Why it’s bad advice to “describe benefits, not features”

Sizzling steaks

“Okay, I get it—it sizzles. Now tell me about the steak.”

Some marketing experts say that all sales copy should be expressed not in terms of features (a product’s properties) but in terms of benefits (how the product helps the user).

That advice is harmful.

Or, at best, confusing.

You should sometimes state the features, sometimes state the benefits, and often state both.

When—and why—to mention benefits

The “benefits, not features” advice was aimed at beginner copywriters, who often write only in terms of features. Features usually aren’t enough. When buyers read features, they often think, “So what?” They don’t understand how the features will help.

If, as a buyer, you discover that a particular ebook reader has the feature of cellular connectivity, you may think “So what? How would that be useful?” So you may appreciate an explanation of the benefits of cellular connectivity—that it allows you to buy and instantly download books from anywhere in the world. If you finish your book while you’re lying on the beach on vacation, you can instantly choose and start a new one.

Sometimes, even obvious benefits are worth stating. You might understand that a flight will take you to a sunny Italian resort, but an explicit mention of that benefit will still psychologically take you there. It activates those neurons.

When to not mention benefits

However, there are times when the writer shouldn’t explicitly mention benefits.

One of them is when the benefit is taboo. A charity website shouldn’t explicitly say, “Donate today and you can show off to your friends and probably go to heaven.”

Another is when the benefit is so obvious—or unimpressive—as to be a waste of words, and possibly patronizing. On a car manufacturer’s website, it’s probably worth mentioning that a car has a maximum speed of 120 mph, but it wouldn’t be worth explaining the benefits of that.

When—and why—to mention features

The second half of “mention benefits and not features” is clearly nonsense. You should usually state features. Imagine a laptop manufacturer’s website that says, “Lets you store loads of files” but then refuses to state the size of the hard drive. Benefits alone can leave the reader thinking, “Yeah, right.” Benefits usually need proof to support them, and features are one of the most compelling forms of proof. It’s not enough to hear that a car is “really, really safe.” You want to know it has air bags.

When to not mention features

So when shouldn’t you mention features? You should omit them when the benefit is not in doubt—or when there is little space and the benefit is better supported by a different type of proof. With fitness videos, for example, customers are much more persuaded by celebrity endorsements and by testimonials from other successful customers than they are by what’s in the video itself.

Conclusion

As with most aspects of CRO, you become more effective when you ignore rules like “Technique X is good; Technique Y is bad” and instead understand the technique’s function. So if you describe a feature and the readers are saying, “So what?” describe the benefit. If you describe a benefit and the readers are saying, “Yeah, right,” describe the feature (or another type of proof). By understanding the function of features and benefits, you’ll be able to spot when to state a feature, when to state a benefit, and when to state both.

Learn more

For more about describing benefits, see “Why many visitors abandon because they don’t understand what they’ll get.”


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