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A 30,000 Foot View of the Category Design Process


This is the third of five articles that make up The Newcomer’s Guide to Category Design.

In part two, we talked about why category design isn’t necessarily the right strategy for every business. But if you are ready to move forward, this piece will give you a preview of what you can expect the process to look like. Hint: it’s a big undertaking.

If you’re interested in reading the entire series in PDF or ePub format, you can access the entire category design guide for free at Flag and Frontier.

Your bird’s eye view of the category design process

If you’re interested in a more specific blueprint of the category design process, both Play BIgger and another book called Category Creation: How to Build a Brand that Customers, Employees, and Investors Will Love, by Anthony Kennada will provide more specifics.

You can think of the category design process as involving four phases:

  • Understand your audience and their problem
  • Create a category story and category name
  • Bring your category to life
  • Evangelize your category

1. Understand your audience and their problem

Category design is all about solving a new problem, or solving an old problem in a new way. Therefore, an understanding of this problem serves as the foundation for everything else you’ll do with category design. If you understand the problem well, then the products you build and the messaging you create to market it will benefit greatly. More than that, showing the market that you fully understand this problem is crucial to getting your new category off the ground.

However, problems don’t exist without people. To reach a full understanding of a problem, you have to understand the people who are experiencing that problem. You have to have a sense of how they describe that problem, what pain it’s causing them, and what they are currently doing to solve the problem. You may even discover that your audience isn’t even aware that they have a problem. It will be your job to show them.

As you’ll see in a moment, much of the messaging you create around your category stems from an understanding of the problem and the people who experience it. Get this wrong, and the rest of your category design efforts will suffer.

This is why category designers begin by spending time with existing and potential customers to really dig into the problem. This quote from Play Bigger says it best: “When you describe the problem better than anyone else, people assume you have the best solution.”

Consider this example, from Terminus’ book, ABM is B2B. It highlights the problems that can arise when marketing is focused on leads instead of accounts.

“Marketing research firm Forrester discovered that fewer than one percent of all leads turn into customers. Put that another way: 99% of what you’re doing now doesn’t work. It’s not turning into revenue. Your CEO and CFO are looking at marketing and wondering what is going on, and no one is sure what to say except that leads are coming in, and website clicks are up.”

Without mentioning the solution yet, as a reader, you can quickly see that there’s a major problem that marketers face. And it’s obvious that Terminus spent time understanding how marketers work. This definition of the problem is the perfect foil for the category Terminus has been trying to build, called account-based marketing.

There are plenty of ways to better understand your customers, too. At BombBomb, one of the most helpful exercises we did was a survey of our “best fit” customers (a high NPS score and having used our software for more than two years). When we asked these customers a series of simple questions about the problem we help them solve, the answers we received were tremendously valuable.

We assumed that our customers used BombBomb’s video messaging software to solve the problem of “needing better results from email”. But after talking to customers, we found that it wasn’t better email results they were after, it was better relationships with the people they do business with. The problem we solve isn’t email per se. It’s the fact that bots, spam, and the misuse of marketing automation have conditioned customers to ignore and mistrust the communication they receive from businesses.

But remember, your customers don’t always know what they want. “Customers will only tell you they want better,” Kevin Maney noted. “They’ll never see a different solution.” As a category designer, the onus is on you to provide that.

If you need help with this, here’s a quick guide to defining the category problem.

2. Create a category story and category name

Once you have a firm grasp on the problem you’re solving (and whom you’re solving it for), you need to come up with a way to talk about the new solution to this problem. This is where your category name and something called a category story come into play.

Category story

Let’s start with the category story, because it’s this exercise that will inform your category name.

A category story is what tells the world why a new category needs to exist. It might be the most important element in category design because it’s the idea upon which the rest of your messaging will be based. There are a couple of ways to approach your category story: the point-of-view and the strategic narrative.

The point of view is a concept that comes from Play Bigger. While marketers have long enjoyed introducing things that are “new”, a point of view shows the world why a category needs to exist. It’s a short narrative that shows the market what the world will look like once this new category is established. It’s framed on that idea of moving the world from a former state that was causing pain to a future state where that pain is solved.

The strategic narrative comes from Andy Raskin, a top advisor to B2B SaaS companies. It presents a change that’s already happening in the world and shows how this change will create winners and losers. The narrative then presents your category as a tool that will help a potential customer emerge as a winner.

According to Andy, “A category is a strategic narrative. It’s a narrative about the new game that the winners are playing (and why the old game is obsolete) that buyers embrace to make sense of their world.” Here’s the interview with Andy about strategic narratives.

Both of these approaches are similar in that they speak to a specific type of story that humans are wired to respond to. It’s called The Hero’s Journey. It’s a concept developed by Joseph Campbell, a professor and author whose research has influenced a wide range of modern writers and authors, including George Lucas’s work on Star Wars.

The basic idea is that a story’s hero is faced with a disruptive change to his world. The only way he can conquer this change is through some externally-granted power. Once he wields this power, he’s able to surmount these challenges and return to a restored world that’s better than the one he left. Find more on the Hero’s Journey here. If you can capture this idea in your category story, you’re on the right track.

Regardless of what approach you use to create a story around your category, it will need to accomplish the following things:

  • Highlight the pain that your audience experiences from the problem you defined earlier
  • Demonstrate how current approaches to solving this problem don’t exist or are no longer adequate
  • Point to your new category as a new (and different) solution to solving this problem
  • Create contrast between life before the category and what life will be like after the category
  • Cast a vision that can excite your customers, partners, and investors and serve as a north star for your company strategy

As a bonus, if you can show how the world is changing, and how these changes give rise to the need for your category, your story will be especially strong. Check out Andy Raskin’s The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen for more on this.

Generally, the category story is an internal document or presentation that guides your company strategy and serves as a foundation for your external messages. But you can also develop an outward-facing version, too. 

“Getting your category story right is going to take time,” says Anna Schena, Director of Growth Marketing at Narrative Science. “It is much, much harder than it sounds, and will likely require several rounds of iteration before it is right.”

For context, Anna is building a category they call data storytelling. Their category story is based around the idea turns a company’s data into plain-English stories that people can more easily understand, all automatically.

Sarah Elkins understands the challenge of creating a category story as well. “It was very time-consuming for us,” she said. “For a company that was very technical we had to really focus on business language, and getting people out of the technical weeds. That was hard. But it was worth it. I recommend pushing through the frustration.”

But very much worth the time spent. I’d always recommend that people really focus on this step and push through the frustration. This is also where buy-in becomes really important as you need people to push through this process with you. But it’s worth the investment. As I already mentioned, your category story will serve as the foundation for the remainder of your category design efforts, and you can’t afford to get it wrong.

When your brand is defining its category story, you may decide to pick an “enemy” to help drive contrast between existing categories and the new one you’re building. “In the early days of building the “learning experience platform (LXP)” category, we positioned ‘learning management systems (LMS)’ as the enemy,” said Brad Zomick, a B2B marketing advisor and previously VP of Marketing at Pathgather and Degreed.

“Whereas the LMS was built around the needs of the person administering the education, the new category we built was geared towards the needs of the learner. That contrast created clarity for what our category stood for and helped fuel our growth.”

Remember that your category story isn’t just about you. It’s not a pitch for your particular product or company, it’s a pitch for the category. One it’s been developed, you’ll need to think through the right positioning, branding, and messaging to support it.

Category name

A category name is as simple as it sounds: it’s a short phrase that gives the category a reference point. Examples are account-based marketing, cloud-based software, and revenue intelligence.

The category name does not need to fully describe what the category is all about. Its main job is to point your audience’s thinking in the right direction. It will offer a new phrase that serves as a conversation starter. Finally, the category name provides consistency when talking about your new category.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when coming up with a category name:

  • Avoid a category name that’s so broad that it could apply to a number of different problems and solutions. Similarly, a category name should not apply only to your company. Stay away from branded or trademarked terms.
  • Consider whether the category name should build upon familiar terms or be entirely new. Something too similar may be written off as something your audience “already knows about.” But something too foreign may be too difficult to grasp. “We ended up picking something that was similar to another term people in our industry used,” said Sarah Elkins, VP of Demand Gen at Tasktop Technologies.

    “In the end, the name we picked best reflected what people would call this category, and we went ahead knowing we’d have to do some work to differentiate between the two terms.” Sarah and her team ended up selecting value stream management for their category name, after realising that implementations of Agile and DevOps were failing at scale.

  • Make sure the category name isn’t already used in another context. Just because nobody in B2B SaaS is using this term doesn’t mean it’s not used in another industry. You’ll spend too much time battling for search traffic if this is the case.
  • A category name that’s hard to pronounce or remember. Your goal is to evangelize the category. Just like a good brand or product name, the category name should be something that can stick in your mind and be pleasant to say.
  • Your category name doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s unlikely everyone on your team will agree on it. If it’s close enough, then move on. It may also morph over time. Listen to the market – if it changes it to an acronym, use the acronym. If it changes a word, adapt. Defining the problem and category story is more important.

While the category name may only consist of a few words, it may not be easy to land on one. “The name of the category was a major source of contention for us, said Sarah. “We had to do a lot of work internally to convince people that picking the perfect name that everyone loved was never going to happen. That was okay. You often see variations in the category name. Analysts often give categories names that are not the ones used by vendors, for example. The most important thing for us was to define the problem and create a point of view. That’s what people should focus on.”

Australian SaaS company Skyfii eventually landed on “omnidata intelligence,” a variation on the familiar term data intelligence. This similarity made it easy for their audience to know what ballpark they operated in, yet the addition of “omni” helped draw a separation between them and the hundreds of existing data analytics tools out there.

But the company didn’t choose a new category name purely for semantics. Skyfii’s solution not only fused together data from digital and physical sources, its data scientists were heavily involved in adding meaning to that data. Neither of these characteristics was reflected in existing categories.

Official vs. unofficial category names

When I say category name, I’m not necessarily referring to the official terms that G2 and other review sites use. Sometimes, those official category names are the same ones used in conversation, like project management software. When those line up with the category name you’ve defined yourself, that’s a bonus. But other times, they diverge. For example, you won’t find inbound marketing software anywhere on G2, but that’s as legitimate a category as any.

The reverse is also worth considering.

Sometimes an “official” category name on G2 is never used in practice, and you need to come up with your own. At BombBomb, we found ourselves in the other video software category. This isn’t really a category, and it’s certainly not a term buyers are actively searching for.

At the same time, our next best option was video hosting software, a category that covers a lot of unrelated solutions. Listing ourselves there would lead to confusion for our buyers. To solve this, we’re actively working on a better term to describe what we and our direct competitors do. Once that’s established, it will only help the entire category grow.

3. Bring your category to life

A category name and category story are just the building blocks. Ultimately, the concepts you develop through those exercises need to be supported by your positioning, messaging, visual identity, product roadmap, and pricing and packaging. Here’s how you’ll need to think about each:

Positioning

Positioning is simply the idea you want to conjure up in the minds of your buyers when they think about you. A positioning strategy is often created in the context of how you’ll relate to competitors.

Here’s how Andy Cunningham, one of the top marketing and PR people in Silicon Valley, thinks about positioning: “Now that you understand what category you’re in, what’s your differentiator? What is your role? What is your relevance? To me, that’s what positioning is. It’s the dot on the map inside that category.” Here is the interview with Andy about positioning.

But category designers also have to answer the question: how is category leadership defined? “If the category potential is real, you’ll see competitors start to emerge pretty quickly,” said Gina who also built the supply chain visibility category while at FourKites. “Baking in your differentiation from the beginning – preferably one with a high barrier to entry – will insulate you somewhat.”

To help you build a position of differentiation based on your strengths, check out Andy’s book, called Get to Aha!. It will help you find out if your company is wired to be a mother (customer-experience driven company), a mechanic (product-driven company), or a missionary (concept-driven company). 

Messaging

Once you develop your positioning strategy, you’ll need to create the right messaging to help you establish that position. Ideally, this should live in a document called a messaging framework. Just like designers have a visual identity guide, a messaging framework provides a reference for how to talk about your company and your products in different contexts.

Depending on how radically you need to depart from the past, you might need full rework of your messaging. Be prepared, as this work will also take time to get right. But remember, you are trying to show the world that you’re different from anything else it’s encountered before, and the words can go a long way to accomplish that. 

Visual identity

Chances are your visual identity may need some revisions to help establish your category design goals as well. Maybe there are new attitudes your brand needs to reflect, or perhaps you want to upgrade to your visual identity as a way of signaling new intentions. For some, this might represent a small change to colors or typography.

For others, it might represent an entire rebrand. For example, when Splunk developed a “data-to-everything” strategy, it created a new pink-and-orange livery to help announce the change. Remember, “Brands, or category leaders, die by a death of a thousand cuts,” says Anna Schena. “Small things that take away from your brand, or the category you are creating, build over time. Even though they seem trivial, they can make all of the difference.”

Product roadmap

Your product roadmap will do one of two things: it will bring you closer to your category design goals, or it will pull you in the wrong direction. Hopefully, though, your plans for category design can serve as a lens through which to view your product roadmap. You can start with a simple question: does this work help us build the category, or not? If you’re not sure, then it probably means you haven’t gotten enough clarity on what your category is and what it means for your company. Go back and reassess this work if that’s the case.

Packaging and pricing

For a SaaS product, packaging simply means the way you’ve broken your products into discrete offerings. Why is this a consideration for category design? There are two reasons. The first is that your goal as a category designer is to build the category first. That means you may need to think through how packing and pricing will affect your ability to get your product in the hands of the right people.

The second reason is more long-term focused. As the aspiring category king, it’s your job to define the terms of competition. If you become the king, then whatever choices you make for pricing and packaging will likely become the standard. For example, when Salesforce offered month-to-month pricing plans, that was a novel idea for software. But it soon became the norm for SaaS.

4. Evangelize your category

Once you’ve worked through the steps above, you still don’t have a category. You only have the raw ingredients needed to make one. You need to tell the world about your category, and you need to do that better than anyone else. That’s where the process of category evangelization takes place.

There’s something you should know before you begin this process of evangelizing your category. Perception is reality.

When you first begin, you will NOT be a category king. That’s because your category doesn’t exist yet. That’s why on day one, you don’t need to tell the story of present reality. What you do need to focus on, though, is a future reality. On creating the perception that this category is already coming into its own, and that your company is poised to become its leader.

According to Play Bigger, the company that does the best job of describing a buyer’s problem will be assumed to have the best solution to it. That assumption leads to new business. That business generates revenue, which then fuels investment in your products and evangelizing the category. With this flywheel effect, perception creates reality.

But evangelizing the category involves more than presenting a logical explanation of the facts. You must ignite emotion, too. If you can trigger one or both of the core buying emotions (fear and greed), then you’ll have a much better chance of making the category a reality and being seen as its leader. You can think of the category evangelization process as three on-going streams of work: creating content and executing lightning strikes.

Create content

My favorite way to think about content comes from Dave Gerhardt, CMO of Privy and former VP Marketing at Drift. It’s the idea of “sets and reps”. In this interview about Drift’s category design process, he explained that just like a weightlifter needs to get in his “sets and reps” to build strength, a category designer needs to talk about their new category day in and day out.

Your category story needs to be reflected on your website, in your sales decks, throughout your marketing collateral, on podcast interviews, and so on. In other words, if you’re talking about your company, you should be talking about the category. To do this right, involve your sales, marketing, and product teams to make them feel like they are a part of the process.

Don’t stop there, though. Your efforts also need to be supported by a category-centric content production plan. Create and promote blog posts, videos, webinars, podcasts, social media content, guides, etc. that show the world what this new category looks like and why it needs to exist.

For a great example of this, take a look at WebPT, a company that’s designing a new category around cloud-based tools for physical therapy offices. “We built this tremendous education engine around the business side of our industry,” said WebPT Co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer, Heidi Jannenga PT, DPT, ATC.

“This has become core to our business and a key contributor to our growth. Through educational blog content, white papers, guides, webinars, a robust annual report, and other content, we’ve become a trusted and credible partner in the rehab therapy space – something I think is mission-critical when you’re carving out a new, unknown category.”

Heidi continued, “We also host an annual conference called Ascend that’s open to anyone in the rehab therapy community – not just WebPT members – who want to learn how to improve business operations, their clinic’s bottom line, and excel as a therapy professional. Because we’ve focused on being advocates first and foremost for the rehab therapy profession by putting out valuable educational content, we’ve become the third-most sought-after resource for compliance and billing in rehab therapy, behind only the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the American Physical Therapy Association.

This has created a robust funnel of prospective customers who already know and respect the WebPT brand because of what we’ve done in terms of education and advocacy. Because we’ve established that trust when they’re ready to implement new technology, they think of us first.” Here’s the full interview with Heidi.

Also, consider writing a book – this seems to be de rigueur for B2B category designers today. It’s what we did at BombBomb, and it’s been a huge asset in helping us spread the word about the power of video messaging.

Check out:

  • Rehumanize Your Business by Ethan Beute and Steve Pacinelli
  • Conversational Marketing by David Cancel and Dave Gerhardt
  • Inbound Marketing by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah
  • ABM is B2B by Eric Spett and Sangram Vajre 
  • Sales Engagement by Manny Medina, Max Altschuler, and Mark Kosoglow

James Carbary, CEO of SweetFish Media and author of Content-Based Networking, said: “Writing and promoting a book is one of the most strategic things you can do when you’re trying to build a category. I decided to do just that with Content-Based Networking. I actually just got a text from a possible customer telling me that he ordered a box of my books for his entire team that he wants me to sign.”

If done well, evangelization tactics like this not only help build the category but will help you position your company as its leader. Remember: when buyers see that you understand the problem the best, they will assume you have the best solution.

Execute lightning strikes

Here’s the bad news. Even if you do a great job of building content that promotes your category, it’s probably not going to be enough to get the job done. There are so many things competing for your audience’s attention, that in order to get them to sit up and engage in a new way of thinking, you’ll need to do something much louder to break through all that noise.

That’s where “lightning strikes” come in. Lightning strikes are high-profile, high-effort, all-department blitzes that involve a lot more than simply adding dollars to a conventional marketing campaign. The goal is to shock the world into seeing things in a new way and to see you as the inevitable category king.

The most famous example of a lightning strike is Salesforce’s No Software protest. The company stages a mock protest outside the venue where Seibel System was holding its annual event. Thousands of Seibel employees, customers, partners, and analysts were forced to walk past these protesters, all of whom were demanding an end to software as the world knew it.

Here are further points on how lightning strikes differ from traditional marketing campaigns:

  • More than marketing. Unlike an ad campaign, lightning strikes will involve departments outside of marketing. For example, you could turn a major product release into a lightning strike that involves product, engineering, marketing, and PR.
  • High intensity. By their very nature, lightning strikes require a high level of concentrated effort. Be prepared to break up your routine and commit to making them happen.
  • Only a few per year. You can run a new marketing campaign every month, but not a lightning strike. Expect to pull off two to four in a year.
  • Focused on your category first. Lightning strikes are designed to help the world see the need for a new category. If all you’re doing is promoting your own brand, you’re missing the big picture.

Bonus tactic: hire a chief evangelist

“When you are trying to create a category, having no voice behind the rallying cry makes it very difficult,” says Derrick Thomas, marketing manager at SaaSOptics. “That’s why you need to have an executive or a point person to rally around – someone to become your evangelist and protagonist. This is someone who is active on social media and shouting your new category from the mountaintops. People follow people, not companies.”

One of the most effective ways to do this is by hiring a dedicated Chief Evangelist. The most famous example may be Guy Kawasaki, who evangelized Apple through the ‘90s and now does the same at Canva. More recent examples include Sangram Vajre, Co-Founder and Chief Evangelist at Terminus, and Ethan Beute, Chief Evangelist at BombBomb.

According to Ethan, “The essence of evangelism is basically, ’Good news! There’s a better way!’ You have a powerful, positive story to tell and one that people really like to hear. It’s a new conversation that people suffering the problem tend to enjoy having.”

Prior to becoming an evangelist, Ethan connected not only from Guy and Sangram, but he also learned from Dan Steinman and Dave Isbitski, evangelists at Gainsight and Amazon, respectively. If you’re considering this play yourself, check out these 10 tips on tech evangelism.

Category design is a constant battle

Category design is something you have to push forward every day – and for a long period of time. There will always be distractions and “shiny new objects” that tempt your team to go off track. It’s your job to ground your team back to reality and keep the company focused on your category story.

“Category design isn’t something you have to start on day one and finish 20 days later,” says Mike Damphousse, a partner at Category Design Advisors. “Category designs an ongoing discipline of how to do business. It takes years to build a category. In fact, the average is six to 10 years to get a fully established category.”

Yes, you’re going to sound like a broken record, but that’s just part of the process. Your audience will need much more time to internalize the problem then your own team will, so stay persistent! You’ll be glad you did in the long run.

Conclusion

There you have it. The process for building a category isn’t that complicated. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Nor is it something that a single person can do – in order to get category design to work as a company strategy, you have to get your entire team on board with the process first. Do that well, and the rest of the process will go much smoother.





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