Monday, May 08, 2006

challenge: writing a value proposition (UPDATED)

(Wow, this is sure a popular article. Was it useful to you? Let me know.)

It's one of the fundamentals we often gloss over in lieu of other more exciting fare. But how many of us actually take the time to write down - much less research and justify - the value propositions associated with the products we make, market and sell?

I think people avoid it because doing it well is hard, and doing it artfully well is even harder.

What is a value proposition? A value proposition is a simple statement that describes what real value a customer can expect to get from your offering.

Value - like beauty - is in the eye of the beholder. If someone hearing your value proposition shrugs and says "so what", either you've failed to align the value you deliver with what they care about, or you've articulated features and benefits instead of value.

If you've never written a value proposition before, start with this primer. The result may be a bit awkward-sounding, but it will be substantively correct:

First Sentence (describes value)
  • For (target customer)
  • who (statement of the need or opportunity),
  • the (product/service name) is a (product/service category)
  • that (statement of benefit).
Second Sentence (positions value)
  • Unlike (primary competitive alternative),
  • our product (statement of primary differentiation).

When you're done, take your hands off the keyboard and sit back. Take a long look at what you've written. If you've filled in the blanks honestly, you've got an honest-to-goodness value proposition that speaks to something important (and perhaps unique) that you can do to solve someone's problems better than that other guy can.


Sadly, many value propositions I read are not written correctly, even if they are written beautifully. Here are a few of the mistakes well-meaning people make that severely diminish the impact of a written value proposition:

  1. Talk about features - the value proposition has nothing to do with individual features of your product. Features solve customer problems - solving the problem is your value. Transitive, yes, but you need to go up a few levels of abstraction for your value proposition. Besides, features change and evolve, but the value should remain constant (or grow).
  2. Use big words - a good value proposition is all about the pithy. Rather than use two words, use one. I spent a good ten minutes today worrying about the subtle differences between the words "efficient" and "nimble" (efficient won).
  3. Use jargon - certain words and phrases mean nothing, no matter how often you say them or how much you believe in them. "Industry-leading" and "revolutionary" and "user-friendly" are just a few. Be especially careful about invented words, and smart-sounding replacement words (like "leverage" for "use") and acronyms. If you use the phrase "paradigm shift", beware the hammer of G-d come to smite you into pudding.
  4. Employ hope - value propositions should reflect values that people can actually realize from the use of your goods/services today. This is especially difficult for technologists, who know of every blemish in the product, and who honestly believe that it won't be truly useful for. . . another year, maybe two. If the customer can get value from the product today, that's one thing. If it's coming in the "next release", that's semi-OK. If you need your roadmap to become reality to make it true, don't write it into your value proposition.
  5. Write it blind - there is nothing wrong with chutzpah. But you can't use words like "first" and "only" and "best" and "most" unless they're true. Better to avoid superlatives entirely. But if you're absolutely married to one of them, do your research and figure out if anyone has gotten there first, or better, or generally superior to you. Then make sure that whatever measures you use are demonstrably correct - since marketing wins when it's objective more often than when it's subjective.

In the final assessment, I think writing these things, like most creative endeavors, is a gift - the true artistes do it without truly understanding how they do it, but we all know a good one when we read it. That's the test - is it a blunt instrument of truth or a vaguely distateful exercise in lying?

Epilogue - it's been almost two years since I first wrote this, and I'll be frank when I say that writing a value proposition never gets easy. It challenges you to write down what is real about your product, the problem you're trying to address, and your assessment of how you stack up against your competitors. I guess that's what makes it important - the easy things are rarely valuable. So get writing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Absolutely perfect!
Br, Ville from Finland