This Gap In Airtable’s Marketing Stategy Is Holding It Back

What is Airtable and why isn’t everyone using it yet?

Airtable combines the power of spreadsheets, databases, project management software, “no-code” apps, and collaboration tools into a very powerful and flexible tool. There are few Airtable alternatives, and six years after launch, it should be have reached mainstream adoption by now.

But it hasn’t.

Instead, it remains a product that’s been loved by early adopter types and enterprise clients but hasn’t reached anywhere near the ubiquity that similarly powerful products like Slack, Trello, and Salesforce have enjoyed.

In this article, we’ll explore why Airtable has failed to grow at a more rapid clip – despite being an amazing product. In particular, we’ll look at why Airtable’s somewhat schizophrenic messaging is holding it back and how a concept called “category creation” may be the solution.

But for context, let’s first take a look at what Airtbable is and what Airtable is used for.

What Is Airtable Anyway?

Indeed.

This is the crux of Airtable’s challenge. But here’s the best way I can describe it succinctly.

A traditional spreadsheet, like the kind you’d make in Excel, is a very powerful way of organizing and analyzing data. But there are some limitations. For example, grouping and sorting rows is cumbersome. Records must be text-based, which limits the kind of data you can work with. And there’s no way to view your spreadsheet in more practical ways, like a calendar or a Kanban view. So at a basic level, Airtable solves those shortcomings by giving you a more flexible way of working with spreadsheet data.

If that was all Airtable did, they wouldn’t have such a challenge. But that’s just the beginning.

Airtable website header
Airtable looks interesting, but its messaging is short on specifics.

Airtable also lets you link spreadsheets together, as a relational database allows. It uses this concept called “Blocks” which are like mini-apps that integrate with your spreadsheets. And to top it off, project management software and collaboration tools could also be considered Airtable alternatives because there is so much feature overlap.

What Is Airtable Used For?

To recap, Airtable pulls together functionality from these existing categories:

  • Spreadsheets (Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets)
  • Database (Microsoft Access, Mongo DB)
  • No-code Apps (FileMaker, Zudy)
  • Project Management (Wrike, Basecamp)
  • Task Management (Wunderlist, Todoist)
  • Collaboration (Trello, Slack)

What is Airtbale used for exactly? According to their site, everyone from cattle ranchers, to journalists, to stay-at-home moms.

The fact that Airtable can cover so much ground is great for people who already use the software. But for those who have yet to start using Airtable, such a chameleon-like nature poses a huge barrier to understanding what the software is, who it’s for, and how it’s used.

What is this barrier exactly? It has to do with something called a “category-first buying process”. And until Airtable address it, it will continue to face strong headwinds against growth.

We All Think In Categories, Whether We’re Conscious Of It or Not

When we buy software, most of us look for a tool to fulfill a specific need or solve a specific problem. Take video conferencing software for example. If you want to conduct video-based calls with others on your team, you’d probably head to Google and search for something like “best video conferencing software”. Or, you might head to a review site like Capterra or G2Growd to find the highest rated video conferencing options.

And from there, you’ll probably spend some time on the websites for each of the offerings you’re considering. The better job a site can do of convincing you that its video conferencing offering is the best for your needs, the more likely you are to buy.

In other words, you had a problem in mind and you proceeded to look for a solution using that framework.

Airtable product comparison
It’s difficult to know what category to place Airtable in when it’s compared to so many different types of software.

The process applies to more than just software. Think about business and consumer products you’ve purchased recently – insurance, cars, office chairs, smartphones, daycare, etc. – and chances are you will have used a similar process.

People think of known categories first, and then the look for the most appropriate choice within that category.

But unfortunately, people aren’t sure what framework to use when considering Airtable alternatives. It hasn’t positioned itself to be understood in terms of a specific category.

Why Airtable Is Unnecessarily Confusing

Let’s pick one of these categories above, project management software, and see what the buying experience is like for Airtable.

Using a “category-first” approach, you’re likely to come across Airtable when looking at reviews for project management software. On G2 Crowd, for example, things look promising, as it ranks very highly both in terms of customer satisfaction and market presence.

Airtable ranks well in G2 Crowd's project management rankings.
Airtable ranks well in G2 Crowd’s project management rankings, but there are plenty of alternatives to pick from.

Wrike and Basecamp are two examples that are presented as Airtable alternatives. But when looking closer at these offerings, it starts to become unclear why Airtable would be one’s first choice.

Airtable’s own description about itself creates the first point of confusion. It reads as such:

“Airtable is the all-in-one collaboration platform designed to combine the flexibility of a spreadsheet interface with features like file attachments, kanban card stacks, revision history, calendars, and reporting.”

It sounds interesting, but there’s no mention of “project management”. Contrast that with Basecamp, which reads,

“Trusted by millions, Basecamp is a web-based project management and collaboration tool. To-dos, files, messages, schedules, milestones and more.

Wrike’s pretty clear, too:

“Wrike is all-in-one project management software that helps remote and co-located teams get more things done together.”

Now, if you were going to narrow down your choices based on the information you have so far, you’d probably eliminate Airtable.

You’d do so simply because “an all-in-one collaboration platform” doesn’t line up with the problem you’re trying to solve (finding the best project management software).

Airtable’s reviews don’t help much either.

You’ll see phrases like “Great data management tool for field research”, “Easiest data relation and visualization on the market”, and “perfect solution for multiple spreadsheets”. Meanwhile, Wrike and Basecamp’s reviews consistently talk about project management.

High review scores don’t matter if the reviews themselves don’t describe the solution you’re looking for.

Repeat this exercise for the other alternatives (task-management, team collaboration, no-code apps) and you’ll see that Airtable runs into the same issue.

Understanding Airtable Through Organic Discovery is Equally Challenging

So far, we’ve established that when looking at Airtable on review sites, vague product messaging makes it difficult to see why it would be the ideal solution for a specific application.

But what happens when someone discovers Airtable organically, like through a friend or by stumbling across them in another context? Does Airtable’s own messaging lend itself to easier comprehension?

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Airtable’s messaging is pretty inconsistent across different platforms and even on its own website.

Let’s take a look at what Airtable says about itself. Depending on where you encounter the company, you’ll find the following statements…

  • “Teams use Airtable to organize their work, their way.”
  • “Organize anything, with anyone, anywhere.”
  • “Create your first database in minutes.”
  • “Spreadsheet, meet database”
  • “Create, your way”
  • “The perfect view for the task at hand”
  • “A modern database created for everyone”
  • “Project management, editorial calendars, flexible CRM, and inventory management”

Unfortunately, these phrases create more questions than answers

  • What exactly is a “modern database” anyway?
  • Does “create” mean that is a software for artists and designers?
  • Does “database” mean this is a tool for researchers?
  • How do “create a database” and “organize a project” happen in the same piece of software?
  • Is Airtable good for solo users, or is it designed more for teams?
  • Is this supposed to replace something I use today?

Airtable has presented a variety of messages designed to cover all possible users and uses cases. It’s an open-ended message that hints more at possibility than practical application.

Unfortunately, this way of describing a product will only resonate with one group: early adopters who are willing to invest the time to see what’s possible with a new type of software.

But for the majority of people who encounter Airtable organically, they’ll file the idea under “interesting, but not for now.”

Since Airtable hasn’t described itself in relation to an existing category that people are already familiar with, most people will have a difficult time knowing just want to make of it.

And when people don’t understand what something is for, they are unlikely to buy it.

Airtable Has An Opportunity Few Companies Enjoy: Category Creation

Does this mean that Airtable should take a step back and focus its messaging solely on an existing category? Perhaps it could, but the Airtable alternatives we looked at above operate in very crowded markets already. If it had a narrower range of features that could serve a particular market niche really well, this would probably be its best bet.

But because Airtable offers a novel tool that’s changing the boundaries of traditional software, it has an even better option for its marketing strategy: it can define an entirely new category of software.

What Does It Mean To Create A New Category?

Creating (and owning) a new product category is one of the most challenging things to do in marketing. It requires that you come up with a new way of describing the concept you’ve developed – usually in just two or three words. And it demands thoughtful use and consistent evangelization of that term over a long period of time.

Category creation isn’t about creating a catchy tagline for your company alone. It’s a marketing strategy that involved putting a stake in the ground about how you and your future competitors will define themselves.

Howevever, research shows that companies who build categories are typically the ones who gain the lion’s share of the market and the profits within that space. In other words, if you think that the concept you’re building is going to become something larger than yourself, then investing in category creation and ownership before one of your competitors does can pay huge dividends.

Research published on Harvard Business review shows that category creators enjoy the majority of profits with a space.

Hubspot is a great example. Instead of trying to compete directly against Eloqua, InfusionSoft, Neolane, Pardot, Silverpop, Act-On, and other marketing automation platforms when they launched in 2008, they defined a new category instead. They called it “Inbound Marketing” software. And instead of just coining a term, Hubspot wove “inbound” into all of its messaging.

10 years later, Hubspot is a $5B company. And if you search for “inbound marketing”, Hubspot still continues to rank at the top. Had Hubspot stayed a “marketing automation” company, they may have only created a business the fraction of that size.

A Glimpse At Putting Category Creation Into Practice

Category creation is a major undertaking. A full outline of what that would look like is outside the scope of this post. But here’s a practical way Airtable could immediately gain the benefits of category creation.

Once Airtable had established a name for its category and a definition for it, the natural next step would be to show people specific examples of what this idea looks in practice. Dropbox did this by showing how it could help someone planning for a trip to Africa. Airtable could do something similar by allowing visitors to identify the problem they were trying to solve and then showing them the product could help.

This wouldn’t even be difficult. By presenting a new concept to a website visitor (by leading with a short description of this new category), Airtable could naturally pique a visitor to ask, “Interesting… what is Airtable used for?”

It could answer that by helping the visitor find use cases that related to the particular problem they might be trying to solve. In the explanations of these use cases, Airtable could reinforce the definition of this new category, helping the user turn an abstract concept into a concrete idea.

Airtable University
Airtable University already has most of the raw material needed to show potential users how the software works, it just needs to be presented sooner in the discovery process.

The beauty of this approach is simple.

By presenting a new concept first, and by quickly following up with tangible examples, Airtable gets to present itself on its own terms. Instead of trying to fit everything into an existing construct (e.g. project management software), Airtable could reframe the conversation and invite visitors to explore. And it would avoid the problem Airtable presently has of using alternating references to existing products – an approach that only creates confusion.

The result? Wrike, Trello, and Excel wouldn’t be seen as Airtable alternatives. Instead, they’d be viewed as different categories of software and thus inappropriate for direct comparison.

The good news for Airtable is that it already has a section on its site dedicated to showing what Airtable is used for. But it lives in a corner of the website, called the “Airtable Universe” where visitors are unlikely to find it. By pairing its new category definition with a more streamlined University section, the company could dramatically reduce barriers to comprehension.

What’s Next For Airtable?

Will Airtable gain mass adoption, or will it remain a tool only for the early-adopting “power users” who are willing to explore new software concepts?

The answer depends on how this unique B2B brand defines itself. If they undertake the task of defining and owning a new category, they can avoid direct comparisons and have conversations with potential customers on their own terms. In doing so, they will be more successful in opening people’s minds to this idea of “spreadsheet meets database meets collaboration tool”.

However, if they retain their chameleon-like messaging approach, they will likely never reach their true potential. Buyers will look at Airtable through the lens of categories they are already familiar with, and as a result will continue to see plenty of other products as Airtable alternatives. And when they find that Airtable doesn’t neatly fit within those bounds, they’re likely to look somewhere else.

How To Take Your B2B Pitch Deck From Good To Great

What’s the difference between a good and a great B2B pitch deck? A good pitch deck clearly explains your product and what it does. It thoroughly illustrates product features, and it demonstrates how smart and credible your team is.

It’s easy to build good B2B pitch decks. There’s just one problem with good pitch decks, though: they don’t work.

No one will get excited after hearing a “good” presentation. That’s because “good” presentations are a dime a dozen, and your audience has heard hundreds of them already.

“Good” pitch decks are the status quo; that’s why they rarely get results.

What you need is a great pitch deck.

A great pitch deck clearly explains your product and how you’ll solve a problem. It thoroughly illustrates product features and it demonstrates your focus on helping the customer.

Great pitch decks get results. They focus on the audience, while good ones merely focus on the product.

The only downside? Great pitch decks are notoriously difficult to build.

Here, we’ll walk through the process I’ve used to develop hundreds of great pitch decks that got results, and how you can do the same.

Why The Curse of Knowledge Keeps Your Pitch Decks from Being Great

You might think that the more you know about a product and the longer you’ve been around it, the easier it would be to make a great pitch deck. Up to a point that’s true, but what happens to most is that they’ve gotten so comfortable with their product, they have difficultly seeing through the eyes of their audience. Empathizing with your audience, though, is exactly what you need to do in order to build a great pitch deck.

This phenomenon is called the “curse of knowledge.”

When you succumb to the curse of knowledge, you’ll easily create pitch decks that may sound great to you but are lost on others. This is a major problem. A potential buyer isn’t going to take a Codecademy class or bone up on the difference between machine learning and artificial intelligence just so they can figure out how your product relates to them. You have to meet the buyer on his or her level.

Curse of knowledge graph

Don’t worry: curing yourself of the curse of knowledge is possible. Keep reading, and you’ll know how to create a pitch deck that’s built around the needs of your audience first.

Part I: Build Your Blueprint with These Three Fundamentals

Think of these steps as creating the blueprint that will form the basis for the rest of your presentation.

Describe the audience

Saying that you’re selling to “potential buyers” doesn’t count. You need to be much more descriptive about your target market. Depending on who is in the room, your audience may have vastly different areas of expertise and ignorance, biases and misconceptions. If you know what these are, then you’ll have a much better chance of connecting.

Define the outcome

What do you want your audience to do once you’re finishing pitching? Don’t assume that they know. Sure, the ultimate outcome might be a sale, but that’s not necessarily the next step they’ll take. Knowing the answer to ahead of time will help you frame the presentation around this goal.

Identify what you need to say

If you know whom you’re pitching to and what you want them to do, now you can figure out what to say. To get this right, brainstorm a list of everything you think you might want to convey in your pitch deck. Everything you list will fall into one of these four categories:

Four quadrants of info to include in your pitch deck

Next, unmercifully cut out everything that isn’t in the top right quadrant. The ideal B2B pitch deck will only include information that your audience needs to know now. Everything else will just make your content harder to digest.

Part II: Structure Your B2B Pitch Deck Around the Hero’s Journey

Start by mapping out your pitch around something called the hero’s journey. It’s a concept coined by author and professor, Joseph Campbell, in his book, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.”

The premise is this: all of the world’s myths, stories, legends and religious origin stories are based upon the same “meta story.” This story is so hardwired into our culture and our humanity that we respond very strongly when stories are framed in this way. Indeed, many contemporary movies and books use this framework, as well.

The simplified hero’s journey

That might sound like a tall order to live up to, but the good news is that structuring your presentation around this “meta story” isn’t hard.

Here’s a simplified version:

  • Act 1: The hero is pursuing some goal or dream.
  • Act 2: The hero faces challenges, temptations and setbacks that prevent him from reaching this goal.
  • Act 3: An external force intervenes to give the hero a special advantage. The hero conquers all obstacles and succeeds.

Using this framework accomplishes a few things. First, the story gives the audience something tangible to latch on to. After all, people remember stories, not facts and figures. Secondly, the familiar structure of this story makes it easy for your audience to process it. And finally, because the hero ends up in a new, better-than-normal state, it clearly shows how your own product provides a real benefit.

The Hero's Journey: Pitch Deck Version

Your product may or may not lend itself to having a single hero with an isolated problem. So feel free use this structure literally, or just as a guide for establishing the sequence of your slides.

A terrible name and a great example

Here’s an example to get you started with developing your own pitch deck.

Say you’re building a pitch deck for an email plugin that automatically reminds you when you haven’t responded to messages from VIPs. Let’s give this fictional product a really bad name: ForgetMeNote.

The audience for ForgetMeNote is executives who can’t afford an assistant but don’t use a CRM to help them keep track of contacts. The story arc would go something like this:

  • Act 1: Jan is a 42-year-old VP of Business Development for a mid-sized software company. She’s been working on two big relationships with major software vendors that, if pursued successfully, will result in major wins for her company.
  • Act 2: When she started her job two years ago, she no trouble keeping up with messages. But today, she has 1,271 unread messages her inbox, thanks to an influx of spam and an increasingly large network. The threat of missing a crucial email means that Jan now checks her inbox constantly, which saps her energy and stresses her out.
  • Act 3: Enter ForgetMeNote. When Jan doesn’t respond to a message from someone on her VIP list, she automatically receives a notification. Now that Jan can quit stressing about missing important emails, her days are filled with productive work instead of sorting through spam. Not only that, but the two deals Jan had been pursuing recently closed, thanks to her ability to stay on top of the fast-paced negotiations that were involved.

Spend some time building a story for your own audience. With your hero’s story in hand, you will now ready to create the slides themselves.

Part III: Build Your Slides

Use the outline below to structure your pitch deck. There’s no formula that will work universally for every situation, so feel free to adjust these as you see fit.

  1. Cover slide. Who you are and a tagline to set the tone.
  2. Outline. Clarify what you’re going to discuss in your presentation.
  3. Present the problem. The more valuable the deal, then the more tailored this section should be.
  4. Exacerbate the problem. Make sure your audience is fully aware of the pain that they will endure if they don’t solve the problem.
  5. Introduce your solution. Do so in terms of the benefits it provides to your audience.
  6. Explain how your solution works. Your goal here is to illustrate that your solution is something your audience can actually use, not go into a technical breakdown.
  7. Illustrate the specific outcomes. The more tangible, the better. Just make sure they are realistic.
  8. Build credibility. Share your client list, revenue, caliber of your team, or whatever else will help your audience have confidence in you.
  9. Show, don’t just tell. Give your audience a live walk-through.
  10. Recap what you’ve talked about. Highlight the salient points you want your audience to remember.
  11. Finally, clarify the next steps. Provide pertinent details here, such as an outline of a pilot test, pricing, etc. This will vary significantly from business to business.

Part IV: Polish

Now that your pitch deck is complete, it’s time to go through it a few more times and really make it shine. While you look for tweaks to make, keep these best practices in mind:

Edit for succinctness

Nothing makes me cringe more than seeing a slide crammed with a ton of copy. Why? The first thing people do when a new slide comes up is read. And if they’re reading, they’re not paying attention to you.

Therefore, the content on your slides should only serve to anchor the points you’re making verbally, not give you something to read out loud. Go through your presentation and edit out anything that will detract from the main message.

Build consistency

The goal of your pitch deck is to get your audience to understand and remember some key points. But it’s hard for them to do that if you’re using different terms to describe the same idea. That’s why it’s a good idea to go through your pitch deck to make sure your word and phrase choices are consistent from slide to slide.

Use design to aid comprehension

While you can attempt this step yourself, I’ve found that it’s always worth the cost of having a graphic designer help with the final product. Not only will a good designer improve the production quality of your work, they’ll also help you improve listener comprehension by adjusting the typography, white space and color choices.

Are you done now? Yes and No

If there’s one thing I’ve learned after building hundreds of pitch decks, it’s this: no deck is ever truly finished. Each time, I inevitably find ways to improve the material. You will, too.

Don’t look at your pitch decks as a one-time project; treat them as living documents that will improve over time. Not only will your presentations continue to be more effective, but you’ll be much happier if you recognize that things won’t be perfect after the first iteration.

To build the best pitch deck, look for an outside perspective

Sometimes the best way to create truly great material is bring in an outsider. In fact, that’s usually the fastest way to get a fresh perspective. Bestselling authors employ editors to help them bring out the best in their work, top musicians need producers to help them get just the right sound, and even presidents use speechwriters to help them convey their message with impact.

Creating an amazing pitch deck isn’t much different. Whether you get feedback from a co-worker, a marketing agency or a consultant, having an outsider give you an objective review of your work can pay huge dividends.


This post was originally published in Startup Nation.

Why Internal Evangelism Is More Important Than Ever

Ask a marketer, what comes to mind when you think of branding? I bet you’ll think of phrases like “logo design,” “website building” and “advertising campaigns.” Indeed, marketers typically invest most of their time in the outward-facing elements of their brand.

However, there is another, often overlooked aspect of branding that marketers don’t think about enough. It’s called internal evangelism, and without it, your company is more likely to underperform.

Read moreWhy Internal Evangelism Is More Important Than Ever

Consider This Before Setting Your Marketing Strategy

As a marketer, it’s not uncommon to feel tempted to emulate the marketing strategy of another company you admire.

While there’s nothing wrong with drawing some inspiration from great companies, there’s a big risk involved with following someone else’s footsteps: they may be at a different point on the path, or might be on a different path entirely.

This brings up something every marketer should consider before developing a marketing strategy: the state of the industry you’re trying to enter.

Read moreConsider This Before Setting Your Marketing Strategy