People have little interest in purchasing a bed--what they want is a good night's sleep.
Some folks would sleep in a sandbox if it meant they'd wake up refreshed. That's what makes it a real problem in need of a solution.
Beyond selling products, companies must also sell what their product will allow customers to do.
If they don't, you know they're inexperienced. Take a look at this quote from investor Dina Routhier:
The most common thing that pegs an entrepreneur as an amateur is when they come in and immediately start talking about their amazing new technology, and forget to start the discussion with, "What big problem in the market am I trying to solve?" If they don't start with the problem, then I know they are green.
Let's look at some examples of how benefits help sell products.
"Lose 30 Pounds in 60 Days!"
As an armchair observer, it's all too easy to scoff at over-the-top late night infomercials.
And yet, these ads are making sales, often far more than that super neat-o new web app everybody talks about but nobody wants to pay for.
In fact, the infomercial industry is still growing. It's even gone on to eclipse the TV industry itself:
Collectively, the U.S. market for infomercial products stood at $170 billion in 2009 and could exceed $250 billion by 2015. In fact, with the worth of the entire U.S. network and cable industry estimated at $97 billion as of 2013, direct response television is much bigger than TV itself.
If there is anything that infomercials are good at, it's selling benefits.
They understand that people can be coaxed, not driven. Claude C. Hopkins once said, "Prevention is not a popular subject, however much it should be." It is far easier to sell around existing desires than it is to create desire.
Infomercials might all sound the same, but they work because they sell solutions that are perpetually in demand. It's similar to how the most successful startups take a problem that already exists / has always existed, and make their solution easier, faster, cheaper, or more accessible.
There's also the effective use of selling an outcome. "30 pounds in 60 days" is appealing because you know what you're getting. Magic diet pills use this dishonestly, but with legitimate workout programs the language is the same.
Nobody actually wants to buy a workout program, they want abs and better conditioning in a concrete time-frame.
What's In It For Me?
Apple understood these same principles when they released the first iPod. MP3 players were nothing new, and the technology trounced CDs. The problem was marketing; the right pitch hadn't really been made to explain just how much better customers' lives were going to be once they owned an iPod.
How do you think Apple decided to frame the magic of the iPod? Around its technical prowess, or what customers could do with it?
You guessed it. The message was persuasive because, in the words of Seth Godin, it was all about: "Me, me, me. My favorite person: me."
Gigs of data have nothing to do with me, but a pocket full of my favorite songs certainly does.
The irony is that those who most often admire Apple and Jobs--those in the startup community--tend to have the biggest problem with selling. Many a HackerNews thread is filled with vitriolic commentors who insist that he/she who lists the most compelling technical features wins.
This has become such a problem that Justin Jackson recently wrote a very popular article reminding software developers that they aren't "normal" in relation to their customers:
Increasing the technical challenge while creating a product does not increase the chance for more sales. This surprises us. We get an idea for a thing, think about the technology we'd use to build it, and get excited.
"I could build this on the Twilio API!" "I could learn that new CSS framework!" "I could use this new tool I just purchased!"
The problem is that all of this is focused on us, the creator, and not on the customer, the consumer.
There's a natural inclination for craftsman to want to talk about the craft.
But customers generally won't care about the cogs that make your product turn. What they want to know is, "What can I do with it?"
Your World Before Our Software
It all comes back to having a compelling proposition of value.
Or to put it in plain language, you need to give the before and after:
"This is your world before our product... and this is your world after."
One cannot have an impact without the other; like stepping in from the cold to a warm living room with a crackling fireplace, it's the contrast that makes the transfer so enjoyable.
Many confuse this, and it's why you'll see ill-informed comments like this crop up from time to time:
I'm one of those developers who thinks that marketing in general is 'scummy'... I'm willing to acknowledge that there can exist marketing that is not scummy but it's hard for me to think of real world examples... I love building things that people enjoy using but I hate sales and marketing.
Apparently, you're supposed to sit in your basement and build things without ever trying to sell them to the people who need them the most.
Take a look at the copy of a great company like Bidsketch:
It reads an awful lot like the benefit selling we've discussed throughout this article, but to my knowledge, you won't find founder Ruben Gamez on late night TV exclaiming, "But wait, there's more!"
The selling here is beneficial to me as a customer: I find out what you provide and what I can do with it without being forced to slog through details I don't need.
As an example of what not to do, I once came across a SaaS app (that wasn't made for developers) that stated in their sub-heading, "Proudly made with Ruby on Rails."
"What's Ruby on Rails, a level from Mario Kart?" Ninety-nine percent of customers won't know and simply won't care. It's like shoving the schematics in their face before they even have a chance to decide, "Is this what I need?"
Features Still Matter
Letting features "tell" still matters a great deal--once you've sold a prospect on what you can do for them, details ease decision-making.
Features can often connect the dots and put the benefits into a greater context. There are two important ways they do this:
Justification: Esurance uses comparative pricing to explain why their insurance is cheaper (through features). The savings are gained from their lean operation, which was "born online." Once the benefit is sold, features are used to explain how you'll make it happen. If a hosting company says your site is totally secure (hooray!), features show you how and why that claim is a guarantee. Sell the benefits first, then highlight the great features you offer to close.
Differentiation: Describing your point of difference means elaborating on your features. We often tell Help Scout customers about how most help desks outsource their email parsing. Ours is in-house, which allows us to do email integration and voicemail support that others can't do (only after the "help desk headache" issue is addressed does this feature become important).
Claude Hopkins has another useful tactic on how to correctly frame features and benefits:
There is one simple and right way to answer many advertising questions. Ask yourself, "Would this help a salesman sell the goods? Would it help me sell them if I met the buyer in person?"
Would you, making a sale in person, talk about the titanium frame or the nickel-cadmium alloy mix of your brake pads before addressing the benefits to a customer?
Remember that by not selling on benefits, you're running your customers around in circles.
Last but not least, be wary of selling "fake benefits," or completely hiding away your features, especially when appealing to a highly technical or business audience. Features matter, and are an essential complement to the solution selling that gets prospects interested in the first place.
Gregory Ciotti is on the customer success team at Help Scout, the invisible email support software. Through a beautiful dashboard, data-driven reports, and smart UI built for taking the headache out of email, Help Scout can help you transform your email support.