Back when I was a product manager for Microsoft Office, we spent hundreds of thousands on positioning research. Messaging lived for years on store shelves, so getting it “right” was important. We thought about every word and enforced consistency, summarily dismissing changes from well-intentioned copywriters.

Today, that messaging would fail.

Why? Because unless you have an eight-figure marketing budget, you must assume the first place people hear about your product is from someone someplace beyond your control.

Messaging’s job today is to engage at least as much as inform. This requires much more concrete, bite-sized messaging that can easily be understood and conveyed by others. Facts, stories, enthusiastic quotes, ratings, explanations—not just benefits—are all essential parts of messaging because they are more authentic than claims.

The three most common problems I see in messaging are:

“We’re new so people care” or “Let-me-tell-you-what-I-want-to-tell-you”. As technologists, we believe what we’ve created is great and that people care about something new and cool. At the end of the day, what people care about most is “I love it. It solved my problems. It was great.” Features and even cost become much less of a factor when you have other people as fans for proof. And no, I don’t mean case studies.

Not tailoring messaging to customer lifecycle. All customers have a life cycle that provide different opportunities to message around acquisition, activation, retention, referral and revenue. What’s good for one often differs than what’s good for another. Too often messaging is built around just one of those areas (usually acquisition) instead of being specific to the desired behavior along another point in the customer’s lifecycle. Split-testing has made this level of messaging specificity easier.

Not adapting messaging to audience and adoption-curve. Beyond the customer lifecycle, early adopters need different messaging than mainstream consumers. This is perhaps the biggest reason why messaging must be much more varied than ‘traditional’ marketing allows. Leave consistency for brand and positioning—messaging must adapt to where a product is on its adoption curve and what a particular audience needs to hear at a given point-in-time.

As you examine your messaging, here are a few basics to think about (caveat – design and presentation matter a lot which I won’t address here):

Clarity over comprehensiveness. By ‘traditional’ messaging standards, this 37Signals example looks pretty good: “Pay as you go. No long term contracts. No hidden fees. No surprises.” Lots of information in short, easy to read, rhythmic sentences. Yet the simple, clear articulation of what to expect outperformed it: “Sign-up takes less than 60 seconds. Pick a plan to get started!” Don’t overload your messaging. Keep people focused on just what they need to hear to move through that one point of conversion.

Authentic over authoritative. Studies proved the most easily scanable yet comprehended text is a short sentence followed by bullets. So most websites default to messaging in that format. But it has a dramatic effect on tone, that in today’s world, doesn’t differentiate or help with engagement. Take a look at Expedia vs. Kayak:

“Why it pays to book with Expedia:

  • Huge savings on Flight + Hotel vacations
  • No Expedia booking fees on flights
  • More hotels (and more deals!) in more place”

Yawn. I’m bored and probably skipped it entirely. Sounds like and looks like everyone else. Here’s Kayak’s more conversational approach:

“We’re Completely, Entirely,…Totally Different.

With Kayak, you can compare hundreds of travel sites at once (that’s right, you don’t have to search 20 travel sites anymore)….oh, and Kayak is free to use.”

Kayak’s approach engages and communicates a lot about the brand. If you bothered to read it, you probably actually processed what makes them different.

Evidence-based messaging. Different people need to hear different things to take action, but facts vs. claims are always more powerful. Mint.com does a great job of providing lots of evidence directly on their Home Page for why someone should try them: social proof, endorsements from major media, video showing the product in action (vs. just telling you what it does), a pain-point they can solve (tax time) and how they manage security. Although social proof has a lot of attention these days, the larger point is you need to show proof–not just make claims–and there are many kinds. Don’t force users to look hard for evidence that you are worthy of their attention.

Test everything. With site analytics and split testing, the answer to what’s the best messaging should always be, “Let’s see.” Don’t try to follow a formula. What works best for one service is not necessarily the best messaging for you. Remember, the context someone sees before finally finding your ‘official’ messaging will always be different.

For example, which of the following do you think converted better?

(A) “Get Free Email Updates: Join 14,752 others!” or

(B) “Get Email Updates (it’s Free)”

Answer: For that site, (B) the version WITHOUT social proof outperformed those with it by over 100%! This isn’t the result most would have predicted, given today’s huge push toward social proof. But for that site, the design and presentation of social proof didn’t help. Make no assumptions. Test and trial everything. (for complete analysis: http://diythemes.com/thesis/increase-conversions-split-testing/)

I hope this gives you a new lens through which to look at your messaging. Remember: engage your customers with what THEY want to hear and test EVERYTHING. It’s the path to more authentic messaging that moves toward conversion…messaging’s ultimate job.

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