Feature Article: Better Datasheets

by Richard Laurence Baron

Weary, weary, weary of spec sheets that look like the Interoperability and Performance Data Sheet shown on the Novell site? Your customers are.

I’ve been doing datasheets for more than 30 years. I can tell you there’s good ones and bad ones. I can tell you there’s a misapprehension that only words (spare and technical) will serve – isn’t that what engineers want? “Just the facts, Ma’am?”

No, no and no. Whether you call them product guides or spec sheets, datasheets or inserts, there’s an art and a science to transforming datasheets into more engaging, more beneficial instruments of marketing and sales.

1. ATTRACT THE VIEWER FIRST. Rule One, a picture’s worth quite a bit more than a thousand words. Even when the product’s a black box. Especially when the product’s a black box. (Tougher yet, it’s a service you’re trying to sell.) People use these products and services. People are attracted to other people like themselves, doing things, preferably in conjunction with the thing you’re selling. Why do you think People magazine’s so popular? This doesn’t mean four humans, gingerly portraying the right gender/race mix, around a conference table – or a computer monitor.

2. DON’T THINK ENGINEERS ARE WHAT THEY USED TO BE. If there’s one idea that’s stuck in everyone’s head, it’s the image of the geek-engineer with the heavy-framed spectacles. That’s two generations out of date. Today’s smart, savvy engineers are heavily engaged in a wide variety of lifestyle activities…they’re involved in life. So yes, make sure the product specs are available. More important, datasheets aren’t just for engineers any more. Your salespeople may put them into the hands of purchasing professionals, company owners, CFOs, CEOs…even the folks on the loading dock. They’re going to have a voice in the decision-making process, so be sure to build in options that are relevant to the many rather than the few. And for heaven’s sake, post them to your website.

3. SELL THE SIZZLE. Well, duh. What’s really in it for me? Why do I want to spec it, buy it, use it, recommend it to my design engineers, production team, jobbers, distributors, customers? Will it make my hair grow back (too late for me, I fear)? Will it save me [a] money, [b] time or [c] stress? Will it benefit the lives of its users? Which leads to…

4. BAF, NOT FAB. Put the benefits first, then the advantages and finally the product/service features which deliver the goods. Bad example: “The ARM9 processor family is built around the ARM9TDMI processor and incorporates the 16-bit Thumb instruction set, which improves code density by as much as 35%.” Good example: “Get more capability in a smaller footprint: 35% higher code density comes standard in the ARM9, thanks to its advanced architecture and compact, faster-acting 16-bit Thumb instruction set.”

5. TELL ‘EM – THEN TELL ‘EM WHAT YOU TOLD ‘EM. Every user will NOT review every single word of your datasheet. So each new Hypercom datasheet offers sections where customers and prospects can browse. Some sections have copy, some have photos with captions, some have bullet-pointed BAFs. Wherever they look randomly, they’re going to see/read/absorb benefits – yet there’s a consistent organizational flow that helps connect to the engineering mind-set.

Above all, sell. Datasheets are valuable sales and branding opportunities. It’s real estate that should not be confined to lists of specifications, because telling isn’t selling. (And if necessary, educate your sales force on the new datasheet format you create. I once produced an entire 3-foot x 4-foot wall poster for Exxon Technical Marketing Services, on which we showed both sides of a new datasheet with callouts explaining the sales benefits of each section.)

There are more ways to design datasheets than any one person can assemble in a lifetime. Some work really well. If you don’t follow my line of thinking, you want to make other choices or you’re not certain, take three or four different datasheet formats on the road. Ask your customers…they’ll be quick to let you know what’s attractive as well as informative.

Now go. Talk with your own engineers. Together, you can work out how to turn their datasheets into powerful marketing tools.

About the Author

Richard Laurence Baron is an “ad guy,” a marcomm award-winner specializing in complex, business-to-business products and services. Richard creates and writes programs for clients worldwide – from energy to healthcare to weapon systems. Visit Richards blog at http://signalwriter.blogspot.com.