The Newcomer’s Guide to Category Design
How and When to Shift Your Company’s Focus from
“Capturing Market Share” to “Building a New Category”
by John Rougeux
Do you have an idea for a new product that doesn’t fall into any defined category? Have you been struggling to get traction or stand out from competitors in an existing category? If you occupy a leadership position in B2B SaaS, this guide will help you assess your company’s readiness for category design. It will also walk you through a process you can use to develop buy-in for this strategy across your company.
Table of Contents
The people I admire most make the world exponentially different.
Not incrementally better.
That’s why I admire them.
And if you think about it, you might find that the people you admire most are the ones that break and take new ground.
That is to say, the most legendary people are original. In business, they introduce the world to a new category of product or service.
They are category designers.
They aren’t making anything that incrementally improves on what came before. They don’t “make” better.
They market differently – and earn two thirds of the value in their market category.* Primary research published in Play Bigger and The Harvard Business Review.
That’s why the discipline of category design has emerged from Silicon Valley to become a worldwide phenomenon.
Our first book on the topic – Play Bigger – is now in the top 5% of business books, and our podcast on the topic, Lochhead on Marketing, hit number one on the Apple business and marketing charts in the U.S. and has been downloaded in 181 other countries.
That happened because category design has emerged as an “unfair” advantage. The founder of a roofing company on the east coast recently said to me, “I almost feel bad for my old competitors.”
Category design is NOT about competing in any traditional sense. It’s about radical differentiation. It’s about becoming known for a niche that you own. It’s about evangelizing a point of view that changes thinking. It’s about creating new demand, not fighting to capture existing demand.
As an entrepreneur, CEO, or CMO, you have to ask yourself: are you playing someone else’s game, or do you have the courage to create and design your own market category?
If you do, you’re reading the right shit.
You see, my friend John Rougeux is a category designer. He’s created this super thoughtful, well-researched paper to help you become a category designer, too.
Category designers succeed by giving us new ways of living, thinking, or doing business, many times solving a problem we didn’t know we had, or a problem we didn’t pay attention to because we never thought there was another way.
And right now, the world needs more people who will step up to solve massive problems and create meaningful change.
So, as you read this paper and go forward, I wish for you the courage to follow your ‘different,’ while creating massive new value and the legendary success that comes with it.
#1 Apple Podcaster | #1 Amazon Author | Category Designer
Santa Cruz, California
I remember it like it was yesterday. “If you can’t be first in a category, set up a new category you can be first in1.” I had just read those words from Al Ries and Jack Trout, and they forever changed the way I looked at marketing.
Prior to that day, I had only looked at marketing through the lens of “capturing marketing share”. And why wouldn’t I? You could fill libraries with books about strategies and tactics for capturing market share, and for good reason: many of world’s largest and most profitable companies have wrested market share away from their competitors (or kept them from getting it in the first place).
But I had just one challenge with that approach: the glove didn’t fit. I had spent the bulk of my career working on ideas that represented something novel: a new way of tackling a problem or solving a problem that hadn’t even been addressed before. And I found that the “capture market share” playbook I had so eagerly learned about in school simply wasn’t helping me much.
That’s why those words about “setting up a new category” hit me so hard. I had never considered the idea of stepping outside the bounds of existing markets to create an entirely new category. But when I looked back at the businesses I had worked on, that’s exactly what we should have done.
There was just one problem: I had no idea how to create a new category. So I set out on a quest to learn everything I could about the topic. First, I dove into a book a friend recommended called Play Bigger1. This groundbreaking book not only coined the term “category design,” but also provided the first blueprint on how to build and lead a category.
Next, I set out to interview every accomplished and aspiring category designer I could find. I met with founders and C-level execs from category kings like Salesforce, HubSpot, and Drift, and with enterprising people at smaller companies you probably haven’t heard of. Along the way, I documented what these category design thinkers had learned from their experiences.
Finally, I started working on category design myself. I first introduced the idea at an Australia-based SaaS company called Skyfii (I joined for a brief stint after they acquired a startup I co-founded). More recently, I’ve been working with our team at BombBomb on exploring and executing this strategy here in the U.S.
Along the way, I realized two things:
- Category design is a “must-do” business strategy for a growing number of businesses that are bringing new solutions to life. That’s because it’s specifically designed to help the market understand the need for solutions they aren’t even aware of yet.
- Working with your team to evaluate, understand, and adopt the process of category design is harder than it sounds. It represents a fundamental change in how you approach business, and it has far-reaching effects and long-term ramifications for your team.
That’s why I wrote this guide.
Despite its utility, category design is still not on the radar of most marketing and business leaders. For the few who have heard of it, more often than not, they’re not sure if it’s applicable or even how to get started. This guide will change that.
First, it will help you understand why category design is worth considering, what pursuing it looks like in practice, and whether it makes sense for your business to adopt it. Secondly, this guide will equip you with a process that you and your team can use to explore, discuss, and adopt category design within your company.
As you’ll soon see, category design isn’t an add-on, a branding or marketing play, or something you can do on the side. It represents a fundamental change in the way your business looks at growth. Pursuing it may be the most important (and profitable) choice your company ever makes.
In fact, Christopher Lochhead, one of the most prolific category designers of all time and co-author of Play Bigger told me, “The most important question a CEO can ask is ‘how do we design and dominate our category?’” This guide will help you begin that journey.
Here are three reasons to keep reading:
- If you have an idea for a new product that doesn’t mesh with the existing categories your buyers are already familiar with, this guide will show you a blueprint that will greatly improve your odds of success.
- If you’ve been competing in an existing market, but have struggled to gain traction against competitors, this guide will present a path for you to break free.
- If you want to be better prepared in an uncertain business world, this guide will arm you with an approach that’s akin to building an air force while your enemies are stuck on the ground.
The material you’ll find in this guide comes from the following sources:
- Primarily, my own experience working on category design within B2B SaaS, most recently as VP Marketing Strategy at BombBomb
- Interviews I’ve had with numerous category design thinkers, including two of co-authors of Play Bigger, Christopher Lochhead and Kevin Maney
- Lessons I’ve gleaned from books that should be in any category designer’s library
Before you dive in, here’s a note of caution: this isn’t a resource that’s going to provide you with a neat little tactic or a few smart tips you can work into your business. If you’re looking for something you can implement quickly and see a few quick wins, look elsewhere. But if you’re open to learning about a new way of thinking about growth – one that can dramatically alter the course of your business for the better, keep reading.
I’ve broken this guide into five parts:
- Category Should Be on Every Business Leader’s Radar. See why “capturing market share” isn’t always the right approach, especially when you’re presenting a new type of solution or solving a new problem.
- Category Design Is Powerful, but Not for All. There are two things you have to evaluate before you pursue category design: your circumstances and your capabilities. This section will show you what’s necessary for each.
- A 30,000 Foot View of the Category Design Process. This guide isn’t intended to provide a step-by-step process for executing category design, but I do want to give you a preview of what you’ll be getting into. Hint: a lot.
- How to Talk with Your Team about Category Design (and Get Them Excited). It’s one thing to get excited about category design yourself. It’s quite another to get your team to share that excitement. In this section, I’ll show you how we did that at BombBomb.
- What Every Category Designer Needs to Know about G2. Discover the process G2 uses in evaluating new categories and learn how to get your own category listed.
Part I: Category Design Should Be on Every Business Leader’s Radar
What you’ll learn:
Read this section to see how category design is different from the typical strategy of “capturing market share” by exploring the stories behind Salesforce, HubSpot, and Tesla. I’ll walk you through why “category” plays an important role in the buying process, and how the thinking behind category design has evolved through today.
If traditional strategy means battling competitors over market share, category design involves setting up a new market where you have a better chance of dominating.
The military equivalent would be this: instead of going to war over a piece of land your enemy already occupies, you seek out a new, unclaimed territory you can have all to yourself.
As you’ll soon see, category design isn’t just about breaking free of an existing category – it can pay massive financial dividends, too. Consider this research from Harvard Business Review3. During the period from 2009 and 2011, just 13 of Fortune’s list of 100 fastest-growing U.S. companies were category creators. Yet, those 13 companies generated 53% of this group’s revenue growth and a whopping 74% of its incremental market cap growth.
To show you what that looks like in practice, here are a few examples.
Tesla: electric cars
Even though this is a guide for B2B, I want to include one example from the consumer world to give you a full picture of category design.
You’re already familiar with Tesla as the leader in the electric car category. But what’s important about Tesla is that they didn’t create this category – they redesigned it in their favor. Electric cars were actually invented more than a century ago, and other brands, like GM, have made attempts at commercializing electric cars since then.
But those previous attempts had a major issue. They were positioned as “fuel-efficient” cars. By trying to sell electric cars as a nifty (and expensive) way of helping the environment, GM and others struggled to gain any real interest. Owning such a car simply wasn’t desirable to many people.
Tesla redefined all of that. Here’s how:
“Economy” electric car
Tesla electric car
Drivers who value environmental impact above all
Luxury/sport drivers who value conspicuous environmentalism
Having an electric car means you have to sacrifice performance
Having an electric car means you should have the best performance
Gasoline is expensive and causes pollution
Electric cars are boring and niche
Value defined by
Fuel savings, emissions reduction
Cool-factor, performance, and ownership experience
Tesla could have used its advanced technology to design and market cars that went head-to-head against the Prius – the leading “green” car when Tesla’s sedans were introduced. But the Prius would have won. It was cheaper, more suitable for long trips, and still fuel-efficient enough for the environmentally-conscious consumer. But by creating high-performance, technologically-advanced cars that offered a unique ownership experience, Tesla designed a category that it could easily dominate.
This process of getting buyers to shift the way they think about something is what the authors of Play Bigger refer to as a “FroTo” (as in from-to). Tesla did a fantastic job of executing this when it came to electric cars, but as you’ll see in a moment, it can work equally well in software.
HubSpot: inbound marketing
Prior to HubSpot, most demand generation would be defined by what you’d now call “outbound marketing”. Except at that time, it was just called “marketing”. Cold calls, unsolicited emails, display ads – most companies relied on tactics that involved reaching out to potential buyers. Marketing automation software was built to help marketers execute these tasks at scale, and companies like Eloqua led the pack.
When Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah founded HubSpot in 2006, they could have positioned themselves as a “better” version of Eloqua. But they knew that head-to-head combat would be a losing proposition. Instead, they set up a new category, called “inbound marketing,” based on an entirely different philosophy.
Here’s how HubSpot’s new category compared to the old way of doing things:
Marketers focused on cold outreach
Marketers focused on SEO and content
Deals are best won by interrupting buyers
Deals are best won by attracting buyers
Marketers must reach out to new buyers at scale
Marketers must get buyers to come to them at scale
Value defined by
Efficiency gained over manual processes
Ability to attract buyers to a brand
HubSpot’s message was simple: if you believed that content, SEO, and social media were the future of marketing, then inbound marketing software was for you. By positioning their software around an entirely new philosophy of marketing, HubSpot was able to establish a new category and avoid a head-to-head comparison.
Salesforce: cloud-based software
In the late ‘90s, enterprise software was installed “on-premise” – on physical servers located in the customer’s building. Sure, if you wanted to install a copy Excel on your PC, you could use a trusty CD-ROM, but for software that used a shared database (like CRM), you had to connect to that “on-premise” server. It was expensive, time-consuming, and tedious to maintain. But buyers didn’t know anything different.
That’s why when Salesforce introduced the idea of software that could be accessed remotely, over the internet, they needed set themselves apart from the “on-prem” software that buyers were familiar with. Instead of comparing themselves directly to on-prem CRM software companies, Salesforce broke free of that paradigm and defined themselves on different terms.
Heres’s what that looked like:
Small business operator
Software should be accessed on-premise and paid upfront
Software should be accessed via the Internet and paid monthly
Poor access to customer data
SMBs cannot afford CRM software
Value defined by by
Data visibility vs a non-CRM approach
Installation time and cost of usage
Had Salesforce told enterprise customers that it could provide a better CRM than the leading on-premise offerings, it would have failed. But by defining a new category that would later be defined as cloud-based computing or SaaS, Salesforce set up a new category where they could be first.
Why do categories matter?
We live in a complex world. There are so many brands and products competing for our attention that there’s no way for us to evaluate each one on its own merits. According to researchers at Ruhr-University Bochum, when we encounter something novel, we compare that thing to existing categories our brain has created, and try to find a match4. In other words, we use categories as a shortcut for processing information about thousands of products.
This can be extremely helpful if you’re a software buyer. If your brain already has knowledge of a software category, you already have a handle on key information, such as:
- What that product is designed to do
- What that product is not designed to do
- Who the product is for
- How the product is sold
- What similar products to compare that to
In the B2B SaaS world, you can think of categories as a way of grouping together comparable solutions that are alternatives to solving the same problem.
But unfortunately, the B2B SaaS space has become incredibly complex. Check out this illustration of the marketing technology landscape to see for yourself. This is why being clear about your category – and building the right brand to support it – is so important. “We live in a time where anything can be replicated in what feels like real-time, and a buyer has infinite options. In this world, companies can no longer differentiate on features,” said David Cancel, CEO of Drift and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Business School. “Brand is the only true marketing advantage.”
What category design is not
Hopefully you’re starting to get some clarity on what category design is and how it works. But what’s helped me the most when explaining the concept to others is to clarify what category design isn’t.
- It’s not a marketing campaign. Category design is a business strategy, not a marketing strategy. It affects and requires the involvement of nearly every area of your company.
- It’s not the same as a tagline. New markets don’t get built because some company coined a new phrase. They get built because buyers recognize a new problem and see the need for a new solution.
- It’s not something specific to your company. A category can’t exist if there’s just one company in it. At least not for long. Category designers have to think about building a space that others can help evangelize.
- It’s not a substitute for having a great product. Category design isn’t about tricking buyers. It’s about delivering a meaningful and helpful solution to a new problem.
Lindsay Tjepkema is co-founder and CMO of Casted, and her company is building a category around conversational content. She put this idea best: “Category design is what happens as you build to solve a problem in a way that has truly never been solved before. It’s NOT something you do to just grab attention or stand out from the crowd.“
Category design continues to evolve
To help you understand where category design might be headed, let’s take a look at how this discipline evolved. I like to break down the history of category design into three phases:
The Formative Phase (Dawn of history-1980)
What was the first example of category design thinking? The invention of banking? The telegraph or the first business computer? That’s a discussion for another time, but the point is that for as long as businesses have strategically built new markets around solutions to new problems, category design has existed. For most of history though, there just wasn’t a term for it.
The Blueprint Phase (1981-2016)
When Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind5 was published in 1981 and The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing was published in 1993 (both by Al Ries and Jack Trout), they were the first books to set up the idea that companies should be intentional about their position in the market. And it was the latter of these books that introduced the idea of intentionally setting up a new category.
Crossing the Chasm4 continued that thinking by showing us how to take new ideas to the early majority – a key ingredient in legitimizing a new category. Later, The Innovator’s Dilemma7 demonstrated how breakthrough innovations often have greater initial success when used in a different application than earlier technology.
Finally, in 2016, a book called Play Bigger was written by Al Ramadan, Dave Peterson, Christopher Lochhead, and Kevin Maney. While the books I mentioned above are great on theory, they are short on execution. Play Bigger changed that by providing the first clear blueprint for pulling off category design. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the topic. Once you’ve read it, check out this resource from Category Design Advisors that has further reading ideas.
The Beta Phase (2017-Present)
Now that category design has started to become recognized as a business discipline, we are seeing more companies make an attempt at it. This will only increase as the pace of change and innovation continues to accelerate. We’re seeing category design happen with both single-product companies and enterprise companies. There’s still a lot of experimentation I see happening along the way, and more and more people are documenting their experiences.
You should know that if category design is something you choose to pursue on your own, you need to think of yourself as a “beta tester” – we have the broad pieces in place, but there is still much that needs to be discovered!
Should you attempt category design yourself?
At this point, category design might sound pretty exciting. After all, who doesn’t want to be the next Salesforce or HubSpot – to build and dominate a new market on their own terms? But this process of “claiming new territory” isn’t something you should pick capriciously. In fact, it’s not something many companies should even attempt. Instead of pursuing category design, you may be much better off pursuing a niche within an existing category.
No one makes this choice clearer than Mike Volpe, the founding CMO of HubSpot and CEO of Lola.com, who said, “There are really only two business models: a Better Mousetrap, where you enter an existing market with a product that is better than the current solutions in some way, and a Category Creator, where you are creating a market that does not exist by inventing something new. Neither business model is better, they just have different implications for what you need to do in order to grow.” (Here’s my full interview with Mike.)
Are you better off building a category or competing in an existing one? To find out, take a look at Part II: Does Category Design Make Sense for Your Company?
Category design provides a different approach to growth. Instead of trying to take away market share from competitors, category designers set up a new category that they can lead themselves. Buyers use categories to make sense of a complex world, so companies need to be thoughtful about their choice of category. The term “category design” was coined in the 2016 book Play Bigger, but books like Positioning, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, Crossing the Chasm, and The Innovator’s Dilemma paved the way for this way of thinking. Finally, category design isn’t a marketing strategy, it’s a business strategy. Marketing only happens after category design takes place.
Part II: Category Design Is Powerful, but Not For All
What you’ll learn:
In this section, I’ll show you why your company needs the right set of circumstances before category design can apply. I’ll provide 14 questions to help you assess these circumstances. I’ll also show you how your company also needs to have the right capabilities before embarking on this journey, too. Finally, you’ll see how category design isn’t just about breaking free from existing markets – it’s about a decision to ultimately become a category leader.
Spoiler alert: category design is probably not the right strategy for your company. As I mentioned in part one, it requires a sizable investment of time and resources. This requires the right capabilities. But your circumstances are just as important. For category design to make sense, you need to solve a new problem or solve an existing problem in a new way.
Here’s how to assess circumstances and capabilities for your own company:
Circumstances: don’t pursue category design without a “different” solution
Having the right circumstances for category design is all about having a new angle on solving a problem. Remember, categories are ways of grouping similar products together – products that aim to solve the same problem.
There are two ways to think about this: you can solve a new problem that has recently emerged (one that there are no solutions to). Or you can bring a new approach to solving an old problem, an approach so unique that comparisons with old solutions don’t make much sense.
Here’s an example of each.
Terminus: offer a different solution to an old problem
Marketers have dealt with inefficient and ineffective tactics since the beginning of time. We’ve wasted plenty of money on ads delivered to the wrong audience, or on capturing leads that had no intention of buying. There have been plenty of solutions to help us solve this, too – tools for retargeting, attribution, finding the right audiences, intent data, and so on. Terminus, though, provided a novel approach, called account-based marketing (ABM) that attempts to solve this problem in an entirely new way.
If the old demand generation approach meant capturing a bunch of leads at the top of the funnel and working to convert them, account-based marketing represents the reversal. It involves focusing on the best accounts first, then developing campaigns based on getting their attention alone. By developing software to help with this, and by heavily evangelizing ABM on the side, Terminus developed a new category around this new solution.
Gainsight: solve a new problem
Not more than a decade ago, the term customer success wasn’t on anyone’s radar. It wasn’t part of a job title, the name of a department, or an established discipline. But as SaaS companies recognized that churn and account expansion represented the potential for major revenue loss or gain, respectively, they started to pay more attention to proactively serving customers after the sale. With that, the customer success discipline was born – an entirely different approach than the more reactive customer support role.
With this development, though, a new problem emerged: customer success teams didn’t have software built for their unique role. Help desk software that customer support teams used just wasn’t cut out for it. Enter Gainsight. By creating customer success software, they were able to solve a new problem that had emerged. Gainsight wasn’t the only company to develop customer success software, but they were better than anyone else at evangelizing customer success as a new idea. As we’ll later see, that’s a big part of category design.
There’s one distinction worth mentioning with this idea of solving a new problem. Sometimes, this problem is one your buyers are already aware of. But it’s just as likely that buyers may not even be aware that they have a problem. As a category designer, it may be your job to show them.
These examples have one thing in common. Neither Terminus’ account-based marketing software or Gainsight’s customer success software would have fared very well if they were positioned in existing categories. That shouldn’t be a surprise though. These new categories were aimed at a new type of buyer and defined success in a new way. And each performed different functions that existing products didn’t address.
For those reasons, trying to compare ABM tools to demand-gen tools, or customer success software to help desk software would be like comparing apples and oranges – an unfair comparison that would have only led to confusion. To avoid such a situation, both Terminus and Gainsight set up new categories where they could define the terms of competition in their favor.
Is your solution different or better?
These examples should make one thing clear. If you’re offering is truly different from other solutions out there, then you’re probably in a situation where you need to create a category in order to avoid confusing comparisons with products that solve other problems.
But if you’ve simply made an incremental improvement to something that already exists – a new feature, lower cost, or faster performance – that usually doesn’t warrant a new category. That’s just a better version of something that already exists.
There’s nothing wrong with creating something better. But trying to develop a new category when you haven’t actually built something different will only hurt you by confusing potential buyers. You’re better off competing for a unique position in an existing category, one that buyers are already aware of and have demand for.
Here’s how to understand whether your solution is different or better
While those examples from Terminus and Gainsight are pretty clear cut, assessing this for yourself isn’t always so easy. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to find out if your solution is better or different…
- Are buyers unfamiliar with solutions like yours? Does your solution represent something entirely new?
- Does your solution represent a departure from the status quo, something bigger than an incremental improvement way things have always been done?
- Does your solution represent a different philosophy and/or radically new approach to solving a problem?
- Does your solution require a totally different way of measuring value or defining success?
- Does new language need to be created to describe what you do?
- Would putting your solution in the framework of an existing category create confusion for potential buyers?
- When presenting your solution to potential buyers, do you need to spend more time teaching them about the problem you solve than how you stack up against competitors?
- Is there a sense that momentum is shifting towards a “new” way of doing things (that you represent) and away from an “old” way of (that contrasts with what you do)?
- If your solution went away, would customers have a tough time finding a similar product they could easily switch to?
- Do enough people experience the problem you help them solve to warrant a legitimate market?
- Are buyers generally unaware of the problem you help them solve?
- Would comparing yourself to existing solutions make things more confusing?
- Would a buyer have a tough time making the right comparisons to your product on their own? Would you need to teach them about a new way of looking at things?
- Is there a lack of industry or analyst coverage about your type of solution?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, it’s likely that you’re in a situation where it’s more appropriate to build a new category instead of competing for market share in an existing one. But having the right circumstances isn’t enough. Your team has to have the right capabilities if it’s going to be successful at category design.
Not for the faint of heart: category designers need the right capabilities
Just because you’re in a situation where category design could make sense, does that mean you’re in a position to pull it off? Not necessarily. Executing category design is hard, and it takes a certain kind of company to pull it off. Here are some points to help you assess whether you’re ready.
Do you have patience and perseverance?
Category design is a long-term play. It’s not a one-time campaign or something you can focus on for a quarter or two. “People are skeptical. When you create a category, it is hard to get people to pay you for your solution at first,” said Lindsay Tjepkema. “Getting them to change the way they are thinking is hard work – especially when you are the first.”
It will probably take a few years for an emerging category to turn into a legitimate market. If you’re expecting your category evangelization efforts to pay off sooner than that, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Do you have courage?
There will always be cynics and skeptics. And when you try to convince them about the need for your new category, they won’t hesitate to tell you all the reasons why you’re wrong. Sticking to your guns in the face of such people takes courage and conviction. Not everyone will be a detractor, but the minority that exists will make sure they’re heard. Especially if you start to show signs of success.
Do you have enough resources?
Category design doesn’t come cheap – and I’m not just referring to your marketing budget. Not only does category design require you to develop a new message and evangelize it over a period of many years. You also have to spend energy keeping your product roadmap on track and convincing investors, employees, and partners to wait for the payoff. All of that takes resources – money yes, but also in terms of time, attention, and energy. “Category design requires sufficient runway, too,” said Gina Hortatsos, CMO at LogicGate, where she’s designing a category to stand out from the process automation space. “It takes time and a tolerance for mistakes and frequent pivots.”
Can you get your leadership team on board?
By “on board,” I don’t mean “everyone nodding their heads because the CEO said so”. Your entire executive team has to be excited about pursuing the strategy and commit to executing category design together. That’s because category design is a business strategy that requires effort and input from every department. If the process is something delegated to a single department, then the effort will fall short of its potential.
Do you have the right culture?
In my view, this is the most important factor. Your chance at category design might look great on paper, but if your team doesn’t have the right attitude, nothing else will matter. You will have to move quickly. You will have to coordinate across departments, making strategic decisions without succumbing to groupthink. You will have to be able to rally each other when things get tough. And most of all, you need a culture that’s willing to try new things and take risks.
Do you have the right investors?
According to Kevin Maney, “If you have investors who are cautious and want to only go after easily-defined markets in a me-too way, you have the wrong investors.” While category design can greatly improve your chances of success, it also demands patience as you build a new market from scratch. If your investors are just looking for a quick win, they may not be ready for the journey.
Remember, your category also needs to be lucrative enough to satisfy your ambitions – especially if you’re VC-funded. Gong is a great example of a company that ran into this restriction. While they were the clear leaders of the Conversation Intelligence category, they found that space to be too restrictive. Ultimately they decided to step outside of it.
Udi Ledorgor, the company’s CMO states, “In Gong’s case, we walked away from the legacy Conversation Intelligence category to create the revenue intelligence category, which helped us get the attention of senior sales leaders, who won’t typically take a call with a solution provider they perceive as being tactical, which is one of the problems plaguing the Conversation Intelligence category.”
Category design doesn’t always require the entire company to shift gears
While some of the examples I’ve shared involve the entire company focusing on a new category, that doesn’t always have to be the case. In a more mature company, you can design a category for a new product, even when one of your legacy cash cows sits squarely in an existing one.
Consider Everbridge, a publicly-traded SaaS company that built its business in the “Mass Notification” category. When the company set its sights on something more ambitious, called critical event management, that didn’t mean it had to give up its presence in an existing category. Instead, category design was something additive that helped the company expand what was possible.
“We knew we would always be able to solve the problems that are inherent within the mass notification category, but we’re interested in solving bigger and broader problems,” Jeff Benanto, a marketing director at Everbridge (EVBG), told me in this interview about the company’s category design process.
We wanted to learn more about the problems our customers have that are more extensive and pervasive than the challenges that can be solved by Mass Notification. And by listening to our customers, we realized there was a bigger market opportunity to provide solutions to meet these needs. A more consolidated way to keep people safe and systems running. And that’s how we landed on critical event management…If done right, it’s going to have huge returns on investment for our business.”
Jeff and his team were clearly on to something and the strategy proved to be right. Since the company started working on Critical Event Management back in 2016, the stock is up several-fold and the company now has a market cap over $5 billion.
Prepare to be king – or someone else will
Will you be prepared to lead this category once it’s established? Or will you be merely preparing the way for a competitor to take the crown once the category is built? You need to answer this before you begin.
Consider the Salesforce example from earlier. Salesforce didn’t just establish the cloud-based software category, they prepared to build, grow, and lead the category from day one. While they started as a CRM company, it wasn’t long before they introduced other types of applications to the cloud. Through continuous innovation and heavy marketing, Salesforce was able to maintain its position as the “category king” even as the category grew and other cloud-based software companies emerged.
Consider what Bill Macaitis, Salesforce’s former SVP of Marketing, told me. “At Salesforce we always believed our brand was the sum of every single interaction a customer had with us. This meant we were constantly evolving and re-inventing how we could delight our customers at every stage. There was no endpoint, just a long journey of customer-centric touchpoints.” Hear more on this in this interview with Bill.
But if you look at a company like Skype, things didn’t turn out the same way. Back in 2006, Sykpe introduced a way for multiple people to conduct a video conferencing call – all without having to purchase expensive hardware or software. Skype already had hundreds of millions of users, and they could have become the category king of video conferencing. But today that honor belongs to Zoom. Skype simply did not invest enough in innovation or marketing to earn the crown.
Finally, ask yourself whether you would be pursuing category design for the right reasons. Consider this idea from Eddie Yoon, author of Superconsumers8 and growth strategist to category creators in the Fortune 100 and leading VC-backed upstarts. According to Eddie, aspiring category designers come in two types: mercenaries and missionaries.
“Mercenaries are Machiavellian,” Eddie told me. “They see category creation as a means to an end, to help them raise capital, build awareness, or improve their valuation. The consumer and end-user don’t really matter to them. My research shows that this tends to fail in the long run. Missionaries, though, are more likely to sustain their success because they view category creation as a never-ending quest.
They can’t stop dreaming about a future that is captivating, beautiful, and radically different – one that’s richly abundant and where everyone benefits. They can’t shut up about it or stop working on it, as they are themselves the “super consumer” who is the ultimate muse and north star for the new category. Ultimately, missionaries get that category creation is not a short-term play or a mere marketing strategy.”
Are you in or out?
Remember, category design isn’t for everyone. According to Udi Ledergor, CMO at Gong, “To ensure your category will grow to a lucrative size, you’ll want to make sure that (a) you’re solving a painful problem your target buyers really want to solve, (b) your target buyers have the budget and authority to pay for your solution, and (c) there are enough target buyers so you don’t run out of customers too soon. In addition, it goes almost without saying, you actually need to build and promote the right product to solve your buyers’ pain.” Here’s my interview with Udi.
There’s a chance you’ve read the above and realize that category design doesn’t make sense for you. If so, good. You’ve just saved yourself a tremendous amount of time and money by avoiding a project that was unlikely to work out in the first place.
But if you’ve gotten this far, my guess is that you’re experiencing a combination of excitement and trepidation. Excitement, because I’ve just shown you a path forward that can help you avoid the “red ocean” of an existing category and build a new market for yourself. Trepidation, because I’ve also shown you that this path isn’t a cakewalk.
But at the end of the day, if you find yourself solving a new problem – a problem that your market doesn’t know about and one that isn’t defined by an existing category – then you don’t really have a choice. To succeed in any meaningful way, you do need to follow category design. The next section will show you what that process entails.
If your company isn’t offering something meaningfully different to the world, then category design isn’t appropriate. If that’s the case, you are betting off carving out a niche in an existing category. If you do offer something different, your team will need the right attitude, resources, and people if you’re going to succeed. Category designers need to be prepared to take and defend the leadership position in their new category.
Part III: A 30,000 Foot View Of The Category Design Process
What you’ll learn:
This section will give you a high-level summary of the four phases of category design, with some specific examples of how category designers in B2B SaaS have gone through that process.
Heads up: this is not a detailed, step-by-step, paint-by-numbers guide to building a category. That would require a lot more than the couple thousand words we have room for here. My goal is to give you a broad overview of what the category design process entails, so you can have a better sense of the work involved. If you’re interested in a more specific blueprint, both Play BIgger and another book called Category Creation: How to Build a Brand that Customers, Employees, and Investors Will Love9, by Anthony Kennada will provide more specifics.
You can think of the category design process as involving four phases:
- Understand your audience and their problem
- Create a category story and category name
- Bring your category to life
- Evangelize your category
1. Understand your audience and their problem
Remember: category design is all about solving a new problem, or solving an old problem in a new way. Therefore, an understanding of this problem serves as the foundation for everything else you’ll do with category design. If you understand the problem well, then the products you build and the messaging you create to market it will benefit greatly. More than that, showing the market that you fully understand this problem is crucial to getting your new category off the ground.
However, problems don’t exist without people. To reach a full understanding of a problem, you have to understand the people who are experiencing that problem. You have to have a sense of how they describe that problem, what pain it’s causing them, and what they are currently doing to solve the problem. You may even discover that your audience isn’t even aware that they have a problem. It will be your job to show them.
As you’ll see in a moment, much of the messaging you create around your category stems from an understanding of the problem and the people who experience it. Get this wrong, and the rest of your category design efforts will suffer.
This is why category designers begin by spending time with existing and potential customers to really dig into the problem. This quote from Play Bigger says it best: “When you describe the problem better than anyone else, people assume you have the best solution.”
Consider this example, from Terminus’ book, ABM is B2B10. It highlights the problems that can arise when marketing is focused on leads instead of accounts.
“Marketing research firm Forrester discovered that fewer than one percent of all leads turn into customers. Put that another way: 99% of what you’re doing now doesn’t work. It’s not turning into revenue. Your CEO and CFO are looking at marketing and wondering what is going on, and no one is sure what to say except that leads are coming in, and website clicks are up.”
Without mentioning the solution yet, as a reader, you can quickly see that there’s a major problem that marketers face. And it’s obvious that Terminus spent time understanding how marketers work. This definition of the problem is the perfect foil for the category Terminus has been trying to build, called account-based marketing.
There are plenty of ways to better understand your customers, too. At BombBomb, one of the most helpful exercises we did was a survey of our “best fit” customers (we defined “best fit” as having a high NPS score and having used our software for more than two years). When we asked these customers a series of simple questions about the problem we help them solve, the answers we received were tremendously valuable.
For example, we initially assumed that our customers used BombBomb’s video messaging software to solve the problem of “needing better results from email”. But after talking to customers, we found that it wasn’t better email results they were after, it was better relationships with the people they do business with. The problem we solve isn’t email per se. It’s the fact that bots, spam, and the misuse of marketing automation have conditioned customers to ignore and mistrust the communication they receive from businesses.
But remember, your customers don’t always know what they want. “Customers will only tell you they want better,” Kevin Maney told me. “They’ll never see a different solution.” As a category designer, the onus is on you to provide that.
If you need help defining the problem your category solves, here’s a quick guide.
2. Create a category story and category name
Once you have a firm grasp on the problem you’re solving (and whom you’re solving it for), you need to come up with a way to talk about the new solution to this problem. This is where your category name and something called a category story come into play.
Let’s start with the category story, because it’s this exercise that will inform your category name.
A category story is what tells the world why a new category needs to exist. It might be the most important element in category design because it’s the idea upon which the rest of your messaging will be based. There are a couple of ways to approach your category story: the point-of-view and the strategic narrative.
The point of view is a concept that comes from Play Bigger. While marketers have long enjoyed introducing things that are “new”, a point of view shows the world why a category needs to exist. It’s a short narrative (or “movie-trailer” as the co-authors refer to it), that shows the market what the world will look like once this new category is established. It’s framed on that idea of moving the world from a former state (that was causing pain) and to a future state (where that pain is solved).
The strategic narrative comes from Andy Raskin, a top advisor to B2B SaaS companies. It presents a change that’s already happening in the world and shows how this change will create winners and losers. The narrative then presents your category as a tool that will help a potential customer emerge as a winner.
According to Andy, “A category is a strategic narrative. It’s a narrative about the new game that the winners are playing (and why the old game is obsolete) that buyers embrace to make sense of their world.” Here’s my interview with Andy.
Both of these approaches are similar in that they speak to a specific type of story that humans are wired to respond to. It’s called The Hero’s Journey. It’s a concept developed by Joseph Campbell, a professor and author whose research has influenced a wide range of modern writers and authors, including George Lucas’s work on Star Wars.
The basic idea is that a story’s hero is faced with a disruptive change to his world. The only way he can conquer this change is through some externally-granted power. Once he wields this power, he’s able to surmount these challenges and return to a restored world that’s better than the one he left. Find more on the Hero’s Journey here. If you can capture this idea in your category story, you’re on the right track.
Regardless of what approach you use to create a story around your category, it will need to accomplish the following things:
- Highlight the pain that your audience experiences from the problem you defined earlier
- Demonstrate how current approaches to solving this problem don’t exist or are no longer adequate
- Point to your new category as a new (and different) solution to solving this problem
- Create contrast between life before the category and what life will be like after the category
- Cast a vision that can excite your customers, partners, and investors and serve as a north star for your company strategy
As a bonus, if you can show how the world is changing, and how these changes give rise to the need for your category, your story will be especially strong. Check out Andy Raskin’s The Best Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen for more on this.
Generally, the category story is an internal document or presentation that guides your company strategy and serves as a foundation for your external messages. But you can also develop an outward-facing version, too. Check out Gainsight’s guide to customer success as an example.
“Getting your category story right is going to take time,” says Anna Schena, Director of Growth Marketing at Narrative Science. “It is much, much harder than it sounds, and will likely require several rounds of iteration before it is right.”
For context, Anna is building a category they call data storytelling. Their category story is based around the idea turns a company’s data into plain-English stories that people can more easily understand, all automatically.
Sarah Elkins understands the challenge of creating a category story as well. “It was very time-consuming for us,” she told me. “For a company that was very technical we had to really focus on business language, and getting people out of the technical weeds. That was hard. But it was worth it. I recommend pushing through the frustration.”
But very much worth the time spent. I’d always recommend that people really focus on this step and push through the frustration. This is also where buy-in becomes really important as you need people to push through this process with you. But it’s worth the investment. As I already mentioned, your category story will serve as the foundation for the remainder of your category design efforts, and you can’t afford to get it wrong.
When your brand is defining its category story, you may decide to pick an “enemy” to help drive contrast between existing categories and the new one you’re building. “In the early days of building the “learning experience platform (LXP)” category, we positioned ‘learning management systems (LMS)’ as the enemy,” said Brad Zomick, a B2B marketing advisor and previously VP of Marketing at Pathgather and Degreed (LXP category leaders).
“Whereas the LMS was built around the needs of the person administering the education, the new category we built was geared towards the needs of the learner. That contrast created clarity for what our category stood for and helped fuel our growth.”
Remember that your category story isn’t just about you. It’s not a pitch for your particular product or company, it’s a pitch for the category. One it’s been developed, you’ll need to think through the right positioning, branding, and messaging to support it.
Want to learn about the process we used at BombBomb to create our own category name and category story? Click here.
A category name is as simple as it sounds: it’s a short phrase that gives the category a reference point. Examples are account-based marketing (Terminus), cloud-based software (Salesforce), and revenue intelligence (Gong).
The category name does not need to fully describe what the category is all about. Its main job is to point your audience’s thinking in the right direction. It will offer a new (and perhaps intriguing, provocative, or polarizing) phrase that serves as a conversation starter. Finally, the category name provides consistency when talking about your new category. Here are a few things to keep in mind when coming up with a category name.
- Avoid a category name that’s so broad that it could apply to a number of different problems and solutions. Similarly, a category name should not apply only to your company. Stay away from branded or trademarked terms.
- Consider whether the category name should build upon familiar terms or be entirely new. Something too similar may be written off as something your audience “already knows about.” But something too foreign may be too difficult to grasp. “We ended up picking something that was similar to another term people in our industry used,” said Sarah Elkins, VP, Demand Generation at Tasktop Technologies.
- “In the end, the name we picked best reflected what people would call this category, and we went ahead knowing we’d have to do some work to differentiate between the two terms.” Sarah and her team ended up selecting value stream management for their category name, after realising that implementations of Agile and DevOps were failing at scale.
- Make sure the category name isn’t already used in another context. Just because nobody in B2B SaaS is using this term doesn’t mean it’s not used in another industry. You’ll spend too much time battling for search traffic if this is the case.
- A category name that’s hard to pronounce or remember. Your goal is to evangelize the category. Just like a good brand or product name, the category name should be something that can stick in your mind and be pleasant to say.
- Your category name doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s unlikely everyone on your team will agree on it. If it’s close enough, then move on. It may also morph over time. Listen to the market – if it changes it to an acronym, use the acronym. If it changes a word, adapt. Defining the problem and category story is more important.
While the category name may only consist of a few words, it may not be easy to land on one. “The name of the category was a major source of contention for us, said Sarah. “We had to do a lot of work internally to convince people that picking the perfect name that everyone loved was never going to happen. That was okay. You often see variations in the category name. Analysts often give categories names that are not the ones used by vendors, for example. The most important thing for us was to define the problem and create a point of view. That’s what people should focus on.”
When I worked with Australian SaaS company Skyfii on helping them define their category name, they eventually landed on “omnidata intelligence” – a variation on the familiar term “data intelligence.” This similarity made it easy for their audience to know what ballpark they operated in, yet the addition of “omni” helped draw a separation between them and the hundreds of existing data analytics tools out there.
But the company didn’t choose a new category name purely for semantics. Skyfii’s solution not only fused together data from digital and physical sources (think airports, stadiums, retail outlets), its data scientists were heavily involved in adding meaning to that data. Neither of these characteristics was reflected in existing categories.
Official vs. unofficial category names
When I say category name, I’m not necessarily referring to the “official” terms that G2 and other review sites use. Sometimes, those official category names are the same ones used in conversation, like “project management software”. When those line up with the category name you’ve defined yourself, that’s a bonus. But other times, they diverge. For example, you won’t find “inbound marketing software” anywhere on G2, but that’s as legitimate a category as any.
The reverse is also worth considering.
Sometimes an “official” category name on G2 is never used in practice, and you need to come up with your own. At BombBomb, we found ourselves in the “other video software” category. This isn’t really a category, and it’s certainly not a term buyers are actively searching for. At the same time, our next best option was “video hosting software,” a category that covers a lot of unrelated solutions. Listing ourselves there would lead to confusion for our buyers. To solve this, we’re actively working on a better term to describe what we and our direct competitors do. Once that’s established, it will only help the entire category grow.
3. Bring your category to life
A category name and category story are just the building blocks. Ultimately, the concepts you develop through those exercises need to be supported by your positioning, messaging, visual identity, product roadmap, and pricing and packaging. Here’s how you’ll need to think about each:
Positioning is simply the idea you want to conjure up in the minds of your buyers when they think about you. A positioning strategy is often created in the context of how you’ll relate to competitors.
Here’s how Andy Cunningham, one of the top marketing and PR people in Silicon Valley, thinks about positioning: “Now that you understand what category you’re in, what’s your differentiator? What is your role? What is your relevance? To me, that’s what positioning is. It’s the dot on the map inside that category.” Check out my interview with Andy about positioning.
But category designers also have to answer the question: how is category leadership defined? “If the category potential is real, you’ll see competitors start to emerge pretty quickly,” said Gina who also built the supply chain visibility category while at FourKites. “Baking in your differentiation from the beginning – preferably one with a high barrier to entry – will insulate you somewhat.”
To help you build a position of differentiation based on your strengths, check out Andy’s book, called Get to Aha!11. It will help you find out if your company is wired to be a mother (customer-experience driven company), a mechanic (product-driven company), or a missionary (concept-driven company). At BombBomb, we found out we’re a Mother, and we are using that to help us build future-proof our category leadership.
Once you develop your positioning strategy, you’ll need to create the right messaging to help you establish that position. Ideally, this should live in a document called a messaging framework. Just like designers have a visual identity guide, a messaging framework provides a reference for how to talk about your company and your products in different contexts.
Depending on how radically you need to depart from the past, you might need full rework of your messaging. Be prepared, as this work will also take time to get right. But remember, you are trying to show the world that you’re different from anything else it’s encountered before, and the words can go a long way to accomplish that. Need help with this building a messaging framework? Here’s a guide for getting started.
Chances are your visual identity may need some revisions to help establish your category design goals as well. Maybe there are new attitudes your brand needs to reflect, or perhaps you want to upgrade to your visual identity as a way of signaling new intentions. For some, this might represent a small change to colors or typography.
For others, it might represent an entire rebrand. For example, when Splunk developed a “data-to-everything” strategy, it created a new pink-and-orange livery to help announce the change. Remember, “Brands, or category leaders, die by a death of a thousand cuts,” says Anna Schena. “Small things that take away from your brand, or the category you are creating, build over time. Even though they seem trivial, they can make all of the difference.”
Your product roadmap will do one of two things: it will bring you closer to your category design goals, or it will pull you in the wrong direction. Hopefully, though, your plans for category design can serve as a lens through which to view your product roadmap. You can start with a simple question: does this work help us build the category, or not? If you’re not sure, then it probably means you haven’t gotten enough clarity on what your category is and what it means for your company. Go back and reassess this work if that’s the case.
Packaging and pricing
For a SaaS product, packaging simply means the way you’ve broken your products into discrete offerings. Why is this a consideration for category design? There are two reasons. The first is that your goal as a category designer is to build the category first. That means you may need to think through how packing and pricing will affect your ability to get your product in the hands of the right people.
The second reason is more long-term focused. As the aspiring category king, it’s your job to define the terms of competition. If you become the king, then whatever choices you make for pricing and packaging will likely become the standard. For example, when Salesforce offered month-to-month pricing plans, that was a novel idea for software. But it soon became the norm for SaaS.
4. Evangelize your category
Once you’ve worked through the steps above, you still don’t have a category. You only have the raw ingredients needed to make one. You need to tell the world about your category, and you need to do that better than anyone else. That’s where the process of category evangelization takes place.
There’s something you should know before you begin this process of evangelizing your category. Perception is reality.
When you first begin, you will NOT be a category king. That’s because your category doesn’t exist yet. That’s why on day one, you don’t need to tell the story of present reality. What you do need to focus on, though, is a future reality. On creating the perception that this category is already coming into its own, and that your company is poised to become its leader.
According to Play Bigger, the company that does the best job of describing a buyer’s problem will be assumed to have the best solution to it. That assumption leads to new business. That business generates revenue, which then fuels investment in your products and evangelizing the category. With this flywheel effect, perception creates reality.
But evangelizing the category involves more than presenting a logical explanation of the facts. You must ignite emotion, too. If you can trigger one or both of the core buying emotions (fear and greed), then you’ll have a much better chance of making the category a reality and being seen as its leader.
You can think of the category evangelization process as three on-going streams of work: creating content and executing lightning strikes.
My favorite way to think about content comes from Dave Gerhardt, CMO of Privy and former VP Marketing at Drift. It’s the idea of “sets and reps”. In this interview, he explained that just like a weightlifter needs to get in his “sets and reps” to build strength, a category designer needs to talk about their new category day in and day out. Your category story needs to be reflected on your website, in your sales decks, throughout your marketing collateral, on podcast interviews, and so on. In other words, if you’re talking about your company, you should be talking about the category. To do this right, involve your sales, marketing, and product teams to make them feel like they are a part of the process.
Don’t stop there, though. Your efforts also need to be supported by a category-centric content production plan. Create and promote blog posts, videos, webinars, podcasts, social media content, guides, etc. that show the world what this new category looks like and why it needs to exist.
For a great example of this, take a look at WebPT, a company that’s designing a new category around cloud-based tools for physical therapy offices. “We built this tremendous education engine around the business side of our industry,” said WebPT Co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer, Heidi Jannenga PT, DPT, ATC.
“This has become core to our business and a key contributor to our growth. Through educational blog content, white papers, guides, webinars, a robust annual report, and other content, we’ve become a trusted and credible partner in the rehab therapy space – something I think is mission-critical when you’re carving out a new, unknown category.”
Heidi continued, “We also host an annual conference called Ascend that’s open to anyone in the rehab therapy community – not just WebPT members – who want to learn how to improve business operations, their clinic’s bottom line, and excel as a therapy professional. Because we’ve focused on being advocates first and foremost for the rehab therapy profession by putting out valuable educational content, we’ve become the third-most sought-after resource for compliance and billing in rehab therapy, behind only the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the American Physical Therapy Association. This has created a robust funnel of prospective customers who already know and respect the WebPT brand because of what we’ve done in terms of education and advocacy. Because we’ve established that trust when they’re ready to implement new technology, they think of us first.” Here’s the full interview with Heidi.
Also, consider writing a book: this seems to be de rigueur for B2B category designers today. It’s what we did at BombBomb, and it’s been a huge asset in helping us spread the word about the power of video messaging (check out Rehumanize Your Business12 by Ethan Beute and Steve Pacinelli). Other examples include Conversational Marketing13 by David Cancel and Dave Gerhardt, Inbound Marketing14 by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, ABM is B2B by Eric Spett and Sangram Vajre, and Sales Engagement15 by Manny Medina, Max Altschuler, and Mark Kosoglow.
James Carbary, CEO of SweetFish Media and author of Content-Based Networking16, told me “Writing and promoting a book is one of the most strategic things you can do when you’re trying to build a category. I decided to do just that with Content-Based Networking. I actually just got a text from a possible customer telling me that he ordered a box of my books for his entire team that he wants me to sign.”
If done well, evangelization tactics like this not only help build the category but will help you position your company as its leader. Remember: when buyers see that you understand the problem the best, they will assume you have the best solution.
Execute lightning strikes
Here’s the bad news. Even if you do a great job of building content that promotes your category, it’s probably not going to be enough to get the job done. There are so many things competing for your audience’s attention, that in order to get them to sit up and engage in a new way of thinking, you’ll need to do something much louder to break through all that noise.
That’s where “lightning strikes” (a term that the Play Bigger team developed) come in. Lightning strikes are high-profile, high-effort, all-department blitzes that involve a lot more than simply adding dollars to a conventional marketing campaign. The goal is to shock the world into seeing things in a new way and to see you as the inevitable category king.
The most famous example of a lightning strike is Salesforce’s No Software protest. The company stages a mock protest outside the venue where Seibel System (the leading on-prem CRM company) was holding its annual event. Thousands of Seibel employees, customers, partners, and analysts were forced to walk past these protesters, all of whom were demanding an end to software as the world knew it.
Here are further points on how lightning strikes differ from traditional marketing campaigns:
- More than marketing. Unlike an ad campaign, lightning strikes will involve departments outside of marketing. For example, you could turn a major product release into a lightning strike that involves product, engineering, marketing, and PR.
- High intensity. By their very nature, lightning strikes require a high level of concentrated effort. Be prepared to break up your routine and commit to making them happen.
- Only a few per year. You can run a new marketing campaign every month, but not a lightning strike. Expect to pull off two to four in a year.
- Focused on your category first. Lightning strikes are designed to help the world see the need for a new category. If all you’re doing is promoting your own brand, you’re missing the big picture.
Bonus tactic: hire a chief evangelist
“When you are trying to create a category, having no voice behind the rallying cry makes it very difficult,” says Derrick Thomas, a marketing manager at SaaSOptics. “That’s why you need to have an executive or a point person to rally around – someone to become your evangelist and protagonist. This is someone who is active on social media and shouting your new category from the mountaintops. People follow people, not companies”.
One of the most effective ways to do this is by hiring a dedicated Chief Evangelist. The most famous example may be Guy Kawasaki, who evangelized Apple through the ‘90s and now does the same at Canva. More recent examples include Sangram Vajre (co-founder and Chief Evangelist at Terminus) and my colleague Ethan Beute (Chief Evangelist at BombBomb).
According to Ethan, “The essence of evangelism is basically, ’Good news! There’s a better way!’ You have a powerful, positive story to tell and one that people really like to hear. It’s a new conversation that people suffering the problem tend to enjoy having.” Prior to becoming an evangelist, Ethan connected not only from Guy and Sangram, but he also learned from Dan Steinman and Dave Isbitski, evangelists at Gainsight and Amazon, respectively. If you’re considering this play yourself, check out these 10 tips on tech evangelism.
Category design is a constant battle
Category design is something you have to push forward every day – and for a long period of time. There will always be distractions and “shiny new objects” that tempt your team to go off track. It’s your job to ground your team back to reality and keep the company focused on your category story.
“Category design isn’t something you have to start on day one and finish 20 days later,” says Mike Damphousse, a partner at Category Design Advisors. “Category designs an ongoing discipline of how to do business. It takes years to build a category. In fact, the average is six to 10 years to get a fully established category.”
Yes, you’re going to sound like a broken record, but that’s just part of the process. Your audience will need much more time to internalize the problem then your own team will, so stay persistent! You’ll be glad you did in the long run.
There you have it. The process for building a category isn’t that complicated. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Nor is it something that a single person can do – in order to get category design to work as a company strategy, you have to get your entire team on board with the process first. To find out how to do that successfully, read Part IV: How To Get Buy-In From Your Team.
You can think of the category design process as involving four phases: understand your audience and their problem; create a category name and category story; bring your category to life; evangelize your category. Category designers often hire chief evangelists to help with this phase. If you decide to pursue category design, prepare for the hard work it will take to keep your team focused over the long haul.
Part IV: How to Talk With Your Team About Category Design (and Get Them Excited)
What you’ll learn:
I wrote this section based on going through this exact process at BombBomb.
I’ll show you why getting your team on board in the early stages of category design is the most important part of the process. I’ll walk you through a specific plan you can use to introduce category design to your CEO and executive team, make the decision together, and then get your entire company involved with and excited for the process.
Throughout this section you’ll also find several pointers from our two co-founders: Conor McCluskey, our CEO, and Darin Dawson, our President.
Category design is a team effort. Not only does it affect nearly everyone in your company in one way or another, but pulling it off successfully also requires the support of every department.
“Category design will affect your job, whether you’re in customer success, sales development, product, HR, and so on,” Darin told me. “Take accounting, for example. Category design can impact billing, spend on marketing, expenses, and so on. Your accounting team will naturally ask questions like why are we doing this? What’s this for? How much are we going to spend on this? Well, if you understand the “why” behind category design, those questions become easier to answer.”
Before you can get there, though your CEO, your executive team, and your department heads should be on board. But how do you go about that? Well, I’ve gone through this exact process at BombBomb, and in this section I’ll share how we did it.
Looking back on what we went through, I can break down our process into seven steps:
- Find the right person to spearhead the conversation
- Start the discussion with your CEO
- Build buy-in across your leadership team
- Make the call
- Create a task force
- Bring your team along on the journey
- Create a feedback loop
As you read through this process, keep in mind that this is a process that worked for our company. Your situation and your culture might be different, so feel free to adapt this accordingly.
1. Find the right person to spearhead the conversation
Like any initiative, you have to start by figuring out who’s going to spearhead the category design exploration process. Whoever it is should have more than just a knowledge of category design and the desire to pursue it. They also need to have a solid relationship with the CEO and the leadership team. Category design will require their commitment, and this person needs to be in a position where they can make that ask. If this isn’t you, consider finding an ally who’s more suited to the task.
For me, I was all but mandated to explore category design – looking at ideas like this is part of my job description. But I didn’t try to go it alone either. As someone very new to my company (I had only been at BombBomb a few months when we kicked this off), I also worked with my CMO, our President, and our CEO on discussing this with our leadership team. I also had dozens of conversations with people throughout the company early on, so I could better assess the culture, the state of the business today, and what our leadership desired for the future.
2. Start the discussion with your CEO
Before I walk through the process of getting buy-in from your team, remember this one thing first: your CEO has to be a core part of your category design efforts. I learned this early on, when Chris Orlob, Director of Sales at Gong, told me, “If you do not have your CEO directly involved in your category creation efforts, it’s probably going to fail.”
While category design involves a heck-of-a-lot of marketing, it’s ultimately a business strategy. It’s your CEO who leads the business (not your marketing team), so you cannot begin the process without her full support and involvement. Hear more on why the CEO needs to be involved in this interview I held with Chris.
Conor McCluskey, our CEO at BombBomb, told me, “Category design is a pivotal part of your plans for the future. It can’t be a side project. As CEO, you need to get into the details of this strategy and have an informed opinion of where you’re headed. That’s your job as a leader.”
But how do you begin this conversation with your CEO? Well, think of it more like a conversation, and less of something you need to “convince” them of. Ultimately, like any strategic decision, you’ll have better support long term if you help the CEO make the decision for themselves.
Here’s what Conor advises. “Everybody comes to the CEO with tons of ideas. So if you’re trying to get your own CEO to explore category design, don’t start by trying to provide the answer. Instead, ask questions. Questions like: what do you think the future of our company will look like, and how do you think about our strategy?
You may even find out that your CEO doesn’t have a desire to be a category leader, which will save you a bunch of wasted effort. But once you know how she thinks about those things, you’ll know how to frame the conversation around category design.”
At BombBomb, these conversations led to a few conclusions. First, it was clear that our business had a strong desire to move into larger, more strategic accounts, and we had already made several investments to help us get there. Secondly, we saw that our emerging category was going to happen “with or without us,” and we needed to make a conscious choice of how we were going to participate in that. Finally, we realized that the tenure and experience of our team could provide us with some advantages that could help us emerge as the category leader.
We then used these conclusions as a lens for discussing category design. Instead of looking at category design in the abstract, we were able to talk about specific ways it could help us achieve goals we already had in place.
Remember, don’t expect your CEO to buy-in immediately. Chances are, you needed some time to work through this yourself, and that will only be more true for your CEO. This was true for Conor, as he initially looked at category design as more of a marketing play. But as he read Play Bigger and had a chance to think through it, that changed.
“For me, the lightbulb that went off was when I realized that we were no longer the only company trying to make personal, one-to-one video a thing,” he shared. “Once I saw that the space had been validated by competitors, and that there’s a major market taking shape, I knew that we couldn’t afford to wait any longer on category design.
3. Build buy-in across your leadership team
Making the call on category design needs to extend past the CEO. Sure, your CEO can put down a mandate, but you’ll be much better off in the long run if your leadership team is supportive before the decision is made.
“Don’t talk exclusively with your CEO and risk all your capital there,” Conor told me. “At the same time, you also need to build your case with the rest of your leadership team. Because typically, once you bring up category design, your CEO is going to talk to the other executives to hear their thoughts. You want them to have a chance to think through this so they support the discussion.”
Just like the conversation with your CEO, the worst thing you can do when approaching your leadership team is come in too hot, guns blazing, trying to convince everyone that category design is the way to go. Ideally, you want to let each person get there on their own. For now, focus on creating a situation in which your leadership team is open to and interested in the idea.
“You can’t just expect people to get on board immediately,” said Darin. “Instead, I started this process by having conversations and asking questions, helping our team see for themselves that we might need to look at things differently.”
Ask your leadership team some of the same questions you’ve presented to your CEO. For example, ask them if they feel like the existing business strategy has them on the right path. Or if they feel like the company has enough clarity on its direction, or if different teams are puling in different directions. See if there is a desire to play at a bigger level that isn’t being served by the current way of doing business.
If you’re crushing your goals and achieving the right kind of growth, then perhaps you don’t need to take on such a dramatic initiative. But if your leadership feels like something is off, then it’s time to present category design as an option to explore. You don’t have to pitch it as the “right” solution yet, and in fact, you shouldn’t. Remember, you want to help your team come up with an answer on their own. However, what you can do is introduce category design as something worthy of discussion.
“I asked our whole executive team to read Play Bigger, which is really the definitive work on the topic,” Darin added. “And I suggested some podcasts on category design. Once they had a chance to digest that material, I started to ask questions like, “Do you think people actually understand the problem that we’re solving? Do you think they know what we’re trying to do? How is that hurting us? What’s the upside if we solve that?”
Darin continued, “Once our executive team was open to the idea, I asked for their questions so we could think through them together. I heard things like, ‘Isn’t this just for sales and marketing?’ and ‘How are we going to stay committed to this?’ And from those questions, we were able to make sure that everyone on the team was heard, which helped us secure buy-in.”
You may also find it helpful to explore how other companies have executed category design. Here’s where you can find more than a dozen interviews with other category designers.
4. Make the call
Once you’ve established that your team is open to a new strategy, and given them some time to get acquainted with category design, it’s time to have an intentional discussion around it. Don’t putter around with the idea for too long; either make a formal decision to pursue it, or decide that it’s not for you and move on.
To help make this process feel a bit more formal at BombBomb, I gave a presentation to our leadership team that was designed to help us make the decision (either way) and move on. It wasn’t a presentation just on category design as a general idea; much of it discussed how it related to our future at BombBomb. If you’re building such a presentation yourself, consider breaking it down into these four sections. If you’d like to see the one we used ourselves, please email me:
- Review what category design is to remind your team of what you’ve been discussing
- Show why category design is the right solution for your specific business situation
- Outline what your future would look like if you decide or decide not to pursue the strategy
- Present a specific timeline for making the final decision
While all four of those points are important, it’s the second one that’s most critical. Category design might sound great in theory, but if you can’t demonstrate how it relates to your current situation and why it’s going to give you the best chances of success, this presentation won’t really matter.
That’s because category design doesn’t fall into the category of things you can experiment with and test out. It’s a commitment – one that you can’t easily reverse course on and that will require time and effort from everyone on your leadership team. Your team shouldn’t make the decision without carefully understanding why it’s necessary and what they are getting themselves into!
Here are a few other tips on making this presentation to your team:
Don’t rush into it. Give people on your team time to consider category design before you have a formal discussion. When you present to your leadership team, this shouldn’t be the first time they are hearing about this idea. At the same time, don’t press your team for immediate feedback. Be patient. Give them time to unpack what you’ve presented. This is a big decision for your company and requires a thoughtful approach.
Hear out questions and concerns. You’ll be much more likely to get support if everyone on your team feels heard. Better to get things out on the table now, instead of midway into the project. You’ll probably hear points you hadn’t considered, too. For example, a few people on our team were worried this would be a “flash in the pan” that didn’t stick, which I hadn’t considered. With that knowledge, I can work on ways to ingrain this way of thinking into our work.
Provide a timeframe for deciding. Once you’ve made the pitch, agree on a specific date for regrouping and making a final decision. Don’t push this too far out, or you’ll lose momentum. We decided at our quarterly offsite, just a couple of weeks afterward.
Be clear on the timeline and next steps. If your team doesn’t know what will happen next, it’s hard for them to feel confident in moving forward. You don’t have to have every last detail mapped out, but providing a high-level overview will go a long way. If you’d like a walkthrough of the category design blueprint we created for our team at BombBomb, send me a message and I’ll be happy to walk you through it.
Don’t present until you’re sure of the outcome. Just a good lawyer doesn’t take on a case unless she’s confident she can win, you don’t want to have this discussion unless you’re fairly sure your team will be on board. Ideally, they already will be, from the individual discussions you’ve had well ahead of time.
Own the challenges and risks. Your team will conclude on their own that category design won’t be easy. But if you gloss over that, you risk looking like you haven’t thought things through. Instead, build credibility by being upfront about the hurdles you’ll face. In my own presentation, I concluded with a slide that showed a picture of Mount St. Helens exploding. The caption read, “Category design is dangerous. You can use it to destroy your enemies, but if you mishandle it, it can blow up in your face.”
Have fun. Just because you’re talking about something serious doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some laughs along the way. Especially if your team gets into a heated debate, a bit of levity can go a long way.
5. Create a task force
Your next job is to create a team of people who can dedicate themselves to helping your company move forward on category design. You might assume that the category design discussion can simply be a part of your regular leadership meetings, but I don’t recommend it. Here are three reasons why.
A task force can devote more attention to category design. A special-purpose task force gives the category design process more weight. If it’s merely an agenda item among other discussions, then it’s not as likely to get the attention it needs during your regular leadership meetings.
A task force is more efficient. Your leadership team might be too large to have productive discussions around category design. I recommend a group of around 5-7 people (make sure your CEO is one of them). You’ll want representation for each department, but a group small enough to move quickly.
A task force ensures you have the right people. There might be people you want to bring into the category design discussion who aren’t on the leadership team. Creating a task force gives you the flexibility to add the right people to the mix.
At BombBomb, we created a group of seven leaders who work on product, sales, creative, marketing, and operations. Both our CEO and President are part of this group, and we have just one marketer (me). Remember, you can (and should) bring up major updates and decisions with your leadership team. But save the heavy lifting and for your task force.
6. Bring your team on the journey
The decision to pursue category design should happen at the executive level, but once that’s done, you must involve your team in the category design process. It’s a necessity.
Consider all the activities I outlined above: executing lightning strikes, creating content, reworking your messaging, and so on. Category design is too big for just a few people to pull off. Bring your team on board early on if you want to have their support later.
“I knew that category design would be a whole company initiative – something that would fundamentally change how everyone thought about the business,” Darin explained. “I also knew that if we were going to pull this off, we had to get commitment across the board. Your team might follow you initially, but if they’re not bought-in, they can be a drag on the whole program and you won’t see the success you’re looking for.”
Getting your team on board is also your obligation as a leader. Category design represents a major company strategy, and any good leader will help show their team a vision for the future and a plan for getting there. If presented in the right way, category design can help instill confidence and excitement for where you are headed.
At BombBomb, we started this process through the “Friday Update” videos that Darin sends to the entire company each week. “Once I have my teams bought in at the leadership level, I expect them to carry that message to their teams and help them understand it. I also send a video to the entire company every Friday about what we’re working on,” said Darin. “Category design became one of the pieces I started to communicate in those updates. I try to be very upfront about the fact that this is going to affect their job (in a good way) and it’s something they need to pay attention to.
HubSpot is another great example of a company that cares about “internal evangelism.” “If you’re going to create a category that’s going to last years and years, you need a catalyzing event that allows everybody in your company to understand what the story is,” Kipp Bodnar, the current CMO and an early employee, told me in this interview.
“You need to have this source of truth that people can look to. For HubSpot, that was Brian and Dharmesh publishing the Inbound Marketing book. Then it was the creation of partnerships with some other folks for the Inbound event which we still host every fall here in Boston. Then, I think it’s the job of everybody in the company to say, ‘Hey, this is our mission.’”
Keep in mind that you’ll probably get mixed feedback from your team at first. “Some people have been excited. Some people have pushed back. Some have said that we’ve always been doing this already,” said Conor. “That just reiterates the importance of the CEO continuing to push the momentum. I have to remind our team that this is what we are doing, we are saying yes to certain things and no to other things, and I have to continually bring our team back into alignment. That’s just part of being a leader.”
If you do encounter people on your team who are having a hard time getting behind category design, you’ll want to address that situation right away. Not only will it be harder for your team to execute category design if someone isn’t on board, but it may also be a sign that there’s a more fundamental issue that the employee needs help with.
“If someone remains skeptical or is just having a hard time getting behind this, I would be more inquisitive and curious about how things are going for them,” said Darin. “There has to be something beneath the surface, and you want to make sure you address the root issue.”
7. Create a feedback loop
You’ll also want to consider how you can make category design a process that your team feels a sense of ownership of. It’s not about your task force simply handing down the direction from on high. For example, think about the process you might use to develop your category story.
“It’s important not to just share your Point of View, but inspire people to think of it as their Point of View too,” says Anna Schena. “For us, we had several people tell ‘our story’ in their own words, and why it meant so much to them, and it accelerated buy-in exponentially faster than if we had just myself or leadership evangelize it.”
Furthermore, fostering a culture of category-design throughout your company will help you improve your thinking. If your team understands the process and where you are trying to head, they’ll be more likely to come up with questions that need to be addressed and ideas you hadn’t considered. If you constrain the category design process to a select few, you’ll only limit yourself. That’s why our CEO has continued to stay involved, even as we’ve stepped into the trenches of building our category. Conor told me, “Staying involved in the execution of this has been awesome because it puts me right in the midst of what our frontline people are hearing and thinking about. For instance, we recently went through a category design discussion with our customer success team, and I was able to hear their feedback directly. That gave me a new perspective on things.”
At BombBomb, once we shared our initial category design plans with the team, we also challenged them to be a part of the process. Not only did we offer to buy everyone a copy of Play Bigger, we also asked them to engage and share what they are learning and thinking about. Creating this feedback loop is so important because it helps everyone feel part of the journey.
In addition, creating channels for your team to provide feedback helps you see which departments are already on board and which may require some more attention. “I spend a lot of time thinking about areas of the business where I need to get more buy-in,” said Darin. “If I can see that one department isn’t reading the book, asking questions, or showing engagement, then I might need to help them along.
Figuring out when to keep things to your task force and when to share with the company will take some time. But I’d recommend erring on the side of sharing too much. This is a big journey you’re going on together, and having your team feel like they are part of it can go a long way to make this strategy a successful one.
Consider how Sarah Elkins looks at this. “The internal launch needed to also include a more detailed roll-out plan both internally and externally,” she told me. “We created separate plans for GTM teams and internal teams (engineering, finance, etc.). The GTM teams needed much more details on personas we were targeting, messaging, etc. Just communicating the POV would have left too many questions unanswered about how to use it in real life.”
Once your team is up to speed on where you are headed, you’ve already done a lot of work, but you’re just at the beginning. Now the real work begins. “As leaders, once we launch something, we have to keep reinforcing it, keep telling our team why,” Darin told me. “If you don’t, you can lose commitment. People will have questions along the way, and you need to stay responsive to that and really try to lead by example.
If you’re interested in following our journey at BombBomb, you can follow me on LinkedIn or subscribe to my category design newsletter.
Consider these two approaches if your team needs help imagining what category design looks like
If your team needs help understanding how and why category design might apply to your specific situation, consider these two approaches. I learned these from Daniel Palay, a B2B marketing consultant who has designed categories in both marketing automation technology and supply chain and logistics software.
The strategic imperative
According to Daniel, “The strategic imperative is an approach for when you have something different. So different, in fact, that it’s hurting you in the marketplace because of how difficult it is to make direct comparisons against competitors.” In other words, if the only way in which your company is going to stand a chance at winning deals is to break free of existing categories, then not pursuing category design is going to cause a lot of pain.
This is exactly why we chose category design at BombBomb. As you may or may not know, we help business people build and foster relationships through the use of personal, one-to-one video. Instead of having to rely on typed-out text or scheduling a Zoom call, we allow you to get “face-to-face” by sending video messages in virtually any channel.
While this is a growing category (our customers now send about 100,000 videos every day), it doesn’t have a name yet. Historically, we and our competitors have been placed in the “video hosting” and “other video software” categories on G2 – neither of which are a good fit. Unlike most companies, trying to carve out a niche in an existing category would only create confusion and serve to penalize us.
In other words, we have a strategic imperative to design this category. We are already in the best position to emerge as its leader. Our team has sent over half a million one-to-one videos, and we understand the challenges our customers face in using video better than anyone else. That’s why the onus is on us to drive the market forward and give ourselves the best chance of becoming the long-term category king.
Anna and the team at Narrative Science chose category design for similar reasons. “For us, the choice to create a category was around technology innovation within the larger data and analytics space,” she explained. “We built products that have new technology that no one has seen before, and it didn’t fit into any neat ‘boxes’ of analytics software that people buy today. So we decided to define our own category.”
The tactical weapon
The tactical weapon approach allows you to build a new category position by creating contrast with an existing one. “Sometimes it’s easier to firebomb an existing category than dominate it,” said Daniel. “If there is some common element shared by all of the main players in an existing category, find a way to position that as a weakness rendering the entire category obsolete. The category design process becomes about determining its replacement.”
Drift is one example of this approach done well. Early on, Drift was just another player in the live chat category – a market that soon became crowded and commoditized. Drift needed to stand out from these competitors, but it couldn’t just do that by trying to convince the market it had a “better” product than everyone else.
Instead, Drift chose to develop a new category by creating a contrast with website forms and marketing automation software. By claiming that requiring customers to fill out forms (and having to wait for a reply) was an outdated way of interacting with customers, Drift drove awareness and demand for the new category it was creating, called conversational marketing. This new category is all about immediate interactions with customers, mainly through the use of intelligent chatbots.
Whether you align more with the strategic imperative or the tactical weapon approach, category design shouldn’t be a decision you make capriciously. It needs to pursued because there is a specific business outcome that you could not achieve by competing in an existing category.
Remember: category design helps every team win
It goes without saying that category design helps your marketing and sales teams win. But the reason it’s called a business strategy is that it helps nearly every department succeed.
Here are a few examples:
Finance. A big part of finance’s role is to attract investors. But attracting the right investors can be pretty tough if you don’t have a great story to tell. Yes, past financials are a part of that story, but in a growing startup, what investors are really looking for is future growth. A company poised to create and lead a new category will usually look more attractive than one competing for a slice of an existing one.
According to Bruce Scheer, CEO of InspireYourBuyers.com and longtime B2B sales and marketing consultant, “Category design communicates to investors that you have a unique market insight – that you see the blindspots in the problem being solved and have a solid plan to address it.”
Customer success. What’s the bane of customer success’s existence? Churn. And a big driver of churn is when customers sign up for the wrong reasons. Perhaps they were confused about what the software was intended to do. Or about who it was for. Or why it will help them succeed in the future.
Category design helps your customer success team provide customers with a clear idea of the problem they will help them solve. And when the right expectations are set, churn is likely to be lower.
Partnerships. Businesses can only afford to invest in so many relationships. If you can use the process of category design to demonstrate that you’re poised to become the leader of a new market, you’re more likely to attract high-value partnerships. Those partnerships can be used to add to your momentum, helping make your leadership potential a reality.
Product. Remember, category design provides a lens for where your company needs to head and the problem it wants to solve. That lens can be extremely informative to product decisions. Asking yourself “does this decision move us closer to building and dominating our category” can provide tremendous clarity.
Furthermore, “Category design can also provide product managers, designers, and engineers with a boost of excitement and creativity,” says Anna Schena, “Talented people love the chance to live up to a challenge and be recognized for their efforts. Category design delivers the opportunity for both.”
Employee retention and recruiting. This one shouldn’t be a surprise. People want to stick with teams that are doing new and exciting things. Category design shows them that you have big plans and aren’t just conducting business as usual. Likewise, having such a strong vision can help you attract better talent to your company.
Leadership. Category design provides a “north star” on where your company needs to get. It can (and should) provide guidance on strategic decisions. Having such clarity can only help your leadership team to be more effective.
This is a guide, not a rulebook
There are only a handful of B2B SaaS companies that have legitimately created new categories. And none of them, at least to my knowledge, followed the exact steps of another company. They had to chart their own course. And they had to make up a lot of things as they went along.
So I’d like to conclude this section by saying that you should use this reference as a guide, but don’t follow it blindly. Every situation is different, and what worked for one company might be a disaster for your own. Look for inspiration both within B2B SaaS and in places even outside of the business world. And most of all don’t be afraid to experiment – nothing legendary was done by merely repeating the actions of others.
Earlier I mentioned how having an “official” category name on-site like G2 isn’t a requirement for category design. But that doesn’t mean you should overlook a resource like this. In fact, one the of reasons I asked G2 about working on this series together is that they play such an important role in helping buyers understand the differences between related products. To help you make the most of their platform, take a look at Part V: How To Get Your Category Listed on G2.
Category design will fail if you don’t first get your CEO and executive team on board. You’ll be more successful with that if you begin by asking questions and inviting discussion. Once you’ve made the decision to pursue category design, you need to share those plans with your entire team. Create a feedback loop to make sure you’re hearing from employees and involving them in the process. Finally, category design helps more than just sales and marketing; it can help every department in your company by providing clarity on the company’s goals and the path to get there.
Part V: What Every Category Designer Needs to Know About G2
What you’ll learn:
Find out how G2 evaluates B2B software categories and what it looks for when a company makes a request for a new category addition. If you don’t yet meet those criteria, I’ll show you some steps you can take to get to that point.
If you’re reading this on G2, you may already know the important role that this site plays when buyers look for B2B software. You’re probably also reading because your category isn’t yet reflected on G2, and you’re wondering how to change that. And for good reason: millions of buyers visit G2.com every month, where they’ll find over one million software reviews.
Just as importantly, G2 isn’t a “pay to play” platform where only the most deep-pocketed companies can get coverage. Their focus is on helping buyers select the right software using reviews from their peers, not analysts.
And unlike other firms that provide software reviews and research, G2 focuses on offering a “real-time” taxonomy – one that reflects the way buyers perceive software today, not years ago. But before we talk about the process of having a new category created on G2, we need to first take a look at G2’s own methodology for adding new categories. To understand this better, I spoke with Kara Kennedy, G2’s Director of Product Research.
How G2 adds new categories
The first thing you need to know about G2’s categorization process is that it’s defined by feature sets. A new category must represent a distinct feature set that is unique from other categories listed on the site. In other words, if you’re approaching category design only as a branding and messaging play (which you shouldn’t), there’s very little chance G2 will create a new category for you.
Even if there are multiple names that buyers use to refer to a category, G2 will present just one of them on its site. Alternative category names or references will simply be listed within the category definition – if they’re listed at all.
Because products are categorized based on their features, G2 does not allow vendors to pick and choose the categories they are listed in. This might sound like a penalty, but it’s actually in the best interest of both buyers and sellers. After all, if a buyer can’t find what they’re looking for because products are over-categorized, then a review site like G2 won’t be very helpful. According to Kara, “We take this aspect of our methodology very seriously to ensure that buyers are able to make true comparisons between products.”
To find out which products represent unique feature sets, G2 starts by listening to its team of industry analysts, who are regularly speaking with vendors and buyers, attending industry events, and generally keeping a finger on the pulse in their given market. As they see categories emerge or evolve, they make recommendations to adapt their category taxonomy.
But as I mentioned earlier, G2 is not driven solely by analyst coverage. They rely on feedback from their community, too. Both vendors and buyers have channels to make recommendations for new categories, and that feedback is listened to closely by G2’s researchers and leadership.
The process for requesting a new category addition
Let’s explore how to request new categories on G2 while we’re at it.
Build something category worthy
The process for having a new category created on G2 starts with the software you are actually building. Remember, G2 will only create a new category if a product has a unique set of features that aren’t represented in existing categories. That’s just another way of saying that new categories need to represent new solutions, not “better” versions of existing products. With that out of the way, let’s talk about another criterion you need to meet: having enough competitors.
Yes, you read that right. Even if you offer something unique and have all the language in place to define this new category, G2 still won’t be ready to create a new category. You also need to have competitors who offer something similar. In fact, G2 looks for categories that have at least ten companies in the space. That means that early on, your main job is to grow the category itself (competitors and all) before you focus on promoting your particular brand.
Sangram Vajre of Terminus put this better than I could: “There is a new type of leadership that I call “belongship.” It’s about building a community first. Get laser-focused on problem market fit and instead of a customer event, do an industry event that brings competitors together. Why? It will bring analysts, the media, influencers, and collective set of future customers together all at the same place. If you do this right, with a clear focus on giving in an authentic and kind way, you have a chance to not only create a category but rather become a category leader.” Here’s my interview with Sangram about category design.
List on G2 even if your category isn’t ready
Better to have some presence on G2 rather than no presence at all. Generating reviews for your product will only help drive awareness and legitimacy for what you’re building – which are building blocks for growing the category itself. If you know a new category needs to be built, but there aren’t enough competitors yet, then G2 may list you in a “Other” category that serves as a catch-all for products that don’t fit into primary categories.
For example, at BombBomb, we’re listed in the “other video software” category. It’s not where we want to be long term, but it allowed us to generate nearly 300 reviews on G2 and to be included in the Global 100 Best Software Companies list! In the meantime, we are working on developing the right name for our “real” category and we’re sharing that discussion with G2’s research team.
Once you meet the criteria of having a unique feature set and enough competitors, the process of requesting a new category is pretty simple. Whether you’re a G2 customer or not, you can just visit the vendor portal at my.G2.com to submit a request, or contact the team at email@example.com. There’s no guarantee they will honor the request, as about 40% of submissions are either rejected (or backlogged, in the case of emerging markets). But new categories are added when they make sense. For a few recent examples, check out the Robotic Process Automation, Conversational Marketing, and Digital Adoption Platforms categories.
Once your new category is listed, your work isn’t done. In fact, it’s just beginning. Now, you need to double down on your commitment to evangelizing the category and emerging as its leader. To start, consider running a PR campaign announcing your new category. You can also reach out to G2’s research team on creating an announcement video.
Also keep in mind that G2 tends to rank highly for “[category name] software” search terms. Once your new category is listed, promoting this category name out in the market can only help you. The more buyers who search for this term, the more buyers who will find your listing on G2 itself. Finally, don’t forget to invest in driving more reviews for your listing. Once that G2 Grid is built, you’ll want to see your brand in that top right quadrant!
Think beyond the category name
Remember, while category names in G2 are important, they aren’t the entire picture. Salesforce built the cloud-based software category long before G2, and at this point, that’s too broad a category to be listed there. The term “inbound marketing software” is yet to be listed on G2, despite the fact that HubSpot built a distinct category from “inbound marketing”. And despite Gong’s high-profile effort to move past the “conversational intelligence” category and into a new one (which it’s calling “revenue intelligence”), they are still listed firmly in the latter.
Even Ryan Bonnici, G2’s CMO, reminded me in this interview that, “as B2B marketers, we often get too caught up in features and functionality, and we don’t focus enough on the problem [that we are] solving for.”
Ultimately, category design is a business strategy, not a plan for getting listed on a review or analyst site. Remember that, and you’ll do just fine.
If you want G2 to create a new category on its site, your product needs to have a unique set of features that aren’t captured by existing categories. On top of that, there should be at least ten companies that can also fit into this new category. If you don’t meet these criteria, begin by building something category worthy and by fostering a community of other businesses that can help bring the category to life.
Conclusion and acknowledgements
Category design is a strategic way of thinking about building your business. It requires you to think for yourself. While I hope you found value from the examples and processes I’ve shared in this series, I also recommend that you don’t follow them too closely. Successful category designers chart their own path. My expectation isn’t that you follow this guide to the letter, but that you use it as a source of ideas and inspiration for your own journey. Good luck!
For more resources on category design, subscribe to my category design newsletter, Flag & Frontier. You can also send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow me on LinkedIn.
I wish I had room to include everyone I’ve shared ideas with about category design. Everyday I come across someone who’s thinking about the discipline and is able to show me something new.
Thanks to the following business leaders whose knowledge and experience provided much of the source material for this series: Andy Cunningham, Andy Raskin, Anna Schena, Bill Macaitis, Bruce Scheer, Cassidy Shield, Chris Orlob, Daniel Palay, Dave Gerhardt, David Cancel, Derrick Thomas, Gina Hortatsos, James Carbary, Jeff Benanto, Kevin Maney, Kipp Bodnar, Lindsay Tjepkema, Mike Damphousse, Mike Volpe, Ryan Bonnici, Kara Kennedy, Sangram Vajre, Sarah Elkins, Stu Heinecke, Udi Ledergor, and Wayne Arthur.
Thanks to Conor McCluskey, Darin Dawson, Steve Pacinelli, and Ethan Beute at BombBomb for not only being champions of category design but for being some of the most thoughtful and passionate people I’ve worked with.
Additional thanks to Gianni Quintana, Giuseppe Marzio, Haem Roy, Ishita Priyadarshini, JK Sparks, Marc Fuentes, Mitch Soloway, Rob Abhey, and Steve Watt for providing crucial feedback on a (very) rough draft of this.
Special thanks to Christopher Lochhead for providing countless hours of advice and coaching on category design, encouraging me to pursue this discipline long before anyone else, and for introducing me to his beloved chickens.
1The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, by Al Ries and Jack Trout. HarperCollins, 1993.
2Play Bigger: How Pirates, Dreamers, and Innovators Create and Dominate Markets, by Al Ramadan, Dave Peterson, Christopher Lochhead, Kevin Maney. Harper Business, 2016.
3Why it Pays to Be a Category Creator, by Eddie Yoon and Linda Deeken. Harvard Business Review, 2013. https://hbr.org/2013/03/why-it-pays-to-be-a-category-creator
4Science Daily, “Thinking inside the box: How our brain puts the world in order”, July 20, 2016. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160720094600.htm
5Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, by Al Ries and Jack Trout. Warner Books, 1981.
6Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers, by Geoffrey Moore. Harper Business Essentials, 1991.
7The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen. Harvard Business Review Press, 1997.
8Superconsumers: A Simple, Speedy, and Sustainable Path to Superior Growth, by Eddie Yoon, Harvard Business Review Press, 2016.
9Category Creation: How to Build a Brand that Customers, Employees, and Investors Will Love, by Anthony Kennada. Wiley, 2019.
10ABM is B2B: Why B2B Marketing and Sales is Broken and How to Fix It, by Sangram Vajre and Eric Spett. Ideapress Publishing, September 3, 2019.
11Get to Aha!: Discover Your Positioning DNA and Dominate Your Competition, by Andy Cunningham. McGraw-Hill Education, 2017.
12Rehumanize Your Business: How Personal Videos Accelerate Sales and Improve Customer Experience, by Ethan Beute and Stephen Pacinelli. Wiley, 2019.
13Conversational Marketing: How the World’s Fastest Growing Companies Use Chatbots to Generate Leads 24/7/365 (and How You Can Too), by David Cancel and Dave Gerhardt. Wiley, 2019.
14Inbound Marketing: Get Found Using Google, Social Media, and Blogs, by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah. Wiley, 2009.
15Sales Engagement: How the World’s Fastest Growing Companies are Modernizing Sales Through Humanization at Scale, by Manny Medina, Max Altschuler, and Mark Kosoglow.
16Content-Based Networking: How to Instantly Connect with Anyone You Want to Know, by James Carbary. Lioncrest Publishing, 2020.