Bad Alternatives (& Value Props)

Intro

Bad alternatives are the fundamental reason people use your product.

Not features. Not benefits. Not hype.

(Although those can all point at bad alternatives.)

Bad alternatives are the crux of all your marketing.

When a user faces a bad alternative, they experience problems with it. Those problems have implications about how their life will get worse.

You pitch features to solve those problems so your user benefits.

Bad alternative → problems → implications → features → benefits.

You should be to list out this order for any product.

Examples

Calendly

Someone just emailed you to schedule an important call, so you manually emailed back-and-forth and spent 5 minutes to find open times on both of your schedules.

If you average 5 meetings a day and a year has 50 workweeks, that means you spent two and a half weeks last year just scheduling meetings (math: 5 minutes per meeting * 5 meetings a day *5 days a week * 50 weeks a year = 6,250 minutes, or 100+ hours, and there are 40 hours in a workweek).

Calendly’s scheduling links let people book open times in a couple clicks, so you save weeks scheduling.

DoorDash

You just discovered a restaurant near you that serves sushi croissants. Sure, you could call the restaurant to order delivery, but talking on the phone is uncomfortable and some restaurants don’t deliver, which means you might not get your sushi croissant. With DoorDash, you order on an app and they pick food up for you. Which means you get to eat your sushi croissant.

Supergoop! Mineral Sunscreen

Non-mineral sunscreens seep into your bloodstream and may not protect against certain UV rays. That puts you at a higher risk of cancer and other unexpected diseases.

Other mineral sunscreens create a white sheen and turn you into a surfing Mark Zuckerberg.

image

Long story short, you won’t look good in a traditional mineral sunscreen.

Supergoop’s sunscreen is mineral-based and naturally dyed to blend in with your skin. So you can look like yourself while you stay safe from the sun (and lower your risk of cancer and other diseases).

Products have multiple bad alternatives

The examples above didn’t cover every bad alternative — we just wanted to illustrate the concept for you.

For example, Grubhub and Uber Eats are common alternatives to DoorDash. DoorDash’s marketing team better be laser-focused on nailing down how they’re better.

Why care about bad alternatives?

When problems have bad enough implications, people actually change their behavior and use your product.

They’ll take a chance on something they’ve never used before — as long as it actually solves their problems.

By knowing the bad alternatives, you’ll pitch customers better and figure out how to target them better. For example, if your bad alternative is Headspace, the meditation app, you could run Google Ads to anyone searching for headspace.

When Salesforce started, its bad alternatives were Oracle and Siebel, so they staged a fake protest outside their competitors’ conference to get early users.

With Vendr, a bad alternative was hiring someone, so we found job postings for SaaS procurement specialists and sent emails to the hiring managers behind them.

Bad alternatives mean pain. Pain leads to users.

Painkillers > vitamins

Is it better to pitch a product on its benefits (as a “vitamin”) or the problems it solves (as a “painkiller”)?

For example, you could say “Mineral sunscreen. That looks good on your skin.” Or you could say “Mineral sunscreen. Without the ugly sheen.”

We’ve run thousands of marketing experiments, and there’s a clear answer: painkillers.

Why?

Hard question. A lot of research backs up the idea that humans ease pain more than pursue pleasure. (Optional reading.) We can’t say for sure, but we can say it works.

When you’re learning growth, you want to know what works.

But…empathize with your user

Even though you should “twist the knife” around the problems your user faces, you still want to prove you deeply understand them and their problems.

For example, if you’re pitching a weight loss product, don’t say, “You’re overweight and it’s causing issues.” That oversimplifies the bad alternative and vilifies your user.

People who want to lose weight already know they want to lose weight. Weight loss products (Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, etc.) have been around for decades. They already call out the problems people have with being overweight (health risks, attractiveness, etc.).

Pitch yourself against those products.

For example, you could say, “You tried Weight Watchers, but you stopped because you couldn’t restrict calories forever. Now you’re back at your old weight and you’re skeptical any of these programs will work.” That’s closer to empathizing with your user. It assumes the person you’re talking to is already invested in losing weight. (A better target persona.)

By the way, some people don’t want to lose weight. That’s fine. They’re lower-intent and their alternative — staying their weight — isn’t bad. Don’t focus on them, and if you do, make sure you call out new problems they haven’t heard before.

As you get to know your company and its target persona, you can call out more and more nuanced bad alternatives. That builds trust.

Alternatives aren’t always bad

Say you work for a budgeting app. What are the alternatives?

Mint.com is one. GoodBudget is another.

There’s an even bigger one…spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets may not be a bad alternative, either.

Why?

Spreadsheets are free. They’re reliable. You can format them how you want. They support any formula under the sun. Plus, most people know how they work.

That makes it hard to switch to a new product.

So, when do spreadsheets become a bad alternative? When they cause problems.

If, to calculate how much you spent last month, you have to log into five different credit card accounts, click to find your last monthly statement, and copy-and-paste the numbers over…it’s annoying.

If, to predict how much you’ll make next month, it takes a full day to write out all the formulas…it’s really annoying.

If you’re a business with thousands of accounts, this may be someone’s full time job. That means you’re paying a salary — tens of thousands of dollars a year — to do your monthly budgeting. And that employee may not have time to check on your business loan, which means you won’t have money to pay your team…

Now we’re talking problems. Now we’re talking implications of those problems.

That’s signal for where real users come from.

If an app comes to you and says “We’re replacing spreadsheets” or “We’re replacing email”, push back to make sure there’s a good reason why. There may be one. But there’s a reason these alternatives have stuck around for so long.

Meet your user where they are.

The space pen story and what we can learn from it

Here’s a famous story about bad alternatives: when NASA started sending astronauts into space, they quickly discovered that ballpoint pens wouldn’t work in zero gravity.

To combat this problem, Congress approved a program and NASA scientists spent a decade and over $165 million developing a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, on almost any surface and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300Ëš C.

The Russians used a pencil.

Hilarious, right? Except…this story has actually been debunked. There were problems with pencils.

When the astronauts began to fly, like the Russians, they used pencils, but the leads sometimes broke and became a hazard by floating in the [capsule’s] atmosphere where there was no gravity. They could float into an eye or nose or cause a short in an electrical device. In addition, both the lead and the wood of the pencil could burn rapidly in the pure oxygen atmosphere. Paul Fisher realized the astronauts needed a safer and more dependable writing instrument, so in July 1965 he developed the pressurized ball pen, with its ink enclosed in a sealed, pressurized ink cartridge.

There you have it — real problems. Real reasons to use space pens. Find where the problems are.

Value props

The phrase “value prop” gets thrown around and it’s often misused. When you hear “value prop”, think of it as how you beat the bad alternative.

By the way, value prop is short for “value proposition”. You’re “proposing” how you’re valuable.

Products can have multiple value props. For example, one DoorDash value prop is “doorstep food delivery from restaurants that otherwise don’t offer delivery.” Another DoorDash value prop is “order through an app instead of calling by phone.”

“Place orders in a couple taps” is not a value prop. It’s a benefit of your value prop, but it’s not a value prop. “App-based ordering” is the value prop.

We like to spell out an “extended version” of our value props in a spreadsheet to get everyone on the same page.

It looks like this. Read it left to right.

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Bad Alternative

What people actually do without your product.

“Not using our product” is a cop-out and it’s not useful; it doesn’t point out your persona’s actual behavior, so don’t say it.

“Managing 10+ spreadsheets” or “Using a standard electric toothbrush”, for example, is more useful.

Talk about what people are doing, not what they’re not doing.

Problem

If you’re working on your own spreadsheet, each row should have its own problem.

The problem should be an obvious consequence of the bad alternative.

Examples:

  • Rent was late
  • Blueberries tasted bad
  • Couldn’t understand the movie dialogue

It helps to write these in past tense.

Speak to a person, not to a trend

A common mistake is confusing broader societal trends with problems. For example, you might think a problem is “50% of marriages end in divorce” or “remote work is accelerating the move to cloud computing”.

Nope. Users won’t care.

Say “Your spouse just proposed divorce” or “Your company just asked you to work remotely”. Speak to the individual person who is suffering from the bad alternative.

Statistics don’t buy products — people do. Everyone has their own, real, individual problems, so speak to those. If you do, your messaging will convert better and you’ll end up with actual customers.

But only if you tie problems to…

Implications

The logical consequences of the problem you listed.

What happens because you’re late to work? What happens because you ate eggs that weren’t free range? What happened to your bottom line?

Try to get at:

  • Urgent, painful moments
    • Examples: you missed a meeting, got fired, risked your life savings.
  • Massive amounts of time or money wasted
    • Put an order of magnitude on these if possible.
    • Examples: you missed out on tens of thousands of dollars, wasted years of your life, released kilotons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
  • Long-lasting implications
    • Examples: Your spouse will stop trusting you, you’ll be put on a worse career path, your friends will resent you.
  • The person whose butt is on the line when things fail
    • They may not be the person who initially experienced the problem – that’s worth noting.

Implications are where people really feel the pain and change their behavior.

Implication chains

Implications bleed into problems and vice versa. That’s fine. The goal is to get a handle on the entire chain of consequences so you can highlight the most urgent, impactful, obvious moments. Most problems have cascading implications.

For example, if your bad alternative is “staying in your current apartment” and a problem is “the garbage truck goes by three days a week at 4:30 AM,” the implications could be:

  • It disrupts your sleep → you’re cranky at work → coworkers resent you → you get bad performance reviews → you don’t get promoted → you’re underpaid by tens of thousands of dollars → you never retire
  • It disrupts your sleep → you’re cranky outside of work → your significant other resents you → you break up → you never find love again
  • Your apartment smells like garbage → you can’t bring dates home → you never get past the third date → you lose hope for romance whatsoever → you die alone
  • Et cetera

We like to use arrows to draw out the entire chain.

In practice (e.g., when you write copy), pause when the implications feel obvious, and stop an implication or two after that. Most marketers assume their user naturally understands implications, but in practice, users need an extra step spelled out for them.

In the example above, an implication or two beyond “It disrupts your sleep” or “Your apartment smells like garbage” is probably good.

Problems have multiple chains of implications. Think through every implication that feels natural.

Features/Value Props

Value props are usually interchangeable with features. The key is to find the specific features that solve the problem with the bad alternative, not just list out features.

Example features:

  • Locally-sourced
  • On-demand drivers
  • 64 gigabytes of RAM
  • Salesforce integration

(Bonus exercise: think through what bad alternatives would be to the features above.)

Keep features short. 3-5 words if possible.

Imagine you’re growing a soda company. How are you going to beat Coca-Cola and Pepsi? People have trusted them for over a century, so you can’t compete directly. You need a different value prop: a cheaper manufacturing process, natural ingredients, lemony flavor, etc.

Ideally, your value props solve the problem 10x better than the bad alternative.

Benefits

These are the natural chain of events when the problem gets solved. They’re precisely the opposite of your implications.

Examples:

  • Save tens of thousands of dollars
  • Lower your risk of diabetes
  • Tastier water

The most common mistake we see is companies highlighting their benefits (as a vitamin) instead of the problems they solve (as a painkiller).

If you think up a benefit, use it to figure out where the problems are. Specifically, ask yourself “what happens without the benefit?”

You’ll often realize there’s a more fundamental problem to solve.

Success story: Lovestream

Lovestream lets couples livestream their wedding using phones instead of a traditional videographer.

A few months into working with them, a competitor started running Google Ads on all the searches we were targeting. This competitor was much cheaper. Growth stalled.

Until then, the only real bad alternative had been videographers. The pitch was easy: “Use phones to livestream your wedding for a tenth the usual cost.”

Now, we couldn’t say that. This competitor was even cheaper than Lovestream. We had to beat them and videographers.

The good news was Lovestream had a huge value prop over them: a full remote team to support you on the day of your wedding. The competitor was just an app that couples had to DIY.

The implications were big.

With the competitor, couples would have to put someone in charge of filming, make sure the cameras were aligned right, deal with guests complaining about connection issues, and edit the final video.

That’s an enormous hassle. Couples are already stressed out during their wedding. They don’t have time to handle logistics like this.

We said so in our ads.

We used language like “A full remote team to livestream your wedding. We handle setup, editing, production, and technical support so you don’t have to.”

The competitor couldn’t say that.

Revenue doubled within a month.

Value props aren’t always features

Imagine you’re running late for a barbecue and you’ve been asked to bring a cooler for drinks. Unfortunately, you lent your cooler to friends and they forgot to give it back, so you run to a department store to buy a new one.

The store is huge, so you walk up to the salesperson at the front.

You: “I’m looking for a cheap cooler to put drinks in.”

Them: “Have you tried the Aqua-Cooler 9000? It hooks into your smartphone and uses AI to suggest drinks that match your barbecue playlist. It’s only $300.”

You: “No thanks, I just need a cooler.”

Them: “Are you sure? It’s the revolutionary next phase in portable refrigeration.”

You: “No. I just need a cheap cooler to put drinks in.”

What’s a cooler’s bad alternative? Warm drinks.

What’s the Aqua-Cooler 9000’s bad alternative? “Blanking on which drinks to buy” (a stretch) or “throwing a boring barbecue”.

But your bad alternative isn’t those. Your alternative is “having warm drinks” and “buying an expensive cooler”, so you don’t need a convoluted new solution. You just need a cheap cooler.

Don’t treat your product like the Aqua-Cooler 9000.

It’s tempting to focus on your product and its features — or get caught up in hot trends — instead of focusing on the bad alternatives real users have.

(We’re looking at you, blockchain and AI. Engineer-led companies struggle with this in particular.)

When it comes to actually getting users, the technology powering your product isn’t actually important. Novelty only gets you so far.

It’s the bad alternative and problems you solve that make you important to users.

More Resources

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