Written by: Aaron Taylor
Do you wish your marketing messages were more sharply focused on buyers’ needs or better explained how your firm is different from competitors? Do you sometimes struggle to answer your buyers’ tough questions? Do you wish you could anticipate these questions so you’d be prepared to address them?
If so, you are in good company. Many professional services firms wrestle with challenges like these. Fortunately, there is a tool you can develop to prepare your team—from leadership to marketing to business development—with the insights and arguments they need to overcome common objections and present your firm in the best light. We call this tool messaging architecture.
Let’s start by answering the question, “What is messaging architecture?” Later, we’ll show you how to use it and explain how to create a messaging architecture of your own.
What Is Messaging Architecture?
Messaging architecture is a document that equips your team with the language and arguments they need to overcome people’s natural skepticism and persuade them to take the next step in the relationship. It can address a variety of audiences, such as prospective buyers, influencers, and potential employees. It is a resource—intended to evolve over time—that contains answers to your key audiences’ most common questions, including difficult objections that, if handled poorly, could torpedo a promising opportunity.
4 Components of a Messaging Architecture
A messaging architecture document is simple in structure. In fact, it consists of just four types of information:
- Key messages: A list of the most important messages each audience needs to hear
- Objections: Challenging questions you typically hear from each audience
- Responses: Persuasive, well-reasoned responses to each objection
- Proof points: Evidence you can use to support your response if challenged
If you’re unsure what all this means, don’t worry. We’ll explain each of these components in detail a little later.
Why Every Firm Needs Messaging Architecture
Do you even need a messaging architecture document? After all, you’ve made it this far without one.
The case for creating a messaging architecture is simple. It gives people across your organization a central resource to understand your audiences’ biggest stumbling blocks—and provides the persuasive arguments they can use to overcome them. In short, it makes getting more of what you want (new clients, new employees, etc.) easier. And who doesn’t want that?
Who Is it For?
Will everyone in your organization need to use your firm’s messaging architecture? Probably not. It’s most useful to three types of people:
- Anyone who plays a role in business development
- Anyone on the management team (including anyone who hires top talent)
- Anyone who writes marketing copy
The most straightforward use case is in the business development function. Buyers who are trying to make the best choice in a marketplace crowded with service providers like to ask lots of questions. If your sales or BD team is prepared with thoughtful answers, that puts your firm at an advantage.
Similarly, members of the executive team need to understand how to address tough objections that may come from prospects, clients, and potential new hires. When the stakes are high, success goes to the well prepared.
A messaging architecture document is not just for addressing buyers’ questions, however. It is also a valuable resource for marketers who may want to anticipate possible objections to their firm’s website or marketing collateral. They can also apply it to the firm’s recruiting materials.
Of course, if you outsource any of these roles, such as marketing writing or certain business development functions, you may want to give them a copy for reference.
How Do You Use Messaging Architecture?
Messaging architecture is especially useful in two situations.
First, employees who play any sort of sales role—including, in some cases, client-facing delivery professionals—can use this document to prepare for common questions and objections. They don’t need to memorize anything verbatim, but they should familiarize themselves with the most relevant sections. For example, if your messaging architecture covers a wide range of audiences, these individuals need only study the sections relevant to them.
Second, it is a valuable marketing resource. Since each objection response is a compact piece of persuasion, writers can mine the text for language and reasoning that can address prospective buyers’ most common questions upfront. By approaching marketing copy with buyers’ objections in mind, you improve your chances of moving the relationship forward.
Your messaging architecture should be a living document. That means it is intended to change over time. As new objections arise, add them. This is your chance to think through the issue and craft a compelling answer.
How to Create Your Firm’s Messaging Architecture (with Examples)
If you have differentiators and positioning, have them handy—they will play an important role in this tool. If you do not have those, we strongly encourage you to go through the exercise of developing them. While differentiators and a positioning statement are not essential to a messaging architecture, they can really help articulate what sets your firm apart from otherwise similar-seeming competitors.
IDENTIFY YOUR AUDIENCES
Write down the audiences you want to address (don’t forget prospective employees, if finding talent is a challenge). A basic list might look like this:
- Prospective clients
- Influencers and referral sources
- Potential employees
Depending on the nature of your business, however, your list might look very different. For instance, you might serve several different industries that ask very different questions. Or you might sell to different roles in the organization, each with a different set of objections.
Caution: Keep this list simple, otherwise you will find yourself with a tangled spaghetti of permutations. For instance, we don’t recommend listing different buyer audiences and buyer roles. That way lies madness.
LIST YOUR KEY MESSAGES
Make a list of critical messages that each audience would need to hear to feel confident in selecting (or in the case of influencers, recommending) your firm—or choosing you over a competitor. Here are some things to think about as you consider potential messages:
- Each message should make a single, easy-to-understand point.
- Keep your list relatively short (6-12 items are typical).
- If you have a list of differentiators, include any that are relevant.
- What challenges does the audience face? Try to answer each challenge with a key message.
- What special talents, processes, technologies, track record, etc. do you bring to the table?
- What are the things each audience has to hear in order to choose you?
EXAMPLE (AN INTERNATIONAL CONSULTING FIRM):
Key Messages: C-Suite
- We are the world leader in business simulations and experiential learning
- We know your industry and a great deal about your business already, so we can be on-site helping your team right away
- Our clients include many of the largest companies in the world
- We custom design our engagements to address your specific challenges
- We have 31 offices around the world, more than 500 employees, and the ability to deliver services in 15 languages
- We help companies retain talent by teaching their employees how to contribute to the success of their business
WRITE DOWN LIKELY OBJECTIONS
An objection is a verbal obstacle you must overcome in your pursuit of a new client, a talented prospective employee or some other objective. Here are a few common examples:
“Why would I hire your firm over another competitor?”
“You aren’t located in our city. We prefer to hire local companies.”
“A big global firm has offered me a job. Why would I work at your firm, instead?”
Do any of these sound familiar? Think of similar objections you have encountered in the marketplace, and then write them down. Do this for each audience you’ve identified. In the next step, you’ll develop answers to each.
DEVELOP YOUR RESPONSES
Write a well-reasoned response to each objection. Keep in mind that in most cases responses will be delivered orally. While nobody is expected to memorize these responses verbatim, each should be written in a way that sounds natural—as if it were spoken. The points will be easier to articulate and remember if they are formulated the way people actually speak.
Your goal is to provide just enough information to put your audience at ease—not overwhelm them with detail. For inspiration, refer to your key messages, differentiators, and positioning statement (if you have these last two).
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you write:
- Try to keep each response to about 4-8 sentences. Make every sentence count.
- Write in simple, non-technical English. Remember, these are meant to be heard, not read.
- Keep referring back to the objection. Ask yourself, “Am I actually answering the question?”
- Try to understand what each audience needs, including things they may not talk about. For instance, a middle manager may need to be reassured that their decision is not going to get them fired.
- The more specific your argument with details, the stronger it will be.
EXAMPLE (REGIONAL ACCOUNTING FIRM):
Objection: Why would I choose your firm over a Big 4 firm?
Response: You may not have heard of us, but we have 22 offices, nearly 1,000 employees, and clients in almost every state. That’s more than enough resources to handle your account. But the best reason to choose us is the exceptional value we bring to the table. We have as much experience as Big 4 firms—in fact, more than 20% of our accountants have Big 4 experience—but you also get more face time with partners and a lot of ongoing, proactive advice. And unlike the big guys, we don’t throw a lot of junior people at your account. You see, we’re not about maximizing billings. We’re about growing your company, improving your bottom line, and saving you money.
SUPPORT EACH RESPONSE WITH PROOF POINTS
If you have any compelling evidence to support your argument, document it in a short paragraph below your response. The more quantifiable and specific your proof points, the stronger they will be. Here are some examples of things you might reference:
- Statistics that demonstrate your success
- Research results that support your assertions
- Client references who will vouch for your claims
- Case studies that demonstrate your experience and expertise
EXAMPLE (TO ACCOMPANY EXAMPLE IN STEP 4):
- Our firm is ranked the 23rd largest accounting firm in the country by Accounting Today.
- In a third-party survey of our clients, 94% said they had referred us to others—a resounding endorsement of our service and business results.
- Talk to our references and ask them how we compare to Big 4 alternatives.
- Read our case studies to see the kind of work we’ve done in your industry.
How Long Should it Be?
How long should your document be? In theory, your messaging architecture should be no longer and no shorter than it needs to be. Chances are, that’s not a very helpful answer. Some organizations like to build a comprehensive manual containing many dozens, even hundreds, of objections, while others prefer a more practical resource that won’t overwhelm their team. If you really aren’t sure, we suggest that you begin by writing 2-4 objections and responses for each audience. That will generate a document that’s just a few pages long. Then you can expand from there if you need to. Of course, if over time you find some of the objections aren’t, in fact, real-world objections, feel free to cut those loose and retain only the relevant ones.
Put What You’ve Learned into Practice
Messaging architecture is a convenient way to document common objections, articulate the best responses to them, and train your team on how to address thorny questions. Its goal is to make critical interactions with your audiences smoother—and to enhance the credibility of your firm at every turn.
To get started, assemble the members of your team who are most familiar with your audiences. Together, develop a list of possible objections and discuss the best arguments to overcome them. Then select a good writer in the group to turn the discussion points into clear, concise text. Ask each audience expert to review their section and suggest refinements. When you are done, start putting it to work. Or if you want help preparing this document (and your differentiators and positioning), you can outsource some or all of the process. At last, your team will know how to talk about your firm and respond with confidence to those tough, often make-or-break questions.