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Product Marketing Rule #26: Always Test Your Message

Product Marketing Rule #26 from the best-selling book, 42 Rules of Product Marketing, was written by Greg Cohen, Senior Principal Consultant, 280 Group

Customer validation also applies to product marketing

Experience is a harsh teacher.

She has visited me many times in my career. This experience is how I learned that customer validation also applies to product marketing. In particular, it is equally important to test and confirm marketing materials and messages as it is to test product concepts and designs.

I was working for a small, educational publisher targeting science curriculum for the elementary school market. Prior to development, we conducted a number of interviews with teachers.

Two themes emerged:

  1. Elementary school teachers lacked confidence in teaching science. The teachers were education experts, often possessing master’s degrees. They were also subject matter generalists who were able to teach a single class about math, reading, writing, social studies, and history.
  2. Elementary school teachers were universally pressed for time in their day, often finishing work up at home in the evenings. They were spread across many responsibilities with twenty to thirty students each. As a result, they often felt that they did not have enough time to do adequate lesson planning in science, which took them longer than other topics, because they were less comfortable with the subject.

My company used this research to create a powerful curriculum planning application to complement its science lessons. The teacher loaded the program on their computer and would check the national science standards that he or she wanted to cover in class. The application then assembled an entire lesson plan to match.

The company was very excited about this new teacher support application that complemented a well-designed science program. The company announced the new application with great pride at a small, education conference and trade show. The marketing materials prominently advertised that this science program, “Saved teachers time.”

It flopped!

Reception to the announcement and the product was lukewarm. Something was wrong. Yet all the research said that, “Not having enough time in the day,” was a major pain point for educators.

Not able to reconcile this point, I embarked on another round of interviews, this time to review the company’s marketing. I gained great insight into our messaging with just a handful of discussions with elementary school educators.

First, the message has to match where the customer is in the buying cycle.

When considering a new program, the initial question for the teacher is whether the lesson as designed by the publisher will interest her students. Only if she believes the students will be interested, does she ask the second question: “Will I be able to implement this curriculum successfully in the classroom?”

Second, I learned that teachers found the marketing materials offensive.

By promoting the main benefit of the program as being time saving, teachers felt the company was suggesting that they were looking to take shortcuts. Therefore, not only was the company’s marketing focused on the wrong message in the buying cycle, it also offended the very audience we were looking to persuade.

As a result

We changed the main message to “engaging students in science” which went to the heart of the primary buying motivation. We then focused the secondary message on ease of implementation, which conveyed a similar idea as timesaving without offending. The national level education tradeshow that followed the messaging change was a great success.

Fortunately for the company, the messaging error was picked up and corrected early. Nevertheless, I learned some valuable lessons, the most important being to test your marketing message with real customers. With the Internet, testing messaging is now easier than when I learned this lesson. For example, I can test the click through rates of different Google Adwords campaigns and the effectiveness of different landing pages without ever getting up from my desk. Nevertheless, even with this convenience, I still have to speak to customers to understand why one message works better than another does. Before I launch a product now, I always first test my message.

Product Marketing Rule #26 from the best-selling book, 42 Rules of Product Marketing

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