April Dunford on product narratives

Created on

July 19 2022

Created by Medha Basu. This summary was largely done for my own note-taking, sharing it just in case it adds more value to other people. Any errors are mine :)




How to use positioning to create compelling product stories


Related Reading



  • When selling a product, we need to guide the customer to navigate the whole market, and not just our stuff.
  • A good product narrative helps buyers make a choice. It paints a picture of the market, and where our product fits in.
  • Generally, we don't need different narratives for different customer segments. If the competitive alternatives are the same across two segments, our narrative would be the same for both. We may only want to tweak the language and examples a bit to match their industry.
  • Measuring is hard. A/B testing messaging on websites doesn't work because there's so many other variables in the mix (like copy and design). April's approach is to get the best sales rep to test it with a qualified customer and see if it's better or worse than before.
  • 🚽 Toilet shopping is really hard!

How to use positioning to create compelling product stories

Selling is hard but buying is harder

  • A considered purchase is different from going shopping. It’s more cognitive load. If you get is wrong, bad things happen. Like buying a toilet is weirdly hard - too many choices and we don’t know much about the products.
  • How does software get bought in B2B
    • CFO wakes up and says I hate my accounting software. Points to Janet and asks her to figure it out. Janet doesn’t know anything about accounting software. The stakes are high - everyone will be pissed. I’ll look stupid. I don’t get the promotion.
    • Google up accounting software - get 1000s of products that look the same. Everyone says we’re the leader in accounting.
    • If I click down a level, I get all kinds of features, with a bunch of new stuff I haven’t heard about. I’ll call a couple of companies and get into their sales process. The demo is a wind tunnel of features. All that demo does is that it makes it worse. I’m telling you about what makes my stuff different.
    • If I can’t make a choice, the safest thing to do is not make a choice.
    • image
What customers want is market insights. What they want is a guide to the whole market - not just your stuff - and how your stuff fits into the whole market.

A Positioning Narrative helps buyers make choices

  • This is how to do a a positioning narrative.
    • Example below: Traditional businesses treat customer services as a cost centre so they push customers to the cheapest solution. Does your company see it as a cost centre or a growth driver?
  • Components of narrative come from positioning:
    • Alternatives
    • Differentiated Value
    • Best-Fit Customers
  • How to build a positioning narrative:
    • Sort alternatives into groups
    • Discuss pros and cons of each (for your buyers)
    • Highlight the value only you can deliver (and the features that enable that)
    • → Paint a picture of the market and position your product within it.

Using the narrative beyond sales

  • Works very well for communicating internally
  • Also super important for marketing
  • Example from Postman: IF APIs are business critical….
    1. image
    2. How this is represented in their marketing material - helps people figure out how they fit into other tools (API platform landscape)
    3. image
    4. The hardest thing they have to do during the sales cycle is explain what their product is - they created a graphic novel “The API-First World”.


Who in the org should be driving a positioning narrative

  • Often it’s either product marketing, or if that doesn’t exist, it’s product or marketing.
  • If what I’m doing is building a picture of the market and my differentiated value within that, can’t do that without product’s input. They understand it better than anyone else.
  • Should be a more senior level person.

What % of companies have positioning

  • You have positioning whether you like it or not (passive vs proactive positioning). Question is whether it’s any good.
  • With positioning, get really focused on the ‘so what’ of your differentiated value.

Where do you start internally

  • Would start with sales and listen in on sales calls and look for signs of weak positioning. One is that people don’t get the pitch. Another thing is people comparing you to alternatives that you have nothing to do with.
  • Then go to Product and tell them people dont even get what we are. Sales doesn’t know how to pitch the value you’re creating. If I can convince product and sales that it’s worth just looking at it (not necessarily going to change things)
  • Then can go to CEO - I know my job as marketing is to drive sales, but sounds like there’s this problem.
  • Can do a positioning sprint in 2 days.

Would you recommend starting with product marketing/positioning and working backwards to building product?

  • There’s some danger in that.
  • Step 1 before launching is to have a positioning thesis. This is what we think we do for customers. Then first step after launching is validating the thesis. Then adjust the positioning over time.

Should companies have different narratives for diff situations and segments?

  • Get this question a lot.
  • Shouldn’t diff customer segments have different stories? Sometimes. but generally no.
  • Here’s why:
    • The only reasoning positioning would be completely different is if i was against completely different comptition, hence would have completely different differentiated value.
    • As product people, those two sets of poeple would have different sets of requirements and you end up with different products.
    • For eg, one company serving utiliteis and retail.
    • On marketing side, occasionly we would run a campaing where we would use utility words if we were targeting utilities. But on website, it was one pitch, one storyline. All we would change in the narrative is the customer example.

Do you recommend different positioning for internal stake holders (Account managers & Sales Engineers) vs for customers?

  • Sales folks are very technical and account folks are not. So have to use different language.
  • Have to start with the value (not technical) and then go down to how we do it (technical). It’s the same narrative across both. Go as deep as the customer wants you to go in terms of ‘how’. Technical buyers want to understand how it works, often they are sceptical.
  • If we’re not clear about the narrative, our customer will take control of the narrative (or worse the competitor will). You have to fight the fight you’re going to win. You have to back up and say that we’re talking about a different thing here. A good narrative establishes purchase criteria. This is why RFPs are horrible.
  • Problem space vs solution space (in customer conversations):
  • image

What is the biggest challenge you've experienced as you've worked with organizations? Is leadership already bought in when you walk in the door or is there some convincing - if the latter, what is that one hurdle you consistently encounter?

  • Most weak positioning comes from misalignment within the team. At growth stage startups, the founder is sometimes stuck in the past because it’s been a while since they’ve actually sold anything. Marketing often falls in love with someone else’s marketing.
  • What’s the fastest way to show how important that alignment is:
    • What keeps the CEO up at night is sales. So if I can convince sales that there’s a problem, I can usually have a good convo with product. Tell the CEO that we’d like to get a bunch of people together. The first thing the CEO will do is ask what sales thing. Usually the kicker is sales. The closer I can get to revenue, the more clout I have with CEO.
    • Not saying that we have to change things. Maybe it doesn’t need to change.

What quantitative and qualitative customer interview type metrics do you typically track to measure if you're Positioning is resonating with the current market and target customer segment? especially you want to A/B test your positioning

  • Generally, it’s really hard to measure. The only thing we can measure is better or worse. No specific number.
  • The way April has done it in the past: come up with a new pitch deck, and train the best sales rep on that. And test that on qualified list - first few, we’re just fine-tuning the deck. And then April is just asking the sales rep - is that better or worse than before? Should get a shorter sales cycle, bigger deals etc - but that comes much much later.
  • Sales team usually doesn’t want to change their deck. They are very biased towards the old pitch, so convinving them is a high bar. If they say it’s good, it’s probably REALLY good.
  • A/B testing messaging on website doesn’t work - because what I’m actually testing is a 1000 other things including copywriting, design etc.
  • Then go to marketing, and reflect the same storyline that worked for sales.

Related Reading

📚Obviously Awesome - April Dunford

🎧April Dunford on positioning vs messaging (Lenny’s Podcast)