Before you launch your company or present your next new product to a customer, try this intellectual exercise first:

You’re a time traveller, but instead of journeying back to some prehistoric age, you’re just going to revisit the relatively recent past of about 10-15 years ago. You have a chance to meet someone and give them a sneak preview of what the future holds. Try to explain to them:


  • How a smartphone is different from the flip phones they’ve been carrying until now.
  • What an app is, and why you need to go to an “app store” to get one.
  • The steps involved in creating a social media “Story” on Instagram or Facebook.


Don’t worry if this proves a little more difficult than it might initially seem. Innovators have often struggled to clearly get across some of their breakthrough ideas, even though doing so is key to getting new products adopted and valued by their target market. Depending on how a particular tool is used, there can be a considerable learning curve involved, or more context necessary to help understand what it will mean in terms of the impact on their daily personal or professional lives.

When customers don’t understand a product, they get confused. And confusion is a bad look on any customer -- whether you can actually see their faces or not.

In fact, chances are that many customers first learn about new products through digital channels like a website or email message rather than having a personal walk-through by an inventor. That’s just the nature of our online-oriented world, but it means the techniques for teaching a market about a new offering have to be even more sophisticated.

There are a wide variety of ways to educate customers about a product they don’t understand. The only real limits are your creativity and your ability to get the message across in a way that engages them. Here are a few possibilities that may help get the process going:

The ‘explain it to me like I’m eight’ approach

Companies obviously want to show their customers they respect them, but talking about a disruptive new product may mean taking things down to a more basic level -- almost that of a young child.

This may seem like overdoing it, but this is not an area where less is more. It’s about educating customers by being as comprehensive as you would be with a child, while also making them feel smarter about how they’ll get the most out of the product.

The ‘choose your own adventure” approach

Book publishers have occasionally experimented with novels in which readers could pick from three different ways to end the story. Those options get the audience more engaged with the content, because they can make choices that appeal to them on a personal level. The same can apply in educating customers about a product, but in this case you’re not giving alternate endings but alternate ways to learn.

A company might come out with a brochure that walks through a new product, for instance, which may work for some customers. Others will need a video tutorial, or an infographic if they are more visual learners. Some might find it beneficial to have an audio walk-through about the product and the problems it solves through a podcast episode.

Still other customers might use several different media as part of the learning process, particularly if they’re responsible for helping their coworkers or boss get up to speed.

The ‘magic of metaphors’ approach

When Salesforce helped pioneer software-as-a-service, we joined many other companies in discussing a model of computing that was described through a powerful metaphor: a cloud. People outside of IT might not understand how software applications run in data centres, for instance, but almost anyone could get their heads around the idea of software and infrastructure running outside of a company and online in a virtual “cloud” alongside other customers.

Metaphors are some of the oldest and most powerful storytelling tools we have, and they simply require you to think about what your product does that might resemble something else -- maybe an animal, a natural element or something that’s old fashioned but familiar. We still use the metaphor of a paper file folder on our desktops, for instance, even though many documents are fully digitized and might never be printed. Find the one that works best for your product and keep it consistent throughout your messaging in marketing, sales and even service contexts.


How could people regularly rent out their home or even just rooms within their home like a hotel? Why would you call for a car with your smartphone and give drivers an automatic tip? These seem like redundant questions today, but they were the kind of issues firms like AirBNB and Uber had to teach the market in their early days.

Similarly, innovation in any field often demands an intelligent, gentle and ongoing effort to turn new ideas into something anyone can understand. And hopefully, at some point, the innovation becomes so well-understood -- and so valued -- that customers can teach their coworkers, friends and family too.