Thursday, January 12, 2012

It's the Semantics, Stupid!

A Matter of Semantics
 I have to take a deep breath whenever someone brushes aside an argument as one over mere "semantics", as if there is a "reality" out there unperturbed by our linguistic filters. After all, "Why argue over words?" goes the common adage! And although that kind of attitude may temporarily get us out of a heated argument and allow the parties to save face, cool off, and part amicably, it is completely counter-productive when it comes to making one of the most important decisions about your startup, which is formulating its strategic positioning.

Why Strategic Positioning Matters
Coming up with the right positioning for your startup is at least half the battle (if not most of it)! For one, I have been involved with several startups where a change in that elusive positioning statement was the single most important contributor to its ultimate success or demise.

If you think I am exaggerating, monitor your own gut reaction to the following positioning statements: "to help people find the most relevant websites for their search queries" versus "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". Do you think Google would have been as successful in building a world-class team with the former statement, even though semantically they are basically referring to the same underlying algorithm (aka, PageRank)? Or would you feel the same about a company that aspires to be "the best website creation tool" versus one that aspires to be "the world's leading tool for small businesses to get online and grow their business", despite having the same technology? In fact, at Webs, where we made that exact change in our mission statement 18 months ago, we set in motion a positively reinforcing set of events that led to the successful exit of the company last month.

The Critical Role of Words
As the examples above illustrate, when it comes the positioning statement every word counts, as does the emotions they evoke individually and in combination with the other words in that statement. Choose those words carefully as each evokes a different mental state (e.g., "male sibling" evokes  very different feelings from "brother", despite referring to the same person).

Marketers are fully aware of this and spend endless hours on crafting the right slogan(s) and testing them against the audience. You can run your own experiments online by spending a few dollars on some Google ads and comparing variants of saying the same thing; can be quite fun!

When taken seriously, coming up with the right positioning statement by choosing the right set of words is not a trivial task; but once you get that single statement right you will see how much easier it is to recruit, raise money, motivate your team, and even set product development priorities.

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