The Positioning of Note-Taking Apps

In the prospect's mind, perception is reality.

Productivity apps are like religions — you embrace your chosen software, defend it against all that is untrue with an allegiance bordering on extremism, and switching apps is akin to converting.

The current online conversation around note-taking apps like Roam Research, Notion, and Evernote is heated. As if with virtual trebuchets, each camp chucks meme firebombs into the camps of others as to why their prophesized app is better.

As a bit of a LOTR fanboy, I happened to enjoy these...

What’s more, it's becoming an increasingly crowded market.

New apps brave enough to venture onto the battlefield must be increasingly strategic about how they market themselves amongst the competition if they want to steal users and market share.

This is known as positioning, and it’s fundamental to any company’s go-to-market strategy.

This week, I want to analyze the positioning of a few note-taking apps.

We’ll observe their messaging and how they’ve benefited from their chosen strategy. We’ll also look at some missteps and positioning flops.

But first…

What exactly is positioning?

Who comes to mind when you think of laundry detergent?

Tide, right? (God, I really hope it was Tide). And if you gave it a little more thought, you might think of a second brand, like Downey.

When analyzing or devising a positioning strategy, the only thing that matters is what's already in your prospective user’s mind. 

Thus, positioning is how you differentiate yourself in the mind of the prospect.

Positioning can apply to anything — a product, company, service, person, etc — and when asked about a particular category, we typically think of one brand first.

People rank products and brands in their minds. A good way of conceptualizing this is to visualize ladders, each representing a category and each step being a brand.

Moving up steps of the ladder is difficult if the brands above have a strong foothold. In such a scenario, when you’re not #1, you can either settle at #2 or you can build a new ladder.

To better articulate this, however, let’s observe a few case studies.

The Positioning of Note-Taking Apps

Evernote = First to Market, First to Mindshare.

The most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in people’s minds. And when I think “note-taking,” I think Evernote. Why? Because they were first.

Released in 2008, Evernote was the first note-taking app (as most know the offering today), essentially creating the cloud-based note-taking market and launching the digital personal productivity movement. As a result, they hold the position of the note-taking app in the mind of millions of users.

This is the power of leadership and being first — the leading brand in any category is almost always the first brand in people’s minds.

While Evernote has struggled in recent years, they cemented a leading position in the market by being first.

The essential ingredient in securing the leadership position is getting into the mind first. The essential ingredient in keeping that position is reinforcing the original concept.

Over their history, Evernote reinforced their position as the leading note-taking tool by creating more ways for effortless capture, whether by saving entire pages with the web clipper or easily scanning images. 

Sure, the overall user experience became somewhat bloated, but the story they messaged was consistent (except for that work chat. I don’t know what that was about).

After all, being the market leader is not necessarily about having the best product.

Many people think marketing is a battle of products. In the long run, they figure, the best product will win. They are preoccupied with facts and features and analyze the situation to make sure the truth is on their side, then confidently enter the marketing arena knowing their product is better and will ultimately win out.

This is false. There are no facts in marketing. There are no best products. No objective reality. All that exists is the perception in people’s minds. Everything else is an illusion.

And the perception is that the leading product is the best product.

So while stifled by early success and slow to innovate, Evernote will likely remain the industry standard for the foreseeable future for the simple reason that when you think of note-taking apps, you can’t help but think of the green elephant.

Notion = The Collaborative Workspace

How to Use Notion: Day Three - The Leadership Journal - Medium

When a competitor owns a word or position in the prospect’s mind, it’s futile to attempt to own the same word.

The folks at Notion understand this and have smartly targeted “workspace” as their positioning foothold.

The beauty of this move is that it simultaneously captures the compelling offering of Notion — that it is a collaborative workspace built first for teams — while subtly capitalizing on one of the key weaknesses of the market leader, Evernote (have you ever tried sharing something in Evernote? I thought not.).

The term “workspace” also infers more than just notes. Databases, wikis, and project roadmaps are also things a user could manage in their workspace, especially one that is shared amongst multiple stakeholders.

While Notion sells note-taking as an accessible entry-point for converting Evernote users, its onboarding flows quickly layers on the additional product attributes to express the full range of its capabilities.

Notion has effectively deployed the strategy by repositioning Evernote based on the attributes of collaboration and flexibility.

Marketing is a battle of ideas. If a brand is to succeed, they must have an idea or attribute of their own to focus their efforts around. And for every attribute, there is an opposite, effective attribute.

Personal productivity is an attribute owned by Evernote. And once an attribute is taken by the competition, it’s gone.

Notion made the self-aware decision to move on to other attributes where the competition is lacking, like workplace collaboration, and message their value.

And this strategy appears to be working. They just pulled a $2B valuation with 40 full-time employees.

Roam Research = The Tool for Networked Thought

In the case of introducing a new product category, creating a new ladder is difficult because the mind has no room for what's new and different unless it is related to the old.

So if you have a truly new product, it's better to tell the customer what it's not by relating to the old, rather than what it is (for example, the first cars were positioned as "horseless carriages").

Roam is a truly new product. 

When they decided to enter the market, they had to look at what's already in the mind for the note-taking category (i.e. Evernote and it’s tree organization structure), and reposition that model as the old and itself as what they are not — a new, bi-directionally linked network. 

Roam Research is the “note-taking tool for networked thought.” It is the driverless car to Evernote’s horseless carriage.

When you look at customers in a given product category, there seem to be two kinds of people: those who want to buy from the leader and those who do not. Roam as a challenging product is going after the latter.

In other words, by positioning itself against the leader (structured organization versus Roam’s networked), Roam will take business from all the alternatives to Evernote and increase its market share.

As Roam works to change people’s minds as to what a productivity tool can do, they will convert those willing to their way of thinking.

In positioning strategy, when you can't find an open créneau, you must create one by repositioning the competitors that occupy the positions in the mind.

A perception that exists in people’s minds is often observed as a universal truth. People are seldom wrong, at least in their minds, and we readily accept that which matches our prior knowledge or experience. 

So to move a new product into the mind, you must first move the old one out.

Now for a Couple Flops


Why I quit using Evernote and fell in love with Bear

I love Bear. It has a beautiful editor and is much faster than Evernote. But Bear is, and will likely remain, stuck on the lower rungs of the note-taking ladder.

Why? Because of a lack of positioning.

Bear isn’t quite sure who its product is for. It’s a writing app and uses an eloquent markdown editor, but it’s marketing efforts have done little in the way to effectively compete.

As a result, Bear is a nice app without a definitive audience. It just hasn’t positioned itself aggressively enough to break through the noise in a crowded marketplace.


As another brief example of bad marketing, Quip is real-time collaborative documents, spreadsheets, and chat embedded inside Salesforce.

While surely an advantageous alliance, there is nothing that will stifle your marketing more than a bad name.

A simple Google search will prove this point, but as a quick experiment — when you hear “Quip,” do you think of a notes app or toothbrushes?

That the question even exists is proof of poor brand positioning.

The name is the hook that hangs the product on the category ladder in the prospect’s mind, and the most important marketing decision you can make is what to name the hook.


Marketing is not a battle of products, it’s a battle of perceptions.

In an increasingly over-communicated society, you are lucky if people can remember one message and associate it back to your product. Less is more. Oversimplify and stick to a single message.

In order to select your message, look for the solution to your problem, not inside the product, not inside your own mind, but inside the prospect's mind. Concentrate on the perceptions of the prospect, not the qualities or reality of the product.

In the minds of customers, "the perception is the reality."


My Favorite Things this Week

  1. Article - I’ve always thought of books as sacred objects, only to be picked up with the unbreakable commitment to read every single word. Because of this, reading can feel like a chore. This article immediately relieved that pressure by encouraging me to read broadly and continuing with only that which resonates.

  2. YouTube video - In a post about note-taking apps, what better to share than a video from the spiritual leader of all things notes and productivity, Tim Ferriss. I enjoyed this video on how he uses note-taking and journaling as a way to reflect and progress each day.

  3. Podcast - Great conversation on the science of happiness between Sam Harris and Laurie Santos, the professor of the most popular course at Yale on the scientific understanding of happiness. Interesting that in order to do what will make us the happiest, we often have to violate our own intuition. Give it a listen.

  4. Bonus YouTube video - Because it’s been too long since I’ve seen Avengers: Endgame and we could all use a laugh right now.

Quote of the Week

A lifeguard doesn’t have to spend much time pitching to the drowning person. When you show up with a life buoy, if the drowning person understands what’s at stake, you don’t have to run ads to get them to hold on to it.

From This is Marketing by Seth Godin. Resurfaced with Readwise.