Full transcript:

Emma Bilardi - PMA  0:00

Hi everyone, and welcome to Product Marketing Life brought to you by Product Marketing Alliance. My name's Emma Bilardi I'm a Content Marketer here at PMA. This week, we're joined by Sean Zinsmeister, Vice President of Product Marketing at ThoughtSpot and we'll be discussing creating world-class messaging. Thanks for joining us, Sean.

Sean Zinsmeister  0:18

Happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  0:20

Excellent. So could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at ThoughtSpot?

Sean Zinsmeister  0:25

Yeah, I lead product marketing at ThoughtSpot, and involved in that I like to think about it as you're the center, you're kind of the sun that everything revolves around as everything comes through product marketing.

It's a hard job, but it's really fun because you get to touch a lot of different departments, whether it's providing strategic messaging for the product team and delivering new products and innovations to market. Or working with the sales team to enable them to tell those stories at scale, or working with our campaigns, community, corporate marketing team, really the whole gamut.

We get to touch a lot of stuff and really the goal for us is to help tell the story of ThoughtSpot at scale and the value we bring to the market.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  1:11

Awesome. So we're going to be talking about creating messaging. What, in your opinion, is the key to creating messaging that really resonates with buyer personas?

Sean Zinsmeister  1:21

I like a three-part model that I've been thinking about a lot when I begin any sort of messaging exercise. That's really looking at first of all, clarity, how clear is our message? The fidelity - how much it can be repeated. And it's looking at where we can differentiate as well. The differentiation, I think, comes into creativity.

So clarity, fidelity, and creativity are my three-part model. To be honest, it's a funny exercise, but when I work with new product marketers or when I'm working with them on a messaging exercise, I actually always start with a research phase, I want to go and see what other companies are doing that might be adjacent to my market or maybe what competitors are and really figure out what's out there.

Because I think that once you ground yourself in the types of messages and the cornucopia that you can approach things with, then you have a better idea. Good artists steal, they really do and it's okay to borrow and the best product marketers really know how to take that messaging, shape it to their own value prop and deliver it at scale.

The key there then is to figure out, okay, we've got a creative approach to this, we have a differentiated message, something that no one else can say, that's the exercise, and you have to break that down. Because it's an exercise where you'll build it up and tear it down 1000 times to be like, 'Could anyone else say this, but us?' No matter who your company is, and then that's truly differentiated.

Fidelity is the ability for that message to be repeated. You're going to have to program an entire sales organization, an entire executive team, you want that message to be simple, simple, simple. What's the adage, 'if I had more time I'd write a shorter letter', it's really hard, you have to take a lot of information and then really boil it down.

Many times, the exercise we go through is, it's totally cool to start with a lot of messaging and then pare down, pare down, pare down, pare down. But at least as you're starting to get something down on the page, you kind of know where you're starting from, and then try to just simplify, simplify, simplify. That's where the clarity comes through.

We sell to a very wide audience; anybody can really buy data and analytics for what we do. It's really important the message the first time somebody sees it is very clear. It's very clear what you do, and why you do it. That's really the way we break it down. That's the strategy.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  4:17

In your opinion, how often should product marketers be optimizing their messaging?

Sean Zinsmeister  4:25

I wish I could tell you there's a magic formula for that because so much depends. If you're a very big company, I think the rules are different than if you're a startup that's constantly spinning the Rubik's cube of messaging, where you're launching new products, you're refactoring a platform or your go-to-market motion. I think the answer is really it depends.

I think you really have to look at the alignment and look to your go-to-market motion first and your product first. What's changing that's going to force you to adjust your messaging accordingly? The executive layer is really important too. I mean, if you're a startup, appealing to the investment community, how are you perceived by all of these audiences? May force you to look at how you're doing.

If you're in the middle of a fundraising round, you're trying to approach the public markets and an IPO, you may approach your messaging or want to approach your messaging very differently. In general, I think that companies in the startup/mid-market/high growth, every quarter is a good time for a health check on your messaging.

The key is, I warn product marketers, while fast iteration is the name of the game, your messaging is your innovation, you're going to keep constantly testing and iterating. You also need to give time for a message to really breathe in the market, to really be saturated, to really try to sink in. Because if you change things too quickly, it's almost just like completely resetting the game over and over again, when you really feel like the progress of it is unclear.

So you have to also be careful not to muddy the waters by changing too quickly. Now, again, there are exceptions to that rule. That depends on what's happening in your market and what you have to react to from the things that I've described. But generally speaking, you want to at least have messaging out there for three-six months if you've launched a new product to see really how the message reacts and give it time to sink in.

Remember, I talked about fidelity being such an important part of messaging, it's the repetition, your salespeople repeating it, your marketing people repeating it, people repeating it in casual conversations, your HR people repeating it to candidates, this is important, it takes time for that to trickle down through the entire organization, especially very large organizations.

That's the rule that I think, so there's no magic formula, unfortunately, but those are at least some of the guardrails that I think about when trying to approach how and when is best to start refreshing messaging.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  7:12

Excellent. So are there any general signs that your messaging might need an overhaul?

Sean Zinsmeister  7:18

The best leading indicator I think is always going to come from your salespeople. To go back to the beginning, I think when I joined an organization, and I join a new company, I really try to hone in on who are our most successful salespeople? Why? What are they saying that's working and resonating? How are they demoing the product that's working and resonating? What can we steal from them that we could then push into a message at scale?

The key here is that feedback loop, probably from your most successful salespeople will also tell you what resonates and what doesn't. Is it aligned with how they want to go to market? How is your messaging approaching objections? Are you handling them head-on? Or are you creating new mud in the water and new objections that you didn't think about?

I think sales is probably your best... they are on the front lines with your messaging, they'll be the first to tell you what's working and what's not. I think the other thing is this is where competitive intelligence also comes into play.

Where you're looking at your market, maybe it's a blue ocean market, maybe it's a red ocean market, regardless and see where is the market shifting? Where are the trends going? If you're selling to CIOs, what's important for them this year that's going to resonate with these companies? What are they looking at? What types of things are they looking at for the business? What types of technological innovations are they looking at? With those trends, those are macro-level trends, to say how do we better align a puzzle piece, our messaging, to what they care about the most?

That's the lock and key model you really have to look at. If something's not fitting, or feels off, or listen, the COVID era made everybody changed their messaging very, very quickly.

It was a rapid iteration because all of the projects that people cared about before the pandemic really surged last February/March/April 2020 those projects went out the window, and then there were new projects and initiatives. That's a very obvious example of a macro-level shift that says, 'Okay, well what they cared about before they don't care about anymore so how do we then restructure our value proposition to fit with what they're where they're at?'. That's the key, we called it when the pandemic hit the 'made for the moment campaign'.

The reason it was made for the moment is not just that we felt like the technology was made for the moment, and it had the strength and agility to help people and businesses in the pandemic with their data but the biggest thing was what moment are your customers in right now? What are they going through? Those are the macro trends. That could be cultural, it could be a business innovation, it could be a technological revolution. Those are the things that you really have to look at and say how askew or obtuse are we being with our messaging? Does it fit?

Those are all things that you really have to study and take into effect and be ready to be wrong. You have to be wrong. In fact, this is something I encourage product marketers - as a product marketer, you're going to be wrong a lot. It's the fun part of the job. But the key is... I had a great, great product leader at one of my companies who really just said, "Listen, the key is you have to get all the wrong things down on paper.

Because otherwise, if we don't know our starting place, and we're constantly looking at a tabula rasa, we have no idea where to go. But at least if we're looking at what's wrong, by knowing what's wrong, we can get to what's right". That tangible, obvious exercise is something you have to be able to be comfortable with, embrace, and honestly have fun with it. It's really the most fun part of the job, like I said, just keep spinning that Rubik's Cube until you feel like it locks.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  11:45

Absolutely. So on the subject of wrongness, have you ever made any mistakes when putting together your messaging? And if so, did you learn anything from that?

Sean Zinsmeister  11:55

I feel like every day is a culmination of papercuts, right? I think I make a lot of little mistakes every single day. It really depends on what does a big mistake look like? I think it's how much permission do you have to be bold? And what does being bold mean for you? Does it mean being more aggressive with your competitors? Does it mean taking a bigger stance? Is it just chest-beating? Or is there actually something that you can use for such bravado?

From my personal career, I probably am more conservative when it comes to the way that I product market. The biggest risks that I actually see, and I'll tell you why I think I'm a little bit conservative than maybe some people but there's a distance, and you can't see my hands right now but there are two things that I use to measure. One is where your messaging is, on one hand - that's always going to be ahead of where your technology is.

But the problem is if your messaging gets far too far away from the technology, if the technology cannot deliver on the promises that you are making, then the gap falls through, it's too big. That's when problems really start and you've seen that with a lot of companies. One example that I have is companies over-promising on the value of artificial intelligence and AI. It's the old expression with what we've seen with AI, it's deja vu all over again.

We've been through this before, it's the same thing with the cloud, we were talking about the cloud 20 years ago. But the cloud is now in this brand new framing that people care about and so it's a different type of message. But the key is that in product marketing, your job is to sell the future and to excite people about a brighter, better, bolder, smarter future, whatever your modifiers are.

That's good because you need to be selling at scale, and especially if you work at a technology company but even if you work at a services company, your job is to really paint that utopia for them. Now, the key is that you need to have that overlap with where your technology, or your services, or your programs really are today. It's okay to be a little bit ahead, that's natural in marketing but I think if you let it get too far ahead, then people will start to gain disbelief.

That's where you start to see that reflected in things like customer reviews, NPS scores, and that will force you down to another messaging exercise, which is how to combat that type of negativity. I wish I told you I had some magic moments, particularly from my career. But I think for me, I'm always looking at that steady balance to make sure. That's why you have to talk so much with your sales and your product people as well. You have to dig deep.

The key is like, "Tell me the truth", the truth might hurt but don't let stunned idealism get in the way. Because the truth is if you know the granular truth of what the technology or service is or what your company is capable of, it allows you to shape that message accordingly to the market, and then really figure out where you're allowed to get permission to push the boundaries and where you're not. That's the model I think about when it comes to how to avoid those types of mistakes.

It's very tricky. It's like riding a bicycle, you lean a little to the left, and then lean to the right but eventually, everything is spinning and you're riding straight. Sometimes that's just what the entire week looks like for a product marketer, especially in a high-growth environment.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  16:06

So how do you make your messaging stand out in a saturated market?

Sean Zinsmeister  16:09

That's a really good question. I want to go back, we talked about clarity, fidelity and creativity. This is where creativity comes in. What you say is important, the words, how they're differentiated, words that people have never used before, strong language.

But the other part of that, because it's almost like once you get past the word salad - that's what we call it - the key is then... I've had the luxury of working with some absolutely incredible brand and creative people over the course of my career, the visual storytelling is just as important. The visuals vocabulary that goes along with your message, how you're bringing that to life in a differentiated manner.

I thought when we originally did our... we've gone through a massive SaaS transformation at ThoughtSpot, it's super exciting what we've been able to do in just six months. We've seen every single way that there is to design and talk about analytics in the cloud and yet when you tap into the right types of creativity with your messaging, we were able to really come up with something that truly was exotic and different, that the world had never seen before. I think that's where visual storytelling comes in.

When you can make those two things dance together, with that type of harmony, you can really stand out. Now,  I'll give you a great example. It feels like a trite example a little bit but when we could go to trade shows and events before it's like, how do you stand out? I remember, at one of my past companies, there was a company whose brand color was yellow. It was such a smart choice because you walked into the entire auditorium and boom, you could see it, it was loud. It was great. I thought it was absolutely great.

I think sometimes people really undervalue or underthink about the power of visual storytelling. When really sometimes you don't need loud imagery to tell your story. Other times, you can make what seems like a common message - something that may have been or felt like it's hard to own - it can help you own it, because you've branded it in such a way that just makes it stand out. I think that's one of the many strategies.

Finally, there's that aspect, and then there's the delivery mechanism. Are you delivering your message in a new and exciting way? With the plethora of social media applications, new things coming up, text messages, and everything else, how you're reaching people with your message and your visuals in a new and exciting way can also differentiate. I'll give you an example that I think is actually really fun.

Everybody's doing these cameos right now, I don't know whether it's just because Hollywood is hard up for change and we've got a lot of celebrities that aren't making movies. But it's fun. I've seen some incredibly clever work using what's actually a very affordable platform to deliver a different type of storytelling that's fun, it's engaging. It's nostalgic as well, for some, bringing back some of the celebrities, I'm a child of the 90s, I enjoy seeing some of the stuff that's out there right now. There's stuff like that, it's not just like, 'how do we market on Tik Tok?'.

That's great but I think that's why video is probably my favorite medium. For people who don't know my background, I come from a media production background, I was a sound designer for a number of years before I got into marketing. I've always been a trained listener and when it comes to media production there's video and it's probably my most favorite medium because you can do so many different things with it.

It's such a malleable medium and such an incredibly scalable medium that has such inherent virality to it. If you get it right it's truly magical. Anyway, those are the things I think about. It's not just what you're saying, it's how you're portraying it and the visual backdrop that you're putting on it. It's also thinking about a differentiated way of delivering it. Those three things, if you can get them in orchestration can be super powerful for standing out in even the most red sea markets.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  21:41

Excellent. So if you were a new product marketer, we talked a little bit about how we work with sales in overhauling messaging and going to sales to see where you're at in the market. But how would you incorporate them into shaping your messaging in the beginning?

Sean Zinsmeister  22:01

There are some very tactical things that I can recommend here. Go back to how great content marketers think about the big content rock and there's always a big content rock, and then you carve pieces off from that. When it comes to your messaging the first meeting deck is that content rock, everything pours out of it, your website, your social, everything pours out of it because that's your story. That's your pitch, that's the first time people are going to react to who you are, what you do, why you do it, and why you do it differently. I think I've probably gone through, even at ThoughtSpot, I've probably done three to six different first meeting deck iterations.

That's another one that you just keep you keep spinning it until you get it right. It's really great to say we've gotten the feedback, you've done that feedback work, there's some new angle, a new initiative, or something that we're hearing that we have to figure out how to scale. The how to scale part is how do we get every rep singing from the same hymn sheet. That's when having a small committee, start small, content creation by committee is a disaster in general, I think. A committee that was in charge of putting together a horse comes up with a camel, that's actually usually what ends up happening.

You see these Zoom calls with like 10 people and you wonder, 'How on earth can you get past the bureaucracy to actually get anything done?' Brainstorming is great. I truly believe that the best ideas come from all corners of your business, I believe that. I never think that product marketing is in a vacuum or in a silo. But I do think that product marketers are paid to think so give them some think time. Go to your select committee. Usually, these are your sales leaders, for me, it's my CRO and maybe two other VP of sales.

I do what's called a blue boxing exercise where I'm focused on the flow of a story, especially in a first meeting deck, I want headlines, and I have a general idea - blue boxes, meaning it's a wireframe for a deck - I'm not concerned with what exactly the visuals are going to turn out to be. I may have a general idea, and maybe I have a little description, but I'm focused on going from A to B to C to D, and making sure that the story flows, that there's an arc, that the setup makes sense, the payoff is there, and the next steps and call to action are very clear. How do we get to tell our story in a shorter, crisper, clearer way so we can get to the demo so they can see it come alive, right? If we're in a B2B context that might be your play.

I think that feedback mechanism can start in a very small select tighter team. Then it's really about testing the water, put it in the water and see if it floats, give that messaging to a few of your favorite reps and see what the reactions are. See how they do with it, how are they doing it, start small, and then make that the microcosm for scaling it out and out and out. I think it's the only way to gain surety. But the truth is product marketing is going to have a better chance to sell a message at scale if it's got sales leadership behind it.

I think I'm spoiled, especially at ThoughtSpot because I think I have one of the greatest sales teams in the world. I've never had so much fun working with a team. There's a magnitude of trust that I think is super unique. But the truth is you need that feedback mechanism to see what's working. They may have a line that has worked super well, or an allegory that has worked super well, or some anecdote or customer story that's just killer that we need to get everybody trained up on. You only get that from that small group.

So that first meeting deck is going to be where all that good work goes into. It'll be hard, it'll be frustrating, you'll do it probably 1000 times. But once you get it right, and you've got that five to eight slides, whatever, less than 10. Once you get that, then you're like, 'Okay, now how do I spread this messaging throughout a content strategy on the website? Or what do I need to take here and blow this up into different assets so I can run demand Gen?'. It just all pours out from that. That's when I say there's a very tactical way to start with this and it all starts with your deck.

The other one is, I believe that all good product marketers come equipped with a really good deck and a really good demo. If you can put those two things together, the demo storytelling. I'll tell you how I do it. Number one, I pick companies that I know I can have a lot of fun naturally with their product. You have to be authentic. I find storytelling when you're with glazed inauthenticity is just too hard to do. I can't fake fun, or at least I can't do it very well, maybe you can, but I can't. It's hard.

Also, to throw in more things about my background, I was a music major and I've done performing arts for 12 to 15 years prior to entering the business world. Being on stage, you learn a few things, if you're having fun, the audience is having fun. That is just so key, fun is infectious. It just is. The same thing goes when you're demoing a product, if you can show them you're excited, genuinely excited about what you're doing, they will absolutely come along on your journey. Absolutely.

The way I've gotten there is, there are great tools out there for making this easy to study like Gong and Zoom recordings and things like that. But shadowing your best salespeople. At ThoughtSpot, I formed my style of demoing by stealing what I liked from a lot of my mentors, and I just followed some of the best ones and I figured out what did they do well? And then what could I do to personalize that stuff?

Then when I train others, I go back to what they used to tell me about classical music composition. You cannot break these rules when you're writing music, you must master them, you cannot break them. But the mastery in the art comes that once you have gotten them down, the creative spirit is allowed to break through then you can break them. That's when it comes through.

But first, you have to start with highly scripted, highly structured, and then you can go off-roading with some of this. But I go back to my mantra 'great artists steal'. It's not plagiarism. I think it's too easy to paint that expression in a negative light. But what I believe is, especially if you're trying to ramp quickly, your job is to be a chameleon and figure out how you can emulate what's working, and who's really good at it, and what they do well, and the style that they do it in, the personality that they bring. You really have to put your research hat on.

I think once you are able to do that, that's your deck and your demo, you're able to deliver a pitch solidly, and then you're really able to bring it to life with your product. I think you make those two things come to life and it's just an absolutely great infrastructure for success for any product marketer.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  30:34

Absolutely. Well, I think that's a really great note to finish up on. I want to thank you so much for coming. I got so much out of that and I know that our listeners will too. So yeah, thanks for joining us today.

Sean Zinsmeister  30:48

Yeah, thanks for having me. I'm pretty easy to find. I'm always happy to connect with the members of the PMA community whether it's on the Slack channel or being a Zinsmeister I'm blessed with pretty easy SEO. You can just Google me and I'm pretty easy to find.

But I'm happy to connect with any product marketer within the community. If I can be helpful to you, your career, or hey, if you have advice for me, I love feedback,  it's the only way that we get better. So looking forward to connecting further.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  31:19

Absolutely. Thank you so much, Sean.

Sean Zinsmeister  31:21

Absolutely. Thank you.