When to emphasise features rather than benefits

While it is true that “stress benefits rather than features” is one of the oldest (and most sacrosanct) rules for writing persuasive copy that sells product and services, there are several circumstances in which emphasising features may often work best.

I can think of at least five situations in which features should be as prominent as benefits in your sales copy or, indeed, should top the bill in your copy … for example, when selling: 

  • equipment
  • home and office systems
  • to experts
  • to engineers and scientists
  • to enthusiasts

How to sell equipment

Copy whose purpose is to sell equipment should stress both features and benefits in equal measure. Note also that copy that fails to highlight all the key features of a piece of equipment can cost you sales.

For example, if I buy a professional journal, let’s say Accountancy Today, I do so because I expect that I will benefit from the information I will find in it. I don’t really much care about anything else. All I want is information that would help me in my accountancy practice.

But if I want to buy a particular piece of equipment, such as a piece of office furniture, the sales copy, once it has mentioned the benefits, must list complete specifications so I can make an informed decision whether to buy.

For example, if the copy relates to furniture being sold on mail order, it should show complete dimensions … otherwise how could I know whether it will fit in my living room or whatever space I expect it to fill?

The takeaway: Benefits may generate an initial interest in a physical product … but your copy must also show how it works and what it can do. Leaving out a particular feature can mean that you fail to convert the initial interest into a sale.

How to sell home and office systems

Another time features expensive systems such as kitchens, heating systems, car maintenance kits, and so on.

For example, if a person were thinking of having a new oil-fired central heating system installed in his or her home they would be likely to concentrate on the technical features of the various systems available in their local market.

In this kind of situation, your copy would have to explain key technical features, such as installation costs, running costs, warranties and so on, to build consumer confidence in the performance of the product and the reliability of the manufacturer and the installer. These features and technical specifications would be the key ingredient of successful copy.

The takeaway: Detailed features are absolutely necessary to persuade potential buyers of home and office systems to buy your product.

How to sell to experts

The copy you write to address experts in a particular field is usually very different than the usual business-to-consumer writing.

Suppose, for example, you are writing copy to sell home insulation products.

If you sales copy is directed at home owners, you should highlight benefits such as reductions in fuel bills, how your house will be made warmer with fewer draughts, the effects of insulating the attic floor rather than the roof and so on.

But if your copy is directed at building contractors and installers of insulation systems you would ignore all these benefits. Contractors are already fully aware of them.

They are only interested in whether your products are what they need to do a good job and turn a decent profit … features like types of materials, installation techniques, prices and volume discounts, and so on, ie the knowledge they need to make an informed decision about your insulation products.

The takeaway: Treat experts as experts and just give them the information they need to make informed decisions about your products or services.

How to sell to engineers and scientists

Writing copy for engineers and scientists is similar to writing for experts.

Engineers and scientists do not respond to benefit-oriented copy. They respond to features. Your copy must tell them exactly what they are getting in language that they feel at home with.

The vocabulary you use must reflect the professional or scientific vocabulary they use in their every day work and you must be careful not to dumb it down. The tone must be engineer-to-engineer, ie that of two technocrats having a conversation.

Engineers and scientists are put off by copy that sounds like advertising. In tests comparing feature-oriented and benefit-oriented mailings sent to these professionals, the feature-oriented copy always wins.

The takeaway: When writing copy that addresses engineers and scientists, just give them information about your product or service. Forget the clever stuff.

How to sell to enthusiasts

Enthusiasts are consumers who have a passion for a particular type of product … motorcycles, cars, stereo music systems, model aeroplanes, computers, and so on. They have a love for the object of their desire that is quite alien to the rest of us. It is the features that turn them on.

For example, if an ad for a sports car says

“It reaches maximum torque of 150 ft-lb at 3.000 rpm and produces 175 hp at 5,000 rpm”, an enthusiast will begin to daydream about handling all that power on a twisty mountain road.

To write successfully for enthusiasts, you have to think like an enthusiast … you have to share their abiding interest in the details of whatever you are selling.

A detailed discussion of the aural difference between vinyl records and CDs will fire up a hi-fi enthusiast but probably leave the rest of us cold. But you have to get on that wavelength if you are to address a hi-fit nut persuasively.

A nerd will have an unhealthy interest in the internal workings of a computer that most of us ignore … but as the copywriter you have to find a way to share that enthusiasm. That’s your job.

The takeaway: describe the features and enthusiasts will readily imagine the benefits of their choice in their own heads.

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