A Messaging Framework Is Better Than a Thousand Pictures
In an effort to boost ad sales, Fred Barnard, national advertising manager of Street Railways Advertising, ran an ad in the publication Printer’s Ink on December 8, 1921. He wrote the headline, One Look Is Worth a Thousand Words, and a block of copy that started with this: “So said a famous Japanese philosopher, and he was right — nearly everyone likes to ‘read’ pictures.”
According to American author, columnist, journalist, and presidential speechwriter William Safire in his 1996 New York Times article, On Language; Worth a Thousand Words, Barnard tried again six years later. Safire writes,
Barnard changed “one look” to “one picture,” which contrasted nicely with “words,” and while he was at it, escalated the “one thousand” to “ten thousand.” The famous Japanese philosopher (whom nobody ever heard of because he never existed) fell by the wayside. The adman hired a calligrapher to put the words into Chinese characters, and under them captioned, “Chinese Proverb: One Picture Is Worth Ten Thousand Words.” We do not know why he switched from Japanese to Chinese; perhaps the artist he hired knew only Chinese, and the picture of the Chinese characters was worth more than a lot of copy. Barnard later confessed he made that attribution to an ancient Asian “so that people would take it seriously.”
Safire finishes with this insightful statement: “[Barnard] was right; we do slavishly accept the primacy of pictures over prose.”
I would argue it’s (long past) time for that to change.
Words Are the Key to Conversions
Barnard’s phrase has, of course, transcended advertising jargon to become part of the American lexicon—to the point where branding is associated mainly with visual elements, rarely words. The cliché most of us parrot today is “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
More recently, however, well-known marketers like Seth Godin, Donald Miller, Bernadette Jiwa, and others have pushed back on this assumption, emphasizing instead the importance of understanding your customers and aligning your words, whether written or spoken, accordingly.
Conversion studies also back this up. According to Unbounce, an AI-powered landing page builder, an analysis of 36,928 English language page variants between March 2109 and March 2020 showed copy had a 28 percent impact on conversions, making it twice as influential as design, which accounted for 13 percent. These numbers may not seem significant, but considering that conversion rates are typically low, this difference is substantial.
The takeaway: visuals matters but words are key. And not just the words in ads or on ads landing pages, but also the words in your “cold call” emails and sales collateral, in your media and influencer pitches, and even in your customer service scripts and loyalty programs.
The pathway to words that result in conversions is through messaging frameworks.
The Messaging Framework: Pathway to Words That Convert
In the communication world, messaging refers to the strategic and intentional crafting of information, ideas, or concepts for a target audience, serving as a foundation for shaping and structuring communication efforts. When you prioritize messaging across all audience touchpoints—marketing, advertising, public relations, sales, and customer service—you create consistency for current and prospective customers around your brand, bring your internal team into alignment, and ultimately increase conversions. It’s a win-win-win strategy.
Pam Didner, global content marketing strategist, speaker, and author, has been the key influencer of my messaging development process. She says,
Messaging and positioning are the most underrated tasks in marketing. Worse, crafting messaging is just not as much fun as creative development, storytelling, or content creation. I know. Yet, messaging is a crucial and vital foundation for external communications and internal sales training.
Generally, messaging is intended to:
- Convey a particular meaning
- Evoke specific emotions or responses
- Influence the perception and understanding of the intended audience
In a nutshell, messaging serves as a strategic guide for effective communication about your brand in a way that considers the needs, preferences, and characteristics of your target audience.
Personas vs. Messaging
If you’ve read this far, you might be thinking I’m talking about customer personas, which certainly aren’t new. However, a persona and a messaging framework are two distinct concepts in communication.
A persona is a fictional representation of a specific target audience segment. It is a detailed profile that describes the characteristics, needs, preferences, and behaviors of the ideal customer or user. Typically, personas include demographic information, psychographic traits, motivations, pain points, goals, and other details. If you’ve created personas, hopefully they are based on research, data, and insights gathered about your target audience(s).
A customer-centric messaging framework, on the other hand, is a strategic tool that guides the development and implementation of consistent, impactful content, design, pitches, and more. It defines a value proposition, messaging pillars, and competitive differentiators, and outlines key themes, helping to ensure communication alignment.
Personas, when fully fleshed out, can inform a messaging framework. However, I’ve often seen small business marketing and sales jump right from informally developed or incomplete personas to design and content projects, which leads to all sorts of disconnects and missed opportunities. As you can imagine, this approach won’t get you the results you want.
The Customer-centric Messaging Framework
Didner’s spin on messaging takes a decidedly customer-centric approach. This perspective has been especially effective for small business clients, most of whom have have been sold on the (bad) idea that marketing means talking almost exclusively about their business and what they sell. I’ve used Didner’s thought-leadership and product- and service-specific messaging framework templates for years, revising them to suit my style, clients, and some additional research I’ve done, particularly on the “jobs to be done” theory (JTBD), which I actually prefer to personas. The concept, first introduced in the Harvard Business Review, emphasizes the importance of understanding not only customers’ challenges but also their goals and circumstances. This approach differs from traditional marketing personas, which tend to focus on customer characteristics and demographics. I think considering the circumstances surrounding a customer’s search for a solution enables me to create more effective messaging.
Building an integrated marketing communication strategy rooted in customer-centric messaging is crucial for both generating leads and meaningful connections with a target audience. By placing the customer at the heart of a messaging framework, you can create a cohesive and resonant brand experience that addresses:
- Customer challenges.
- Customer JTBD, including social, emotional, and functional “job” aspects.
- Why your business offers the best solution for their challenges and jobs.
How to Create a Messaging Framework on a Shoe-string
Or, Sales & Customer Service Are the Ticket to a Solid Messaging Framework
Although messaging frameworks are worth their weight in gold, creating and updating them can be a costly, time-consuming process. That’s because the most accurate information comes from direct audience research, including interviews with current and prospective customers. However, if your resources are limited, there is another way: do a deep dive on customers with sales and customer service.
These essential stakeholders hold a wealth of knowledge about your customers, including:
- Insights into customer interactions. Sales and customer service teams have direct interactions with customers on a regular basis. They possess valuable insights into customer challenges, JTBD, common objections, and frequently asked questions. By interviewing these team members, you can tap into their firsthand knowledge and gather real-world feedback to inform your messaging framework.
- Alignment with customer journey. They are closely involved in guiding customers through their journey, from initial contact to conversion and beyond. By understanding the customer journey and moments of decision-making, you can align your messaging framework to address these stages effectively. The insights gained from interviews can help craft targeted messages that resonate with customers at each step of their journey.
- Bridging communication gaps. Sales and customer service teams often communicate with customers using their own language and terminology. By conducting interviews, you can bridge any communication gaps and ensure that the messaging framework adopts language and phrases that customers can easily relate to. This alignment enhances customer understanding, engagement, and trust.
‘Selling’ Messaging Frameworks Usually Isn’t Hard
At the start, you may have to do a little selling about the value of a messaging framework to sales and customer service, emphasizing the value it will bring to their work. I’ve never found this particularly difficult because achieving unified messaging across the entire organization helps them as much as it helps you. In the end, the company develops consistent, customer-focused tools that can be used for not only marketing and PR, but also sales and customer service. Plus, this approach usually leads to more qualified leads and makes it easier to upsell products or services, which is especially appealing to team members who work in sales.
Of course, proof of this strategy’s success lies in its implementation. Once you’ve effectively incorporated one customer-focused messaging framework into daily operations, there are KPIs you can track to demonstrate the tangible benefits of this approach and motivate everyone to fully embrace it. If that’s not enough, most sales and customer service teams get fully onboard when they see marketing genuinely cares about their jobs and supports their efforts.
Ask Good Questions to Get a Good Messaging Framework
Before you meet with sales and customer service, take time to plan and prepare. Identify the key areas and topics you want to cover in the interviews, and create (and potentially distribute in advance) a list of questions that delve into customer challenges, JTBD, success stories, and other relevant aspects of the customer experience.
Be sure to focus on one product, service, or audience per framework. It’s also important to ask questions about the team members’ experiences, such as managing sales rejections, nurturing leads, and using content at different stages of the sales process. These insights can help marketers create messaging that better aligns with the needs and expectations of both customers and internal teams.
Here are some questions I’ve used with clients:
- What are the common challenges or frustrations customers frequently express?
- Which specific features, functionalities, or aspects of our industry do customers find most difficult or problematic?
- Can you provide examples of specific challenges or complaints that customers often raise?
Jobs to be done:
- What specific problem or need led the customer to seek out our product/service in the first place?
- Can you describe a situation or scenario where the customer experienced a significant struggle or frustration before using our product/service?
- How has our product/service specifically helped customers make progress or achieve their desired outcome?
- Social: How does using our product/service affect the way customers are perceived by others or their social interactions?
- Emotional: What emotional benefits or feelings do customers associate with using our product/service?
- Functional: In what specific ways does our product/service help customers accomplish their tasks or solve their problems more effectively or efficiently?
- Are there any notable success stories or positive customer experiences that stand out to you?
- Can you provide specific examples of customers who achieved significant results or overcame challenges using our product/service?
- What are the key factors that contribute to a successful customer experience, according to your interactions with customers?
- How do customers typically describe their experience with our company?
- Are there any consistent themes or feedback that customers provide about their interactions with our sales and customer service teams?
- What are the most common compliments or positive comments you hear from customers?
Reasons our company is the best solution:
- Based on your interactions, what are the main reasons customers choose our competitors over us?
- Are there any specific advantages or features that customers frequently mention when comparing us to competitors?
- Can you share any instances where customers switched from a competitor to our product/service and their reasons for doing so?
Emerging trends and opportunities:
- Have you noticed any emerging trends that our product/service could address?
- Are there any areas where our competitors excel, and we could improve to better meet customer expectations?
- Are there any additional products or services that customers frequently request but we currently don’t offer?
While you are conducting individual or group interviews, document all responses thoroughly. I recommend recording and transcribing every interview using a service like Otter.ai, which will help you analyze the interview responses to identify common patterns, recurring themes, and important insights.
Once the interviews are complete, use framework templates to craft every aspect of the messaging. After sharing the messaging framework with the sales and customer service teams for feedback and validation, refine it, if necessary.
Share, Share, Share the Messaging Framework
Once a messaging framework is complete, share it with all your content creators, from graphic designers and content writers to your SEO and/or SEM. Be sure to review and update it from time to time to keep it relevant and effective.
With guidance from a messaging framework, your content can compel action across multiple channels, genuinely speaking to a target audience through valuable insights, solutions, and engaging storytelling. It can also establish trust, build relationships, and position your brand as a reliable partner. All visual elements would harmonize with and reinforce your words, helping to evoke desired emotional responses and foster a deeper connection with the audience.
In public relations outreach, messaging will help you stay on point when addressing customer concerns, sharing success stories, or demonstrating thought leadership. You will have a clear path to build credibility, enhance your brand’s reputation, and nurture long-lasting relationships with the audience and media.
Finally, don’t forget to create all those tools your sales and customer service teams want. Messaging frameworks are the secret sauce they need for emailing prospects, creating customer service scripts, establishing loyalty programs, and so much more.
A Final Word on Messaging
Effective communication doesn’t lie in the thousand words of a picture, but in messaging that drives meaningful action. While visuals and design certainly catch the eye, it is the carefully crafted words that, in the end, capture the heart and mind of your audience.
In this pursuit, collaboration with sales and customer service teams becomes the bridge that connects the voice of the customer with the power of words. While direct audience research might be limited by resource constraints, these teams are on the front lines, interacting with customers daily. Their insights into challenges, JTBD, success stories, and the overall customer experience can provide valuable input for developing a powerful messaging framework. In turn, you can deliver more leads, as well as the tools they need to do their jobs more effectively.
That’s messaging—and words—again for the win-win-win.