Creating a Messaging Handbook
Updated: Apr 11
I’ve been working with a couple clients lately to create or overhaul their company messaging. It can be an intimidating task: How do we possibly sum up everything our company is and could be in a single document?! We are multitudes!
The answers are out there. They’re in the heads of the people who work at the company and use their products, little scraps of genius waiting to come out. You just need to create opportunities for the genius to emerge.
Messaging HAS to be a living, evolving thing because a company is a living, evolving thing. You are going to make messaging that works for now and attempts to lend itself well to the long-term vision of the company. You’re going to make small updates on an ongoing basis. And then, if the company is growing the way it should, you’re going to have to significantly overhaul it every couple years.
What’s a messaging handbook?
I recently asked the Twitterverse what to call a “core messaging doc that details a company's brand-level and down messaging, tone, etc?” Among the couple dozen options: Style Manual, Brand Messaging Doc, Brand Blueprint, Identonomicon, Brandbook, Brand Message Map, Brand Guidelines, Style Book, Brand Handbook, Code, Manual, Playbook, and Positioning Paper.
So it goes by many names. I’m feeling “messaging handbook” right now, so I’m using it here. But you do you…a messaging handbook by any other name would smell as sweet.
So, what’s the point of this handbook? I have good/bad news: your company is full of content creators – written, verbal, and visual content creators. From salespeople making their lil' pitches to social teams drafting their lil’ posts, they’re all creating content. If they’re saying the right things, they are doing a lot of good. But, if they’re out there doing their own thing, without an anchor to the company’s positioning, they could hurt your brand.
The messaging handbook is where you put your company messaging and other related guidelines, so that people can refer to it when they go to create their content. It’s the anchor, source of truth, content sourdough starter, messaging mana…metaphors abound.
So how do we make this thing? As you might imagine, messaging doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You need inputs. And after you create the messaging, you need to make sure your colleagues use it. Here is the typical process I use:
Review of current messaging materials, company strategy documents, and so forth. Read up to understand where the company is at with its current messaging and strategic plan.
Review of top competitor messaging. I generally don’t spend a ton of time looking at competitive stuff – what could be more boring than diving deep on a competitor’s blog? But a high-level assessment of their value prop and core messaging pillars, current taglines, and visual theme is helpful. In short: what are they trying to make sure the market understands about them?
1-1 meetings with key stakeholders inside and outside the company – executives, board members, top customers, perhaps an industry and/or financial analyst or two.
Host a workshop with a subset of key internal stakeholders (up to 10 people, 90 mins).
Draft the messaging handbook.
Socialize the draft for feedback (don’t forget legal!). Refine as needed.
Distribute and evangelize across your company.
Who participates in these interviews and workshops can be a delicate matter. Everyone wants a say, but everyone can’t have a say or it would never get done. I typically start with the C-suite, marketing and product department heads, and a couple key customers or particularly thoughtful board members.
Then I look for loose ends to tie up with subject matter experts. “The product marketer for X product is working on a whole new positioning for it and they’ll have strong opinions.” “We have a new APAC regional lead who will want a say on how we message in Japan.” These are discrete items that can be tackled separately. Don’t bring them into the core stakeholder workshop. Instead, book 15 minutes with them or ask them to send you their latest ideas in writing.
I recommend going wider on the socialization step. For example, if you had a CXO in your workshop, then ask them which of their senior managers should review the handbook after it's drafted. Going wider on this step helps you cover your bases. If people have a chance to review and provide their feedback, they are more likely to be supportive when you evangelize it.
As I said, the answers to what goes in the messaging live in the heads of your stakeholders. It’s your job to get them out. Work hard on your list of facilitating questions for the interviews and workshops. You can Google around for inspiration but starter ideas include: Who is our customer? What value do we provide them? What problems do we solve? What do customers say they love about us? How are we different from our competitors?
What goes in the messaging handbook?
The messaging handbook can be in the style of a doc, but I prefer a slide deck. It should be cloud-based, but the editing should be closed to you and a precious few trusted colleagues. If it gets really massive, then an internal, searchable website, like a wiki or intranet page, is also an option.
Elements of the messaging handbook might include:
Table of contents linked to each section.
Company Mission, Vision, Values, Cultural Pillars. These are often already established. If so, now is the time to stress test them to make sure they still hold up to what the company is today and the leadership’s vision for the future. If you’re just starting out, then this is the time to build them. Creating a MVV could be an entire post in-and-of-itself, so I won’t get into it here, but Hubspot does a good job.
Style notes. First, consider your voice, tone, and brand personality guidance. If you met your brand, what would they be like? Helpful? Irreverent? Youthful? Serious? Trustworthy? Provide some guidance here so your content creators don’t go way off base tone-wise. This is also where you note what stylebook you follow (i.e. AP, etc) or any other stylistic nits.
Company name and category guidelines. What is your company’s legal name? What is the name people actually use to refer to your company? What’s ok to use when? This was one we had to pin down at Zoom. “Zoom” is the typical usage, but we specified that our full legal name should be used for the first mention in a press release or other formal document. Plus, we had to nix rampant use of “ZOOM.” People love to all-caps that name for some reason.
Company fact sheet / timeline. It's good for comms to maintain a fact sheet here as a “source of truth.” This might include founder and founding date, investors, office locations, what growth metrics employees can cite publicly (for example, can you share this quarter’s revenues or just the % growth Q over Q?).
Brand-level “who are we / what do we do” positioning, including value proposition. Again, this is a whole blog that I’ll probably write eventually. In the meantime, I’ll turn to Hubspot again to provide some how-to’s. In short, it’s a statement that explains what value you bring to your customers.
Brand-level messaging pillars that underlie value prop, with supporting proof points. These pillars support the thesis of your value prop and tend to emerge naturally during your stakeholder sessions. You might hear repeatedly something like, “We need people to know that we are X. They don't seem to be getting that.” Let's say that X is "enterprise-grade," and you decide that should be a pillar. Then you need to provide impactful proof points, like what Fortune 500 customers can you name (or what % of the Fortune 500 are customers) and what are the top features and capabilities you have developed for the enterprise.
Brand-level positioning in a few formats (3 words, 1 sentence, 1 paragraph...). This will get cut and pasted by your team again and again. Not to oversimplify, but this is basically taking the brand level messaging you’ve created above and refining it into a couple different formats that will be used in everything from review sites to speaking applications to tradeshow forms. Typically a couple words, a sentence, and then 25 word and 50 word paragraphs are the most useful.
Service or product-level messaging. This is not meant to be as deep as what a product marketer would write about a product. Think of it as a single slide on each product or service its primary features and key benefits.
Audience-level messaging. Consider the people in the buying process. You may emphasize technical capabilities and manageability to your technical buyer. To the CXO you might describe how your product impacts the top or bottom line, company culture, or strategic plan. To the end user it might be about ease of use.
Geographic-level messaging. This is messaging considerations for your top geographies, often at the country level. For example, you may want to emphasize your local “cred” such as local office, headcount, partners, or data center. Or you may want to list factors that are particularly important to that region’s buyers, such as data sovereignty or ability to perform in low-bandwidth environments.
Additional resources. This is where you link to relevant resources. As examples, perhaps product marketing has created fabulous competitive messaging or a product terminology glossary, or the design team has published your visual brand guidelines.
This is my least favorite part honestly, but you gotta do it.
First, as I said above, you need an internally accessible, cloud-based location for the doc, such as your company intranet.
Then you need to go on a damn roadshow. All hands, department meetings, team meetings, company newsletter, company-wide emails/chats, office digital signage. Then do deeper dives with your super content creators (mostly your marketing and sales enablement content folks) on how they should use this doc in their work. Whatever you can think of, do it.
For the roll out meetings, make a few slides explaining what the doc is, why it matters, and what people can find in it. Encourage employees to bookmark it for future use. Finally, make sure employees know who to go to if they want to request updates or give ideas/feedback (for example, if they know a new product is coming out or want messaging for their geography).