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What is a data sheet?

One thing which we’ve never really discussed in all the years I’ve been doing this blog is the product data sheet. I know that some companies don’t consider the data sheet to be marketing collateral, placing it firmly within the remit of engineering and technical support; other companies, particularly specialist distributors, just put their stamp on something provided by their principals. But in my experience, for a large number of marketing managers, producing product data sheets is a major responsibility.

I also know that the data sheet is something which gets a lot of marketing managers quite animated, especially those who’ve moved over from engineering. So before tackling the subject, I emailed a completely random selection of readers and asked for their thoughts on what should go in a data sheet and how it should be presented. Fortunately, I didn’t email too many readers, because the response rate was amazing – when I copied all the responses into a single document, it stretched to nearly 10,000 words. So thank you for that – you all know who you are.

The series of articles which I’m going to put together on product data sheets will probably stretch to five or six parts, so I think I’ll run one each week. First of all, however, we need to ask: “What is a data sheet?”

That wasn’t a question I’d ever really thought about. To me (as a former engineer on the receiving end, as well as someone who’s written them in a marketing department), a data sheet is a 2- or 4-sided document with a photo of a product, a bullet-point description of features, performance tables, dimensioned illustrations and ordering details.

Some of you will already be thinking: “No no, that’s not what we consider to be a data sheet at all.” At some companies, it seems that the sales brochure and product data sheet are the same document. At others, the data sheet is an annotated engineering drawing. So we probably need some context. Things may be different in your industry, but I’m going to place the data sheet as a unique item in a defined hierarchy of corporate literature, which will be as follows:

1. Corporate capability brochure
2. Catalogues or wider product range brochures
3. Product group brochures
4. Product data sheets

I would expect there to be an increasing number of items as you go down the list. Or at some companies, there might be a brochure and a data sheet for each product, so the last two would have the same number of items. It’s fairly clear, however, that there’s a divide between those companies which consider the data sheet to be aimed at end-users who’ve probably decided to buy the product already, and those which see the data sheet as being a key sales document. I understand the former approach, which will only be listing features for users rather than benefits for buyers, but I’ll probably go with the latter in these articles. That’s because, as one reader said, “you need to assume the data sheet might be the only piece of literature a potential buyer sees, and if it doesn’t re-iterate the USPs, you’ve missed an opportunity”. That’s a good point, and doubly important in this internet age, where a Google search can easily result in a buyer finding your data sheet and completely missing out on the availability of a sales brochure. So my traditional view of a data sheet being light on promoting a product’s benefits is going to get a little revision.

Next: Data Sheets – what are they for?

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