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Modern messaging and killing the messenger

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It wasn’t the first time that the bearer of bad news had got the blame, or the last. The origins of the phrase, killing the messenger, goes back to Sophocles and Plutarch.  

Nowadays, we’re a bit more civilised and make clear distinctions between the message and the messenger, although we’d all prefer to be the bringer of glad tidings.

But getting the message right remains the single most important part of PR and marketing strategy, communicating what your company stands for and what its products and services do.

Getting it right can be a deceptively simple exercise, but in an age of social media and instant communications everything is about perception, good or bad.

The basic rules, however, are simple enough. Define the benefits that your company or product delivers, and develop a number of key messages that underline your business strategy.

It’s about brand vocabulary and developing a corporate proposition that is uniquely yours, and which also helps with SEO strategy – getting those words and phrases seeded onto the internet.

Messaging is much, much more than a marketing bolt-on. The business guru Tom Peters has said that, “In a competitive environment, only those who have a strong unified message, who create and sell quality and value, will survive.”

Developing those words and phrases involves delving into the heart and soul of your company, not just the nuts and bolts of your product or service: what do you want customers to feel about you?

In that sense, a clear message strategy is also a psychological strategy: it’s about using whatever means to get inside your customer’s head, and better understanding the touch points that generate sales.

(Hardly surprising that the “father of PR” Edward Bernays was also closely related to the ”father of psychiatry” Sigmund Freud. No coincidence, surely). 

However, some aspects of messaging are becoming more complex. For example, consumers now respond more quickly to brand messages when they appear on their phones – rather than desktops or other mobile devices.

The reason is that we see our phone as uniquely ours, and that messages that appear on it have a stronger psycho-cognitive emotional appeal. Putting that into English, messages on our phones are more personal and, therefore, to be trusted.

Lesson one: if you haven’t optimised your website for mobile, go to it.

Largely, messaging is about plain old common sense – with a large dollop of research and brutal honesty. We may think we know what customers think about us, or our products, but do we? Lesson two: don’t assume.

Then it’s about communicating those messages in ways that engage with customers, using whatever platforms are most appropriate – from newsletters to traditional media, from social media to…well, the list goes on and on.

Lastly, it’s all about context; ensuring your message is heard on an appropriate platform at a time when your potential customers are likely to be receptive.
In conclusion, a true story.

A busker starts playing his violin in a Washington DC metro station at the height of the morning rush hour, and in the course of 40 minutes makes just over $30 – not a bad return.

Of the 1,097 people who passed by, only seven stopped to listen. Most were late for work or thinking about the day ahead. A busker with a violin they could do without. When he finished playing, there was no applause.

Except that it was stunt dreamed up by the Washington Post. The busker was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, and he was playing a 1713 Stradivarius worth $3.5 million.

Many of those who passed by would have paid huge sums to hear him play, but in a familiar context at a familiar time of day. In a busy morning metro station, he was therefore someone to be ignored.

Which does, I suppose, underline aspects of messaging strategy. We might have the best message in the world, in support of the best products or services, but if we communicate those messages in the wrong way, at the wrong time, who will be listening?

Hopefully, not King Boabdil.

Charlie Laidlaw is a director of David Gray PR and a partner in Laidlaw Westmacott.

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