Why “no” is the most powerful word in enterprise B2B positioning

You’re an early-stage founder on the brink of a major breakthrough for your enterprise B2B startup: launching your website. The team has spent months crafting the copy, refining the design, and ensuring that every pixel is perfectly placed. 

But minutes before the website is about to go live, an investor calls you with some feedback from an old industry buddy. Apparently your tagline doesn’t resonate with companies in the manufacturing sector. 

Granted, that’s not your target segment at the moment. But there’s no need to alienate potential customers – why not simply rewrite the tagline to maximize your chances of connecting with all prospects?   

It’s a common scenario. Lots of startups struggle to build the airplane while they’re flying it: learning about their market even while they’re… well… going to market. And in the early days, you don’t know for certain where you’re going to find product-market fit. 

But there are few tactics more guaranteed to fail than the “death spiral of yes”: positioning your offering in a way that’s calculated to alienate nobody. 

Our recommendation? Say no to diluting your positioning, early and often. A crisp positioning that deliberately excludes market segments, potential buyers, or use cases will beat a flabby, consensus-based positioning designed to appeal to everyone. Every. Single. Time. 

Easier said than done. How can companies gain strategic advantage from saying no? In this post, we’ll give you the tools to dramatically improve your marketing and sales funnel immediately – by chiseling away everything that’s not essential to your value proposition. 

Marketing by committee makes unicorns cry 

A key principle of improv is “yes, and.” The idea is to continually build on ideas, adding new building blocks rather than tearing anything down. 

Unfortunately, this is a terrible rule of thumb for enterprise B2B marketing. 

“Yes, and” marketing crops up all over the place:

  • Websites that are so crowded with use cases that it’s hard to understand what the company does
  • Companies that confuse industry analysts by noncommittally straddling several categories – rather than taking a firm stand on one or two
  • Taglines that are watered down to the same buzzwords used by everyone in the industry 

A former colleague, the head of marketing at a B2B startup that uses machine learning to improve sales pipeline forecasting, shared a recent experience. She proposed a terse and intriguing tagline for her company: “Less guessing. More closing.” But by the time it had worked its way through the company’s leadership, it had become something far more anodyne: “The first AI-powered solution that helps businesses forecast with accuracy and agility.”

That’s the unmistakable (and unfortunately, highly forgettable) product of “yes, and” marketing. 

Why does “yes, and” marketing persist? More often than not, it’s the result of marketing by committee: when a group of often well-intentioned folks come together without a formal decision-making structure to make marketing magic. 

Companies fall into the trap of marketing by committee for a few reasons. Maybe there wasn’t a marketing team in the early days, so other executive leaders or enthusiastic investors stepped in to help fill the gap. Perhaps the leadership team doesn’t have deep experience or background in their space, so they solicit feedback from analysts, customers, and investors. Or the founders have strong opinions about their marketing – even if (e.g., as CTO) they don’t have direct functional authority over the company’s go-to-market. 

But marketing by committee doesn’t work. The best marketing is spicy and provocative. It has sharp edges. Not everyone will – or should – like it. 

In contrast, marketing by committee sands down the edges and makes everything bland and palatable (read: unmemorable). 

Why saying no will turbocharge your marketing efforts 

“No” gets a bad rap for being pessimistic or negative. Leaders often worry that it will close off marketing opportunities, alienate prospects, and ultimately choke their pipeline. 

In reality, making difficult tradeoff decisions on positioning will almost always improve your marketing and sales performance. Companies don’t buy software; specific humans in the organization do. And they don’t buy it because they’re looking for a “next-gen platform” – they buy it because they’re looking to solve a concrete set of problems and pain points.

How exclusionary positioning improves marketing and sales performance

How it helpsWhy it worksExample from a Blue Seedling customer
Increase upper-funnel demandClarity. Relevant personas instantly recognize that you’re built “for them” and solve a problem they relate to.Zero Networks recently launched a major website update. They highlight three concrete use cases for “why customers deploy Zero Networks” with crystal clarity on their homepage. They’re now the default choice for any security leader looking for automated MFA-based segmentation. 
Accelerate sales velocity and improve conversion rateDifferentiation and expertise. Focusing heavily on a small set of use cases makes you the preferred vendor for companies looking to solve those specific problems.  Heap, a maker of digital experience analytics software, recently made the decision to invest in promoting one specific use case for which they have a competitive advantage: identifying “blind spots” in a company’s data. This unique focus led to record sales performance and a recent funding round bringing them close to a $1 billion valuation.  

In other words: saying “no” to diluting your positioning infuses oxygen into your marketing and sales pipeline. 

How to get good at saying no

When consensus-building is the reflex at your company, it can be difficult to build discipline around saying no. Here are three concrete practices that can help teams master the art of doing more with less:

  • Define who you’re not for: a tool that we recommend for planning integrated marketing campaigns is a campaign strategy brief. It’s a document that describes the purpose, objectives, tactics, and scope of a given campaign. It’s a useful exercise – and the most important part by far is when we force ourselves to identify non-goals. These could be market segments that we’re explicitly not focusing on, stages of the funnel that we’re not trying to impact, or tactics that we’re not going to invest in. B2B enterprise startups should go through a similar high-level exercise before developing their marketing strategy. Here’s a framework that we use often to determine what personas, use cases, and companies are priority, case-by-case, and a categorical no.  
  • Rely on analytics, not intuition: Your Head of Sales just had a great conversation with a prospect – and all of a sudden wants to pivot the marketing strategy to focus on leads just like them. The reality is that we’re all susceptible to recency bias from time to time, especially in the fast-moving startup world. Cold, hard analytics is the best way to make sure you’re not getting distracted by shiny objects. Keep track of sales conversations in a CRM – ideally tagged with use case or pain point. That way you can separate the latest conversation from the big picture trends that are actually moving your business. (One caveat, though: this advice applies primarily to later-stage startups, which actually have enough data and analytics to rely on.) 
  • Use decision-making frameworks: Because marketing can feel more subjective than functions like finance and engineering, it’s easy to fall into the trap of consensus-based decision making. The most successful companies that we work with fight this tendency with explicit decision-making frameworks like Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) or a RACI matrix. The purpose of these models isn’t to slow things down or introduce bureaucratic overhead. On the contrary, they’re designed to help productively funnel feedback while empowering a single individual with the accountability and ownership that’s critical to good marketing. 

The bottom line

Enterprise B2B startups that try to appeal to everyone end up resonating with no one.

Saying no can feel uncomfortable or downright risky in enterprise B2B marketing. But tuning out the noise is exactly what helps the most successful companies focus on building a repeatable, scalable, high-performance engine.

So the next time you revisit your positioning, dedicate at least as much time to who you’re not for. That’s the tough tradeoff decision that will help you break away from the pack.

Jordan is a Managing Director at Blue Seedling. You can find him reading medieval literature, running, or helping B2B startups with go-to-market strategy.

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