Six steps to killer start-up messaging

Defining key messages is vital for any business, but even more so when you’re a start-up.

Defining key messages is vital for any business, but even more so when you’re starting-up. With a new brand and proposition, nobody knows who you are, what you do and how to describe you, particularly if your products and services involve cutting-edge technology. Without a clear and consistent ‘hymn sheet’ to explain what you’re all about, it’s harder to gain traction with customers, investors, partners, and attract the skills you need to grow.

A good way of grasping why key messages are so important is to ask all your colleagues – on the spot – to give a one sentence descriptor of what your company does. If everybody gives a completely different answer, then you know you have work to do! Because, if you think about it, each one of those different versions is probably also being heard by your potential customers, investors and partners, via email, in meetings and in marketing materials. And each time that happens, you’re muddying the waters around your brand.

So, where to begin?

What are key messages?

Every business has loads of facets, strengths and amazing talents. What your key messages do it take all of that good stuff and hone it into something digestible, prioritising the most important and relevant bits, and getting the point across in a way that hits the right spot with your audiences.

Your messaging should usually include one overarching descriptor, followed by three or four sub-messages – i.e. the characteristics or benefits that are most important – then a number of proof points to back those up. It’s usually best to organise these into a document known as a ‘messaging framework’ or ‘message house’, to ensure everyone in your business is saying the same thing, when talking to customers, networking, producing marketing materials, or approaching the media.

How do you define your key messages?

When your head is buried in the business, day in, day out, seeing the wood from the trees can be tricky. Everybody has a different perspective on what you do, which is why opinions about how you describe yourselves can vary so widely. Building a messaging framework is about cutting through all that to define the messages that are really important – and that your target audiences care about.

Here’s how it’s done:

1. Market research

If you haven’t already done so, research the market you operate in to see what competitors or similar brands already exist, observing how they describe themselves and then considering where you want your brand to fit alongside that. Also chat with your different target audiences to find out their pain points around what you do, the type of services they buy and the language they use and understand around those. This will give you lots of pointers on the industry lingo, an insight into how your customers think and talk about what you do, and spark loads of ideas about how you can make your brand and offering stand out from the crowd.

2. Run a messaging session

Next, get all your key people into a room for three or four hours and gather everybody’s views on the company. Ask questions like: ‘Why do we exist?’ ‘Who are we for?’ ‘What problems do we solve for our customers?’ Really dig down into the areas where you agree and disagree, bringing in themes and ideas from your market research to feed into the discussion. Then once you’ve got everything off your chests, try to whittle your thoughts down to a few key points that best describe what you do.

3. Collate

Now, with a fresh head, go through all your notes from the session and pull out the strongest points and/or the areas where everybody was in agreement. Start to use these to populate a messaging framework, including:

  • One-line descriptor: In a nutshell, in plain English and as factually as possible, what does your business do?
  • Key messages: Usually three or four key benefits or characteristics of your product or service that make it different from the competition. You may want to break these down by target audience if that makes sense for your brand.
  • Proof points: These back up your messages, demonstrating why or how you are delivering on those claims, e.g. you might say you’re the biggest, best or first, but how can you prove that’s the case?

4. Test with your team and target audiences

Once you’ve got a rough framework down on paper, you can then go back to your team to get their feedback and further input regarding gaps or inconsistencies, plus any messages that may need tweaking. Then test them with your customers, to gauge whether the messages make sense and resonate with them, before adjusting accordingly.

5.  Promote

Once you have an agreed framework, make sure everybody in the company is aware of it, what it’s for and know to refer to it in all external communications, whether that’s face-to-face, over email, online or in media interviews. As well as ensuring consistency, having all this detail at your fingertips is a huge time-saver, so you don’t have to ‘reinvent the wheel’ every time you create a new piece of collateral.

6. Revisit

Your messaging doesn’t need to be set in stone and it’s advisable to revisit it over time as your business offering evolves. As a start-up, when things are moving more rapidly, you should be reviewing your messaging framework every three to six months. For a more established business, it makes sense to do so once per year, or when you have a big product launch or change of direction. You can also have different messaging frameworks for specific product or service lines, as your business diversifies.

It might seem like a big job, but your key messages are the foundations for all your subsequent marketing and communications, saving you time, stress and effort down the line, while giving much needed clarity around what you do and why. So, if it’s not there already, make sure you add it to your priority list.

And if you’re looking for help developing your messaging or running a messaging session, Scripsy has loads of experience doing just that for start-ups, SMEs and big brands. Drop us a line at to find out more.

You also might like to read about how to develop your tone of voice and super simple PR techniques for start-ups.