The pitfalls of categorization, and how to avoid them

The other day, I was sitting with one of my clients as they got feedback on their pitch from a VC. I’d warned my clients to be careful that they avoid trying to ‘frame’ their company through any other lens - any attempt to do so would lead to a categorization in the VC’s mind. So although this was something that I had anticipated, I was shocked as to the degree to which this occurred. On the VC’s part, there was a desperate attempt to take something nebulous into a paradigm that he already understood. It was so bad that when my client showed an image of kittens, the VC commented, “Ohhh, so it’s like LOLcats.” Of course, besides the kittens, there was nothing similar to LOLcats at all.

So what’s with that? I think, there’s a basic fear of things that we don’t understand. When we don’t understand something, we’re put into this situation where we’re like someone floating in the waves - constantly grappling for the first bit of sense we can make of where we are. Often times, this makes sense: when we don’t understand something, in order to begin understanding it, we’ve got to start building some sort of mental understanding of it. It’s only once we start to place the idea onto some sort of conceptual map that we can start adjusting and refining our understanding of it. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, until you refuse to go through that process of adjusting and refining your understanding. When I didn’t see the VC building on an idea, or trying to link his categorizations together, that was a problem for my client. The problem is, my client, who had noticed an interesting customer need that had not yet been filled or adapted to by existing companies, had failed to use this categorization to lead the VC into a deeper understanding of the company and the kind of service it could provide to users.

The biggest problem with that, then, is when your company or idea is allowed to fall into a category, it all of a sudden becomes a “me-too” company. And this is not just a problem when pitching to VCs. This is a problem when pitching to customers and users too. If they’ve gotten a mental model that suggests your company does the same thing as another, all of a sudden, they’ve missed the point about the benefit you’re offering.

So, what can you do to avoid this? The most important thing to do is to force someone to think deeply about your product or service. They need to imagine what using it would look like. Categories are a useful way to start, but once you’ve placed yourself in a category, you’ve got to shift yourself pretty hard to the side of that category. I think a very useful trick, actually, is to use metaphors. Refer to specific phenomena and experiences to get your audience into the mindset. Once they’ve got this imagery established in their mind, begin to morph it into a more complete picture either by using multiple metaphors or qualifying those metaphors. This is a very popular way to go about it in the social web. Take this example from Washpost’s recent article on the Facebook-Friendsfeed acquisition:

Instead, I think this is about social aggregation. Facebook bought FriendFeed so it could become the Huffington Post of your social life. Right now the majority of your news feed is filled with updates that your friends have (for the most part) made within Facebook. Status updates, engagements, zombie bites — it all shows up in your news feed. But those are all internal to Facebook; everybody spends plenty of time outside Facebook, as well. And in order for you to track your friends’ activities you either have to subscribe to all of their different feeds or hope that they tell you when they add content to one of their other profiles. That’s a hassle. What you need is an aggregator — a place to come that gives you a news feed not just of what’s happening inside your walled garden, but also what’s going on elsewhere, too. A Facebook/FriendFeed mash-up — FaceFeed, we (and many others) will call it — would be exactly that. To understand the allure of this kind of aggregator, one only has to look to successful news aggregators. Take the devilishly popular Huffington Post, for example. For better or worse, the site’s mash-up of news from disparate sources has struck a cord among its 7 million monthly visitors. Its home page is a mix of links to blog posts from Huffington Post contributors and links to outside stories from the news media. Rather than hunt and peck through all these other sites, people go to the Huffington Post to be delivered a smattering of links. Aggregators work because they do all the hard work for you.

Indeed, even Steve Jobs uses this technique. When he introduced the iPhone for the first time, he presented it with the following image:

“Well today, we’re introducing THREE revolutionary new products. The first one is a widescreen ipod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary new mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough internet communications device.” (via)

The power here, of course, was repainting mental pictures before introducing the concept. Viewers weren’t thinking of a phone with an iPod functionality and an internet browser peppered in, they were imagining each of these separate devices in all their use contexts.

The most useful thing you can do, however, is to tell a compelling story about your product. In order to do that, you’ve got to have moved yourself out of this category thinking, and thought deeply yourself about your product and the interactions your users might have with it. The more well-thought out this is, the more convincing and enticing your story is. This avoids the pitfalls of categories by forcing your listener straight into the imagining stage of the process as they play through the story in their head.