How to Fix a Broken Product Narrative

Think of all of the SaaS products and apps you use and love – Asana, Miro, Slack, Loom. Someone who’s never heard of them asks you what they do. Trust me, I live ten minutes north of the Golden Gate bridge and folks haven’t heard of Slack here. You start saying, “Well, it’s like the Zoom of X” or “the Airbnb of Y.” After some answers that lead to more questions, you give up and just pull out your phone and show your friend the app. 

Most SaaS products suffer from lack of a compelling story. A story that wraps around the product and gives it context in the target audience’s universe. We often see great product’s defaulting to the origin story of the company or the point of view of the founder. Marketing strategy will take those pieces and get the engine running – creating taglines, positioning statements, value propositions, social media messaging. It becomes a narrative. However, these types of narratives are brittle and easy to break. A shift in the market or new competitors entering your space and all of the sudden product growth is stalling. Something is not working in your narrative anymore.

Once the narrative breaks, it creates confusion internally, disconnects buyers from your product, and ultimately churn, no matter how good your product is. 

So, how do you know if your product narrative is on the verge of breaking or already broken?

Start with The Fundamentals 

Your product narrative is already going to be broken if you don’t first have the right foundation in place:

  • understanding who your potential customers are

  • understanding what their pain points are 

  • positioning your product in your customer’s experience 

This is the very foundation. All of the bells and whistles build on top of these three elements. If you had nothing else but these three components linked together cohesively, you would have an unfair advantage over your competitors.

Do you understand who you are targeting with your product?

If you don’t fully understand your target audience, it’s going to be near impossible to write a narrative for them. Limewire does a great job of this. If you look at their home page, they assume you know what an NFT or digital collectible is. Their product narrative is laser focused on collectors and creators who buy and trade NFTs. Limewire isn’t trying to educate the uninformed.

Some products are horizontal and meant for everyone. These are the hardest product narratives to write because one narrative needs to resonate with very different types of potential customers and what they do in their day-to-day. It can absolutely be done, but you have to be aware this is an advanced narrative you will need to create. Often these SaaS products have generic messaging on their website that ends up being meaningless because it’s missing a broader story to resonate for many different types of people.

Do you understand your customer’s problems? 

There are two types of customer problems: the obvious pain points that your customer has and already knows about, and the problem that you reveal to them that they now can not unsee. For the known problems your customers have, there is a sea of competitors that you will be battling it out with for incremental territory. Doable with the right product narrative, but not as powerful as a problem that you set up for your customers so that they go home mulling over and can’t get over. 

The problem potential customers “can’t unsee” is the front porch you build for your customer to step through the front door to your product. It’s the easiest and most powerful way to draw them into your product narrative. They want to be given a solution. It’s human nature for our brains to want to solve problems and get the feeling of achievement, closing, checking something off.

Do you understand the context of your customer’s problems? 

Your customers’ problems aren’t isolated. There is a universe of factors surrounding them and the reason they haven’t been able to solve them yet. You need to deeply understand the challenges and constraints of your customers’ business.

When you do understand the context of their business, you can position your product features as thoughtfully designed to solve their specific problems. Do the heavy lifting for them, show them you not only understand the problems but the context of those problems.

And that doesn’t look like creating a template of product feature bullet points.  A picture of the product on the right, a headline on the left, and three bullet points of features or attempted value propositions. Add context to how you got there. We may understand a customer’s problems, but if we don’t understand the context of their business and are slightly off, all of the sudden our audience doesn’t feel known anymore. They will correct you, challenge you, confront you with questions if you don’t have enough context on their business. 

Why do Product Narratives Break?

Now that we know the foundation a product narrative needs, let’s talk about five reasons why they break and what product managers and product marketers should look out for.

Reason #1: The narrative is boring

One of the biggest problems is that the narrative is boring. There are no peaks and valleys, just a flat line of slides. A report out of events, like a book report of your product. Customers can tell when you’ve thrown a bunch of slides together with no real story architecture, without spending any time considering if the story you are telling is even interesting. Or the opposite: you are passionate about your product, but ramble on very specific, technical parts that your customer doesn’t really care about, or doesn’t have enough context to understand why it matters. You don’t have to be a great storyteller to tell an interesting, thoughtful story about your product the first time.

On top of the foundation I mentioned above, your product narrative needs three main ingredients for a great story: suspense, surprise, and stakes. Sprinkle these throughout your narrative intentionally and you’ll keep your customers engaged with you.

In a product narrative, these elements can look like this: 

  • Stakes create the drama and urgency – why the problem is critical, why customers need a solution today and what happens if they wait

  • Suspense builds the excitement that we actually have the answer and it looks like our product

  • Surprise shows them how your product thoughtfully solves their problem (remember, not burying them in a list of features) and why you do it better than the competition. 

All three of these elements do the hidden work of nudging your customers to keep moving through your story and stay connected to hear the ending.

If you really want to uplevel your narrative, use humor, relatability, and your unique presenting style to the mix. In the corporate world, these tend to be the hardest for folks to lean into because it requires you to show some level of vulnerability of your true self, outside of the corporate person people know. 

I remember delivering a competitive narrative I had written about Slack and Office 365 to 400 sellers, and before I landed the one thing I wanted them to remember, I would tell a story of how the place I paddle boarded actually used to be a WWII shipyard. I took the time to paint a vivid picture of a WWII shipyard. I knew if I shared that story right before the one thing I wanted all of these sellers to remember, the humor, vulnerability and surprise would stick together. As I did this, it also taught the sellers to be confident in sharing their own stories when they needed to deliver critical messaging to a customer.

Reason #2: Your customers have a growth-spurt

Sometimes a product narrative breaks because your customers are having their own growth spurt. Your product narrative may have been a bullseye when you created it, but the market can move quickly. When I wrote Slack’s first product narrative, in three months the market had already evolved and we needed to update the product narrative so that it was relevant. Customers were facing different economic challenges and had outgrown the problems we defined for them in our narrative.

Reason #3: Your narrative has no urgency

If your customers outgrow the problems you define for them in your narrative, your product story may be interesting but it will have no urgency. And with no urgency, your product becomes a nice-to-have, thrown on the backburner competing for budget with all of the other nice-to-have products. I thought a lot about defining urgency when writing Slack’s product narrative for customers who were using Microsoft Teams. Teams was a much cheaper price point, bundled solution, but subpar product experience. In a pandemic, many C-suites were choosing price point over great remote working experiences for their employees. When the Great Resignation began to hit the US media and 57% said they were looking for a new job, I used stakes in our narrative to create urgency that this could happen to your company as well if sub par productivity tools were part of your employee experience.

Reason #4: You shift your business model or go-to-market

Another thing that can break a product narrative is a shift of your go-to-market. You can see this in companies that shift upstream from B2C to B2B, change markets, or in acquisitions where an enterprise acquires a startup with a self-serve model that now needs to pivot to be a business unit. These are entirely different customer journeys – with different problems,  motivations, budgets, and buying cycles. 

An example of this is when Medium, a creator driven publishing platform, moved its business model away from ads to focus exclusively on subscriptions. The thought was shifting to subscriptions would decrease the click-bait, low quality content the platform was riddled with, and move to high quality content that would one day steal the audience of magazines and book publishers. Unfortunately, this business model shift broke their product narrative. It was not clear what kind of stories the subscriber would get from what kind of writer. The answer seemed to be all types of stories, for everyone, and anyone. Exactly what the old model was. The marketing copy changed but there was no new product narrative around why Medium was shifting into a new category.

Another example was when I worked at Keboola, an all-in-one data platform, our product narrative targeted data engineers. We started to see more and more data engineers using our product from financial services. So we decided to put all of our marketing and sales efforts behind targeting financial services to capture a new industry. This required us to build a customized product narrative for commercial banks. Data engineers didn’t have buying power in large commercial banks and the only business units bringing in new data technology into old banking infrastructure were teams tasked with innovation and digital transformation. We needed to create a narrative that resonated with their problems and business context.

Reason #5: Your founder breaks your narrative

Narratives break when companies attach their product story to the company founder. It can work incredibly well at first especially if the product is taking off, but let’s face it – though some leaders may seem infallible, at the end of the day, they’re all human, like the rest of us. 

And when they make mistakes, it can break your narrative immediately – and sometimes irreparably. We see that playing out with Elon Musk and Tesla. He’s basically a one man PR machine that throttles customers’ perception if they want a Tesla or not based on his latest opinions. As we see more competitor electric powered cars emerge to the Tesla, this could stall product growth.

How To Fix a Broken Product Narrative

There are more reasons why a product narrative may break, but once you understand that your product narrative is an evolving story, you can fix your breaking points quickly.

Let me show you how to fix the beginning and ending of your product narrative because that’s the most important part of your narrative. That’s what people are going to remember. 

Earlier we talked about three key fundamentals that build the foundation of your product narrative. One of those is showing your customers a problem they cannot unsee, that will compel them to find a solution. This becomes the opener to your product narrative and how you position your product in the category you are creating or entering. It’s told in three parts:

  • Your view on your product’s category history

  • A paradox or compelling event happening in the market right now in your category

  • A quick education on the category you are creating or explanation of how your product is positioned differently in an existing category

When I wrote Slack’s product narrative, I started by explaining Slack’s view on remote work – how we went from an almost all physical work world to a primarily digital one. I called it the Big Flip, and it was our view of how history happened from cubicles, to hot desks, to Google campuses, and then remote work, sprinkled with stakes and humor.

Next, I built on the Big Flip, with a paradox happening in the market. At the time, there was contradictory data around remote work. Any way you spliced it, the data didn’t add up to 100% of what employees wanted one way or another regarding flexibility and returning to the office. So, I created suspense around what this contradictory data actually meant, and solidified it with a jaw dropping statistic that 57% of employees were open to looking for a new job. 

There were a lot of market reasons as to why this was happening, so I challenged our customers to fill in the blank of the problem they couldn’t “unsee” with this statement: what’s missing in your company experience that is making one in two people in your company interview somewhere else right now?

I finally revealed the new category we were creating, and the answer to what was missing in their company experience. I gave them a quick explanation of what a Digital Headquarters is, and explained that sure, you could go the long way and cobble together a Frankenstein Digital HQ, but I don’t need to show you the 57% stat again to remind you that isn’t working. Instead of doing that, try Slack as your Digital HQ.

I closed my opener by saying we completely reimagined what a Digital HQ should be. We didn’t just recreate the Big Flip in digital software. Every feature was designed thoughtfully to create a meaningful experience for employees, customers and partners.

A strong close is just as important as a strong open. When we open with the category opener, we are challenging the customer that we will get to an opposite end of where we start, and we can prove it with what we say in the middle of our narrative.

 Think of your closing product narrative as an Olympic gymnast perfectly landing her jump, flipping her hands in the air and turning to each side of the audience. You never see a gymnast just rolling off the mat or sneakily exiting. Same with your product narrative. Even if all of the parts in the middle didn’t make sense or were confusing, land strong. 

I like to close product narratives with Steve Jobs’ One More Thing. A little surprise of more value that customers didn’t know they would be getting – whether that’s some quick facts on how your product beats the competition, solving a second pain point customers have or showing them how they can combine two category products together. It’s a way to show customers that you are constantly doing the heavy lifting of solving their problems for them in a delightful, light-weight way. Your product is thoughtful to the last slide.

Even though my product narrative was for Slack as a standalone product, we had recently been acquired by Salesforce. The One More Thing became an explanation to Slack customers how Salesforce fit in to their Digital HQ or for Salesforce customers of how Slack and Salesforce made sense together. It was the natural next question everyone was asking and I wanted our customers to have all of the pieces to make their decision. 

My final closing line brought everything full circle to where we started with the Big Flip and the category creation of Digital HQ. I told my customers that everything I had shared with them may seem imaginary. But it’s not, because that place exists already. It’s Slack. It was built by people who have spent the last eight years focusing solely on collaboration and how to make work more simple, pleasant and productive. I challenged them to accept the new category even if it sounded futuristic.

In summary, product narratives break for mainly five reasons:

  • The narrative is boring

  • Your customers have a growth spurt

  • Your narrative has no urgency

  • You shift your business model or go to market

  • Your narrative is attached to your founder

Identify where you think your narrative is breaking, and figure out if you can fix it or do you need to create a new product narrative.

Share the Post: