Marketing writing: what’s in it for you?

As you know, the key objective of the vast majority of marketing missions is to bring about some kind of change.

This can be active, like a change in behavior (buying office stationery products from your store rather than your competitors’, using your software products/training programs/coaching services instead of someone else’s, adopting your proposals for a new marketing strategy, etc.) or it can be passive – a change in perception (looking more favorably at a large employer within a community, promoting a celebrity or expert via the media).

99% of the time, to get anyone to change their way of thinking or behaving requires some kind of incentive. Very few people will change anything about themselves without a good reason for doing it, and that reason has be good for them – no-one else. This means that if you are going to persuade anyone to change their views or their actions as a result of absorbing your message, it has to offer some sort of implied or actual reward.

Do yourself a favor. Take a felt-tip pen and a piece of white paper, and write this down:

What’s in it for them?

Now pin the piece of paper up on the wall of your office or workspace. That’s your motto whenever you compose anything that forms part of any marketing mission you undertake.

Another point which runs on from here is that there is absolutely nothing new about this notion.

The evergreen stalwart of “what’s in it for them” – a derivative of the equally old “features and benefits” story – has nothing whatsoever to do with the latest Business School philosophies and everything to do, simply, with human nature.

People do not move out of their comfort zones unless there is something in it for them. And why should they? Very few animals embrace change because change usually means facing the unknown, of which most creatures are scared. So change with no obvious compensation suggests insecurity, threats to the status quo, upsets within the hierarchy, disunity within the herd, vulnerability to predators.

Business gurus try to persuade us that corporate change is good, and in most cases, of course, they’re right. Without change we’d still be living in caves and growing turnips for a living.

Change is scary and outside people’s comfort zones

However ordinary folks are sceptical of change and for good reason. In a corporate context, far too often in recent years the word “change” has been used as a smelly smokescreen that really means job cuts. “Change” in a marketing context often has been used as an equally smelly smokescreen permitting manufacturers to sneak in price rises. “Change” and its stable mate “progress” have been used repeatedly to shame us all into regularly buying new bits of technology whether we need them or not.

Yes, yes, I know that’s what keeps the wheels of commerce turning. But we need to work with the tide of human nature, not against it, if we’re going to achieve the objectives of our marketing missions.

Okay, as business people ourselves we all work to earn money and we understand that our role often does mean engaging in marketing missions that help organizations to downsize, raise prices in line with inflation, create demand that sells more product, etc. etc. But no matter how good we are at our jobs we’re never going to re-engineer human nature.

That’s why I believe that for any marketing mission to succeed it has to supply what human nature needs – something worthwhile in it for the recipient, no matter how subtle, to create the impulsion and motivation needed to overcome people’s innate resistance to change.

Features smell – benefits sell

For the sake of your marketing mission’s success, we need to take a good, long look at the old “features and benefits” story. Sales trainers have been attempting to drill this into the brains of sales men and women for decades. It’s what advertising copywriters learn, or should learn, before they attempt to write their first classified ad in a local newspaper.

Features smell, benefits sell. That’s another sentence you won’t read in the lecture notes from any self-respecting business school. But I like the way it both rhymes and expresses an important point.

For anyone who still doesn’t know the difference between the two, here goes: features are what something is, benefits are what it does for you.

Now if you apply that to your marketing mission – say an advertising project like a mail order or online shopping ad for a garden chair – it’s very easy to pick out which is which…

Features                                                                                                                                                             Benefits               

AL-alloy metal frame                                                                                You can relax in comfort – knowing

with HK-147 PVC compound,                                                                   its sturdy frame and durable seat

polyurethane seat and                                                                            back are not only comfortable, but

back rest                                                                                                                 they’ll also last for many years


Fade-proof coating                                                                                  Looks good for years to come even

withstands sun and heat up                                                                    in strong sun and sizzling summer

to 35°C constant for 72 hours                                                           temperatures, thanks to fade-proof,

Factory tested for efficacy                                                                                              factory-tested coating


Delivered in flat pack with                                                                    Arrives in convenient pack ready to

full assembly instructions                                                                   store for the winter… then assemble

Pack suitable for long-term                                                                                in minutes, ready for spring!

storage prior to assembly


Easy. Just remember, no-one is going to care how wonderful your product’s or service’s features are until they know its benefits … what’s in it for them.

Some serious help that’s in it for you:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English




  1. Great post Suze! Someone who calls themselves an expert on Google asked me to review their book a while back. In the core it was quite good (for free), but totally missed the concept let alone the application of Features and Benefits. Doing so changed my conversion ratio from their target 5% to 35%

    • Thanks for that Ian. It’s amazing how many people still don’t get the difference between features and benefits – and that’s so crucial to the success of any marketing message.


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    Marketing writing: what’s in it for you?…

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