May 2023
In the Trenches: Messaging with Sarah Stansberry

In the Trenches: Messaging with Sarah Stansberry

Welcome back to In the Trenches, where we ask real-world B2B marketers to share practical, hands-on advice to help you (and your business) stay competitive. This is our opportunity to get into the nitty-gritty of how marketing and communications accelerate growth.

We’re covering one of our favorite practice areas this month: messaging. Brands, products, campaigns, or whatever else, building a powerful and engaging message is the foundation for any successful initiative.

But a “me too” message is asking for “me too” performance. We sat down with our long-time agency friend Sarah Stansberry, SVP of Enterprise Marketing for Fiserv, to discuss what it takes to develop a compelling message that resonates and engages.

Sarah, we’re excited to have you with us to share your thoughts and experiences developing powerful messaging for companies and products. What is it about this marketing discipline that keeps you inspired?

Thanks for inviting me to contribute. When it comes to messaging…for me, it’s all about connections. What gets me excited is connecting target audiences with a message they care about and offers clarity around what’s next.

Sounds simple enough, right? We all know it isn’t. And, for those of us in the businesses of complex solutions and complicated services, it is exponentially difficult to find that sweet spot.

It’s our job as marketers to make “the complex simple and the simple compelling.” The challenge, and ultimately the reward, of making those impactful and compelling connections is what inspires me.

What elements do you look for – or strive for – in developing a strong message?

In the spirit of simplicity, I look for three key elements.

Audience Connection – Call it a persona or even someone’s name, whatever you do, write as if you’re speaking with a real live human. Ask yourself, who are you trying to reach? Is it an existing client or a prospect? If your answer is ‘both,’ chances are you will miss nuances that ensure your messaging hits home.

Targeting and focusing your messaging might result in more supporting messages – and might require more work – but the impact and results are well worth the extra effort.

Specificity – This can also be thought of as differentiation. To me, it’s less about being different and more about being true to your brand. You want messaging to bring out what makes your company or product uniquely yours. If you can cover up the logo, company or product name, replace it with a competitor’s information and it’s still correct, then you haven’t hit the mark yet.

What’s next? – Because I will forever go back to my roots as a direct marketer, I always look for the call-to-action. What do we want our readers or audience to do? Don’t make them guess. Be thoughtful, be explicit and give them a reason to stay engaged.

What are the main challenges for B2B marketers when developing a compelling message?

The top challenge I see is marketers trying to satisfy the wrong internal stakeholders. And this is a tough one because, as marketers, we recognize the importance of collaboration and internal buy-in to drive campaign success.

If we have three, five or 10 stakeholders to please, chances are we’re losing valuable elements of our messaging with each additional review. Everything becomes too watered down. One way to solve this is a program kick-off where everyone comes together to select the decision maker. Only one is allowed. Others can be consulted and offer input prior to the messaging being finalized but ultimately the marketer and decision-maker are accountable for the final messaging.

The second challenge I frequently see is over-messaging. From putting 100 words or more on a tradeshow booth wall to spelling out every detail of every product on a website, sometimes too much is just too much.

Keep your messaging simple and concise. Lean into your brand’s personality and write as if you are face-to-face with your audience. Nothing builds a better connection than genuine conversation.

What role can research play in message development? What types of research are most important and how can they be used effectively?

Research is knowledge, and knowledge is power. You can’t be unique or different if you don’t understand the trends in your industry, competitor positioning and client perspectives.

Some of the best sources for in-depth, comprehensive research are market analysts, industry analysts’ briefings, annual reports, earning calls, press releases and websites.

I’m sure that seems pretty obvious, but again, it’s less about individual reports or analysis and more about seeing overarching trends or opportunities that you can leverage. This is especially true when you have tools and technologies enabling that higher-level view.

One process I’ve found useful and have asked my team to complete is a SWOT Analysis of your business, market or product offering. This sets the stage for messaging development, and while everyone may know the standard framework, I add in specific questions to guide the process. Here is an example:

Strengths (Internal View)

  • What do we do well?
  • What do our customers say we do well?
  • What are our unique selling propositions?
  • Do we have strong brand awareness of this offering? Customer loyalty?
  • Do we have strong relationships with influencers?
  • What unique assets can we leverage?
  • What skills do we have that our competitors don’t?

Weaknesses (Internal View)

  • Where can we improve?
  • What do our customers complain about?
  • What objections are hard for us to address?
  • Do we have certain limitations in delivery or distribution?
  • Are we lacking skills, staff or training?

Threats (External View)

  • Are there gaps in our competitors’ offerings we should be aware of?
  • Is the target market growing?
  • Are there any regulations or laws we can help our clients comply with?
  • Are there any industry economic trends we could benefit from?

Opportunities (External View)

  • Are new competitors entering the market?
  • Is our target market shrinking or shifting to solutions we don’t offer?
  • Could any indirect or niche competitor become direct competitors?
  • What regulatory, social or economic trends are working against us?

This exercise only works if you do the research.

Message activation is often overlooked – what are your secrets for bringing a message to life with stakeholders internally and externally?

True story…

On my team, “Taylor Swift” isn’t a person, it’s a verb.

When a team member asks, “Did you Taylor Swift it?” they mean, “Did you take ownership of your content and know it backward and forward, like a songwriter crafting a megahit rock anthem?”

“Did you examine, consider and strategize your distribution channels like a major-label record executive? Did you repeat your key message again and again, like a pop diva on a perpetual publicity tour?”

While it’s a funny way to think about it, what we’re getting at here is all about messaging activation. Far too often we create great marketing but forget to let people know about it. So, as marketers we need to take that great messaging and create a plethora of assets to optimize that message. Examine every asset and every channel to see how your messaging needs to adapt.

As marketers, we love to measure results. But how do you measure the success of a message? Do you have a preferred strategy or metric?

Whenever possible, I test messaging with a slice of our target audience prior to a campaign or product launch. This is a required step for those larger programs.

While I have done sweeping, wide-ranging research, I typically narrow message testing to a smaller audience composed of advisory groups, user groups and clients. We develop two or three key messages, then ask a few simple questions – primarily around recall and comprehension.

Even with a small sample size, you’ll typically come back with a clear winner, or at the very least, a clear direction. If not, it’s time to pivot. But, instead of expanding your sample, I recommend refining your message and trying again.

Pressure testing messaging won’t guarantee success, but it will provide some confidence that you’re moving in the right direction.

How does a company know when it’s time to refresh or replace its messaging?

The obvious example is after some type of merger or acquisition. These activities can fundamentally alter the nature or perception of a brand, so it’s a good idea to make sure messaging is keeping pace. You want corporate messaging to reflect the reality of your organization and the benefits of such an evolution.

I also believe internal audiences get tired and bored of messaging much faster than they should. Consistent and compelling messaging builds brands. And that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. When a message works, have the conviction to stick with it and Taylor Swift the heck out of it. Don’t be distracted by shiny new toys.

Realize the full potential of brand and product messaging

Whether bringing a new solution to market or launching a demand generation program, campaign success always starts with a clear, succinct message that differentiates products and brands from the competition.

Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your insights and expertise with us! And if you’re interested in learning more about Arketi’s own messaging practice, contact our CEO Mike Neumeier at

Stay tuned for our next edition of In the Trenches as we share stories and experiences from real-world B2B marketers who are driving revenue and accelerating growth.




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