I have a confession to make: I actually like to watch infomercials. I don’t usually watch them for long before the rest of the family protests. Very few infomercial gadgets have made their way into our home. However, in their own (often cheesy) way, many infomercials manage to do something that big companies struggle with: they clearly communicate their value proposition and they tell a story on the consumer’s terms.
This became clear to me recently, as I sat through a panel discussion that seemed far longer than the actual forty-five minutes. While the issues being debated in industry and academia can’t (and probably shouldn’t) be broken down into an infomercial format, they can still provide a valuable checklist as we are communicating our strategies. In addition to sharing the insights behind an innovation, more time should be spent answering these basic questions:
1. What is the problem you are addressing?
Be clear about the problem you are solving. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small one, but it must be relatable (we all have can openers, and those have only one use). More importantly, what is the impact of solving that problem?
A lot of presentations have noble intentions and impressive teams behind them. However, the story on the scope of the problem is often so big that even good solutions can seem inadequate. People don’t believe that everything that they buy can or should change the world. But they do need to see that it can do what it promises and how their lives will be better as a result.
2. What are the use cases?
How and where would somebody actually use this? Does it have relevance for a large variety of people? People of different ages? How long will is take them to learn how to use it? How long before the benefits are realized? Does it look like using it will be fun?
Answers to these questions often get lost in business plan presentations, or the scenarios are too complicated. Spelling out (or better yet, visualizing) the use cases in detail is a great way to spot deficiencies in the product or service early on. The difference between people thinking something is a good idea versus actually wanting to try or buy it is the difference between a business failure or a business success. We all have items languishing in the garage because they were too complicated or time-consuming to get used to. (Apple is the obvious high-end exception).
When a design is made usable and intuitive, the addressable audience may be wider than originally anticipated. The iPad fans in my family range in age from 1 to 65. I’m sure that’s also why there are so many households with more than one PedEgg… (The PedEgg is a device used to smooth dry skin on heels. It has sold an estimated 35 million units.)
3. How was this made?
What was the inspiration for this idea? What were the new technologies that were brought together to solve it? What are the materials and ideas that went into this? Great brands do more than rattle off features — they communicate how and why things were designed they way they are.
4. Why are all the alternatives inferior? or Why is this unique?
Infomercials often succeed because they are willing to take on problems that are under the radar of most large companies. They rely on observation of small everyday annoyances (e.g., a visible bra strap, a pasta pot that takes forever to boil) and amplify emerging trends. While these may not make it to most people’s list of pressing problems, they are immediately recognizable once we watch them. For better or worse, it’s tough to find a direct substitute for most infomercial products. That can’t be said for many other categories. In order to have this impact, the presentation must have a strong visual element.
5. How will I feel after I solve the problem?
Infomercials tell a great story. But the element that makes the story great is rarely the product itself. It’s the focus on the consumer and giving voice to the challenges they face.
Most infomercials begin with a question and by explicitly discussing the consumer pain point and the emotions surrounding it. Even if the problem is relatively minor, they create a sense of urgency around solving it. They don’t intimidate, they engage. The happy ending often focuses less on the product itself, but on how much better the consumer now feels about him or herself.
I happily presented this to my family, who agreed with all of my points. I even mentioned an article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek that the infomercial industry is expected to reach $174 billion by 2014. That doesn’t mean that I’ve had any luck watching infomercials before the remote is pried away from me. But that’s the beauty of the format: it doesn’t really matter. Those few minutes are all it takes for me (and everyone else) to remember the message. How many mission statements can say that?