Message Clarity (e.g., don't use 78 pages when one will do)

The other day I received a 78-page pamphlet in the mail from my health insurance company. I was sure it related to the benefit product we selected for 2010 so I thought, “Great, more to read to understand my coverage.” But it was a little late, considering I had already selected the health plan. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll skim it just to become familiar.” On the first page there was a letter signed by both the President/CEO and the Secretary of the company. Nice touch. But the letter stated that the pamphlet was a ‘Certificate,’ and halfway through the letter there were two sentences that caught my eye: “We suggest that you read this entire Certificate very carefully. We hope that any questions that you might have about your coverage will be answered here.”  

Hmm….Usually when I think of certificates, I think of a birth certificate, which includes the facts related to the baby. Like the mom and dad’s name and age, the birth date and other relevant facts.  It’s about a page long and very easy to read and understand. Someone who can confirm the accuracy of the information generally signs the birth certificate.

However, a Certificate that is 78 pages long seems a bit overwhelming – even though the initial pages of the document provided a ‘cheat sheet’ of my benefits. The cheat sheet was actually a pretty nice overview, but the document proceeded to offer exceedingly long paragraphs with bullets, sub-bullets and sub-sub-bullets, so I put it down.

Clarity. When you want someone to understand what they have just purchased or received, surely there is a way to sum it up in less than 78 pages. After all, they’ve already purchased the product. The sell is over. You should focus on the factual elements of the purchase. Something that will remind the user of what he bought so he might even be able to tell a few people about it, enabling you to sell more. Take colleges and universities, for example. When you graduate they give you one little sheet of paper to prove it. Now that’s a certificate. They don’t send you a summary of all your teachers and classes and dorms you stayed in, or a manual about how to use the education you’ve just received. And just think, you’ve spent 4+ years and thousands of dollars to get that sheet of paper. But what do you do after you get your college certificate? You post the school name everywhere, buy t-shirts and sweat pants with the school’s name on them. You continue to spend money promoting them long after you receive your certificate.

I think the Certificate I received from my health insurance company can at best be defined as confusing. Perhaps they should spend more time studying the way colleges and universities write certificates. They seem to have it figured out.


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