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12 Ways to Make Sure Your Messages Are Dead-On, Not Dead on Arrival

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By Eric Swartz, TaglineGuru

If I wanted to send you a message, I would have sent you a telegram.”

– Attributed to Samuel Goldwyn 1882-1974

As Mr. Goldwyn would have you believe, there were no intended messages in any of his movies. But there was a “message” nonetheless.

Despite its acknowledged importance, the message is often the most neglected and underestimated component of a marketing communications campaign. Once created, it’s seldom scrutinized. Once sent, it’s rarely revisited or revised. The result can be a campaign that lacks a central message or, far worse, communicates a mixed, muddled, or potentially damaging message.

In either case, if your intended audience doesn’t get the message, you’ve probably sent the wrong one. And that can have dire consequences.

Defining the Message

The message is the whole point of your campaign – giving it focus, urgency, and a distinctive character. Defined as a “formal, inspired, or important communication,” the message is not only what you say (text), but what you mean (subtext), and how you say it (context). Its mission is to articulate a compelling idea that invites your audience’s attention, acceptance, and response.

A message can target either a nation, an industry, an organization, a household, or an individual. It can be used to state a position, announce a solution, present an alternative, address a crisis, offer assistance, or make a plea. It can have broad and universal appeal (Save the planet) or can be very narrow and specific (Save time commuting).

As the delivery system for your brand, your message is the embodiment of your company’s vision and values. It reveals how well you know your customers, and how much you value your relationship with them. In practical terms, the message is the primary vehicle for sharing your thinking, establishing common ground, and achieving consensus.

Creating the Message

Sending the right message to the right person at the right time is what good marketing is all about. It’s the glue that unifies your marketing communications and makes your brand stand out in a crowded field.

Messages can take many forms via many marketing channels, but they all have one thing in common: They seek mind share -- whether they’re preaching to the choir or recruiting new buyers and believers. Asking for your time, money, and good will, messages appeal to reason but work on your emotions. Their main purpose is to get you to renew your faith, change your mind, and take decisive action.

Although your last message may have been timely, relevant, and compelling, it may not resonate in quite the same way the next time you send it. Markets shift, customers drift, and messages stagnate when they can’t cut through the clutter.

To make sure your messages hit the right mark and strike the right chord, here are twelve fundamental rules that have guided me faithfully over the years:

Think Big

Every message should embrace one big idea. The bolder, the better. Focus on the big picture, not the minutiae. Failure to do so will result in your message being diluted, drowned out, and quickly forgotten. Find a major theme to anchor and amplify your message. Put an appropriate frame around it to give it perspective and gravitas. Create affinity with your customers by inspiring them with your vision, and inviting them along for the ride.

Make It Personal

The old adage still applies: Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. The customer is the center of your universe, not your product. Don’t pay lip service…provide customer service. Put a human face on your company. Make your messages intimate and conversational, and use the magic word “YOU” with reckless abandon. Make it an advantage to become and remain your customer. Share your passion and contagious enthusiasm. After all, you’re building relationships, not selling widgets.

Emphasize Solutions

Let’s face it, if you’re in business, you’re here to solve your customers’ problems. It’s the single biggest opportunity staring you in the face. Tell your customers why they need your service now, and how you’re best equipped to deliver results. Do everything in your power to make their job easier and give them peace of mind. Communicate the benefits of doing business with your company, and find ways of contributing to their success. If you can make a real difference in the lives of your customers, you’ll capture not only their business, but their loyalty.

Aligning the Message

Align your message with the people whose opinions matter – your customers, prospects, employees, management, investors, and the press. Since each of your stakeholders has a slightly different perspective, be sensitive to those differences by adjusting your message’s style, tone, and language accordingly.

Alignment also means making sure your message gives you a distinct advantage in the marketplace. How does it stack up against competing messages? Does it really set you apart from the pack?

Know Your Audience

Every message has one or more target audiences. How well do you know yours? Do they have a global or local outlook? What are their aspirations and expectations? What are their hot buttons? Do they prefer long copy or short copy? Hard copy or e-mail? What kind of sense of humor do they have? Do they respond to certain trigger words, images, and offers? Since one message doesn’t fit all, craft a message that reflects your audience’s values, preferences, and points of view. To arouse their interest, you must first get their attention.

Keep It Real

Your customers are smart, savvy, and sophisticated – and can spot malarkey a mile away. If you treat them with respect, you’ll never go wrong. To do that, you need to understand their sense of reality. If your message rings true, you’ll always be judged as convincing and credible. Before you send your customers a message, proof it for any hype or patronizing language that can rub them the wrong way. Check your facts, too. It’s okay to be clever, but watch out for that Kentucky windage. It could blow your best customers away...for good.

Be Competitive

Keep score of your messages. Are they winners or losers? Grand slams or ground-outs? Since you’re competing for mind share, make each message count. And play to win. The competition can throw some wicked curves. Before you know it, your position has been co-opted and your message is toast. The important thing is to get a grip on your main message, keep your eye on the ball, and swing for the fences. Focus on why you’re in business, and what makes you unique. Give your customers and employees something to cheer about.

Integrating the Message

Integrate your message across all the marketing channels you plan to use – from advertising, PR, direct mail, and collateral to newsletters, trade shows, and the web. Integration ensures your message resonates clearly and consistently across all media. It also ensures each medium is exploited to its maximum advantage, and that no part of your message is minimized, distorted, or lost in the shuffle.

Make It Clear

Your main message should be crystal clear -- whether it’s written or oral, long or short, in print or online. The effectiveness of your message is largely dependent on the clarity of its presentation. What strikes you as clean in a brochure may look busy on the web, and a punchy message online may look rather sketchy in a mailer. Increase message clarity by emphasizing key components, such as the headline, sub-heads, and the call to action. Bulletize the main points. Box the offer. Add pictures, tables, and charts. There are lots of ways to tell a story. Just make sure your message retains its clarity in all of its incarnations.

Keep It Simple

Whoever said “Keep it simple, stupid!” was no dummy. It’s amazing how many messages get sabotaged by trendy and meaningless business jargon. A 10-cent word can convey your idea just as well as a 50-cent word. I’m not suggesting you dumb down your copy. However, in order to strengthen your main message, take out the pruning shears and cut away everything that’s arcane, irrelevant, or overly technical. If needless verbiage gets in the way of your message, drop it or find a simpler way of saying it.

Be Consistent

Messages thrive on consistency across media and over time – creating instant recognition and audience acceptance. Familiarize yourself with the continuity of your brand messages. Is your position being communicated accurately? Are all of your customers getting the identical offer by phone, mail, and web? Is there a coherent look and feel to all of your marcom materials? Is the tone still on target? If you’re using multiple agencies, there could be a disconnect. Control the consistency -- and you’ll control the message.

Packaging the Message

Package your message by using all the tools at your disposal to “sell” the big idea, touch a nerve, and inspire action. Packaging ensures your message has an urgency to it. Innovation, originality, and timeliness all contribute to making your message meaningful and memorable. Message packaging brings everything together under a single roof – unifying your brand personality, character, and promise.

Make It Compelling

What makes a message compelling? Is it the free offer? The iron-clad guarantee? The gushing testimonials? The edgy creative and clever copy? It’s all of those things…and more. A compelling message has a story behind it, a story with dramatic appeal. It’s show time! What makes your customers go “A-HA?” What will move them to action and inspire their loyalty? First of all, it helps if they believe you and trust you. Communicate with your customers often, listen for the gold, and keep your promises. Then make them an offer they can’t refuse.

Be Creative

Legendary adman, George Lois, once said that “creativity is the defeat of habit by originality.” As a process of discovery and execution, it’s a way of finding a new solution to an old problem, and applying it appropriately. Whatever process you use, reinvent your old bag of tricks from time to time. Challenge yourself. Break from convention, but know the rules you’re breaking. Make your message fun and fresh. Surprise and delight an unsuspecting world. Of course, that means going the extra mile. But, as they say, it’s never crowded.

Seize the Moment

Timing is everything. That’s how campaigns are won and lost…one customer at a time. When the opportunity arises to communicate with a customer, reinforce your main message, update it accordingly, and always be prepared to deliver a flawless 30-second elevator pitch. Unlike fine wine, messages don’t age well. If your corporate brochure has turned a sickly yellow, your message probably needs a complete makeover. Raise the stakes by bringing an urgency to your most important messages. Your customers are likely to pay more attention if they know there’s a deadline -- and a decision to be made. Carpe momentum!

Wrapping Up the Message

Your message is in a constant struggle to be heard and understood in a vast wasteland of competing messages. After all is said and done, its primary objective remains the same: To penetrate the mind, soften the heart, and open the wallet.

Your message says a lot about you, especially the beliefs and values you share with your audience. The next time you create a message, look at it from the perspective of the recipient: What are they telling me? (Do I believe it?) What are they selling me? (Do I need it?) What are they offering me? (Do I want it?)

In the course of your campaign, review and test your message often to make sure it’s still dead-on. Let the twelve rules be your guide. Of course, as a last resort, if your customers still don’t “get the message,” you can always send them a telegram.

©2003 Eric Stephen Swartz. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in the April 2003 issue of The Business to Business Marketer, published by the Business Marketing Association. It also appeared in the November 2004 issue of Communicators’ Network, published by the International Association of Business Communicators.