Lessons in category creation from an almost category king

My last job was in content marketing for Akkroo, a lead capture solution for exhibitors at B2B trade shows, expos and events.

I worked at Akkroo (acquired by Integrate, April 2019) for 18 months, working hard to build the ‘event lead capture’ category. Here’s what I learned in that time.

Your enemy is the status quo

If you’re creating a category, you’re selling something that doesn’t exist yet. At least, not in a way that your potential customers can easily define – or name (more on that later).

For Akkroo, their “enemy” was the existing way to capture leads at events: pen and paper. When you’ve got a booth at an exhibition, all your work goes into planning the visitor experience, and how to stand out amongst the other exhibitors. You obsess over getting people to your stand in the first place. Collecting their details so you can follow-up after the event? That’s an afterthought. Hence: pen and paper. The easiest way to collect someone’s details with minimal set-up and preparation.

They had a solution where most people didn’t even realise they have a problem. But – crucially – some did.

Category creation is a slow process

Category creation has been a hot topic in the SaaS world for a few years now. Countless books, blogs and podcasts tout the importance of creating and owning your category, and indeed it can feel like category creation is the only way to differentiate yourself in the increasingly crowded SaaS space.

But here’s the thing.

It’s not a quick fix.

Category creation is a slow process. And I mean really slow. At Akkroo we’d been working at building the category for 18 months, and it probably took a good 12 months before we started seeing any signs of success.

So don’t look to category creation as a silver bullet or a quick win. If it’s the path you want to go down, you’re gonna be in it for the long haul.

You can’t build a category of one

I know I said your main competition is the ‘old world’. But you can’t build a category of one. 

Competition is essential for category creation. It will be daunting to see new companies and new players enter your category, but it’s actually a really good sign that you’re heading in the right direction.

At Akkroo, there were a handful of competitors with similar products offering similar functionality. Akkroo was the first to name themselves an event lead capture solution, but not the last.

What’s in a name? A lot, apparently

If you’re competing (primarily) against the old way of doing things, you need a name for the new way of doing things.

For HubSpot it was inbound marketing. For Drift, conversational marketing. For Akkroo it was event lead capture.

Naming a category makes it real. It makes it bigger than you, than your company. To quote Play Bigger (which incidentally is an excellent read on category creation):

“Defining the name of the category is a big step to helping the world understand the container for the problem. The category name is often comprised of the market type, the nature of the problem, and the audience who has the problem.”

Play Bigger

Akkroo called their category ‘event lead capture’. They tossed around variations of that, such as ‘event lead management’, and we tracked those variants in our keyword tracker, so we could see what our competitors were calling this nascent category. 

Fortunately, event lead capture was the most common choice, but we were fully prepared to pivot our marketing efforts if one of the alternatives surged in popularity – for example if a competitor took on funding or was acquired, and so was able to go big on category creation.

Consistency is key

Once you’ve named your category, stick with it. You may not love it, but David Cancel didn’t like the term ‘conversational marketing’ when Drift first coined that. 

So name your category. And then use that name everywhere. On your website, in your social media bios, in your written content, video content, podcasts, conference talks, product demos, sales calls…

Don’t play around with similar-but-slightly-different alternatives. Use the same terminology across all your marketing channels. By all means track a few variations in your SEO tool, but in the content you put out to the world, consistency is key.

You’re aiming to dominate not just page 1 of the search results for your category – but pages 1-3. Lay that groundwork with all the content you’re creating, before your competitors make a move on that category. Leave them to play catch-up.

Closing thoughts: Early signs of success

Category creation can feel like a thankless task. If you’re in the trenches of category creation, what are the early signs that all your hard work is paying off? To close off this article, I want to share three early indicators that you’re succeeding, and bringing a category to life.

  1. Other people are using your terminology
    Set up a Google alert for the main keyword relating to the category you’re building. This will let you know as and when other companies start using the same terms as you. Seeing people outside of your business using the same terminology as your category is a clear indicator that a category is taking shape.

    The first time I saw ‘event lead capture’ used on a site that was nothing to do with Akkroo was incredibly exciting: finally, my hard work was paying off!
  2. Competitors bid on category-related keywords
    Nerve-wracking as it may be to see your competition move into the category you’re trying to build, if they’re willing to put their money where their mouth is, that’s a great sign. Bidding on category-related keywords shows that they take this potential category seriously.
    Akkroo started to notice their competitors bidding on ‘event lead capture’ and variations thereof, as well as the company name. That was a great indicator that we were making progress: suddenly we were the ones to beat.
  3. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
    The clearest sign I had was when I started seeing Akkroo’s competitors publishing blog posts targeting the ‘event lead capture’ keyword, and they felt very… familiar. Of course, they weren’t copied directly from Akkroo’s site, but the content I’d been writing was clearly having a big influence on what competitors were writing.