Crafting a Go-to-Market Story

Ken Rutsky
Ken Rutsky
Ken Rutsky helps B2B growth company executives in sales, marketing, and the C-Suite to breakthrough and achieve and grow market leadership in new and existing markets. Before he launched his consulting practice, he spent 20+ years in B2B marketing operational roles. In this guide, he explains why a “hero’s journey” type story is a powerful tool for tech companies to create urgency and gain market share, and how to create one.

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Questions Covered in this Guide

What is positioning, and why is it important?

Positioning is what your prospect thinks of you – it’s not what you say about yourself. Think about it in terms of the customer – what problem you do solve for the customer and how do you provide value to the customer?

Don’t obsess about competition – instead, focus on telling your story in the context of your customers. Good positioning makes competition irrelevant because if you do a good job with your messaging, you’ll be ahead of the 95% of companies that do a poor job.

Getting messaging and narrative right lets you lead the market – after getting product-market fit right, message market fit is one of the most important things that a company needs to do.  When you’re leading your market, you could go from closing 10% of qualified leads to closing 30-50% of those qualified leads, and that’s a game-changer. I’d rather have positioning that resonates with 90-100% of a $100 million market vs. 10% of a billion-dollar market because it’s going to be a more winnable, more profitable business and more attractive revenue to investors. I want to capture a market and grow it, not fight for table scraps!

What are the major challenges that prevent B2B companies from getting noticed and winning?

Information overload – in B2B markets, information used to be held closely by vendors, and buyers had to engage with sales to learn about product offerings, pricing, etc. Now, information is everywhere and it’s hard to tell what to pay attention to. Buyers are fundamentally overloaded with information before you even start marketing to them. 

Crowded markets – barriers to entry have come down because all you need is a cloud connection to start a business. We all compete with so many vendors, and we’re not just competing with buyers in our near-in category, but with everything that that buyer can spend money on. For example, if you’re a marketing tech company that sells lead data, you don’t only have to compete with companies in your direct category, you also have to compete with all the revenue ops tools, lead matching tools, and lead routing tools that your buyer could buy.

Powerful buyers – buyers are in control because they decide when to look and what to do. It’s no longer a selling process; it’s a buying process. You have to manage a buying experience instead of managing a sales cycle. 

How do you identify and articulate your unique value?

Step 1: What are the capabilities I have that are unique, and what’s the value they deliver? – for example, you might have a widget that lowers the cost of sales, and also improves sales velocity. There could be several points of potential value.

Step 2: Is it “real” value? – does the customer care enough to trade their money and time for your product. Because it’s just a hypothetical benefit until the customer decides it’s valuable. 

Step 3: Can my competitor deliver the value I’ve identified that the customer cares about? – if my competitors can deliver all of the same value that I can deliver on, then I have nothing to say to the market that’s unique. 

Step 4: Find 3-4 things that you deliver better value on – this shouldn’t just be features or capabilities, but actual value. When you find those 3 to 4 things, you’re ready to build your positioning and your messaging.

Think of it as a series of “sieves” – take a list of business values and put them through a sieve asking if the customers care, and then those become customer values. Then I put them through another sieve and ask if my competitors can deliver those same values. Ultimately, the only thing that I want to be “falling out the bottom” is the business value that I can deliver that my competitors can’t. 

What is a “Viewpoint Story”?

The “Viewpoint Story” is based on the hero’s journey – the hero’s journey is a common template for all of our mythology and, first described by Joseph Campbell in the 1940s. Campbell said that all of our mythology follows the same framework of the hero’s journey; a series of events and challenges that successful heroes navigate. The 4 key components to focus on for the positioning application are:
  1. The hero’s world is disrupted
  2. The hero has a near-death experience
  3. The hero meets a god/goddess and is given a magical gift
  4. The hero goes back to their world and transforms it into a better place

In business, the hero is the customer – the hero is not the vendor or the product. The viewpoint story is an adaptation of the hero’s journey with the customer at its center.

Chapter 1: The customer’s new reality
What you’re telling them“One or more things in your world have changed and left you in today’s new reality.”
Why this is importantIt builds rapport – it gives you something valuable to talk about with the team you’re attempting to sell to. It’s your point of view on the space you share with your customer.

It sets the stage
– it allows you to talk about today’s reality for them as a buyer, not you as a seller. It also allows you to set the context for the story and set the stage for the rest of the story.
Chapter 2: Building the pain/gain gap
What you’re telling them“If you depend on the expected solutions X and Y, which were built for the old reality, you will be left with unmet needs and/or missed opportunities.”
Why this is importantTwo things motivate us: fear and greed if you can’t convince the buyer of either, you’ll struggle to sell to them. 

You need to locate and get permission to talk about their pain
you’re fighting for attention and fighting for priority, so you need to show the buyer their pain. There are all kinds of pain, and you need to find all of them so that then you have permission to talk about their pain points with them. For example:
– There’s known, unspoken pain, which is the pain that you’ll admit to in a bar, but you won’t admit to in front of your boss.
– There’s unknown, unspoken pain when you say, “Oh, crap, I didn’t even realize I was in that pain. Now come to think of it, man, I’m really in trouble here.”
Chapter 3: A new solution
What you’re telling them“What if you had an unexpected approach to X that was a re-imagined solution for today’s reality and looked and was built with this approach, innovation, and mindset?”
Why this is importantTie your offering into the story as the “magical gift” – remember, your product is not the hero; your product is the “magical gift.” In the context of the first two chapters, you’ve shown the customer that what they’re doing isn’t good, they’re in the “pit of despair.” Now, you show them the value of the magical gift.
Chapter 4: The transformed future state
What you’re telling them“Then you would end up in a transformed future state where you would solve problems and capture opportunities in today’s new reality.”
Why this is importantThis helps you break out of the crowd by being strategic – this is the destination; you articulate the transformation to your customer. You can transform your pitch to one based on “return on strategy” instead of ROI. This is a combination of the problem that you’re choosing to solve and the transformative endpoint that you’re delivering to the customer.

What’s an example of a Viewpoint Story?

To illustrate, take an example B2B company:

  • Company: FireEye
  • Product: Malware Protection (Security Software)
  • Current alternatives: Firewalls, Network Intrusion Protection Systems, etc. 
  • Company growth stage: (at the time), a couple of million dollars in revenue, a small player in the market.

Their Viewpoint Story:

  • Chapter 1: The malware that’s out there has changed, the attackers are different.
  • Chapter 2: If you try to protect against new attacks using traditional capabilities (like firewalls) it won’t work.

You only need 2-3 of these Chapters to really resonate – that will get people’s attention and drive them to action. In the FireEye case, Chapters 1-3 were the strongest, and it was okay that the destination (Chapter 4) was a little obvious.

For more detailed steps on how to build a Viewpoint Story, refer to Ken’s book, “Launching to Leading”

How do you use your story?

Scale your story down to a one-liner (to get attention/top of funnel) – if you don’t have a story that you can scale down and up, then it’s not a very good story. You should be able to distill it down to a short line, e.g. Zuora (the subscription management company) would scale down to “the modern world is a subscription economy.”

Scale up your story up to a long-form whitepaper (to close/bottom of funnel) – whitepapers are great in the right market and they’re the ultimate scale-up of your story. Having them can help push the sale across the finish line.

Scale-out to weave the story through all of your processes and people – communicate your story in different ways via different channels.

  • Figure out which people are good at telling which chapter of the story -the CEO  would be good for telling Chapter 4, to show the transformative vision that you want the customer to come on board with. The VP product might be a great spokesperson for Chapter 3 to lay out “here’s why we did this and here’s how we talk about the challenges in this market”. Sales might lean on Chapter 2, to provide the value story.
  • Look for external voices – customers are great for telling the value story, and showing how help from your product or service is allowing them to succeed in that market (reach the promised land). 
  • Look for different channels – such as your website, paid media, earned media, and social media to scale out. 

Tell it over and over – you want to keep saying the same thing over and over until you’re sick of hearing it. Then you still say it another 100 times because customers don’t hear it the first time you say it. You want to give the story time to be heard. 

How should your story help your sales team sell more effectively? How should it be reflected in pitch decks?

Great marketers are classical musicians; great salespeople are jazz musicians – marketing’s job is to say the same thing over and over and over again. On the other hand, sales then needs to take that and riff on it so that their specific audience responds to it. 

You can take the story and turn it into an archetypal sales deck (but don’t make them follow it exactly) – as a rough formula, you might have 1-2  slides on Chapter 1, 1-2 slides on Chapter 2, and so fortth–no more than 8-10 slides for an initial sales deck. Don’t mandate that your sales team follow the deck exactly. You don’t want to fit the salespeople into a box where they can’t deliver a pitch that resonates with the potential customer; they should be able to make modifications. For example, a good salesperson might figure out Slide 2 is a good place for discovery, because they’ve created credibility, and take a detour there. 

How do you modify your story, transform your market, or both, as you grow? How long should your story last? 

It’s more valuable to win a small market first – I’d rather have $90M of a $100M that I’ve defined and am leading vs. $90M of a $1B market that someone else defined and I’m picking up the table scraps. It’s more valuable because I created the market and I can keep growing or expanding it.

It’s often time to rebuild the story when you go from a single product to a multi-market company – this is often a difficult transition for early-stage companies. You need to figure out what’s strategic and how does it relate to the brand and why you’re putting the products together. 

Your narrative should last 2-5 years – depending on the stage of the market that you’re in. 

What are the most important pieces to get right?

Find the right problem – what is the big problem you’re helping your customer to solve. You’re not necessarily solving all of it, but it’s big enough to be strategically meaningful for them, and not so big that it becomes meaningless. 

Get the story right before diving into value – without this strategic context, you’re fighting 1,000 other vendors who have positive ROI and great value. If you create that strategic context though, you tilt the playing field to your advantage.

What are the common pitfalls?

Overvaluing “value” – “value” doesn’t matter unless the prospect values the value. Decisions are made emotionally and justified rationally–the story context helps provide get the emotional buy-in.

Too much focus on features and functionality how many demos of the product does a prospect really need? They need one great demo that connects to why they should care about it–beyond that, too much focus on the product starts to make using it look hard, complex, and like a lot of work.

Too much me and not enough customer – you’re not the hero and your product isn’t the hero. Your customer is the hero.

Fear of investing in story – people don’t define their story because it’s too hard or it’s too much work. Too much work compared to what? It’s a core function, just like building a great product or hiring great people are core functions. You need to figure out what you’re doing, and why people should care about it.

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