make it clear to stakeholders that you will consider their positioning ideas. And if their ideas don’t pass the litmus test, explain why.

Conviction is an important result of a successful positioning exercise. It comes from following a process, knowing you have gathered the critical facts, getting extensive input and feedback, and being willing to discover an even better position at any time in the process. Even at the end. It is belief…with an open mind.

  1. Review input from stakeholders, make necessary adjustments and create a new strawman. Once team members agree on the final message strategy, it reflects the best thinking of key stakeholders, and should be close to the right message to your market.
  1. Test one more time with stakeholders, make adjustments if necessary, and finalize message strategy. The final message strategy reflects a thorough consideration of all positioning opportunities, and helps to break down the internal resistance some people have to any work other than their own.
  1. Get management approval. Without conviction, your proposed positioning strategy is dead on arrival, or not long after executive management tears into it. Read this blog about why having a positioning process results in conviction that you’ve found the ideal position. The process gives you confidence that you’ve explored and converged on the right position, because you can easily explain its rationale. And you already know the answer to that awkward question, “What is this better than?” Rather than just picking an idea – perhaps the latest fad position, like “insight,” – you’ve finished a discovery process, weighed the evidence and come to a logical conclusion.

Members of the management team communicate regularly with important market influencers, including financial analysts, industry analysts and media, all of whom need to hear the same coherent message – a concise, compelling reason for why they should invest, recommend or write about your company, its products and services.

By gaining management’s participation in the process and ultimately their buy-in, you solve one of the biggest problems in successfully positioning your product, service and company. Management is primed to deliver the approved message strategies instead of inventing their own. Everyone stays on message for maximum marketing and sales effectiveness – as well as for consensus, direction and peace within the company.

The process can be daunting at times, but the outcome – delivering a consistent, focused message that everyone buys into – is the easiest way to improve your overall marketing effectiveness. Try it.