How April Dunford became a cult marketing icon in just 5 years

“April is the GOAT of positioning!”

- Bruno Aziza, Head of Data & Analytics, Google Cloud 
That’s not a unique sentiment.

Honestly, in the business influencer space, the admiration for April Dunford is as close as you get to Taylor Swift fan fever.

Product and marketing communities adore her.

You’d be hard-pushed to find a B2B top ten influencer list that doesn’t include her.

She’s written and self-published one of the most successful business books of the past decade, Obviously Awesome, selling more than 80,000 copies.

It’s not a stretch to say that it’s bumped Ries and Trout as THE reference point for positioning.

I can’t think of many other authors who have redefined a marketing category like April.
April's books, Obviously Awesome and Sales Pitch
And I was unsure whether to write this case study, because how much can we really learn from April Dunford’s growth as a thought leader?

She published a best-selling book on a popular topic (and, for her clients, a painful one). Fame and high-ticket consulting engagements follow.

Honestly, I was way off the mark.

Turns out the book didn’t turn April into the top-tier speaker and consultant she is today.

So how did she do it? There’s something else at play. 

But first, we need to circle back a few years.
She needed a shove
It was 2015, and April was working in-house as the VP of marketing for a tech firm. This was her seventh VP marketing role, and she’d had a glittering career, working for one startup through to acquisition, then starting over again.

DataMirror through to IBM.

Janna Systems through to Siebel Systems.

And so on.

But this 7th startup was a bad experience full of broken promises.

It made her think, do I really want to go through this VP marketing cycle for the 8th time?

She didn’t, so she set up as a consultant.

And with that background, that trail of success, work would come easy, right?

Well, no.
Not at first. 

Because, like many of us, she got consulting all wrong.
And it started with poor positioning
April Dunford, THE authority on positioning, started out with bad positioning. Hard to believe I know.

Out of the gate, April pitched herself as a fractional VP Marketing. Which, like many of us, translates as leaving the job she had with one boss to go and do the same thing with multiple bosses.
“A fractional CMO… that’s terrible positioning because what I’m doing is I’m comparing myself to a full time employee, there is a direct comparison. So I’m basically positioning myself as... an alternative to hiring a vice president, and what’s so great about me? I’m cheaper… That’s terrible positioning!”

- April Dunford
April's content early days was broad, but it did include some of her now trademark positioning advice
And the role is so broad. There are hundreds of things a VP Marketing is responsible for. And naturally, one person isn’t going to excel at every one of those ‘things’.
And the broader you go, the harder it is to sell and the less money you make.

And we’ve already mentioned April’s CV. It’s impressive!
But there’s always someone out there with a more impressive CV
A former VP marketing at Google, Amazon, Meta…

When you think about it, the market has to be full of talented marketers with impressive brands on their CVs.
It's a competitive landscape out there. Search LinkedIn and you'll find 2,500+ with Meta in their CV. And that's just form the marketing department!
As a fractional marketer, April was effectively competing with everyone. Sure, she targeted a niche (early-stage startups), but even so, it’s hard to develop an irresistible position around fractional work.

So, here’s what she did…
She specialised
Because whether you’re offering marketing, design, or market research… there’s a wide range of roles and responsibilities within each discipline.

April tells the story of her friend, Alan, a fractional chief product officer who wasn’t particularly happy with his fractional work:
“He said, I think I need to pick an area of specialisation, and he pulled out this … diagram [from the Pragmatic Institute] … it was 59 little boxes of all the things a product manager does and he told me, he threw a dart at the chart and it landed on this box that said win/loss analysis, and he said, win/loss analyses, perfect, it’s a thing we’re supposed to do, we never do it internally, it’d be great to bring a consultant in to come do it, and in three years he became the absolute king of win/loss analyses, running a great big agency, doing all kinds of money on it… and globally, I could go anywhere and we’d talk about win/loss analyses and people would say ‘I know a guy’ and the guy was always Alan.”

- April Dunford
Alan threw a dart, and it landed on win loss
We’re all juggling a lot of balls, but you can get very good at one thing quickly in a short space of time if you focus on it, study it, then repeatedly work on it in client engagements.

Let’s be clear, though: I don’t believe it’s quite as random as that. I think you consider your own version of this job matrix, then you identify the 1, 2, or 3 boxes you absolutely excel at (and enjoy) - that’s where you specialise.

And that’s exactly what April did.
She switched to positioning
After all, when she was employed as a VP marketing, positioning was her superpower, and the startups hiring her were doing so because they thought their positioning was weak.

So, she leaned into that zone of excellence
. She repositioned from fractional marketer to positioning specialist.

And in those first two years of focus, she was figuring out what a positioning engagement would look like. 

Because that’s one of the hardest parts of selling expertise: Engineering an attractive engagement that repeatedly delivers the results your clients are looking for in a time efficient manner where the consultant is quickly in and out.

And at first, the natural tendency is to do the work FOR the client. But for positioning work, that's generally impossible.

Because, in the case of April, companies know way more about their product, market, and situation than she ever could as an outside consultant.

Even if she took three months to interview clients and research the market, she’d still know less than the existing team.

So, her optimal value could never be in ‘doing’ the positioning for you. Instead, she’d need to identify the things an internal marketer didn’t have going for them:
  • The lack of objectivity
  • The internal politics tying their hands behind their backs
  • The lack of focus on positioning due to the dozen other marketing tasks they had on their plate
April’s strength was a focus on positioning, coming from an outside perspective, and having zero ties to your political structure.

She’d get your team together and, using her own methodology, ask the right questions to pull the answers from everyone across the organisation. 
April Dunford put together this clear 10 step process on positioning that helped customers understand what it'd be like to work with April, and it standardised her work
She wouldn’t do the positioning. She’d facilitate the positioning process.

It’d have a start and end point.

And with this new area of specialisation, plus a proven methodology in hand, she started to gain traction.

But that traction only started to gather momentum…
When April got intentional about who she worked with
“At the beginning, I was kind of taking my victim where I find them.”

- April Dunford
My friend Oren Greenberg says that case studies + testimonials + word of mouth = rocket fuel.

That’s true. But no matter how good you are at what you do, you can only excel in any engagement when you work with the person whose worldview, circumstances, pain points, and resources perfectly align with your expertise and offer.

And the goal is to completely smash it. 

Because when you do, you delight customers, and those customers likely hang out with other people who need what you do (and rave about you) or move on at some point to another company that needs what you do (and takes you with them).

So, as good as April was at what she did, she figured out that she could only really deliver a fantastic outcome when her clients matched this profile:
  • You’re a B2B tech company (that’s where all her experience is)
  • You have a sales team (because that’s where she draws customer insight)
  • You’ve made a decent number of sales (because she needs inputs to figure out your positioning)
  • The CEO thinks she has a positioning problem (because it’s much easier to sell to people who are deeply feeling the pain)
And anyone can do this. You can do this. You map out your past clients and find the threads that connect the best (and the worst).
“The great thing that happens when you do have the luxury of being really picky is you tend to smash it every time you do pick somebody. It's a really good fit.”

- April Dunford
And now, April’s producing results. Clients are happy. But none of this changes the fact that…
She didn’t have much of a pipeline
Not at this stage. Sure, word was spreading from customers and through her network, but it was slow.

Hard to imagine today, but April didn’t have any particularly remarkable content, she didn’t have any speaking engagements, and she didn’t have a book.

In 2017, nobody really knew her.

And we’ve established that April has enjoyed a successful career. But, she didn’t have a network of influencers to fast-track her exposure.

So, she did the thing that every top-tier B2B influencer/expert does at ground zero...
She borrowed audiences
And she was intentional about selecting the content format that supported her strengths and experiences.

For April, that was speaking. She’d done it in the past and was good at it.

So, she started borrowing audiences at speaking events and running workshops at local universities and incubators. She was running a class at The University of Toronto, one at The University of Waterloo, and several incubators.

And speaking as in the upper echelons of lead generation, it started pulling in leads.
Public speaking, along with a published book, when executed well, attract the highest quality leads
April was good speaking to an audience, but she gained way more traction than most because she had this golden asset that ties all top-tier consultants together…
A tried and tested methodology
When it comes to business content, we all crave practical application, and we all know we need positioning, but before 2019, most of us didn’t know how to to it. 

April did. 

So, she had a great product, a methodology that she was sharing in those early workshops and conferences.

And she started gathering momentum.

She was picking up clients as a result of her speaking and workshop work.

But April’s lead gen wasn’t nearly as slick back then as it is today. There was one malfunctioning cog in the system…
During these talks and speeches in 2017 and 2018, some understood her approach to positioning, but plenty didn’t.
“Companies were coming to me, and I was trying to explain what we were going to do in this workshop. And it was hard to explain... People were kind of like, ‘well can't you just do it for us?’ And I'm like, ‘no, I can't and here's why’ … And then I'll explain that, and then I'll explain the process … And sometimes it was hard to do in an hour … we'd need a second call to talk about it.”

- April Dunford
As a result, the sales process was long, and that’s when she realised…
I need a blog post to explain the methodology
Because then she could share the post before they even got to a sales call, and prospects would understand what she did and why.

It’d save her countless coffee meetings and Zoom calls.

And if those prospects in question didn’t have the budget to work with April, they could just run through the process themselves without wasting each other’s time.

But as she began writing the post, it quickly became apparent that this would be way too long for a blog. 

It was a book.

And April had a clear idea of what needed to be in this thing.

During these early years of working with clients, speaking at events, and delivering incubator workshops, she received feedback and validation. She had a strong sense of what the market wanted.

It’s the key ingredient that would turn April into a superstar.

It’s what any B2B audience wants really…
Getting sh*t done
You see, the market is full of idea books. 

The core book on positioning, the one they get you to read in marketing school, doesn’t tell you how to ‘do’ positioning. It simply introduces the idea of positioning along with some 1980s Fortune 500 examples.
Ries and Trout coined the term of positioning back in the 80s
But the thing is, when she approached traditional book publishers about her idea, she hit a brick wall.

They want more idea books, because idea books sell on scale. They’re for everyone. They don’t want getting sh*t done books, even though the B2B market craves them (The Mom Test, $100m Offers, and The Win Without Pitching Manifesto are all getting sh*t done books, and people go crazy for them).
“A lot of these books are idea books. You’re not supposed to do anything with these books, right? And they’re supposed to be a good time … And a lot of people that write these best selling business books, they’re entertainers, they’re not practitioners. They’re not trying to teach you how to do a thing. They don’t know how to do a thing except entertain you.”

- April Dunford
So she went down the self publishing route
But as many do, she struggled because she was a great doer. April knew how to do positioning. She was world-class at it. And between 2015 and 2018, she became world-class at facilitating the methodology in client workshops.

But on her route to becoming top tier…
She’d need to become a world class teacher
That’s what top-tier experts are. They combine world-class application of a methodology with world-class teaching of that methodology. It’s not enough to know your sh*t. You need to know how to communicate it.
“The first thing I did was … I wrote the speech version of this book … and it was terrible. Nobody could understand what the heck I was talking about.”

- April Dunford
The process of writing the book was the process of becoming a better teacher, and that process happened on stage.

She’d use her experience on stage and at incubators to figure how to get better at teaching her methodology.

Don’t get me wrong, she was already good. She wouldn’t have been attracting leads and enquiries if she wasn’t.

But the April you see post-Obviously Awesome, she’s world-class.

She spent two years speaking and teaching, writing the book without laying down a single word. She was figuring out how to teach this stuff, and in between, she’s writing tweets and blogs.

Some stuff her audience likes, some they don’t. 
She’s creating, cutting, adding, and validating
Building a book that, when published, people would adore.

But a great book doesn’t sell itself. Nothing does. You need eyeballs on it. How exactly did April go from this relatively unknown and talented positioning consultant to one of the biggest names in business books?

A book needs a launch, right?

Well, actually, not so much.
The book as a product
April is in the process of figuring this book out on stage and in workshops.

But that’s not all she’s doing.

She treated the book like a product. That starts with speaking to target customers to understand the problem you’re solving.

First, she spoke with CEOs to learn what they wanted from a book.
“I had 50 interviews with CEOs, and I said, ‘what you reading these days? How d’you pick that book?’ And they’d say ‘Oh my friend was talking about it.’ Everyone says that, how does a CEO of a tech startup pick a book? ‘My friend was talking about it.’ So I’m like, ok, word of mouth is super important.”

- April Dunford
Here’s what else she discovered:
  • CEOs read a lot of books - in the region of 20-30 per year
  • They read them on planes (they fly a lot)
  • They only ever get halfway through a book on the flight and never go back to read the second half
Nobody was reading the whole thing, and if April was going to use a book to drive word of mouth for her consulting business, she needed people to read the whole thing.

She reverse-engineered it. 

Average reading time on flights was around 3 hours. So she needed to write a 3-hour book. Something like 30,000 words.

It wouldn’t have any fluff, it'd be skimable, and it'd be designed to look like an inflight magazine. This thing would be super easy to read and finish.

But that was just stage one of treating the book like a product…
Then she ran the IBM product launch playbook
“At IBM, when you’re launching a product, they do not give a sh*t about the launch day… how IBM does it, launches are a year long thing.”

- April Dunford
That year-long launch consists of a pre-pre-launch, pre-launch, launch, momentum-launch, follow-on-launch, and rev2-launch.
Pre-pre launch to pre-launch to launch to momentum launch to follow on launch to rev2 launch
Here’s what her year would look like:
  • Pre-pre-launch →  That’s April spending a full 12 months through 2018 and early 2019 talking about her positioning methodology, mentioning that a book is coming, and sending people to her email list or Twitter profile to follow for updates. In that period, April did 60 speaking engagements and dozens upon dozens of podcast guesting. This is whilst she was writing and before she had a launch date.
  • Pre-launch   Similar to the previous step, but now the writing is more or less done and you have a launch date, which you’re sharing at every opportunity.
  • Launch This was an intentionally intense two-week period leading into the launch date. April got on two very big stages during these two weeks and was speaking on as many podcasts as she could get on that would drop during these two weeks. She sells 2,000 books in the first two weeks.
  • Momentum-Launch This is when, on Twitter and email, she announces every milestone the book passes. “Oh God, look how many books I just sold!” and “I’m back on the best-selling list again.” Every time April did that, she saw a small sales spike.
  • Follow-on-Launch That’s the audiobook. April deliberately didn’t release an audiobook with the book. She held that back because, further down the line, it gave her something new to talk about. And guess what? When she launched the audiobook, sales surged for the written book.
  • Rev2-launch Up until this point, April hasn’t put her book on sale. But now, she figures any of her fans, if they were going to buy the book, would have done so already. So, 12 months after launch, she promotes a $0.99 sale. She sells 6,000 books in 48 hours.
Everything snowballs.
“The more you stand on a stage, the more people ask you to stand on a stage. Same thing with podcasting. The more podcasts I did, the more people asked me to be on podcasts, and so the thing just snowballed. It flywheeled way more than I thought it would, and so that got me everywhere…. and then the other thing is, the more you speak, the better you get at it. Everytime I got on a big stage or got on a big podcast, there was a big jump in book sales.”

- April Dunford
We’ve almost covered everything here, but there’s one final piece of the puzzle we need to cover…
A point of view
In my previous piece covering David C. Baker, I mentioned how important his contrarian thinking was to stand out from the noise.

A unique point of view is a presiding characteristic in more or less every elite consultant.

It’s a prerequisite of becoming a thought leader.

But why?

It boils down to this…
“In B2B… we’re limited on what’s valuable here. We’re helping you make money, we’re helping you save money. That’s it, that’s all we got.”

- April Dunford
Products have unique features that help them stand out.

Service firms rarely do.

Often, it’s not the ‘what’ we do that differentiates us. It’s the ‘how’, and the ‘how’ is informed by our unique opinions that contrast with the status quo.

For April, it was the positioning statement. She attacked it.

She has a section in her book: Why you should never create a positioning statement.

That conflicts with all best practice and thought leadership on positioning that came before her.

And I’m sure she’d have pissed a lot of people off with that kind of statement.

But I’ve no doubt some people would have loved that.

Because consultants, they’re a lot like stand-up comedians. The observational types.
They pay attention
Have you ever had milk the day after the date? Scares the hell out of you, doesn’t it? The spoon is trembling as it comes out of the bowl. ‘It’s after the day! I’m taking a big chance! I smelled it, you smelled it. What is it supposed to smell like? It smelled like milk to me.’ I don’t know how they’re so definite, though. Maybe the cows tip them off when they’re milking them.

- Jerry Seinfeld
What should good milk smell like?

How can they be so sure when it’s gonna go off?

I never thought much about milk expiration, but now that Jerry mentions it, I laugh. “You’re right, how do they know when it’s gonna go off?”

It’s observational humour at its best.

It’s an aha moment - that’s what makes it funny.
Observational humour is when comedians pay attention to the stuff that's happening around us
And that’s precisely what happens with contrarian, thought leadership thinking.

April attacks the positioning statement, renders it redundant, and a section of the audience thinks, “Yeah, now that you mention it, it is a waste of time.”

They’re drawn in, they share the sentiment amongst their circles, and you rise above the noise because you sound different.

It’s a point of contrast because nothing is cool in isolation. It’s cool relative to the cluster of alternatives we can compare it to.

And that’s critical. Because public speaking helps you attract high-quality leads, but to get speaking opportunities…
You have to have something interesting to say
Conflicting opinions and unique methodologies give you something to say.

They give you a reason to get on stage and for organisers to want you up there.

That’s what April had, and in the process, developed a groundbreaking book. 

And that book was transformative.
“I went from this sort of generic consulting business, not making very good money, I was making ok, but it was kind of like the same before I became a consultant except I was working way harder, way longer hours, and my clients, some of them were happy, some of them were just ‘so so’, whereas now, I’m booked up 3, 4 months in advance, my rates are way higher.”

- April Dunford
And everything is inbound. 

She doesn’t have to sell the concept of positioning or her expertise. She simply filters out prospects and manages her wait list.

Prices have gone from $10k to $60-80k for a 2-day workshop. She’s fully booked months in advance.

But this only happened because she had a great book that sold.

It’s not enough to simply have a book. Thousands of smart people have published books that did nothing for their business.

Which is why, when you look closely, you realise that Obviously Awesome, the book, didn’t turn April Dunford into THE authority on positioning.

No. April Dunford became Obviously Awesome, the GOAT, through the five year process of developing her methodology and, through lots of trial and error, figuring out how to share and teach her process in a compelling way.

Not to mention the decades beforehand figuring out how to ‘do’ positioning herself.