Let’s consider accuracy in agency positioning. Why is it important? How can you tell if your positioning comes across as authentic? And what does it cost you when it doesn’t ring true?
Keep in mind that the market (and your agency’s position in it) is in constant flux, so you must regularly re-evaluate your position to ensure it is still accurate, clear, and authentic. By accuracy, I mean: is it objectively true? By authenticity, I mean: is it believable from your target markets’ perspective? By clear, I mean: is it obvious to anyone visiting your site?
The typical example of poor positioning is an agency of 12 that claims to do it all; their list of services is 45 bullets deep. Perhaps those are all things they have done and are willing to do, but can a team of 12 really be subject matter experts and do great work in 45 distinct areas? The obvious problem is they lack focus. But another problem is that it doesn’t come across as believable to visitors.
Let’s look at some commonly-used agency descriptors from an authenticity standpoint. These are so common that it doesn’t mean much to use them. You “get results”? Isn’t that like listing your MS Word proficiency on your resume? It should go without saying; it’s just expected. Or you’re a creative agency that has to state you’re creative? Isn’t that something you show?
Commonly-used agency descriptors:
- Wide range of experience
- Get results
- We grow brands
- We are storytellers
- Our clients are our partners
- Fun / Fun to work with
- Full service
If and when you do use these descriptors, you’d better do so thoughtfully, and be able to back it up. To be effective, the accuracy of such claims for your agency should be abnormally high. If you say your agency is agile, particularly when that word is so overused, your agency should regularly exemplify that agility in everything you do and have exceptional examples that illustrate why that really is a defining aspect of your agency.
Before you include an overused agency descriptor, ask yourself: is this so defining for your agency that it needs to be in your positioning statement? Or can it just be something mentioned in your “about”? Or perhaps not mentioned at all and just demonstrated? Perhaps left for a client to talk up in a testimonial?
Terms like these continue to be in wide circulation on agency websites. Tim Williams has a more comprehensive list of characteristics that don’t actually differentiate your agency (on page eight of this eBook he did in collaboration with Hubspot). It’s a valuable resource if you are revisiting your agency’s positioning.
Identifying an accurate and authentic agency position
The best way to critically examine your agency’s positioning is to go back to the drawing board and rework it. If your positioning is highly accurate and authentic for your agency, you should get something very close to the same results after going through the positioning process again.
What’s a good way to determine if you need to revisit your agency positioning? Do an internal survey to assess. Tim Williams put together a list of ten questions you would ask your team via Survey Monkey, which you can find on page ten of this eBook. Williams also goes in-depth on developing your agency position in the eBook (the what, how, and why you do what you do; who you do it for), but you can find a truncated version of that here.
Sean Duffy of Duffy Agency also has some worthwhile insights on brand positioning. One thing he recommends is that your team has to really understand and be able to differentiate between the brand reality, brand profile, brand perception, and brand aspiration. Many claims made by agencies in their positioning are more aspirational than reality-based. The reality is the objective truth about the brand, the profile is how you portray the brand to the target market, the perception is how the target market perceives your brand, and the aspiration is how you would like the target market to perceive your brand. Ultimately, Duffy says, you want to strive for alignment of these elements (a.k.a. “Brand Nirvana”), even though its an ideal state that is never reached (which sounds dangerously close to the definition of insanity...).
Why is accurate positioning important?
Inaccurate positioning isn’t a secret. It’s revealed through inconsistencies in your site and your agency’s inability to ultimately back up its claims. Inaccurate positioning, therefore, provides no advantage. On the other hand, accurate positioning can make it easier for you to close more new business faster, and potentially at a lower cost.
Here are some things to consider:
- Is your website language consistent with your positioning strategy?
- Is your positioning clearly conveyed on your homepage?
- Is it clear to any visitor what you do, who you do it for, and how you do it?
- Do your case studies support your positioning? Do they prove you can do what you say you do? Do they reflect your target client?
If the answer to any of these is not an enthusiastic “yes,” then why should visitors perceive your positioning as accurate and authentic? Keep in mind, you may have a legitimate claim to your positioning statements — they may technically be accurate — but if you haven’t supported them effectively on your site then you still have a problem. And if something is important enough that you would put it in your positioning statement, then why wouldn’t it be important enough to demonstrate on your website?
Why should your positioning be authentic?
Agencies today face some of the same challenges as consumer-facing brands. Loyalty is arguably dead. Consumers are savvier than ever. Marketers no longer control brand stories; instead, consumers shape brand stories on social media based on their perceptions and interactions with the brand. Marketing claims and stories aren’t taken at face value. Proof has value. Truth has value. Agencies must keep that in mind for their own positioning if they want to be credible.
Validate the authenticity of your agency’s positioning first by asking if it feels true. In the most honest sense, is this a statement about a quality you wish your agency had, or that your agency is working towards (aspirational), or is it something you are actively doing and achieving today in a meaningful way?
Take a two-minute authenticity test. Don’t look at your own agency website, because you’re probably too close to see it clearly. Instead, go visit a couple of other agency sites. Ask yourself how authentic and believable their messaging is; if it’s even clearly stated. Could what they say about themselves be claimed by any other agency? Odds are, you’ll easily find agencies that don’t pass this simple test because positioning problems are so common. What positioning problems might you have left exposed for visitors to see when they visit your site?
How can you tell if your agency’s positioning is on target?
My colleague Jody Sutter has a checklist she applies to agency clients working on their positioning. It evaluates six qualities: is the positioning succinct, targeted, repeatable, accurate, flexible, and differentiated? She says she sees problems with accuracy all the time, often because agencies are making aspirational statements, like “We’re the agency positioned for the digital future.”
What happens when your agency’s positioning doesn’t ring true?
What if your agency presents its “highly-collaborative nature” as a key differentiator, but in reality, your clients don’t perceive you as easy to work with? How does that affect their perception of everything else you say your agency does, everything that you say your agency is about?
Here’s what happens when brands offer up inaccurate positioning, according to Jody Sutter:
“And if it’s not accurate, then how do you prove it? Either you don’t, and your argument falls apart once you start taking your prospective client through your case studies, or you obfuscate (maybe not intentionally) with overblown adjectives like “passionate” and “relentless” or phrases like how you “live and breathe” branding or social media or whatever it is you want to prove that you do.”
It sounds like a recipe for your agency to waste time on business they aren’t going to be able to close. Inaccurate and inauthentic positioning undermines your agency’s credibility and trust, crucial ingredients to secure and retain agency new business.
The flip side of this is that highly accurate and authentic agency positioning can reduce your time and costs related to closing new business. In fact, many specialized, well-positioned agencies have so little competition and are so effective in presenting their value that they can be hired without having to go through a costly pitch process. Ultimately, the rewards of solid positioning are as great as the costs of poor positioning.