A good message is based on meaning

You sit at a table. The top has been carved from a solid but elegant material, with a marble sheen and a cold smooth touch. It reminds you of a shell you found once as a child on a beach on a family holiday. It makes you feel something you haven’t felt in years.

You put your coffee on the table. The whole structure immediately keels over. As you regretfully watch your latte sluice the cold ground, you realise the pretty table only had two flimsy legs. And that’s not enough to deal with the real world around it, notably gravity.

It looked like a table. And it looked really beautiful. It actually pushed some buttons deep down that you couldn’t quite explain, but it felt right.

And yet, ultimately, it wasn’t a table. It wasn’t built right, despite millennia of table-building that came before it.

This is the feeling I get when I look at a lot of branding and messaging.

Just as the construction of your table needs to obey reality, the construction of your story must host a consistent and robust idea at its core. It needs to be reinforcing, not contradictory.

If your “vision” suggests one thing, but your “mission” doesn’t logically lead to it, that’s a broken table.

If you use a metaphor in your tagline that revolves around DNA, but your mission evokes a different metaphor from engineering, that’s a broken table.

If you invent a new descriptor for your category, then put it at the crux of the metaphor in your messaging, that’s an upside down table. A new idea is most convincing and easily understood if you orient it in a map of traditional ones.

None of these work — not for subjective reasons, but for cognitive ones. The way you build ideas matters. It has a direct effect on how easily they can be remembered, associated to concepts you desire, and shared.

The way we read meaning

Our brains are a constellation of memories and ideas. When you read a sentence, the only way to cognitively draw any meaning is for the brain to reference all its previous associations and feelings about each word.

You read the sentence: “I ran”, and your brain sweeps together its memories you have of running.

If you’re a marathon runner, one of those serious Lycra-packed over-quadded lunatics who squeezes in rich slugs of glucose every 200 steps, it will hold different meaning to those who bought their last pair of running shoes before the Millennium.

Now, as you continue to read the sentence, your brain continues this process.

 “I ran”

….

“him over”.

Your brain is used to a sentence continuing with the most common associations, the nearest neighbours and strongest links. Instead, it swerved into a different and dissonant possibility, in this case dragging you toward an extreme: tragedy.

(Sidenote, tragedy and comedy, often lumped together with the smiling and crying masks in theatre, revolve on the same dynamic. In comedy, you face a twist but are rewarded with relief because it’s not really happening. In tragedy, you have to reconcile the twist and accept the new, unexpected reality.)

This swerve is why stories can feel surprising and shocking and unnerve us so effectively. Equally, if you don’t swerve and instead continue to the cliche, it’s why they can be numbing.

Getting the balance right, or using each tool as and when you need them, is harder than it sounds — but we all have an instinct in our brain for it.

When meaning is missing

People have a remarkable capacity to react to things if they resemble a familiar form, even if the core is missing. For example, if a standup tells a joke, in a comedy club, to a warmed up audience, everything in the context means you will likely at least give a small chuckle. Because that’s the expected behaviour in the context.

This is the same instinct that makes certain brand, messaging and pitch work sounds like it’s the real deal, when it’s hollow at its core. It sounds like a pitch. So it must be a pitch.

However, if the idea isn’t build properly, when they then look back to share what they have heard, or they continue with their life and encounter a situation that is supposed to be directly related or connected to that story, it won’t be as effectively situated or accessible in their mind.

There is something about a consistent metaphor, connected to the right conceptual neighbours that makes it more memorable and more accessible to your audience, and therefore more valuable to your business.

And further than that, if your central mission, or the story about your business, isn’t robust, your actual culture and potential will be limited.

Ideas are the reality of your mind

This isn’t subjective. Meaning is substance, and the signal that should inform all the material you produce and harness to reach people, both inside and outside your business.

Scrutinise the idea behind your messaging and make sure it’s more than the sum of its parts. Again, this isn’t subjective. It’s like building anything — the pieces either join together consistently to create something robust and functional, or they are unrelated, disconnected, and will collapse with ease.

Here are a number of ways to be sure your shiny new branding work isn’t sabotaging your ambition:

1. Look for the metaphors. Anything in the branding which draws on the meaning of real world concepts (chemistry, engineering, family) should be consistent throughout.

2. Don’t be beholden to structure for the sake of it. If you have a system that hosts Mission, Vision and Purpose, but actually one in particular is doing all the hard work, simplify. Don’t allow the others to dilute what really seems to matter.

3. Remove empty signifiers. If it says something anyone else could say, ditch it. If your brand value is “trust”, ditch it. Again, these will dilute the things that really matter and make you stand out. If you really want to include the generic stuff, maybe put it in a “declaration” or something else that allows you to colour it with more specifics and character. But if you create generic values, you will become a generic business.

4. Don’t let your advisors drown you in Kool-Aid. If you’re paying someone a lot of moolah for the work, they are going to sell you hard on it. They will equally be ready to prepare and integrate feedback from your thoughts, that might seem humble — but be under no illusions, they have a mission to secure your belief in the big idea. Because with this kind of work, often there’s little else there.

5. Meaning lives throughout your business, but the ultimate editor must be clear. The institutional knowledge and culture of your business can only be found by tracking it bottom up. Sometimes the best ideas surface this way. You should always start by polling for hidden gems like this — and gather feedback along the way. But be clear that leadership is equally about then making a choice and being able to describe why it’s the right one. The timings of this is not always clear, but is crucial to avoid resentment by making sure you aren’t “coming down from the mountain” to tell everyone what they believe in.

For all of the above, Augur tends to focus on one area where brand and meaning all collide nicely: the pitch.

If you can explain from a cold start what your problem is, why this solution is interesting and how that helps the world, that gets you a long long way.

The art of “brand” in this, is often how you do it and where you place the focus. It is brand as verb, as the implicit that comes through what you are actually doing, not how you want to make people see you.

At the end of the day, that’s always what will define you most.

A better taxonomy for Comms strategy

I get the idea of owned, earned, paid (and people add shared, but how is that not earned?) However, it feels like it’s phrased so tactically, and without a relationship or journey between the different elements. They are just smushed in a single hierarchy.

In practice, this means it can feel a clumsy way to outline a strategy, sitting each in their silos and making choices about where ambiguous elements must sit.

Instead, we’ve started to use a different taxonomy:

  • Meaning
  • Material
  • Reach
  • Systems

These four areas not only cover the general categories of strategy we put together, they also relate in a way that feels more engaged and relevant.

Defining Meaning can stretch from mission/ purpose, to simply clarifying the pitch or the key themes you want to beat the drum for.

From this source, you can then develop Material  (not “content”, never “content”) which explores those ideas, and captures them in a way that is useful to your strategy (and your audience.)

Having put all that work in, it’s nothing without ensuring subsequent and growing Reach, by developing the audiences and relationships that bring in eyeballs — from mailing lists, to sponsored social, to a handful of valuable influencer relationships.

And underneath it all are the Systems that make it work. For us, principles like Objectives and Key Results, evaluation with Google Analytics and automatically updating dashboards, things like “founder therapy”, which we use to generate interesting article and commentary ideas on a regular basis.

If you want to work strategically, you need to set out your toolset and approach in a way that inherently serves it. This feels like a way to do that, which matures the PESO categorisation for our own purposes. It allows us to think better — and demonstrate more clearly to companies we work with, how and where we will provide real strategic value.

B2B can worry less about its Cambridge Analytica moment

There are many reasons I chose to focus Augur on “unsexy” tech. But one of the key ones is that I believe the nature of PR and marketing is a really good fit for the B2B market.

The incentives align better

In consumer marketing, brands try and reach “most people”. They want big publicity splashes. And most people just want to get on with their lives.

The best they can offer is sometimes a glimmer of light entertainment. But 99% of the time, they are still interrupting normal programming to get it in there.

By contrast, our clients help other businesses make more money. Most of the time, anyone running a business wants to improve how they do it. However, if anything, they are often too busy to make it enough of a priority.

When we target, it’s most often by characteristics like job title or industry specialism. It’s not because we think you are vulnerable to coercion, it’s because we know you’re looking at e.g. translation to help your business grow, and we work with a company that fundamentally does it differently.

We lead with content and insight

B2B Tech really means B2B innovation. It means what’s next. It means the new way of doing things and a potential source of advantage over the competition.

That also means that it’s a constant process of keeping track of where the tech is going next, if you hope to use it to help your business.

We help this happen. And what it means is, if we do use paid or targeted in strategies, it’s almost never to just force information in front of an audience — it’s to surface insightful material that others found useful, for more people.

The time of B2B decision-makers is more valuable than consumers. So you have to use it even more wisely. If you don’t directly hit a need they have, and if you aren’t producing material that strikes that need anyway, you’re in trouble.

The rewards make sense

If one of our clients wins a new customer, that can be worth many multiples of our fees per month. Deals of hundreds of thousands. Pipelines of millions, partnerships that open new territories and opportunities

If we produce any kind of asset that helps bring in more of the right kind of lead or close them once they are already in the process, the impact can be enormous.

In that context, where lifetime value is enormous, our fees make sense very quickly as part of customer acquisition costs.

If instead, you’re relying on some obtuse relationship between coverage in the tabloids and downloads of your app which then convert through in app purchases for 99p, then probably don’t renew, you’re getting into a mess of causality that, frankly, I’m just not interested in.

Where privacy matters

Now, with GDPR coming in, this doesn’t mean privacy is something you don’t think about in B2B. It just means that, if you’re doing it right, you should be ticking most of the boxes of the new policy anyway.

Every incentive aligns to give you good reason not to try and reach everyone but to create great material, that is of ultimate relevance to your small and specific audience — then attract them toward it.

More than consumer, and more than ever, B2B marketing just makes the most sense to me.

Augur Unbound at Web Summit

They say it’s bad form to turn up to an occasion empty handed.

So for Web Summit, as well as supporting Lisbon superstars Unbabel, we wanted to bring a little extra with us.

For the first time, we’ll be bringing our Augur Unbound programme to Web Summit.

Free PR

The idea of Augur Unbound is that “unsexy tech” companies pre Series A shouldn’t be wasting their time thinking too much about PR.

And at the same time, our real service for ongoing clients is much more than just emailing news to journalists.

Therefore, if we meet a company that has an interesting story pre Series A, we’ll share it with a handful of the right influencers for free.

And if it’s not a story, we have the perfect incentive to tell you honestly.

Why do we do it?

  • There’s no better source for journalists than a story shared without financial incentive. It sets the precedent for everything we share and helps calibrate our awareness of which stories help.
  • Helping the right companies thrive earlier on benefits the entire ecosystem.
  • Our mission is to re-engineer PR and Comms for fast-growing tech companies. By “giving away” what people think of as part of the main proposition, it helps us concentrate on the areas that really provide value over the longer term.

Why listen to us?

Augur’s founder (or, me, as I like to call myself), has experience in this space and the honesty to dispense it concisely:

  • Worked briefly at Wired and has written about tech and culture for Quartz, TechCrunch, the Guardian, Telegraph, tech.eu and more.
  • Led comms from Series A – C for Tradeshift, a now $750M+ valutation B2B tech giant
  • Ran a community of 3500+ tech journalists and PRs, with members from Apple to the Economist

Who and How?

As you may have noticed, our specialism is “unsexy tech” — think Fintech like GoCardless, Tradeshift or Pleo, omnichannel tech like BookingBug and Birdback, devtech like Pusher and SaaS like Apperio or Glofox.

This is the sweet spot and really the lens for our experience and advice.

If you’re just another consumer app, crowdfunding permutation or (god forbid) a Transferwise ripoff (what’s with those), you might be better off seeking help elsewhere.

If you think you have a story, get in touch and we’ll let you know.