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Marketing writing: why features smell and benefits sell

Time and time again I look through all my posts here on HTWB and see references to the old “features and benefits” issue in marketing and commercial business writing. But still, people ask me what I mean, how it works, why it matters, etc.

A long time ago in one of my earlier books, articles, blog posts et al about marketing writing (and in subsequent ones) I came up with this rather clumsy phrase which despite it containing a rhyme – surprisingly – many people have taken up with a smile and much gusto:

FEATURES SMELL. BENEFITS SELL

Why is this so relevant when it comes to writing for marketing or even other, less sales-focused business writing?

Because it’s true (OK, metaphorically.)

In many ways I feel guilty even posting about this topic on here when the “features versus benefits” issue has been wallowing around in marketing and advertising circles for not only years, not only decades, not only generations, but probably not short of centuries now, too.

But still, there are some people who don’t understand the difference. And many of these are people who are trying to market products and services into an increasingly complex and, indeed, overworked marketplace in which folks are so bloody tired of hearing about features, they just want to scream. Why?

FEATURES ARE WHAT A PRODUCT OR SERVICE IS.

BENEFITS ARE WHAT IT DOES FOR YOU, THE PURCHASER.

BENEFITS SELL IT. FEATURES ON THEIR OWN DO NOT.

Easy. Yet why are so many marketing exercises blighted by the features virus, when it ain’t so hard to turn a feature into a benefit which actually does stand a cat’s chance in hell of selling your product or service fairly and squarely?

Here’s how to do it

I’ll go back to a pretty basic example, once again extracted from one of my earlier books (I don’t do complicated, OK?) Here we’re talking about a garden chair:

Feature: AL-alloy metal frame with HK-147 PVC compound, polyurethane seat and back rest

Benefit: You can relax in comfort knowing that its sturdy frame and durable seat back are not only comfortable, but also that they’ll last for many years

Feature: Fade-proof coating withstands sun and heat up to 35°C constant for 72 hours. Factory tested for efficacy

Benefit: Looks good for years to come even in strong sun and sizzling summer temperatures, thanks to fade-proof, factory-tested coating

Feature: Delivered in flat pack with full assembly instructions. Pack suitable for long-term storage prior to assembly.

Benefit: Arrives in convenient pack for you to store for the winter… then assemble in minutes, ready for spring!

But what if features are objectives, not nuts and bolts?

No problem. You simply apply the same criteria to the objectives as if they were nuts and bolts: what’s in it for the recipient? Some examples…

If you want to inform people (feature), their benefit is that they increase their own knowledge resource.

If you want to train people (feature), their benefit is that is improves their skills and abilities to do their jobs better and gain skills which will be useful for them in their future.

If you need to rebuke people (feature), their benefit is to understand that no-one’s perfect but you can learn to overcome a problem and so be better at your job.

If you want to entertain people (feature), their benefit is to feel appreciated and valued.

If you want to energize/motivate people (feature), their benefit is to see why it’s worth their while to go the extra mile and be recognized for it.

And how does this fit in with current 21st century “marketing think?”

Answer: it fits right in there so tight it can’t even squeak. Just as it always has where marketing and – let’s face – a great deal more in the way of business communication is concerned. No matter how much old advertising and branding strategies have been dissolved by the here, now, up-your-nose (and very welcome) nature of online marketing in particular, the old features versus benefits issue hasn’t changed one tiny jot.

So if you need to write for marketing or even more general purposes, remember my clumsy little mnemonic

FEATURES SMELL. BENEFITS SELL.

Make sure your marketing writing sells, not smells:

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