Sitcoms and the Secret to Building “Good Enough” B2B Products

BY SIDHARTH SREEKUMAR ON DECEMBER 14, 2017

I was recently on a long haul flight and ended up whiling away my time watching random shows on the in-flight system. One of the shows I watched was a sitcom. I didn’t find it great (in fact I don’t remember chuckling at even one single joke) but I still ended up watching a bunch of episodes in a row. However, once I got off the plane neither could I remember what it was about and nor did I have the inclination to watch more. It was something that was perfect for the state of mind I was in the flight – tired and looking for something to while away the time.

However, as a product manager and a writer, this got me thinking about what went into making these shows. Was the formulaic writing and bland comedy a result of bad writing or was the program, more interestingly, a measured approach to a specific market? And as I started to read up on sitcom writing I realized there’s a lot that B2B product managers could learn from them.

Identify the Metrics That Matter

If you take a look at the critical ratings of some of these sitcoms, it does not make for an impressive reading. For example, Metacritic, the ratings website that hands out scores out of 100 based on weighted critic review scores, scores famous shows such as The Big Bang Theory and 2 Broke Girls at merely 57 and 66 respectively. Given that we are supposedly in the Golden Age of Television, you might assume shows with mediocre reviews might struggle, let alone have a healthy run of six seasons!

That’s because the metric that mattered in this case was simple – viewers. With anywhere between 7 to 20 million viewers tuning in to watch per episode, these are massively popular shows even though many critics disagreed with the idea. The show runners knew what was working and the exact audience it was working for, and stuck to it.

Similarly, when it comes to B2B products it’s important to identify the right metrics to measure. Product managers often stress over the wrong numbers as they try to make the perfect product for the wrong market. It is important to understand the correct metrics: whether the ones you should focus on are direct metrics such time spent on platform and engagement rates, or tangential ones such as sales funnel run-through rates and offline customer retention rates. Trying to make all the metrics tick over is likely a fool’s errand.

Build for Your Customers, not Yourself

Television industry analyst Brad Adgate was quoted by the New York Post talking about the target audience for shows like New Girl, 2 Broke Girls and Pan Am: “More and more women are in the workforce and are climbing the corporate ladder. Women want to come home after work, relax and be entertained and watch shows about themselves.” However, a cursory look at these shows writing and creator credits shows a mix of male and female writers, which means not everybody involved in running the show can directly relate to the target audience.

Similarly, building B2C products, unlike building B2B products which you could probably imagine yourself also using, is a process of meticulous user research and understanding market dynamics. Often it is about building something that you would probably never have to use yourself.

For example, I recently visited an industry trade show for the automotive industry where some new software providers were showcasing new products. While there were many decent offerings, the thing that stood out for me were products at two different extremes. One was a product built by industry veterans: it dug into the finest details of operations but was clearly designed to be operated by people with only the level of expertise that its creators had. Its interface was complex and intimidating. The other end of the spectrum was a new player based in Silicon Valley who had built the entire next-generation product in a silo without taking too much input from industry experts. The output was something that looked fantastic but failed to appeal to a crowd used to working on Excel spreadsheets.

And this brings me to my final point…

Be Predictable, Surprise Only in Pieces

Writing sitcoms is a set process. It is structured, formulaic and aimed to please. Often there is little character growth as that would mean eventually changing the nature of the show. Instead the focus is on telling different stories with the same structure with the occasional surprise guest thrown in. As a viewer you get lulled into a sense of ease of knowing that nothing is really going to change but you can appreciate the Wow features occasionally thrown in. The slapstick plots filled with misunderstandings and contrivances will eventually sort themselves out, and you can go along with your day without worrying about cliffhangers and plot twists changing the overall story.

And just like the audience for sitcoms enjoy the predictability and formulaic approach of the shows, so to do most businesses prefer products that feel familiar. This is because B2B markets are rife with ingrained practices, operational inertia, and in the current economic climate, limited availability of internal resources to adapt to new systems. For example, at the trade show I mentioned earlier, the booths that attracted the most crowds were ones that had built technology platforms to facilitate incremental change without asking their target users to change their daily habits.

For many businesses adopting a new product is not about a massive shift, but just a way of improving business as usual. Trying to reinvent the wheel just puts many of them off – it’s too much of a gamble unless the issue you are solving is their number one priority.

Conclusion

Of course none of this is to say that there isn’t great innovation happening in the B2B space and that there aren’t products out there that are single-handedly changing the game. But, at the same time, there is an abundance of “good enough” B2B products out there that are aimed at just keeping things ticking over. For these products, making incremental improvements without really rocking the boat is the plan of action. But even that requires a lot of thought in terms of design and positioning to seamlessly fit into existing operations, and avoid completely missing the target and becoming a burden for customers. After all, for every The Wire that goes on to win Emmys and redefine genre conventions, there are many shows that are needed to fill in the rest of the daytime schedule and keep the calendar ticking over.

About SIDHARTH SREEKUMAR

Sidharth Sreekumar is a relative noob at the whole product management thingamejig, having spent over half a decade before that working as a supply chain and procurement consultant. However, within this time he's worked on building multiple products from the ground up, including an industry-first business news delivery app, a cloud-based analytics platform for the fleet industry, and a spend variance tracking platform. He's also highly interested in solving the fake news problem and his views on the challenges have been published in national news sites.

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