Setting the Context of your Product

I have been thinking a lot about new product development and the process of building a story that goes with it. The obvious challenge being that when you have a new product, you often have a lot of explaining to do.

There is no shortage of information out there about how hard it is to get noticed and how short attention spans are these days. Within seconds of contact with a potential customer, you need to start telling your story. However, with limited time you need to make sure you are putting your message into a context that makes sense to the customer.

Context helps provide background information, almost like a setting for your story.

Seth Godin recently wrote an article that helps explain the need for putting your story in context. Seth explains,

What is this thing? What are you like? Are you friend or foe, flake or leader, good deal or ripoff, easy or hard, important or not? Are you destined for the trusted category or the other one?

Make it easy to categorize you and you’re likely to end up in the category you are hoping for.

Having a good story is a must. However, if it takes too long for a customer to relate, you may lose them before the story can finish.

How to get started?

Creating a to the point product story supported by the right context is no easy task. The work can require building and taking apart your messaging over and over again until you get to where there is nothing extra  left to distract.

I don’t think there are any short cuts here, but there are some approaches that can help guide you. Here are some examples that can help as you work through the process.

Explain your story in a paragraph or less

Brad Feld, VC at the Foundry Group, believes that if you are just getting started, you need to explain your product (company) in a paragraph or less. Brad writes,

I strongly believe that a founder should be able to explain what they do in one paragraph. I’m not a believer in the “one sentence mashup approach” (e.g. we are like pinterest + groupon + facebook for dogs). Rather, I like three sentences: (1) what we do, (2) who we do it to, and (3) why you should care. Sometimes this can be two sentences; sometimes four, but never more than a paragraph.

Remember, you don’t have to try and fit everything your product does into that first paragraph. The idea being, that this is the foundation that supports the rest of your product messaging. From here, as you  continue to build out your assets such as web sites, marketing collateral, etc look for ways to help set the context so that customers immediately begin to understand the direction you are heading.

It helps to see how other companies have done this well. Take a look at the home page of for an example of putting it all together. In less than 30 seconds you can see context points that help explain what Box means by Simple, Secure, Sharing:

  1. Giant documents that serve as visual cues that Box is about sharing work documents (Notice how they didn’t include music files or videos here)
  2. A giant padlock to imply strength and security
  3. Clouds to amplify the point that this is a cloud based offering that you can access from anywhere

Without setting the work context, it might take you a little longer to figure out Box is aimed at solving a business collaboration problem. Box also gets bonus points for supporting their message with customer logos, a how it works video, and other links to learn more.

Done right, providing context can help accelerate customer understanding and keep them around to learn more about your offering. Without context, you are assuming that they will get the point of the story on their own which can be a dangerous assumption when you only have seconds to impress.


2 thoughts on “Setting the Context of your Product

  1. One way to create a story is to create the story before the product. Talk to customers, tell the story. Note what questions they ask – were they interested? what did they not understand. After a few iterations your product story will be clearer and help you prioritize and build a cleaner product.

    If on the other hand your’re starting with the product and showing it to customers. You can still get customers to improve your story. Ask them how they would explain it to a friend/colleague.

    1. That good advice Giles. Thanks for adding. I think the key here being that you need to understand how your customer sees things vs. projecting your beliefs onto the story. 

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