Value — not values

On Monday, I asked why so few organizations communicate a unique value proposition to website visitors and why, though they’re staffed with experts, they rarely express a clear point of view.

What is a value proposition?

A value proposition communicates the organization’s unique value to the audience. A value prop is not a values statement, which is more closely related to a mission or vision statement. Those statements can be persuasive, in theory, but they’re usually vague proclamations about the organization — they’re not all that focused on the audience.

A values statement is often a safe, conventional collection of ideas that would make for a good bedtime story. Take a look at the New Museum’s values statement:

We believe in the essential role of culture to a free and open civil society.

We embrace difference, debate, and multiple viewpoints regardless of race, gender, class, or creed …


Is there any museum that wants to silence debate? Is there any museum that promotes discrimination and doesn’t believe in the essential role of culture to society? Is there any society without culture? Does this mean anything?

A unique value proposition, on the other hand, communicates difference. It agitates to promote awareness of a problem.

And it’s hard to communicate difference or promote awareness of a problem effectively without a unique point of view.

Which brings us back to those experts within organizations whose views are so rarely represented in the organization’s marketing and communications.

Take children’s museums as an example.

When I talk with people who work at children’s museum, the role of technology in education will sometimes come up. These folks are troubled by some people’s belief that “interactive learning” means using apps and touchscreen devices. Decision makers in museums know that play and experiential learning are powerful and that putting a tablet in front of a child doesn’t automatically advance learning goals.

A museum is a place that offers unique social, experiential learning opportunities. Children can stay home if they want to play with tablets, right?

But, rather than view the app invasion as a threat, why don’t more museums see it as an opportunity to differentiate themselves?

Visit any children’s museum’s website, and you’ll immediately see what’s happening this week. You’ll see options to register for camp or become a member. Zoom down the chocolate slide, visit Pirate Island, or get your slime on.

Home pages of different children’s museums

If you scroll down the home page far enough or if you click through the navigation, you might see information about the value of play. But you’ll have to do some work to get to that information, if it’s there at all, and you won’t find anything that frames that content as a clear differentiator.

I haven’t found a museum that says, “Parents: Here’s what we provide that you won’t find elsewhere.”

Museum’s know they’re competing for attention, but they’re too polite to call out the competitors — as if Netflix or Apple or the local playground are going to be offended.

Ignoring the alternatives and presenting lots of colorful activities won’t make the audience forget that they can just stay home and let Sally watch Daniel Tiger on the iPad.

Why we fail to communicate value

1. Lack of strategy

It’s easier to put some version of a calendar of events on the home page than it is to proclaim what makes your organization unique. Sometimes the necessary discussions just haven’t been had within the organization. Or it may be that the organization views marketing as a collection of activities rather than as the vehicle that communicates identity and guides behavioral outcomes.

2. We assume values are well-known and shared

Maybe it’s been so long since people got together and reviewed the vision for the organization, everyone believes that declaring a value proposition would be stating the obvious.

3. Prioritization fatigue

Again, employees like to see their department and their work represented on the home page. That’s understandable. Events, donations, membership, corporate sponsors, special programs … They all represent internal interests. To not have any one of these things figure prominently on the website’s home page would communicate to an employee that their work is less valued, right?

With everyone competing to get their project at the top of the home page, carousels crop up surrounded by a thousand calls to action. It’s easier to represent a little bit of everything than to carve out space for content that presents a global and differentiating point of view.

4. Point of view is scary

This is perhaps another look at reason #1 but deserves special mention. It takes guts to say, “Leave your child’s digital pacifier at home for the day and come here because we’re going to provide an experience you won’t find anywhere else.”

A museum that says that is issuing a challenge. It’s throwing down the gauntlet and taking a position in a broader debate within our culture, which can be terrifying.

Maybe this is nothing new, and I'm wrong.

Maybe it’s best to present a menu of options and activities on the home page. Maybe that’s what people are coming to your organization’s website to see.

It’s possible all these museums have tested home pages that feature a straightforward — or even bold — value proposition. Maybe when I visit all these sites, I see the culmination of years of research and testing, and a smorgasbord approach has delivered the best return on investment for these museums. (No sarcasm — I know I’m exploring a new market, and I always want to be prepared to be wrong.)

But my hunch is that the people producing these content systems are doing so because they haven’t considered other options, and they’re so busy trying to keep up with the stream of inputs they can’t step back to try out new approaches.

Or maybe they don’t think they can afford to explore other options.

I hear that a lot, and that may be true for some museums. But I think cost card is one that’s easily played when you don’t know what the costs are and the idea of breaking old habits feels scary.

(I don’t understand how organizations can afford not to explore communicating unique value propositions, but let’s save that for another day.)

Here’s a challenge:

If you already have a website with a home page that you’re frequently updating with new offerings and information, what’s preventing you from making space for a value proposition?

What if your organization publicly declared itself in favor of to the exclusion of y? What if, instead of saying you value play or culture or diversity, you said what you don’t believe?

On Friday, we’ll look at what all this has to do with user research.

Thanks for reading,