Think about your last few marketing campaigns. Look over some of the emails you sent to prospective customers, or the social media updates you made promoting your brand-new product or service. Read over some of the blog posts you published.
How much of this promotional content focused on what your product does?
When it comes to marketing, there are two primary approaches you can take. The first focuses on what your product or service is or does – including all the shiny bells and whistles you’ve worked so hard to develop. The other focuses on how your product or service will improve users’ lives.
Which of these approaches do you think is more effective?
In today’s post, we’ll be taking a look at features versus benefits. Although closely linked, these two concepts are completely different animals, and if you don’t consider user intent from the outset, even the most innovative, revolutionary products will fail to hit the mark.
We’ll be looking at real-world examples to highlight the often-subtle yet crucial differences between features and benefits, as well as several important considerations you should bear in mind before launching your next campaign. For the sake of ease, we’ll be focusing primarily on product-based marketing, rather than marketing a service-based business, although many of the concepts covered will apply equally to both.
So what’s the difference between features and benefits? To get started, let’s take a look at the definitions of what features and benefits actually are.
Simply, a feature is something that your product has or is. For SaaS companies, this is typically functionality offered by a software program that enables users to do something. Other examples of product features might include razors with five-blade heads, power drills with interchangeable bits, fridges that can make crushed ice etc. You get the idea.
Going back to software, a feature of WordStream Advisor, for example, is the 20-Minute PPC Work Week, an intelligent system of unique, personalized recommendations based on users’ account data that identifies areas of AdWords and Bing Ads accounts in which immediate improvements can be made.
WordStream Advisor’s 20-Minute PPC Work Week
Features often directly address common problems experienced by users in a company’s target market, in WordStream’s case, streamlining the paid search workflow for busy small-business owners.
Product features have to be planned, built, and executed. The 20-Minute PPC Work Week didn’t build itself, nor did WordStream’s engineering team create it accidentally – WordStream identified a common pain-point among its target market, and intentionally set out to implement a feature that addressed this problem.
So what about benefits?
Benefits are the outcomes or results that users will (hopefully) experience by using your product or service – the very reason why a prospective customer becomes an actual customer.
Image via WebEngage Monk
Although it might seem counterintuitive, consumers rarely want to buy things for the sake of buying them – they want to solve their problems.
To borrow from the example above, a feature of this particular umbrella might be its unbreakable spokes or wind-resistant construction – the benefit of which is staying dry even in strong winds that might break lesser umbrellas.
Admittedly, the waters can get a little muddy when it comes to aspirational or lifestyle-based products or services, as the “problems” that drive motivation to purchase such products are often less tangible (think “being perceived more favorably” by purchasing clothing or accessories by a certain designer, for example), but generally this concept holds water.
Image via Help Scout
Essentially, benefits can be thought of as the primary reason a customer would choose to buy whatever you’re selling.
TL;DR – a feature is what something is, and a benefit is what users can do or accomplish with it.
As with so much of marketing, the main reason why so many businesses confuse features and benefits comes back to intent.
Marketers often spend a great deal of time in the weeds examining common problems experienced by their target markets. As such, it’s easy for marketers to forget that, to the layperson, the benefits of using their product may not be immediately obvious.
Put another way, just because you know why your product will make your ideal customer’s life better doesn’t mean they do.
Another common misstep marketers make is equating the time and effort that went into developing a new feature with its importance to consumers. As harsh as it may sound, most people don’t care about you, your company, or how many late nights your engineering team pulled to ship a product – all they care about is themselves.
This is why entry-level salespeople are often told to remember the “five magic words” when cold-calling prospects: What’s in it for me? This question is never far from a customer’s mind, and it should inform almost every single aspect of your marketing strategies.
If you’re a marketer, the chances are pretty decent that you’ve come across the term “feature-benefit matrix.” Despite sounding suspiciously like one of those godawful buzzwords that so many marketers are seemingly obsessed with, feature-benefit matrices are actually really useful documents.
Feature-benefit matrices help marketers ensure their messaging is consistent, relevant, and accessible to end-users. These documents are often formatted as grids, with one column for features, several more for benefits, and additional columns for specific messaging data points or calls-to-action.
This can all sound horribly confusing and abstract if you’ve never seen one, so let’s take a look:
As you can see, there is space in the left-hand column for the various features of your product, in this example listed 1-5. Next, we see three columns (“Benefit A”, “Benefit B” and “Benefit C”), where you can then add three benefits of each feature. Finally, in the right-hand column, there’s room for your various calls-to-action.
Using this format of feature-benefit matrix can help you quickly and easily identify each of the unique benefits offered by your product’s features. This, in turn, can make overall message mapping a lot easier, and ensures that not only marketing but other teams such as product are on the same page in terms of what is being communicated to end-users.
There are plenty of other feature-benefit matrix formats, but the example above is a great place to start if you’ve never used one before.
So, with all that tiresome theory out of the way, let’s take a look at some examples of marketing messaging from both a feature and benefit perspective. First up, feature-driven marketing.
Ads for new cars are about as aspirational as it gets. With big-ticket items like new cars, it’s little wonder – after all, the benefits of owning a vehicle, such as reliable transportation, aren’t terribly sexy or persuasive, regardless of how important they are. This is why so many car ads and marketing campaigns are inherently feature-driven (pun most definitely intended).
This strategy can work well, if your product’s features are genuinely innovative or exciting. This also works if the benefits of these features are obvious, as they often are in commercials for new cars.
Take a look at the screenshot below, taken from the Infiniti website, which outlines the new motion-detection features of Infiniti’s newer models:
In the above image, you can see how Infiniti describes and illustrates its new camera technology and its applications when driving – but there’s no mention of how this benefits the driver. This is because the benefits of the feature are implied; being able to see the environment surrounding the car from multiple angles makes it significantly easier to parallel park and avoid obstacles, improving overall safety. The reader doesn’t need to be explicitly told how these features will benefit them.
Speaking of aspirational marketing…
When it comes to “lifestyle” marketing, few industries do it better than the consumer electronics vertical. Mobile devices live and die by their features, and the enormous popularity of “unboxing” videos on YouTube (a surprisingly large online subculture that began with toys before moving on to consumer electronics) tells us that feature-driven marketing can work wonders – if done well.
Few companies in the world understand this concept better than Apple, which has taken the art and science of feature-driven marketing to a whole new level during the past 10 years.
They may be slimmer, lighter, and generally “sexier” (if you’re comfortable applying this kind of label to a phone), but today’s iPhone 7 is largely identical to its much older predecessors. After all, a smartphone is a smartphone – there’s only so much they can do, and genuine differences between iterations are few. However, this is where the genius of Apple’s primarily feature-driven approach to marketing comes into play.
With each iteration of its flagship device, Apple has continually improved the core specifications of the iPhone to make them increasingly powerful without compromising on Apple’s unique design sensibilities. This makes the difference between a dual-core 1.4 GHz ARM v8 Typhoon processor (iPhone 6) and a 64-bit A10 Fusion chip with an embedded M10 motion coprocessor (iPhone 7) a very big deal to Apple aficionados.
Apple may state how much faster its device is in some of its marketing collateral, but generally speaking, it’s the features, and not the benefits, that matter in this business.
So, now that we’ve seen how product features can take center-stage in a marketing campaign, let’s look at some examples of benefit-driven marketing.
The Software-as-a-Service, or SaaS, industry has become enormous in recent years. As software companies have migrated away from one-time license purchasing models toward subscription-based agreements, many developers have also shifted toward benefit-driven marketing messaging.
Slack is an excellent example of this principle in action. The remarkably popular communications platform may offer a range of handy tools and features that streamline team-based communication, but the real selling point is the time-savings it offers.
Some pretty compelling data for people who hate emails and meetings…
Much of Slack’s messaging focuses on how the product can help increase productivity and transparency, a clearly defined benefit-driven approach. Yes, its features page outlines all the cool things Slack can do, but if you’re considering adopting a new communications platform, information like that in the graphs above are what you’re really looking for.
WordStream also uses this principle in its messaging. Yes, we’re proud of the functionality and features offered by our products, but we also know that prospective customers want to know how our software can help them, which is why this messaging features prominently throughout our site.
Many SaaS companies use benefits-driven messaging in their campaigns because, as with all service-based businesses, they know that people don’t patronize these kinds of businesses for its own sake, but because they want to solve specific problems. That’s why you’ll often see SaaS companies combining feature-driven information with benefits-driven messaging. This allows SaaS companies to simultaneously highlight the features of their products and explain how these features will make users’ lives better.
When it comes to benefits-driven marketing, few industries are more keenly aware of its importance than the financial services sector. Nobody opens an account with a bank because of its branding – they do so because of the benefits they will receive, whether it be cash-back rewards programs or lower APRs on their credit card balances.
Mobile payments company Square (a subsidiary of American Express, an important point we’ll come back to momentarily) exemplifies this principle excellently. Essentially, Square allows small businesses to accept credit card payments – it’s that simple. Of course, this service is positioned in such a way that focuses almost entirely on user-focused benefits, as we see throughout Square’s site:
This is another great example of combining product feature information with benefits-driven messaging. The copy featured throughout Square’s site uses a lot of strong, active verbs, combined with punchy, urgent messaging that emphasizes the product’s ease of use and the benefits it offers.
A moment ago, I mentioned that Square being a subsidiary organization of American Express is important. This is because, similarly to the implied benefits of the features highlighted in the automotive ad example above, trust signals can also be extraordinarily effective when positioned as implied benefits.
Think of it this way – would you rather entrust your business’ ability to process vital credit card payments to a scrappy startup staffed by a handful of computer science graduates subletting a basement office somewhere in the Valley, or to a company owned by one of the world’s largest financial institutions?
This principle is often utilized to great effect in the travel and hospitality industries. Name recognition is extremely important when purchasing big-ticket items such as a vacation package, and although brand-name association isn’t a specific customer benefit in itself, it does imply the tangential benefit of the experience and resources that large, well-known brands like airlines and credit card companies can offer that smaller companies often cannot. This is why accreditations from organizations such as the Better Business Bureau are so coveted (even if actual membership benefits vary widely).
By now, it should be clear that focusing on the benefits of your products or services can be significantly more effective than highlighting its features. But how does this translate when it comes to ad copy, the vital first step in securing new business for many advertisers?
Let’s take a look at two real ads to illustrate how focusing on benefits can be much more powerful than highlighting features.
Both of the following ads were served to me after entering the search query “bookkeeping software” into Google (using an Incognito browsing session to eliminate as much unique browsing identity information as possible). Here’s the first ad:
QuickBooks is definitely one of the best-known bookkeeping software solutions available on the market. However, there’s very little branding going on in this ad, missing an opportunity to leverage potential brand-name recognition.
The headline also needs work. Personally, I’m not looking to “compare product features” because this immediately suggests that there’s even more work to be done on my part to find a product that meets my needs.
The first line of ad text isn’t particularly compelling, either – I’d expect all bookkeeping software to “manage my business in one place”, at least in this context – nor is the copy urging me to “Get a 30-Day Trial” or “Sign Up Now!” The trust signal in the second line of copy isn’t especially persuasive, either.
Now let’s take a look at another ad:
Paychex is another major player in the bookkeeping software space, something that the headline reinforces by including the brand name in the copy, alongside its promises to help users “Accomplish More”. Also, the inclusion of the adjective “Effortless” in the headline is a very strong start.
However, it’s the actual ad copy itself we’re most interested in. Take a look – six of the eight points outlined in the ad copy are benefits-driven, emphasizing the ease of use that Paychex offers, the availability of its customer support, and the security of the product, among other benefits. In the interests of fairness, the trust signal beneath the main copy of this ad isn’t that persuasive, either, but that doesn’t matter as much in this example, as the ad has already focused on the benefits that could potentially entice prospects into clicking through.
It’s important to note that without actual conversion data, it’s impossible to know which of these two ads is most effective – the ad for QuickBooks may well convert like gangbusters. However, from a purely theoretical perspective, it’s difficult to deny that Paychex’s ad is significantly more compelling because it focuses primarily on the common problems that users are likely looking to solve and uses persuasive language to appeal to users’ desire to solve these problems.
If you’re not sure whether a feature- or benefits-driven approach is right for your campaigns, conduct statistically significant A/B tests and let your users tell you what they want – then act accordingly.
As we’ve seen, feature-based marketing can – and does – work well for certain businesses and product lines. However, for many small businesses, identifying and highlighting how their products and services can improve the lives of their customers is often a much more powerful strategy, from the very first ad of a campaign to the copy used on a website.
Regardless, if you remember the Five Magic Words – “What’s in it for me?” – it’s hard to go wrong with your messaging and positioning. As always, get at me in the comments with ideas or examples of campaigns that get this important distinction right.
Originally from the U.K., Dan Shewan is a journalist and web content specialist who now lives and writes in New England. Dan’s work has appeared in a wide range of publications in print and online, including The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Pacific Standard magazine, The Independent, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and many other outlets.
See other posts by Dan Shewan
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