April Dunford, Founder of Ambient Strategy and Author of "Obviously Awesome" on How to Drive Revenue Through Effective Product Positioning

In this episode, our guest is April Dunford, Founder of Ambient Strategy and author of the book, "Obviously Awesome: How to Nail Product Positioning So Customers Get It, Buy It, and Love It"

April is a startup executive with deep expertise around how companies bring new offerings to market. As a consultant, she offers advice on how to create practical positioning that accelerates marketing and sales for B2B companies.

This week, she joins Intricately CEO Michael Pollack and VP of Marketing Sarah E. Brown for a discussion on how cloud leaders can drive revenue through effective product positioning.


Full Transcript

Michael Pollack [00:00:10] Hello, everyone, and welcome to Selling in the Cloud, a podcast about the business of cloud sales and marketing, brought to you by Intricately, the authoritative source of digital product adoption, usage, and spend data for cloud sales and marketing teams. I'm Michael Pollack and I'm here with Sarah E. Brown. And we are your co-hosts.

Sarah E. Brown [00:00:39] Michael, welcome to the show.

Michael Pollack [00:00:41] Sarah, it's great to be here

Sarah E. Brown [00:00:42] in this episode, we're speaking with April Dunford, product marketing leader and author of "Obviously Awesome: How to Nail Product Positioning So Customers Get It, Buy It and Love It." Shall we dive in?

Michael Pollack [00:00:52] Let's do it. April, welcome to the show.

April Dunford [00:00:54] Hey, it's really great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Sarah E. Brown [00:00:56] Can you please give us a brief introduction – share a bit about who you are, some of your background, and how you got to be where you are today? And also a little bit about "Obviously Awesome".

April Dunford [00:01:06] Sure. So my background is, I spent twenty five years as a repeat VP of Marketing at a series of successful startups. I think in total I did seven. Six of those were acquired when that resulted in me working at five different big companies. The reason there's five, not six, is I did IBM twice and then about five or six years ago I decided, you know what, I've kind of done that... maybe I'll do something else. And I made the switch to doing consulting. And so today I'm a consultant and what I do is very, very specific. So I only do positioning work. And even more specifically, like I only work with tech companies. I only work with B2B because I don't understand or have any interest in consumer products. I generally work with companies that have a complex sales motion, so there's salespeople involved in getting a deal done. And I only do positioning work. So I'm generally working with the executive team on getting really tight on their positioning. So that's what I do.

Michael Pollack [00:02:07] I love that background. And I'm curious, you know, our audience is predominantly composed of marketing and sales leaders across the cloud space in general – cloud infrastructure, cloud sales. I'm curious when you think about your experiences in the B2B space... today's technology obviously is very different than the technology even a decade ago. But obviously, a lot of the sales tactics, the story, it's still the same. Can you give a little bit of context about, I guess maybe for you what's changed, but more importantly, what hasn't changed?

April Dunford [00:02:36] Yeah, you know, it's really interesting. When I started doing this work, I got a little bit of skepticism, I think, particularly from startup founders that were like, you know, positioning seems like an old thing, right. And we're we're into the new new. And so are we really doing that old thing there, April? The way you're talking about it? And in my opinion, the basic principles of positioning still for the way we apply them has changed a lot over the last 10 years. But the basic principles of, you know, we need to very clearly understand who do we compete with or who do we have to beat in order to win a deal? How is our offering different and better? What is the value that we can uniquely deliver to customers which customers care a lot about that value? What's the market that we intend to win? These are the basic building blocks of positioning and that hasn't changed. And in fact. I suspect that that is true for selling anything to anyone, anywhere, even though that's not what I do, I'm very specific on B2B. But, you know, I work with a lot of different companies doing a lot of different things, a lot of it's cloud based software. Some of it's not some of it's a mix of SAS and on prem and stuff. But the basic principles of positioning apply. As far as I'm concerned, it's not actually all that different. The one thing that is different is if we are talking about software that is more of a subscription model. It's interesting because we get to think about a longer term relationship with the customer so we don't just transact the deal and that's it. We're done and we can kind of not worry too much about them turning on us when we're in a subscription based stuff. I haven't made my money until you resubscribe for two or three years. So the idea of not just getting you on board, but keeping you there and making sure that you don't turn out to be is way more important now than it ever was before. But beyond that, I think the basic stuff and positioning apply.

Michael Pollack [00:04:35] I'm curious to follow up on that just a little bit. When you contrast this to earlier in your career, a decade ago or two decades ago, when there were less technology companies, that there were less people in the space, today there's more than ever. Right. The explosion of SaaS means it's easier than ever to start a company that's it's harder than ever to scale it. It's harder than ever to get your prospects attention. So this challenge of positioning is a bigger, much harder problem today than it's ever been ever. How is that changed? A little bit, because something we're sensitive to and something we think about for our customers is the noise that's in the space. It's so noisy. So how do you have to be more precise or more focused about positioning today that when the marketplace was smaller, maybe you could kind of squeeze by on or sneak by on today? You've got to get right. Are there things that you'd say, wow, this is the big difference in today versus the way it used to be? Anything jump out for you there?

April Dunford [00:05:28] So there's a couple of things like if you go back and read, like what is considered the reference textbook on positioning, it's this book called Positioning the Battle for Your Mind by these guys. This book was published in nineteen eighty two. So before the Internet and like most of the time I'm doing position in workshops and there's at least one person in the room that hasn't even been born yet. What that book is published. So nineteen eighty two. And what's really interesting about that book is the beginning of that book. It talks about how insanely crowded markets are and says, oh my gosh, the markets are so crowded, every market is so crowded. So you're really going to have to fight this market. And I'm like, oh man. Like if we thought it was crowded in nineteen eighty two, let's talk about it. It is now. So yeah, you're right. Things have gotten now that set back in 1982. There were a lot of things where we didn't even think we could solve those problems with software. And so we have software places now. We didn't think we were ever going to get software. But it's true. I think it is more important than ever to be able to stand out from the crowd, to be able to have people clearly understand what you do. And I think there's two things that are happening simultaneously. So one is, you're right, markets are way more crowded than they were before. The second thing is that if you look at the way buyers buy, if we roll the clock back to like the eighties or the nineties, if you wanted to buy technology pre Internet, it was actually really hard to find out any information about that technology. You pretty much had to go to the vendor to get information. So, you know, if I wanted to buy a database, I had to call IBM and Oracle and Sybase and say, please tell me about your database. And that's how we figured it out. Maybe there were some industry analysts out there you'd have to pay to get that information. So, you know, the vendors really held all the cards in terms of information. Now, what we've got is I don't go anywhere near a vendor in the early stages of the purchase process. I go and do that research myself because that information is clearly available on the Web. So in some ways that's great. I can go out, I can look on the Web, I can figure out how to make a short list. But in other ways that's actually terrible even for customers. So imagine I wake up in the morning, my boss says, hey, you, your job today is to go find us a CRM because our CRM sucks. We need a new CRM and you're like a typical buyer of CRM. You've never bought that before. Like this is a once a decade purchase. You're like, I've never bought a CRM before. Oh my gosh, how do I even know? How do I make a short list? If I get it wrong, my boss is going to be mad. All sales team is going to be mad. So I Google right. Like CRM, whatever. And I land on these comparison sites like G2 crowd and software advice and top ten. Scrims for whatever, and I got too much information and they all look the same like the worst is if you land on one of these comparison sites, like due to crowd Ketu crowd, we'll give you a quadrant. And in the leaders quadrant of this thing will be like twenty nine companies like Carnival Unite and twenty nine companies. You haven't helped me narrow it down at all. And this is kind of the dirty secret of these comparison sites. They actually make money off customer confusion, like the longer you stay in the oh gosh, I don't know who to put on the short list phase, the more money they make from you filling out forms and stuff. So you go in there, you're terrified and everybody looks the same. So the only chance you have as a vendor in this environment is that if that person comes across my marketing somewhere, if they make it to my website, if they like, happen to put me on a short list and I got a chance to actually pitch them, the big thing I have to accomplish with my marketing and sales stuff is how are you different from the 29 other things on my list? Because I have no clue. I don't know how to evaluate this stuff I never bought it for. And so that's why positioning is so important. Often a customer is landing on your Web site and trying to make that decision. Should I even put you on the short list? Never mind by you. Should you even make the short list? And I'm trying to decide that 30 seconds and I'm in. They're gone. Is this anything like is this anything? So our positioning needs to be so tight that a person comes to our website and within 30 seconds, 60 seconds can say, oh, I get it, you do this for these kinds of people and that's hard.

Michael Pollack [00:10:23] I would make a comment there that, you know, it's interesting the point you're making, because if anything, consumer brands, which I do not an area you focus on, but consumer brands do this really well. Do you think about certain consumer products they typify or part of the brand promise is who it's for. And you're right, the most businesses struggle with this because as a business owner, you want to be opportunistic, right? You don't want to necessarily say, well, my CRM only works for people that like the color red or my CRM only works with people like the color blue. But again, you have to make some decisions there. And it is interesting that I think most startups suffer from, to some extent, eating too much rather than starving. Right. That they can't position. They're too scared to position and say, hey, being niche to win takes confidence in your niche is way easier to say. Hey, we're everything to everybody, which in turn means you're No one to anyone, which gives those comparison sites plenty of business.

April Dunford [00:11:15] Exactly. Exactly. You're right. Like, I think consumer brands kind of out of the gate. Understand, the idea is we're not going to sell everything. Everyone, like, we got to figure out where do we win? And in B2B, I think it's often an afterthought, like we go in with the end in mind. And, you know, the worst part is, is a lot of startups will go and they'll raise money. So they'll go and talk to ABC. And ABC is like, OK, paint me the picture of where you are ten years from now. And you'll say, oh, gosh, ten years from now, everybody uses our stuff. It's going to be amazing. But you don't get there. You don't get to go zero to one hundred by just flipping a switch. Like you've got to actually establish a beachhead market somewhere. And when you've got a market that's this crowded, like, it's really hard to give people a reason to pick you, particularly if you're a little startup. You don't have the reference customers, you don't have the cloud, you don't have the brand recognition. Why would anyone pick your stuff? And so it's much easier to answer that question if you can narrow it down and say, you know what, there are better solutions out there for lawyers or dry cleaners or whatever. But we're for restaurants. And so we've got a bunch of special stuff restaurants. It's a reason to buy. And so a lot of the work that I do with clients is helping them understand what do they do better than other solutions on the market. But we can't just stop there. We have to say, what do you do better than other solutions on the market? What can you do for a business that no one else can do in terms of value? And then who cares about that? Because not everybody cares about that value the same. And so the key to really good type positioning is that matchmaking. Right? It's this unique value and a deep understanding of who really cares a lot about that value because they're the easiest people to go sell to.

Michael Pollack [00:13:10] You know, I think there's a great point in there. And somebody who now this is my fourth time as a founder. And one of the challenges that I think is endemic and happens to founders, particularly taking venture capital dollars is the VC think big because you look at big venture backed companies that have been wildly successful. Look at a Salesforce or Facebook or Google in their vision today. What they do is expansive. It's enormous, right? Google started as a search engine today. There's almost not a business they're not in. Right. And so I think the hardest thing particularly true of business life to is focus. And if you're willing to be an inch wide and a mile deep, you can get some insane outcomes. But it's terrifying. That means saying no to so many things to say yes to the few things that are worth it. And I think your point is valid. And I think, again, you've got a v.c potentially whispering in your ear saying, hey, build this multibillion dollar business, expand, expand, expand. And that's where I think a lot of startups struggle with telling the story of a. And being niche in the beginning is so hard because you don't see results quickly, you're living minute to minute, you're not seeing results fast enough.

April Dunford [00:14:21] And that's the thing. You're comparing you as a baby to all these other companies that are full grown adults. Right. So you're like, oh, man, Facebook does a niche down. They sell. Everybody is like, yeah, but when they started when they started, they were, you know, hot or not on campus. And that was very niche. So I have a story about this. Like I worked for a company where we at the beginning we had raised money and we raised money on this positioning that we were going to be enterprise CRM like CRM for big, big businesses. And the VCs loved our pitch. We raised some money that was all good. But it turned out that was absolutely terrible positioning because there was a giant this was Salesforce was around, but they were still selling just at the low end of the market. But there was a giant company in the market at that time, Facebook's huge publicly traded two billion revenue. So we're out there positioning exactly against them. Like we're sitting there going, oh, yeah, their enterprise CRM, we're enterprise CRM do, except we're like 30 employees and a million revenue and then a product that's way less mature. So the interesting thing was we eventually we had a little bit on the tech side that was quite differentiated from them. What we didn't understand at the beginning was the value of it and who cared a lot about that value. But eventually we ended up doing a deal with a big investment bank in the investment banking group. And what we learned there was that our special feature was actually really, really valuable to an investment banker. So we thought, oh, well, we're going to need down and just sell the investment banker. So we go back to the office and we're like, OK, we're not enterprise CRM anymore. We're CRM for investment banks. And I'm telling you first, inside the company, it probably took two months for us to convince ourselves that that was a smart idea and then we had to go sell it to the board. So we went into the board and we're like, OK, so we're not going to do this enterprise CRM thing anymore. We're just going to do CRM for investment banks. And they hate this idea. They're like, oh, you know, we didn't write you a check to be some little lifestyle business, just like how many investment banks are there? Like, how could you possibly be a billion dollar company if you're just selling investment banks? And so we did this thing where we went in and said, look, positioning is not like we carved in stone and it never changes. We're going to get there eventually. This is just the first step. So what we're going to do is we're going to go be CRM for investment banks. We're going to dominate that because we can win there. We can't beat Siebel anywhere else, but we can beat them there. And then once we beat them there, then we're going to be able to sell to all the other groups inside the investment bank. And then that's going to give us permission to actually go sell to retail banking. Now we're going to shift the positioning a little bit at that point. Now we're going to be CRM for banking, not CRM for investment banks. And then once we've got all the retail banks, then what's adjacent to that insurance? There's actually quite a lot of overlap. So then we're going to be CRM for financial services. And then if we manage to sell all the banks and all the insurance companies in the lab, well, then we're a giant company. And then we can maybe go right of enterprise CRM everywhere and we'll go see below. But we had to explain that to them. Like at the beginning, they were like, I don't like it. It's too small. You'll never make any money. That's what they kept saying. You'll never make any money. It's too narrow. And then what happened? Like, we had been limping along at less than two million revenue for five years. We shifted the position, got really focused on investment banking. The thing took off like a rocket ship. We had banks calling us from all over the place. We got out of this head to head thing against Siebel because suddenly we had this clear differentiation and we went from like under two million to like a little under 80 million in a year and a half. And then the end of that story is we end up getting acquired by Siebel for a billion and a half dollars. So like there's the board said, oh, you're never going to make any money. And we end up having the biggest exit of a software company ever at the time. There's been bigger ones since, but, you know, a pretty good outcome for everybody. So, again, it's counterintuitive. Then often your investors who aren't operators, who don't really understand how market adoption works, they just look at it again and say, well, gosh, Facebook targets everybody, so you should target everybody. That's actually not how adoption actually works in the real world.

Sarah E. Brown [00:18:51] I love your experience at smaller companies and of course, the larger companies. And that transition, I think, is one that our customers have made a lot of them as Gallup's grew to massive companies. And I'm wondering, once you get to that size and scale and you are selling to different markets and verticals, how do you help those companies think about people who are listening cloud revenue leaders and some of the biggest cloud companies in the world? How do you help them compete to win in this? I'm going to use the term crowded market.

April Dunford [00:19:18] We'll see. Here's the problem. The problem doesn't actually go away when you're big. And in fact, it starts to compound in some ways because the bigger you get, you're addressing this broader and broader market. So let's say, you know, so eventually you become the leader in this market. So I'm the gorilla in this market. But now what I've got is all these little fast moving startups trying to chip off a piece of that market to get their beachhead market. And I got a hard time fighting against them down there like we saw it when we were up against Siebel. We're like, we're going to chip off investment banking, because these folks, if you go on their website, nothing there looks special to banking. You know, they're trying to appeal to everybody everywhere. And we can come in and do this really specific thing. So if you're the market leader, you've got, you know, a handful of issues. One is you've got these smaller folks going around and trying to carve off pieces of your market. And so you have to defend against that by convincingly say, no, we're the market leader and we can address everybody. And it is not worth giving up all the things you get by picking the market leader to go for one or two little jazzy features that these little guys are going to give you. At the same time, if you're really big and you're publicly traded, you're at the mercy of the market. So you've still got to deliver growth even though you're really, really big and it gets harder and harder to grow once you're really big. And often what that means is what you're trying to do is expand the definition of the market that you already own. And you see it right now in big companies like I'll use Salesforce as an example. Right? First, they're just CRM, then their service cloud and they're marketing cloud. Now they've they've got this thing called Customer 360. They're also platform as a service and a whole bunch of other stuff going on. And so the challenge there is to not just, OK, here's the Hill, I summit the hill and now I've got it. It's like the minute you're at the top of the hill, everybody says, so how come you're not going any higher? So you either got to figure out a way to expand the market that you're already dominating, looking for new markets to get in and figuring out ways to squeeze growth out of the thing that is already really, really big, while at the same time defending against a million little ankle biters that are all around you trying to chip off a piece of your big block.

Sarah E. Brown [00:21:37] I want to ask you about data, because a lot of our clients, large cloud companies, will rely on intricately cloud product adoption usage and spend data to identify and prioritize their best opportunities. And often it's counterintuitive and they find opportunities that they hadn't thought of before. And so I'm wondering sort of how does data play into the strategies of your clients and how do you help them use data strategically, given that there's so much now available and out there?

April Dunford [00:22:02] So a lot of the companies that I work with will have long conversations about is there a metric for positioning, and so can you look at a metric that tells you whether or not your positioning is good? And unfortunately, there isn't, because if your positioning is weak, it kind of kills you all over the place, like it kills you at the front of the funnel, where it makes it really hard to bring a customer in because people can't figure out what you are. And then when the customer is in the misunderstand what you are, what you can do, the expectations are wrong. So you'll get the sluggishness mid funnel when you're trying to close a deal. And then sometimes you'll get a thing where your salespeople are pretty hard at. Weaving a story is just not necessarily true. So they'll bring people in and, you know, it will sell them. But then the customers like, wait a second, this is what I thought I was getting and then they turn on you. So the metrics are kind of off all across. And so you can't tell when the positioning starts going a little out of whack. It tends to just all you know is that things are feeling harder than they used to be. And it's bad all the way across. Most of the work that I do when we get looking at data, we generally can't rely just on quantitative data, although it is extremely interesting and important. But we usually end up using a mix of quantitative and qualitative when we're trying to figure out positioning stuff. So, for example, very early in my career, I worked on a product that we thought we should kill it. It was basically a failure. We didn't sell very much of it. The usage was really, really low. But what we did notice in the data was that the usage on certain customers, very small number of them was super, super, super high. And everybody else, the usage was like nothing. So when you talk to everybody else, they were actually using the product the way we were marketing it, and it just didn't really do anything all that valuable. The ones where the usage was super, super high. There was a pattern in there in the way they were using the product and they were using it in a very unexpected, unanticipated way. So we didn't expect people to do that with our product. But looking at the usage, we were like, okay, maybe. And so what it did was give us a clue that maybe we could take this product, reposition it as something else. Now, if we had to just take it, the data in totality, what we would have seen was that 94 percent of people that buy our thing think it's terrible, more or less. But what mattered was, you know, six percent actually will freak out if you try to take it away from them. And that six percent is doing something completely different. And we couldn't really figure that out without actually getting those folks on the phone and interviewing them. So I think the data is really important, but it also gives you clues and directionality, but it doesn't actually answer the question you're trying to get. So it'll give you a clue where to go look. But then you're actually going to have to go collect some qualitative data to go with it to get the full story of what's going on here and how do we take advantage of it.

Sarah E. Brown [00:25:04] Fantastic. For folks who are interested in learning more about you and your work, where can you direct them to?

April Dunford [00:25:09] So if you're interested in positioning, like I did a lot of positioning across my whole career and I was very frustrated that there were a bunch of good resources out there that defined what positioning was and did a good job of getting me excited about positioning. But there was nothing out there that taught me how to actually do it. So a couple of years ago, I wrote a book and published it. It's called Obviously Awesome. And that is my attempt to give you a framework and a methodology to actually do positioning. So if you're a B2B tech company, you can check that out. Otherwise, my website's April Dunford dot com. And, you know, once in a while I write a blog post or something, but I'm kind of a lazy blogger.

Sarah E. Brown [00:25:51] Well, thank you so much, April. It's a pleasure having you with us on the show. Thanks for joining

April Dunford [00:25:55] Hey, thanks so much for having me.

Michael Pollack [00:25:57] Awesome. Thank you, April. We appreciate it. We love the content. I love the book. I know our audience will benefit from it. So thank you for spending bit time with us today.

April Dunford [00:26:05] No problem. Thanks again for having me.

Sarah E. Brown [00:26:08] That's it for us. This episode may be over, but we can continue the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #SellingInTheCloud. On Twitter, I'm @SEBMarketing.

Michael Pollack [00:26:16] And I'm @MRPollack..

Sarah E. Brown [00:26:18] Thank you to everyone for joining us for this episode of Selling in the Cloud, brought to you by Intricately, the authoritative source of digital product adoption, usage, and spend data for cloud sales and marketing teams. If you like the show, head on over to iTunes, or wherever you listen to podcast, and please give us a review. We appreciate it. Until next time.

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