If your product messaging is out of tune, you risk a lot more than a musician’s moment of embarrassment over strumming in the wrong key.

You risk a product that the marketplace overlooks — or, nearly as bad, perceives as no different from your competitors. Except they happened to have a finely tuned message.

off-key note

Think of the elements of product messaging as notes in a chord.

One note, you have a melody. Add a second, and you’ve got a basic harmony going. The third note rounds out the sound, ties up loose ends in a scale, and creates a framework for performing that section of music.

Play a note out of tune, and the chord fails. It clashes with the rest of the song. And it may even sabotage your performance.

Great marketing messages should be tuned properly too, whether you deliver them as one-liners or ebooks, web copy or presentations, nurture campaigns or press releases.

Before you release your next content masterpiece, take a look at how to tune it for maximum performance for your audience.

The perfect chord

Perfect chord:

(Mus.) a concord or union of sounds which is perfectly coalescent and agreeable to the ear.

As with music, tuning your product messaging requires an ear and technique, because developing a complete messaging strategy involves the arrangement of a lot of notes:

    • your target audience or audiences
    • their goals and pain points
    • obstacles to their goals
    • the problem your product solves
    • value proposition and benefits of your solution
    • how it differs from the competition’s
    • etc.

Run your messaging through these four filters — relevance, differentiation, credibility, and context — to make sure you can strike the perfect chord with your product communications.

1. Relevance

OK: if you resist tuning your message through all four filters, we get it. Messaging is tricky to do. It’s hard to articulate concisely. It’s frustrating when egos get in the way and your company is convinced your product’s features will sell themselves. So some of your hard-fought marketing battles will end in surrender.

Just don’t overlook relevance.

Relevance isn’t just a buzzword you add to the marketing checklist, an aspiration to win hearts and minds. It’s mandatory if you want people to consider, evaluate and purchase your product.

That means you can’t just believe or insist your message is relevant. You have to demonstrate it.

Tuning key:

The best way to define relevance is to ask “Why does this matter?” And get the answers from people in your market, in their own words. If you articulate those in your communications, then you’re tuned for relevance. Better yet, make those answers the basis for your foundational product messaging strategy.

Bottom line, if your message (or your product) does not matter to prospects, they won’t even read the next line, click the email, or attend the webinar, never mind consider purchasing from you. If it matters to them, they will.

One more thing. Since you cater your communication for specific audiences, channels or venues, and purchasing processes, you won’t write your content identically for every message you deliver, every time, to every audience. So pass not only your top-line messaging but also each separate communication you write through this filter.

2. Differentiation

Tuning your message for differentiation is another filter that requires doing your homework.

This time, research the claims your competitors make in their marketing and sales messages, as well as those they could make based on their products’ features.

When you match up your features to your competitors’, you’ll potentially find a lot of overlap. That’s inevitable, and makes sense for products in the same category to share common capabilities.

So instead of repeating theirs, focus your audience on the differences — but only the ones that give you a competitive advantage.

For example, the eye-popping color of a rack-mounted server faceplate may differentiate you, but customers of machine room equipment are likely not as concerned with matching their personal style as they are with speed, security or uptime benchmarks.

Then again, I don’t know your customers. You’ll have to ask them.

You may find differences in the product’s physical characteristics, in the way it’s made or how it performs, how industry leaders talk about it, the way your company sells and supports it, or the way it’s priced, financed or guaranteed. The differentiators may not be obvious at the feature level, but they are there, and they are important.

Your product management team has probably already mapped out how each of your main competitors lines up with yours. For your product messaging, take that document and create a version that adds competitive marketing messages to the matrix. Isolate items in the new matrix that you can articulate with a comparative or superlative: The only, the fastest, the most; more, stronger, lower, higher – highlight whichever aspects your industry values.

Better yet, focus on the ones that have a capability-shaped hole in the adjoining columns where your competitors simply can’t compete.

Tuning key:

At Knowmads, we stay as far away from mere amount- or quantity-based features as we can in these comparisons. Why? Because those are easiest for a competitor to match in their next release. If a competitor’s product has two cupholders, and we highlight our differentiator as four cupholders, the easiest thing in the world for the competitor to do is come out with an update that adds two additional cupholders. Poof! Differentiation eliminated. We’ll talk about the proven resilience of our cupholder design in a fender-bender instead.

It’s important to note that differentiation here is not strictly about phrasing your claims uniquely, or merely clever wordsmithing. It’s about the solution itself.

musical chords in a composition

3. Credibility

The third filter is credibility, and this one requires you to walk a fine line.

After all, you do want your message as a whole to make a big impact. You want the answer to “why does it matter?” to be vitally important for your customer in the relevance-tuning phase. And you want to highlight an area of strong superiority over the competition with differentiation.

This all adds up to a recipe for lofty claims.

Here’s the thing: if your prospective buyers don’t believe your claims, they will walk. Actually, they’ll run away from the risk of investing in your product.

A CMO I used to work with would put all our marketing materials through what he called the “straight-faced test.” It’s a three-part credibility filter that goes like this:

    1. Can you in all seriousness state (and defend) the claim you’re making as true? or is it perhaps just grandstanding?
    2. Can your sales and channel partners repeat the claim without cringing, worrying about being challenged, or feeling defensive?
    3. Does it build your customers’ confidence, or does it set off their red-flag alarms or — just as bad — their eye-roll reflex?

If it fails any part of that test, then keep revising your message until it passes all three.

Tuning key:

The benefits and capabilities you communicate in your marketing don’t have to be bold and breathless to have impact.

They do need backup in the form of your company’s expertise and insights.

So tone down the dramatic rhetoric of your pitch, and provide data, benchmarks, statistics and other evidence. Not only will your product message become more credible, but so will your authority in your industry.

(It’s true. Campaigns and product launches have succeeded when they were built around proof, immediately shoring up believability and eclipsing competitors in the same breath.)

Credibility doesn’t have to be boring. We believe in hype-free messaging, but that doesn’t mean claim-free. No-nonsense, verifiable claims in messaging can help your product stake a superior position. But you can’t just say to your customers, “believe us.” You need to give them reasons to believe.

4. Context

We go a step further and tune our product messages for one last filter: context.

Marketers might be crystal-clear about business benefits, impact, and reasons to believe—but if the picture they paint is fuzzy or fluffy, then the prospect can’t put in context the offering, whether it’s a product or service, hardware item or software license, subscription or consultation.

(Here’s one reason: We’re conditioned through repetition, hypnosis or laziness to use the word “solution,” which could act as a placeholder for almost any offering. But if offers the buyer no context.)

If a message resonates with buyer so well that they see themselves in the content—you’ve hit their relevant pain points, clearly set apart your product from the rest of the landscape, and shown them why it’s superior—then that’s a win, right?

Right. Until they realize, after they engage, that your product requires an additional investment in hardware infrastructure, or an ongoing operational expense, or user training—or something else that catches them by surprise. Whoops.

You know what? Any of these may well have been acceptable from the beginning, but because you didn’t set the context in a concrete way, they have to reset their expectations and reevaluate the value proposition in your message.

Tuning key:

Make sure your product messages include (or allude to) what we call “kit contents.” In real life, those would be the packaging elements on a product carton that list exactly what you’ll find in the box: what’s on the box depicts what’s in the box. You see the product in context.

In product content, it’s the undecorated, unemotional, clear description — rather than marketing tagline — of the object on offer. For example, “XYZ is a SaaS…” or “ABC is a wind-deflecting…” or “LMNOP is a server-based…” Essentially, it’s the practical expectation of what the buyer will receive as a purchaser of your product.

This doesn’t mean you have to spell out a long, technical description in every marketing communication. Just provide a solid, descriptive attribute or outcome that will immediately give your audience a touchstone, a connective thread to tie the rest of the message together.

Unmet expectations in the buying process can cost you credibility, differentiation and relevance. Tune your message with a concrete idea early on and help set the context in the prospect’s mind about what to expect.

Final note

Remember at the beginning when we compared the elements of product messaging to harmonious notes in a musical composition? The truth is, no matter how well you’ve defined your messaging elements and tuned your communication, the response you receive will depend on your audience.

After all, in music and in marketing, just because you put the right notes all together doesn’t mean the end result will be loved by everyone.

And with targeted product messaging, that’s kind of the point.