in Information Technology

What is the difference between positioning and messaging?

I constantly hear folks in the industry – specifically, product managers and engineers – confusing these two concepts. It’s a huge sliver in my eye. Just like how senior engineers twitch when we in marketing confuse “AI” and “ML”, this is just as bothersome and needs clarification.

Why does this even matter? Fundamentally, it matters because product managers and engineers often complain about marketing teams “marketing” the wrong thing. Usually what this means is that we are messaging the wrong thing. But if the product hasn’t been correctly positioned, then the messaging is going to be garbage. To solve this, I’m going to propose something potentially controversial here: product managers should own the positioning for their products. Product marketing should own the messaging.

Let’s start off with the difference between positioning and messaging. First, positioning. There are lots of elaborate definitions of this, but it fundamentally boils down to differentiation. And as a product manager, you shouldn’t think of this as just what features you have that your competition doesn’t. It is the sum total of your product and its go-to-market are different than competitors. Features are part of it for sure, but differentiation can also consist of your point of view about the problem you are solving, for whom you are solving it and their characteristics (personas), your sales channels and partnerships, your pricing, your design… everything. The more differentiators you have, the more successful your product is likely to be (this taking for granted, of course, that your product actually solves a real problem that your target personas have).

Let me be more succinct: positioning is nothing less than the strategy for your product. (And if you need help articulating what strategy is, you might find a different article I’ve written to be helpful.) This is why I make the claim that product management is chiefly accountable for positioning. Unless you are in a rare organization where product marketing owns strategy and drives PM execution, you are likely in one where product marketing is a service provider to product management. Thus, the clearer you are in thinking through positioning, the easier it is for product marketing to develop messaging.

By the way: when I say that product management owns strategy/positioning, I don’t mean they should develop it in a bubble and throw it over the wall to product marketing. There should be a healthy, collaborative relationship between PM and PMM, where PMM brings broader market trends and insights to PM that can help broaden a PM’s thinking (for example, developing strategy beyond just the current cohort of customers). It should be a push and pull. But PM gets to make the final choices about their strategy (and positioning) and should be held accountable for those decisions.

What, then, is messaging? Messaging is the way in which PMM looks at positioning and selects/develops the messages that will be the most effective at marketing the product to one or more selected personas at a given time. It is possible (likely!) that different messages will resonate with different personas, particularly in enterprise software where you have messaging for economic buyers, and messaging for users. Messaging is also highly situation-dependent, and indeed, time dependent. In the middle of a recession caused by a pandemic, for example, one would prefer to message around cost containment and efficiency, rather than longer-term values like maturity or operational performance. Yet this doesn’t change the original positioning of a product at all, because the problem that the product solves is still the same. It’s not uncommon for product messaging to change several times over the course of a year, whereas it would be unusual for positioning to change that much — unless the product is very immature and product management is undertaking massive pivots.

Lastly, clear, concise positioning isn’t just there to help product marketing and downstream marketing functions like demand generation, campaigns, corporate marketing, etc. It also helps your engineering team understand the product manager’s vision and strategy for the product. That’s why positioning is much more a part of product management than “marketing”; it should create clarity across the company for what product is building. If it doesn’t — work on it some more.