Honing the Message: Iterative Development Meets Marketing

In my previous post, I mentioned that I had just started signing up the first FamZoo Charter families to help me refine the service before launching publicly. One of the first things I was reminded of while recruiting my victims was the importance of "the message": the succinct and compelling description of the essence of your product and its value proposition for the target audience (a.k.a., the "pitch" ).

Now, this is something I have learned many times over in the last 20+ years of building software products. It's something that my all-time favorite boss and mentor, Sohaib, drilled into me early on in my career at Oracle. I remember storming out of his office once in frustration over his insistence that I further hone the words in one of my product pitches, only to slink back later and acknowledge he was absolutely right about the importance of carefully selecting every single word (and the fewer the better).

But since I was in the pre-launch phase of FamZoo and catering almost exclusively to folks I knew well already, I somehow convinced myself that I could skimp on materials around the message. I'd just get them to register and then they'd figure it out with a little personal handholding from me. Nope. Even your good friends want to know what they are getting into. People are insanely busy - especially those with young families. Unless all your friends are aggressive early adopter types, they have precious few cycles to tinker around. The message is still crucial.

I've always been a big fan of iterative approaches when it comes to software development, and I think the same applies when it comes to marketing activities like developing your message. This is something I think Larry Ellison is extremely good at. Over the course of my 13 years at Oracle, every time I would have the occasion to meet with Larry - typically semi-regular product review meetings with a board room full of folks - he would be testing a message. Putting it out there, probing, listening carefully to the reaction (yes, Larry actually does listen!), and filing away little mental notes. The next week, you'd hear a more finely tuned version of the message emerge and the test cycle would repeat: pitch-listen-refine, pitch-listen-refine. I think this is an excellent best practice, and it was a great education for me.

I've spent the last several weeks iteratively refining the message for FamZoo. I created a draft of the text for my FamZoo "About" pages and sent it out to a number of colleagues, friends, and family members. I would then make adjustments and send it out for another round (some reviewers the same, some new). The feedback has been incredibly useful (and, at times, very humbling ;-). As of yesterday, I'm at revision 78 and one thing I know for sure: it's a vast improvement over version 1.

Some would say that you are better off delegating or outsourcing this exercise. I think that is fine for the finishing phase (and something I plan to do), but abdicating responsibility in this area too early would be a huge mistake as far as I am concerned. You learn a tremendous amount about your product and your target audience by working through this process. It is a fantastic opportunity to scrutinize and fine tune your business.

One final comment in this area: I highly recommend capturing your message (along with a product Quick Tour) in a video and sharing it with others via something like YouTube. It's a lot easier for your reviewers to watch a 2-3 minute video than to sit down and read a few pages of text. I think it's also a lot easier to objectively critique your own work in a medium where you can sit back and watch yourself (and not have to worry about delivering at the same time). Finally, it makes you think about what visuals and scenarios might be most effective in highlighting and reinforcing your message.

These days, if you have an iMac, its pretty straightforward to put together a decent video with iMovie, GarageBand (for voiceover), and a program like iShowU for capturing your product in action (assuming it's a software product like mine). The editing iterations can be a bit tedious and there are some tricks to getting it uploaded to YouTube in a format that looks decent, but, other than that, it's pretty painless given the payoff. I recommend doing this even if you ultimately plan to have videos professionally produced. I suspect you'll get a much higher quality end result if the professionals you choose can see a concrete (yet perhaps crude) example of what you have in mind.