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Staying on Message to Sell Effectively

In April consumers will be able to purchase Apple's (AAPL) new tablet computer, the iPad. There's a lot of speculation among analysts but despite the iPad's elegant technology, nobody really knows for sure how well it will sell. It may or may not turn into another hit like the iPhone. What is known is that Apple has once again provided a case study in marketing and promoting a new product. From a communications perspective, the thing that Apple has done exceptionally well is to stay on message.

According to Apple, the iPad is a "magical and revolutionary" product. So many news outlets picked up that message that a Google (GOOG) search for the phrase iPad + "magical and revolutionary" returned 2.8 million links this weekend. Even CNN couldn't resist repeating the description. The world's press was speaking from the same playbook because Apple never strayed from its key message.

Visit the iPad Web site and you're greeted with the headline: "A magical and revolutionary product at an unbelievable price." The first sentence of Apple's press release reads, "Today, Apple announced its magical and revolutionary iPad…." Steve Jobs is quoted in the same press release as saying, "We're excited for customers to get their hands on this magical and revolutionary product." When Jobs himself announced the product in January, he began by saying: "Today we're introducing a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price." Apple controls the message—always.

"message mapping" made easy

I frequently meet with groups of executives and ask them to write down a description of their product, service, or initiative. All too often there are as many different answers as there are people in the room. In addition, their companies' Web sites tell stories that differ from the ones in their ads, press releases, and PowerPoint presentations. Regardless of what field you're in, you can learn something from Apple about messaging—consistency. Every product, idea, or initiative should have a single, key message that is delivered consistently, word for word, across all of your marketing and branding platforms. Your CEO should use the same description as your sales and public relations people. The words on your ads should match the words on your Web site, press releases, and brochures. Your message must be consistent.

Over the past decade, I've used a simple but powerful technique to help companies craft consistent messages. This technique, called "message mapping," has worked effectively for companies in every category, regardless of the complexity of their offerings. In fact, the more complex the idea, the more likely message mapping will be valuable to you.

Think of a message map as a sheet of paper with four empty circles, or bubbles. The largest is in the center, with three others placed horizontally below it. Your main product description—the "headline," as I like to call it—fills the center bubble. Keep it Twitter-friendly, at 140 characters or fewer. In the iPad example, the center circle would read: "A magical and revolutionary product at an unbelievable price." The other circles should be filled with supporting points, messages that further explain the main product description.In the case of the iPad, the three supporting points might be iBooks, Web surfing, and photos.In message-mapping sessions, I encourage clients to try to stick to three main points because, as discussed in an earlier column, the brain processes information effectively in groups of three. You might have 50 things you want to say about a new product, but you should refine your message until you have three—or at most, four—points. Each supporting point should be accompanied by a short, specific phrase that is easily repeatable.

A further important detail: Once you create the message map, make sure it is distributed to everyone in your organization, as well as to outside vendors responsible for marketing collateral or press material. Everyone must speak from the same playbook.

Carmine Gallo is the communication skills coach for the world's most admired brands. He is a popular speaker and the author of several books including The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs and The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs. More of Gallo's columns are available in his biweekly series.

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