“ On the web, your messaging should be a key part of your overall content strategy; it should inform your decisions about what to publish, the way your content is written, your design, and the imagery you use.”

Content May Rule the Web, but Message Comes First

What would you say if someone walked up to you and asked, “Who are you?” and then, “What is important about your work?” These are questions your website must answer in a matter of seconds, or risk losing its visitors. Yet many organizations’ websites fall short of answering these questions. As many of my new clients say, “Our website doesn’t tell our story.”

The key to answering fundamental questions on your website is to define the unique value of your organization and your work in a way that people can readily understand. You have to know what you want to say (the message), before determining how you’ll communicate it (strategy and tactics).

Many organizations skip the messaging step and jump straight into strategy, figuring out how they will reach their target audiences before they define what they want to communicate. Without coherent messaging, their websites may emphasize the wrong things—for example, a low-impact aspect of their work. Or, their websites may try to emphasize too much, becoming a virtual brain-dump packed with information yet hard to understand. (Think of overly long navigation menus and crowded homepages.)

An abundance of content—even interesting and valuable content—will not make up for a lack of focus and clarity. It will not make up for incoherent messaging.

Similarly, a great content strategy will not make up for the absence of a coherent, compelling message that resonates with your audiences.

The Challenge for Associations.  Associations have a particular challenge. It’s not easy to figure out how to talk about yourself succinctly when you are many different things to different audiences and you offer numerous services and products. Are you an advocacy organization? A charitable not-for-profit? An education provider? A professional society? A research think tank? A magazine publisher? Some associations are all these things.

Adding to these challenges are executives and board members with different ideas of what’s most important, and of course, the dreaded edict, “This has to be on the homepage.”

Communicating across multiple channels adds more complexity: There’s what you communicate in person at events, in publications, in marketing emails and mailers, in various social media channels, and on your website—in desktop and mobile views that may not show the same content, prioritized in the same way. How can a busy organization stay on message across all these media?

You Need a Message Platform. The first step toward speaking coherently across channels is to develop a message platform—a set of core messages that can be used and adapted for all your communications channels, including your web properties and social media. The message platform should include—

  • a positioning statement about your organization (who you are and what you do, why you and your work are uniquely valuable, why your audiences should care);
  • a tagline; and
  • a set of product statements and talking points for each of your major offerings and initiatives.

To help ensure that it will be adopted by everyone who communicates on behalf of the organization, the platform should be vetted by all the relevant executives, departments, and key external stakeholders.

To help a multifaceted organization communicate effectively amidst shifting priorities, the message platform can include notes on when certain messages should be used, e.g., around the time of the annual meeting or when an advocacy issue or product launch is top of mind.

Positioning Statement. Your positioning statement should read as though you were introducing your organization to someone who has never heard of it before. It should be easy to understand, compelling, and contain evidence of the impact you’ve had. (e.g., “We’re a medical society for [a type of] doctors. Our members developed a cure for [a disease] that is 80% effective and has saved nearly 5,000 lives in the past year.”)

Unlike your mission statement, the positioning statement does not need to be used verbatim, but rather can act as a touchstone for the organization, and can be adapted for use in various channels. On the web, it can be very powerful to use infographics and other visual means of communicating your impact as an organization. Some organizations, such as Grameen Foundation and SkillsUSA, have pages on their site dedicated to showing impact.

Organizations such as Charity Water put a version of their positioning statements on their homepage, replete with evidence of impact:

“We’re on a mission to bring clean drinking water to every person on the planet. And with the support of incredible people like you, we’ve funded 16,277 water projects in 24 countries so far.”

Tagline. Your tagline should be a succinct and memorable distillation of your positioning statement. It will be used verbatim in various communications channels, including on your website.

The other day, I saw a commercial for Scotch Blue painters’ tape that featured their tagline, “Pull off a better paint job.” I thought, Wow, they really nailed the tagline. It expressed the value of their brand perfectly, and I could almost hear the positioning discussion that ultimately yielded the tagline:

It’s a tape that keeps paint jobs neat, by not letting paint go where it’s not supposed to. It gives the painter very clean lines. You see the results when you pull the tape off. It comes off easily, without damaging the paint. It’s for the professional painter and the do-it-yourselfer. “Pull off a better paint job.”

The customer will never see a full positioning statement for this product, but the tagline says all they need to know.

One more thing about positioning statements and taglines: They need to resonate with your target audiences. That means, when writing these messages (and all messages), you must consider what your members and customers say about you, and what they value most about you and your offerings. Knowing this requires asking them—e.g., through surveys and interviews, and other less formal means. Scotch Blue knows that do-it-yourselfers are often insecure about undertaking big tasks like painting the house. Their tagline reflects that understanding and offers reassurance that the DIY painter can ‘pull this off.’  (Note: Scotch Blue tape is a product, but you’ll only need a tagline for your organization, not for every product or service you offer.)

Product Statements and Talking Points. It’s important to look critically at your most important offerings and initiatives and develop a brief statement and set of talking points for each one that can be used or paraphrased anywhere these work products are discussed or promoted. The statement should describe the offering, explain its value, and make the case for its effectiveness. Talking points should be shorter and punchier than the product statement. They can—

  • position the offering in relation to its competition by saying what makes it better than the rest;
  • address common misconceptions;
  • appeal specifically to a certain audience; or
  • relate the offering to a current event, trend, or news item that underscores its relevance and timeliness.

User-Test It. The success of any communication comes down to how the audience reacts. You don’t want to guess at this when putting out new messages. All your messages should be developed with the user perspective in mind—how your priority audiences think of you and your offerings, the language they use, and what they value most.

You should test your messages with a limited audience, to get their feedback. Message testing can be performed in a variety of ways, including focus groups (in person or online), surveys, and/or interviews. You’ll want to find out whether the messages are informative, whether they ring true to the audiences’ conceptions and understandings, whether the messages make your organization and its offerings sound appealing, and whether the messages are persuasive—potentially moving your audiences to act. You can also get input on whether there are crucial concerns or questions that the messages don’t answer. Testing your messages first will give you the chance to refine them before releasing them into the wilds of electronic media and other channels, where an off-target message can have negative repercussions your organization can’t control.

Activating Your Message Platform. Once your messaging has been tested and refined, it’s ready for rollout. Your messaging platform should spawn content that is consistent, strategic, audience-appropriate, and appropriate for each medium—direct mail, print, broadcast, digital, experiential.

In digital media, your messaging should be a key part of your overall content strategy; it should inform your decisions about what to publish, the way your content is written, your design, and the imagery you use. For example, if a key aspect of your positioning is that you bring professionals in your field together for knowledge sharing and collaboration, your content should—

  • explicitly say this is one of your key values, and highlight the benefits of networking.
  • feature images of networking gatherings.
  • promote upcoming networking events and include short recaps in social media channels, member newsletters, and/or your website. (Be sure to include photos to draw users’ gaze and increase the likelihood the content will be shared.)
  • include testimonials, videos, and other content that expresses an audience perspective on the value of the networking opportunities your organization offers.

Content decisions regarding what to publish and prioritization should fit the priorities expressed in your message platform. It’s not uncommon for me to discover that my clients’ websites contain too much content on topics that are simply not very important in the scheme of things, and too little content about their core activities, issues, and offerings. If you’re a professional society and there’s a huge legislative issue affecting your industry that you’re not talking about on your website, you are saying your organization has no opinion on that issue—or worse, you’re saying you are out of touch with important issues. Being on message is not just about what your content says, it’s also about what you communicate through the presence or absence of content.

You should adapt the message platform as your goals and audiences change, and to fit current issues and events that affect your organization. Just make sure to stay true to your core values and the demonstrable truth about your impact.

Summing Up. Regardless of who your organization is and what you do, you need coherent messaging behind all your communications, including your website. You never want people to come to your website and have trouble gleaning what you’re all about, what’s important, and how you make a difference.With a coherent message platform that defines what you want to say, it will be easier to communicate why you’re deserving of support.


Image credit: “Message in a Bottle” by Leyram Odacrem. Used with permission under the Flickr Creative Commons License.