I kicked myself for not having a prepared answer when the CEO of one of my client companies asked this question:
“Alan, what does good software product marketing look like?”
Dummy, dummy, I told myself. You say you’re a product marketing consultant. Couldn’t you have seen that question coming?
I wish I looked this good when I was stumped.
In my defense, I was less than a year into my consulting practice. Luckily, I think what I blurted out at that moment was actually a pretty good answer.
Here’s what I said:
“Good software product marketing doesn’t look like product marketing. It doesn’t look like the vendor is pushing its own products or talking about how awesome they are. It looks more like the vendor sees a big change that the target buyer needs to undertake to succeed or survive, and the vendor is advocating for that change. And almost secondarily, the vendor has developed software products that help companies make that change.”
This might seem counterintuitive. Certainly it goes against the instinct of many vendors.
Too often, the first thing out their mouths is something about how great their product is — like some kind of carnival barker.
“Have I got some great software for YOU!”
But vendors need to ditch the product pitch and dig deeper.
B2B software vendors have a unique opportunity to go deeper than the product pitch, which B2C companies don’t.
The latest mobile app, website, or downloadable software for consumers probably isn’t going to transform the users’ lives in a dramatic way, or help them respond to a major trend in the economy that will make the difference between them being a success or not.
Don’t get me wrong, some consumer tech can do this — especially anything to do with personal finance, career advancement, or emotional or physical health. And, er, maybe the occasional very cool game?
But even then, consumers tend not to think in “transformational” terms.
Businesses, on the other hand, are always — or should always be — thinking about change and transformation. As so many of the last fifty years of business books tell us, businesses need always to prepare for “what’s coming around the corner,” and might shake up their industry.
Summary of most business books: “change or die.”
As a result, it’s much easier to get a business person’s attention in these kinds of existential terms than it is to get a consumer’s.
Talking about business change is much more interesting and compelling than talking about software products. It makes people sit up and take notice much more than even the most compelling product benefits statements.
Even better, it makes people slightly uncomfortable and nervous about whether they’re being complacent. Most importantly, it makes a vendor stand out compared to others who are just seen as hocking software.
Let’s call this “change messaging.”
Here are some examples of great “change messaging” from my experience.
One of my favorite examples is Hubspot. It’s partly a favorite because I’m a Boston guy and they’re from around here. Also, I spent ten years in marketing tech, which is Hubspot’s space. In fact, that’s how I first became aware of them.
Although Hubspot operated in a different segment of marketing tech than me (more SMB and B2B than my own work in enterprise B2C tech), they caught everyone’s attention with their concept of “inbound marketing.”
They even wrote a book about it.
Hubspot’s message was clear: you’re doing marketing wrong. You need to change or get left behind.
It got attention. It shook everyone up. Hubspot didn’t lead with their product. In fact, word on the street was that the product wasn’t even very good! It was brilliant product marketing that didn’t mention the product.
Maybe not the best beach reading,
but great product marketing.
Another example dear to my heart is Demandware (now Salesforce Commerce Cloud), where I worked. Demandware’s claim to fame was being the first cloud/SaaS ecommerce platform. It was the odd duck in a market dominated by traditional, on-premises ecommerce platform vendors like SAP and IBM.
And being in the cloud was really Demandware’s only distinction, as the software code was heavily derived (in a legitimate way) from the on-premises vendor that Demandware’s founder had previously founded and eventually left. Nothing new in the core functions of the product, itself.
But Demandware didn’t message the technical distinction of being in the cloud. Rather, it focused on the need for retailers and consumer brands to become more agile as consumer expectations accelerated. Only the fast would survive and grow, so Demandware’s point-of-view was. Demandware’s tagline was “Move Faster, Grow Faster.” And the cloud platform that enabled this was a secondary part of the message.
This was all before my time at the company. When I arrived, other cloud vendors had appeared on the scene. So, we shifted the messaging focus to a new point-of-view: the need for retailers to unify the shopping experience across ecommerce and stores to keep up with consumer preferences, rather than treating each channel separately. “Unified Commerce” became the new rallying cry — and again, what we were doing with the product was not really part of the headline at all.
I did some freelance work for Salsify a few years ago, before they became the massive success they are now. Before I worked for them, I had known of them only peripherally, as a vendor in the well-established product information management (PIM) space. I admit I thought to myself “why does the world need another PIM vendor?!”
But by working with them I realized they had a point-of-view that turned the category on its head. They were advocating for consumer goods manufacturers to manage and share their product information not for the purposes of internal efficiency, but in a way that would let them “win the digital shelf,” i.e., dominate online retail sales of their product.
Salsify is so committed to this idea, above and beyond what their products can do to help, that they even formed a separate organization to advance the cause, the Digital Shelf Institute. Impressively, they’ve used the same mission of helping companies win the digital shelf to guide a dramatic expansion of product capabilities, organically and via acquisition, beyond their original footprint.
Another client I worked with before they became a unicorn, Paris-based Mirakl also has a clear point-of-view on how its target market needs to change. The company was founded on the idea that the next major phase of commerce would be retailers adding third-party marketplaces to their core business, to compete more directly with Amazon and other similar marketplaces.
As an indicator of the sincerity of this point-of-view, the founders had actually run a successful retail marketplace. From that experience they decided every retailer needed to do what they were doing. Mirakl was founded to make this possible.
Mirakl later realized that the fundamentals behind a retail marketplace could impact more than just retail businesses. So, they broadened the concept beyond “marketplaces” to the idea of turning your business into a “platform” where multiple buyers and sellers come together to create unique business value. This wasn’t just simple product extension, it was extending the point-of-view to other markets, with the technology being the “how” behind the core idea.
Admirably, they even worked with the French government during the height of the pandemic to apply this same concept to helping source COVID supplies.
Vive la change messaging
I like points-of-view that challenge organizations with the idea that they need to do something different to excel or survive. But sometimes a company can have the same kind of earnest passion about a broader mission.
Take Phenom, another client from a few years ago. Phenom’s mission couldn’t be clearer: “our purpose is to help a billion people find the right job.”
There may be an indirect challenge to organizations in this message, despite its apparent focus on job-seekers. Doesn’t the long-term success of any organization depend on hiring the right people for its jobs? If so, shouldn’t every company be relentlessly focused on their employees being among Phenom’s billion “in the right job?” As with all the other examples, Phenom’s HR tech platform is a secondary part of the message
Let’s talk about the 800-pound gorilla of software marketing: Salesforce. I got acquired into Salesforce with Demandware, so I’ve seen it both from the outside and inside. I’d argue Salesforce has gone through several phases of its change message.
In early days of Salesforce’s history, its change message was clear: companies needed to ditch traditional software and use cloud apps to gain the agility and business focus to succeed. Everyone probably remembers “SaaSy” (even if you didn’t know its name), the Salesforce mascot with the famous (infamous?) “no software” icon built in.
By the time SaaS had become more of a mainstream concept, Salesforce has shifted to more of a CRM-related message about the need for greater customer intimacy and engagement. Today, I think Salesforce’s challenge messaging is more about corporate and social responsibility. This means its product messaging is not just secondary, but arguably totally unrelated to its top-line message.
“SaaSy:” cringy (as with many things
Salesforce), but it made its point
Here’s one last example to show how a vendor can adopt change messaging right from inception. Verity Platforms is a start-up founded by a friend, in which I have no stake but for which I’ve done some pro bono consulting. Verity is, in the company’s own words, the “first sustainable finance platform,” an interesting concept the specifics of which you can dive into by visiting their website.
Even more interesting than what the platform does, though, is the concept behind it. After 15 years as a financial analyst, the latter part of which was focused on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, Verity’s founder became convinced that financial analysts like himself — and indeed, all stakeholders in capitalism — need to do their work differently, and they need new tools to make this change.
You can read more about this point of view here. The company leads with this message, and has sparked as much interest in early users with its point of view as with the product itself.
All that said, watch out. There’s a fine line between being truly committed to a change message, and just being a fraud.
Maybe I’ve been watching too much TV lately, but if you want to see this dramatized, just check out wecrashed on Apple TV and The Dropout on Hulu.
Clearly these founders were so committed to their change message that it came at the expense of everything else.
Somewhere in-between these cautionary tales and simply pushing product messaging everywhere is your happy place.
Also, some vendors are simply in more of a position to advocate for fundamental change than others.
If you’re selling a better mousetrap for some kind of specific technical need, you may need to stay focused on the product story.
And if you’re selling a simple, low-priced tool that improves a routine process for rank-and-file employees, it may be hard to lead with a message about business change.
“I’ve got something here that will truly transform your business…”
You can see this play out in the messaging survey below.
I pulled these company names from various “top SaaS vendors” lists. Next to each I captured their leading marketing message from their website.
I then arranged them on the list so the ones at the start of the list are the more straight-forward, product-oriented messages, while at the end of the list are the vendors with more change-oriented messages.
To my eye, for the most part, as you move from start to finish you also generally move from tech solutions and/or low-priced tools to more enterprise platforms.
Top SaaS vendors and their lead marketing messages:
- Expensify: “Receipt scanning, expense scanning, reimbursements — one app, all free”
- New Relic: “Monitor, debug, and improve your entire stack”
- Databricks: “All your data, analytics and AI on one platform”
- Snowflake: “Where your data cloud experience begins”
- Splunk: “The data platform for the hybrid world”
- Shopify: “The platform commerce is built on”
- Docusign: “The way the world agrees”
- Sprinklr: “the Unified-CXM platform for all customer-facing functions”
- Box: “Simplify how you work”
- Eventbrite: “Bringing the world together through live experiences”
- Mailchimp: “Grow your audience and your revenue”
- Twilio: “Intelligent customer engagement — at scale”
- Bill.com: “Less clunky processes, more time for your mission”
- Atlassian: “The power of teamwork”
- Asana: “Work on big ideas, without the busywork”
- Talkdesk: “Intelligently unlock the promise and potential of great customer experience”
- Pluralsight: “The technology workforce development company”
- Workday: “We help you solve your greatest business challenges”
Frankly, I think almost every one of these vendors could come up with a change message. That’s the beautiful thing about B2B software — even the most tactical solution can have a strategic impact, if you think about it.
I’m not saying change-oriented messaging is for everyone.
I’m also not saying that the companies at the start of the list above are doing it wrong. Sometimes the right message is a plain-English explanation of what your product does and why it’s great.
Certainly a well-executed, simple product message is better than a strained attempt to make it sound like you’re out to solve world hunger.
But for those who can manage it, I contend change messaging is the way to go.
I’m corny enough to say it: I’m advocating for changing to…change messaging.