Simple analogies as taglines are dangerous: do better

“It’s like YouTube for ___”

For a non-investor, I end up hearing a lot of pitches.  I even make pitches of my own (not for companies, but for product ideas — same basic idea).  Around Mozilla, we tend to say that things are “like the web” or “very Mozilla”.  Those are equally fuzzy analogies, which assume a shared conceptual map — a dangerous assumption. What if your audience thinks of the web as a scary, confusing, complicated place? or have a Mozilla concept that is anchored by a dinosaur?

In the startup world, a quick glance at Angel List shows how prevalent that phrase is among budding entrepreneurs.  It’s clearly both trendy and attractive to rely on other successes to explain your concept.  I’m here to warn you about what may be an attractive nuisance, but suggest a simple way to do it better.

Whenever you say something like “It’s like YouTube for _____”, or “like Pinterest but for ____,” you hope you’re concisely communicating a key part of your business or product idea but you could easily miss the mark, and not know it.  Analogies work to the extent that the analog is a concise description of a key concept, which you’re applying to a different market. The problem is that products, and especially successful products, are not that simple.  If I say “like YouTube”, my interlocutor will have a very different set of words pop into their minds depending on whether they’re an Italian judge, my kid, a devops, or a music industry executive.  The people you pitch to likely think differently than you do (after all, that’s likely why you want their attention, time, money, patches, whatever).  It’s therefore much too easy to confuse rather than elucidate.

My advice is to refrain from saying “like ____ for ___”, even though it feels nice to glow in the reflected glory from these successful precursors.

You can do better, and you should: there’s usually something in that appealing analogy which is the concept you’re trying to convey, so focus on that aspect of the inspiring product.  “It’s got the same instant gratification of Instagram, but with ___”.  “It’s as disruptive to an enterprise market as MySQL was, but targeting the  ___ market”.  By making the analogy precise, you bring your audience along where you want them, and you show that you understand one of the many reasons why these products were successful.

4 Comments

  1. “X is like Y” can help to overcome some conceptual hurdles.
    The problem is that “X is like Y” is often taken as “X is just a Y” when what is important are the differences; what distinguishes X from Y. Identity vs similarity.

    Like

    1. But my point is that the similarity you think you see there, may not be understood. Definitely agree that saying “we’re like X but unlike them, ____” is a valuable rhetorical device.

      Like

  2. “It’s like YouTube, but started several years later, beginning with zero users, and in a niche that YouTube would invade if we proved it to be profitable.”

    Did I get it right that time?

    Like

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