Here’s the thing about value propositions: you don’t create one. You can’t. You, simply have to uncover one.
This requires you to get your hands dirty by talking with your customers. Not once. Not early on. Continuously. And it sounds easy, in theory.
But ask people, “do you talk to your customers?”
“Oh, yeah!” they’ll say. “All the time. We’re great at getting success stories.” (BTW: no one wants to call these ‘success stories’.)
If this is true—and I highly doubt it is—no one ever does anything with all those stories. Don’t believe me? Ask that same person where they keep them.
“Oh, they’re all in my head,” they (likely) say. Which doesn’t do shit for anyone.
Instead, most value propositions come from a few key people in the company sitting around a conference table asking each other why they’re so awesome. This feels like “creating” a value proposition. But really it’s a shortcut to doing the actual work of talking to people who pay for your service or product.
A friend of mine refers to this as “sniffing your own farts.”
Sure, it seems logical to ask the head of sales and the head of marketing and the CEO what they think. Talking to customers is time-consuming and there’s so much else to do, right?
But you know what that lacks? Perspective. And context. And any sense of what really matters to people. You smell that? Yep, farts.
This isn't going to be a post about how to do customer research. If you want to know more about that, I have a whole training you catch watch.
What this is, is a post about strong value propositions, what they look like, and how to use them. So, buckle in kids. Cuz this train is leaving the station...
So What Is A Value Proposition, Anyway?
I’m gonna guess you’ve read a lot about what a value proposition is and isn’t. But I still see people struggling, for reasons I already mentioned (it had to do with farts—which for the record, I’ve now mentioned an astonishing 3 times!).
Regardless of what you know, I want to do this one more time, taking a bit of a different tack.
So much of what makes great copy work revolves around having a strong value proposition. If you can clearly and quickly communicate your company’s value to a visitor or reader, you’re light years ahead of your competition.
Yet, despite the importance of having a strong value proposition, so many companies have a weak one. Or a wrong one. Or, as is more often the case than you’d believe, they don’t have any idea of what their value proposition is at all.
Don’t believe me? Visit a few websites and tell me if you can understand—within 5 seconds—what that company has to offer you.
At best, most of them lead with a product or service.
A value proposition is an answer to a question. It’s the cure for a pain. It’s a simple statement that tells people you have what they need.
It’s clear. It’s simple. It’s in a customer’s language. And it’s the most powerful differentiator you’ve got.
Conversely, it’s definitely not cute, not a pitch, not an outline of your product features, and not a tagline.
It simply and clearly answers the customer’s internal question, “Why should I choose you?”
And the great thing about a good value proposition is that it doesn’t matter if you’re in a commoditized industry or not. If you do it right, your customers will tell you what sets you apart from everyone else.
You just have to ask.
How to Write Reveal Your Value Proposition
Forget canvases. Lose the worksheets. Ditch the formulas. There are no shortcuts.
A good value proposition—one that registers with your ideal customers, immediately—comes from...your existing customers.
That’s right, friendo. I’m talking about talking. To your customers. Well, to be more specific, I’m talking about asking them a bunch of the right questions.
I approach every new client as if I’m a talk show host. I want to be the Oprah, the Marc Maron, the Howard Stern, of copywriting. See, the best copywriters know that you’re not being paid to write—not right away. You’re being paid to ask questions, dig for gold, scour the depths of the internet and customers’ brains for something unseen. You’re being paid to listen, not write.
Before I can ever write a word for a client, I have to know everything about them.
And, yes, I can ask them some good questions and interview a handful of their team members and recognize trends, nothing tells me more about them than their happiest customers.
Because the happiest customers (usually the ones who are still paying you) are where you get your best value propositions.
So, to answer the big hairy question, “How do I write a value proposition?” the answer is, you don’t.
You can’t. All you can do is provide a product or service that meets people’s needs.
And when you do that enough times for enough people, your customers will provide one for you.
A Value Proposition Example
One of my long-time clients, Atlantic Metro, wanted to update their website copy. They were unhappy with the way it looked, it didn’t really differentiate them from other IT infrastructure service providers, and they weren’t getting many quote requests through the site anymore.
Their existing copy made the mistake I mentioned early—the one so many companies make. They led with their products. Because, when they put their top people in a room to talk about site copy, it made sense to do that. It’s what they sold and it’s what people bought. Duh.
So the first thing you saw on their old site was the name of a package of services that meant nothing to a visitor. There was no context. They talked about infrastructure, reliability, and flexibility. They called themselves “turnkey.” All of these things were true, but in the end, none of it mattered.
Because they knew their customers were “product aware” (which I’ll explain in a minute), they thought it made sense to talk about the “products” customers were looking for.
And while that might be sort of true, it’s not the whole truth.
Because, as the old saying goes, “people don’t want a drill, they want a hole.”
Essentially, by leading with their products, they were jumping the logic line.
What I mean by that is, potential customers need to go through a series of logical steps to get to a purchasing decision. You can’t jump the line in this logical series or people will bounce.
A good salesperson knows this. In a face to face sale, you have to engage the person where they are so you can move them through “checkpoints” to make a decision.
These checkpoints are better known as “stages of awareness.” And a strong value proposition depends on your understanding of them.
Let’s take a tangent for a moment...
Understanding the 5 Stages of Awareness
There are five stages of awareness that a copywriter (or business owner) needs to know.
At any given point, people who find out about your business could be anywhere along this spectrum. Some may know they have a problem and are seeking a particular solution. Some may know of a number of solutions and are deciding which product best meets their needs. Some—the best kind—know, like, and trust you and are just ready to give you all their money.
It’s important to understand one stage is not necessarily “better” than the other. The level of awareness is just an indication of what your prospective buyer knows, where you need to start, and what you need to say to them to get them to the next level.
Because that’s the goal, to help move them toward a purchasing decision by moving to the next level.
To be able to write a good value proposition—again, one that resonates the most with prospective buyers—you’ll need a solid grasp of the buyer’s level of awareness. This means you need to ask your customers specific questions that unveil their level of awareness.
This is the mistake many people make when talking to customers. The act of talking to them isn’t enough. You think talk show hosts are just randomly firing off questions?
Plus, you can’t just call customers up or send an email to ask them how aware they are. They won’t know.
But if you can understand their context before, during, and after making a purchase, you’ll have all the insights you need to craft your value proposition.
Basically, you need to conduct small case study interviews with your customers. (For a list of those questions or to see what my case study process looks like, check out this post).
Now that you understand stages of awareness, back to my earlier example…
Atlantic Metro wasn’t leading with their value proposition; they were leading with a bundle of services and jargon that meant nothing to no one. In fact, they weren’t even 100% clear on their value proposition.
Again, here’s what their site looked like:
It became apparent that their value prop was unclear when I interviewed their C-suite and sales team. They all gave answers that were vaguely similar but had no alignment. I noted their answers and quickly moved on to customer interviews.
In this case, I’d already done a handful of case studies for them, so I had transcripts of all my calls. I went back through those transcripts and pulled out any relevant words or phrases that would speak to why customers loved working with Atlantic Metro.
To their credit, Atlantic Metro’s internal team was close. Their customers vocalized similar ideas. They just weren’t aligned. And none of it was conveyed on their website.
In the end, customer service was at the top of the list. And the way the customers described it was so much better than the way Atlantic Metro was talking about it on their site.
My job, then, was to find common ground using the customer’s language.
“One-Stop Shop”: Turning Feedback Into a Value Proposition
Every customer AMC customer I interviewed used the phrase “one-stop shop.” They liked that they didn’t get farmed out to other service providers. They felt Atlantic Metro took care of them with a hands-on team that could solve any problem. Many of them mentioned that the same person took their phone calls time and time again.
The problem was, “one-stop shop” is a cliche. It’s one of those things that sounds good on the surface, but doesn’t really say anything. It makes a terrible value prop.
But the idea underneath it was strong, so I kept digging. I turned to review sites and forums online to see what other keywords and phrases I could people were using from the industry.
Then, taking all those customer interviews, and all that internal feedback, and pairing it with some data mining from the good old interwebs, I started to play around with this idea. I filled pages of legal pads with ideas like:
IT infrastructure made easy
Complete control when you need it. Peace of mind when you don’t.
An IT infrastructure between behemoth and boutique
Large IT infrastructure with a hometown feel
Too many of these felt like catchphrases or taglines; something a value prop definitely IS NOT. None of them fully captured the care customers talked about. And none of it was simple enough.
Eventually, I ended up with “One Vendor, Lots of Options, None of the Hassle”
Boom! We had our value proposition. And it checked all the boxes…
When I presented the idea to the team, they were unsure at first. But when I explained that I hadn’t simply made it up (and some people do), but used customer research to arrive at it, they were on board.
From there, we were off to the copywriting races.
What Do You Do With Your New Value Prop? Everything!
Now that we had nailed a stronger value proposition, we put it to use.
Every word that went into the new site copy revolved around this central idea. We simply had to have a logical conversation with our customer from this point forward.
See, we knew from our research, that Atlantic Metro’s customers were product aware. They knew they had a problem with their IT infrastructure. They knew what solutions (or companies) existed. They simply needed a reason to choose us over the other guys.
By speaking directly to what existing customers liked best about us, we were able to do just that.
Here’s what the new site, led by a clearer value proposition looks like:
This new copy—along with a tighter messaging hierarchy and better design—led to a 54% increase in leads through the website, nearly overnight!
Now, we all know numbers can be fudged, right? If they only got 2 leads and now they got 3, technically, they’re up 50%. But that’s not the case here.
As soon as the new site launched, they were seeing 3-4 new leads a day! Before, they were getting 3-4 a month.
That’s the power of customer-driven value proposition.
Before I end this thing, let’s recap what the work that went into uncovering this value proposition:
Avoided internal marketing speak
Stopped guessing at what our value was
Talked to customers about what our value was
Iterated on a simple idea (one-stop shop)
Anchored our copy with a strong value proposition
Created a messaging hierarchy based on the level of awareness
Let copy dictate design for a more natural “conversation”
Told the right story to potential customers
Differentiated ourselves in a commodity market
Apply This NOW - How to Uncover Your Irresistible Value Proposition
Whether you think you have a strong value prop or you don’t have one at all, chances are there’s work to be done.
The good news is: all you have to do is ask your customers the right questions. Here’s the high-level breakdown of the process I described above. Steal it, adapt it, put it to good use.
Step 1: Do your research
Talk to your paying customers. Send them email surveys. Look through chat logs. Talk to the sales team, and CS team, and marketing team. Scour old case studies. Write new case studies. Get your hands dirty!
Remember that a 3rd party interview is more objective. Customers will tell outsiders way more than they’ll tell you (hint, hint)
Use their words back to them. Marketers don’t talk like customers do. Ignore marketing speak and talk like your customers, even if it makes you uncomfortable at first.
Hot tip: Don't look at your competition’s copy during your research phase. It doesn’t matter what they’re saying and it will just get stuck in your head like a bad song.
Step 2: Compile your research
Looks for trends in the words and phrases you’ve uncovered.
Sort words and phrases into categories like: needs/wants, pain points, hesitations and anxieties, triggers
Step 3: Write Your Value Proposition
This is the fun part. Scribble down every bad idea you have. Put it on a whiteboard. Force yourself to find new ways to say old things.
Make sure you focus on conveying value, not coming up with something catchy or clever like a tagline. There’s a fine line here.
Step 4: Test it
Use it everywhere. Landing pages, emails, LinkedIn profiles, etc.
Measure conversions. Measure click-through rates. Measure people’s reactions and comments. Measure the speed of closing deals or the number of new inquiries. Just measure something.
Only change things when you’ve gotten new information or feedback to warrant a change. If you’re looking for a quick fix, remember to give it time.
Whether you use my four steps or need something more, that’s fine, but it’s worth revisiting your value prop at least once a year.
And if you smell farts? Step away and talk to some customers. Or blame the office dog. (You know I had to squeeze one more in there, right?)
*An edited version of this post first appeared on the Kapost Blog.