Focus on features AND benefits

There is oft-repeated advice to sell and marketing by “focusing on benefits, not features” - but this is only partially true

Focus on features AND benefits
Photo by Szabo Viktor / Unsplash

There is oft-repeated advice to sell and market by “focusing on benefits, not features”.

But this is only partially true. 

You definitely want to mention benefits (i.e. desired outcomes your product creates), but these benefits have to come from somewhere. 

And this “somewhere” is your features. 

That’s why the proper way to craft your individual sales/marketing messages should be by linking benefits to the specific product features that produce them.

In other words, you don’t excise features from your messaging. 

You should (and indeed, must) mention the specific mechanisms (i.e. features) by which the desired benefits are delivered. 

Getting into more detail, you talk about your features in the context of what benefits the passive existence and/or active use of such features will bring.

Put more specifically: 

  • Passive existence = features that work in the background without user initiation
  • Active use = features that require active user initiation or engagement

In the context of an ed-tech product, a passive feature might be an algorithm that automatically adjusts the challenge of teaching material to match a student’s performance without human intervention. 

An active feature would be lesson planning and content creation tools that require action-taking by the instructor.

And if you play video games, here’s an analogy that might feel more intuitive: passive existence features are talismans while active use features are spells.

In other words, a talisman produces effects while it is worn without you needing to do anything. On the other hand, spells are those you need to actively pull out and use.

The question you’re probably asking now is “So what? Who cares about this distinction between passive and active features?”

The reason why it’s useful to know the difference between passive and active features is because it will allow you to:

  • Capture potential market gaps by positioning yourself as (for example) the “more efficient” and “simpler” automated solution against competing products that demand more set-up and investment from the user (or vice versa). An example is the simplicity of Macs versus the customization of Windows (and again, the opposite also applies)
  • Appropriately tailor your landing pages, demoes and sales meetings for different customer segments who have varying preferences for automation versus deeper customization. For instance, I used to demo the same legal research product to law firms and university law faculties. For the law firms, I focused on the deep customization of the product’s advanced search features. This allowed for ultra-granular, ultra-specific search parameters. For the law school students, I instead focused on the “magic search” (as my colleagues called it) which would surface relevant court cases using only natural language. Both customer segments wanted the same outcome (finding the right court cases) but prioritized different ways of getting there.
  • On a customer segment-by-segment basis, properly focus your time, energy and money on developing features that match their preferences. This is because individual segments will generally skew towards one category over the other in the same way that most people have one hand that is dominant over the other.

In each of these 3 situations, the benefits that are articulated (and how they are articulated) will differ based on whether the feature is active or passive. 

This is true even if the desired outcome between different customer segments is the same (as in my example about lawyers versus law students both wanting to surface the right court judgments but with different levels of control).

As you can see, benefits (i.e., outcomes that positively affect your user’s professional and/or personal life) must be tied back to the mechanism that produces them.

Features are what allow your prospects and buyers to actually see/feel/comprehend how the desired benefits you promise them will actually be brought into existence.

Therefore, don’t take “focus on benefits, not features” at face value.

It’ll be to your detriment if you do.