The Category Name Matters Less Than You Think w/Ryan Bonnici

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It’s easy to confuse “category creation” with having an “official” category on a site like G2 or Garter. Reality couldn’t be further from the truth. According to Ryan Bonnici, CMO of G2, category names are helpful shorthands for grouping products together.

But marketers shouldn’t get too hung up on the category name itself.

In our interview on B2B Growth, Ryan had a lot more to say about the role categories play in the process of buying software.

Listen below to hear Ryan share:

– Why category creators need to focus their messaging around the problem their category is trying to solve
– The process G2 uses for naming new categories
– When category creators should focus on “emotive” vs “descriptive” language

You can also find highlights from our interview below.

Listen below, or find the episode on Apple PodcastsStitcher, or Spotify.


Highlights of Ryan Bonnici’s Interview

Prefer to read? Here are the highlights of our interview (content has been edited for clarity and length).

John Rougeux: What can you tell us about yourself beyond the fact that you are CMO at G2?

Ryan Bonnici: You can probably tell from my accent that I’m not from the U.S. I’m Australian, I spent most of my career living and working in Australia. I’m obsessed with marketing, brands, growth, and category creation specifically. I’m a big advocate for mental health, too. 

John Rougeux: Our interview is going to be a little bit different from the ones I’ve done in the past, because I don’t think G2 is going down the path of category design itself. But G2 has played a huge role in terms of how people think of categories.

Ryan Bonnici: Most of my time experiencing category creation was probably from my time at ExactTarget, in building this 360-degree view of customers, and then inbound marketing during my time at HubSpot. At G2, what we’re creating is unique, we are the first company that built this concept of B2B reviews that are peer authenticated. But I’m not sure if that is a category in itself. 

Ryan Bonnici
Ryan Bonnici is CMO at G2. (Source: NBC News)

Categories Are a Shorthand for Finding the Right Products

John Rougeux: What role do you think categories play in the B2B buying process today?

Ryan Bonnici: I think they play a few different roles. Categories are really important to us at G2 because we have millions leaving comprehensive 30-point plus reviews. You can tell us what software category you’re looking for, what type of company are you, how many employees do you have, what features do you want, and we’ll give you a personalized recommendation for that category. It’s based on companies like you that have used software in that category. We’re opposites to all of our competitors in that our recommendations and content are personalized. 

Ryan Bonnici: You can’t compare apples to apples if you don’t have a clear picture of the products in a certain category, right? 

Categories are essentially just shortcuts for a landscape of different tools. As shortcuts, they can be very useful to buyers, especially beginner buyers that maybe haven’t bought lots of tools before. 

John Rougeux: So for someone who’s trying to find their way through different products, categories are a real shorthand for finding the right product or the right solution faster.

Category Creators Focus on Messaging the Problem

Ryan Bonnici: I think the most useful thing is to start with the problem that you’re trying to solve. If you’re in sales, or if you’re a CFO, then there’s different software that’s going be right for you. Getting down to the heart of the problem and working from that will lead you down the best path in terms of finding what’s best for your company.

John Rougeux: It’s interesting you mentioned that because one of the ideas in the book Play Bigger is that if you’re thinking through the category design process, you need to think about the problem first. So “problem-market” fit. If you look at the narratives of companies who have built some of these major categories, it’s not so much about the category name, it’s the underlying narrative, the underlying problem.

Ryan Bonnici: Absolutely. I think that’s what’s most important. As B2B marketers, we often get too caught up in features and functionality. We don’t focus enough on the problem. 

How Does G2 Decide When to Build Categories?

John Rougeux: I was looking at the account-based marketing (ABM) space and I expected there just be to be just one ABM category. But I found multiple variations on account-based marketing software, with sub-categories off of that. Can you walk us through how your team names categories? Do you look for guidance from the software companies themselves? From buyers? 

Ryan Bonnici: So account-based marketing is quite a broad term. Account-based intelligence, account-based execution, and account-based analytics are different sub-sectors. If you look at our competitors, we have typically around 3x the number of categories on our site. We’re going into a lot more detail in terms of how we’re categorizing those products because the better we can categorize, the better we can give recommendations.

As we start to see sectors forming within a space and clusters of products in a new space, that will be how we then start to breakout subcategories. 

The number of providers in a space is also important. If there’s just one product out there that’s doing something new and different, I don’t know if that would then warrant a new subcategory. We might if they had a lot of customers and maybe then no one else had cracked the code on how to build a product.

John Rougeux: How much input do you get from sellers or vendors? 

Ryan Bonnici: We’re always open for them to give us their thoughts. But that doesn’t mean that we will create a category for them. We’ll often get them asking because they’re trying to coin a term and they want to create a category around that term.

We definitely won’t do that unless we can see momentum around that as a true category. We would look into search volume and trends. And are people searching for this as a category or is it just one seller or vendor that’s talking about it? Are people like talking about it on social media, on Quora and Reddit and different forums? 

Don’t Get Hung Up on the Category Name

John Rougeux: If a vendor is looking at the way its products are categorized on G2 and it’s not quite right, there are two scenarios they have to weigh. One would be that the category that they’re in now isn’t perfect, but they are getting some attention because there’s search traffic and interest. It’s a known category. But there’s the risk that if the category isn’t a good fit, then people will have the wrong expectations. So maybe there’s a case for creating a new message break out from that. What’s your advice to a vendor if they find themselves in that spot?

Ryan Bonnici: Thinking about a category is still a pretty superficial way to think about products and comparisons ultimately. It’s just meant to be a shortcut. The meat of what we provide is the live comparisons, where you can compare Engagio to Terminus, right? Or if it’s CRM software, you can compare Infusionsoft to HubSpot.

I don’t want to call categories vanity, but they’re just an important early step in the process. But a lot of buyers don’t need categories. They’ve already have heard about a few different vendors and they’ll come in with intent around company X, company Y. And then from there, they may learn about company Z, where they can then add that into the comparison.

No category is perfect for anyone realistically. There will always be some features that you are or are not optimized for. They might be crossed over into other categories.

John Rougeux: It sounds like what you’re saying is that companies shouldn’t get overly hung up on the categories that are present in your platform today. It’s more important to understand the problem they’re trying to solve and the features that are important to buyers. 

Ryan Bonnici: Absolutely. If you’re a smart CEO, you’ll look at the existing categories and see what they all are saying. Is there a general about one part of a product that isn’t working? Do you then build a standalone point solution to fill that problem that everyone is mentioning? You can learn a lot from that and then create a solution that fits for the current category or creates a new category. 

John Rougeux: It almost reminds me of how you might look at SEO. You can get bad SEO advice to focus on writing content only for SEO’s sake and not thinking about whether anyone wants to read it. It’s a superficial way of looking at it. And there’s this superficial way of looking at categories and getting overly hung up on the specific name for a category. 

Surprise! Category Creation Isn’t Easy

Ryan Bonnici: I think you’re 100% spot on. I also don’t think people realize how hard category creation is. Back when I was at HubSpot, in Asia Pacific, inbound marketing wasn’t a category until recently. 

That market just wouldn’t search for inbound marketing. They were searching for terms like digital marketing. So there are regional nuances to categories, even if the features and the benefits and the problems that you’re solving are still the same. 

John Rougeux: Both CMOs at HubSpot told me that when they first started talking about inbound marketing, it was like yelling into a void where no one was listening for a few years and they just had to have the patience and the perseverance to push through it.

Ryan Bonnici: They had the strength to do that because they knew that this concept [of inbound marketing] was uniquely different. Whereas if you just think up a pithy name for the sake of it, I don’t know how successful you’ll end up being.

Know When To Use Emotive vs Descriptive Messaging

John Rougeux: Who do you think is doing a great job with positioning and messaging today?

Ryan Bonnici: I’ve always swooned pretty hard over what Airbnb is doing. I just love the way they’ve thought about the value that their users get out of the service. That whole “live like a local” campaign beautifully encompasses why I love Airbnb and I use it. I’m a big fan of what Asana does. A lot of their messaging is not about the software, it’s about like getting your work done faster and more efficiently and with joy. Like when a unicorn will shoot across the screen. When you see that little unicorn, you start to connect emotion with their products and their brand. Drift has done a great job of telling a bigger story, of elevating the importance of [conversational marketing]. 

John Rougeux: Asana is competing in a pretty crowded space, but they’ve differentiated through their branding. You mentioned the word joy, which is a word you could not ascribe to many other productivity tools. With Drift, they’ve got these vibrant colors. It’s almost like this graffiti type of aesthetic. It kind of conveys this idea that things that are like happening right now. They are using branding to support the core problems they’re trying to talk about.

Ryan Bonnici: Totally. I think brands often oscillate between using descriptive language [and emotive language]. Descriptive language is like project management software. Versus emotive language, which would be like “make more time for the work that matters most”. It’s emotive I think the challenge is that when you start to go down those emotive paths, you all start to sound similar. For some buyers, they may just be a little bit confused around what you actually do.

Once you start to get momentum and you start to see organic growth, viral growth, and word of mouth, then you can start to play a little bit more in the emotive world. 

In B2B, we’re still in an optimization phase where for the last 5-10 years we’ve been over-indexing into data-driven demand gen marketing, focused on conversions and not enough on brand and emotion.

Now you’re seeing a lot more brands leaning much more into branding, into messaging. I guarantee in a few years we’ll have another course correction. Where we will go too far in that direction and not be driving enough of the metrics and then we’ll kind of maybe land in the middle. 

John Rougeux. We had all these tools marketing automation and digital marketing and we got very focused on the mechanics of marketing and have shifted away branding.

Category Creators Have to be Wary of Overselling

Ryan Bonnici: I think what’s important to think about is that a lot of software companies to try and drive a hundred percent year over year sort of growth. They’ve sold vaporware, right? They’ve like sold messages around what their products can do and more often than not, their product can’t live up to that.

John Rougeux: What you’re saying is you can’t get so far ahead of yourself that you end up setting the wrong expectations.

Ryan Bonnici: Absolutely. I think like we get often a little caught up in this idea that category creation is about disrupting the big incumbents. There aren’t many companies that do that successfully. You can disrupt competitors by focusing on niches and pricing and features. I think there is an incremental way to think about category creation versus category disruption necessarily. 

Get in Touch with Ryan Bonnici

Ryan is CMO of G2. You can get in touch with him on Twitter or LinkedIn. or at ryan@g2.com.

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John Rougeux is the founder of Flag & Frontier. Connect with John on LinkedIn.

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