Features before benefits

by Robert W. Bly



Perhaps the oldest - and most widely embraced - rule for writing direct response copy is, “Stress benefits, not features.”  But even this sacred commandment doesn’t always hold true.

“As a direct response copywriter, I do my best to write copy that focuses on benefits,” says freelancer Connie Clark in a letter to this magazine (February 1987).  “But sometimes - in admittedly rare circumstances - a different approach can work as well or better.”

Specifically, I can think of five selling situations in which features should be given equal (if not top) billing over benefits and promise-oriented copy.

1.Selling to experts.  As a new homeowner, I know beans about insulation.  So I need to be sold on the benefits: How much will the insulation reduce my winter fuel bills?  What’s the benefit of insulating my attic floor vs. The roof?  Why is an “R value” of 11 better than 9?  Will my house actually become warmer and less drafty?

But could you imagine repeating this discussion in a mailing aimed at insulation contractors and installers?  Of course not, because these contractors are experts in insulation.  They already know what insulation can do and why it is important.  So copy should stress the features of insulation - R values, price, volume discounts, types of materials available, installation techniques.

These “insulation experts” are interested in only one thing: Do you have the products they need to help them do their job correctly and at a good profit?  A discussion of features and pricing will give these knowledgeable pros the information they need to make a decision.

2.Enthusiasts.  In my business-to-business copywriting course at New York University, I picked a Porsche ad out of a magazine and held it up for ridicule.

“Listen to this,” I said as I began to read the copy.  “The 944 has a new 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder, aluminum-silicon alloy Porsche engine - designed at Weissach, and built at Zuffenhausen.”  “It achieves maximum torque of 137.2 ft-lbs as early as 3,000 rpm, and produces 143 hp at 5,500 rpm.”  “The 944 also as the Porsche transaxle design, Porsche aerodynamics and Porsche handling.”

I finished my critique by saying, “This is a textbook example of a classic copywriting mistake: stressing features instead of benefits. This ad is nothing more than a spec sheet of engineering statistics, and does a poor job of selling the benefits of owning a Porsche.”

A student raised his hand.  “I’m sorry to disagree with you, but it’s obvious you don’t know or care much about cars.  I’m a car nut - I own a Corvette and a Jag - and that ad gets me drooling to try the 944 on the road.  When I hear 143 hp at 5,500 rpm, I can feel that aluminum-silicon alloy engine humming under the hood!”

Looking back, I think he was right.  I’m the type who could care less about cars or which one I drive...but then again, I’m probably not the kind of buyer Porsche is after.  If the Porsche ad was aimed at automobile enthusiasts, then perhaps its feature-oriented approach was just right for tickling their fancy.

Remember, enthusiasts and hobbyists have a love for their obsession that is quite alien to the rest of us.  But very real to them.

For instance, a discussion of woofers and tweeters may be boring to the vast majority of people who buy stereos.  But the hi-fi nut wants to know.  In the same way, a hacker has a fascination for bits and bytes the average computer user does not share.

Moral: When writing to enthusiasts, think like an enthusiast.  Don’t assume that the hobbyist shares your lack of interest in the nuts-and-bolts aspects of whatever it is you are selling.

3.Engineers and scientists.  Vivian Sudhalter, director of marketing for Macmillan Software, is responsible for selling expensive software to scientists who use computers to analyze complex laboratory data.  I asked Vivian what works for her in direct mail - and what doesn’t.

“Despite what tradition tells you, the engineering and scientific market does not respond to promise or benefit-oriented copy,” she says.  “They respond to features.  Your copy must tell them exactly what they are getting and what your product can do.  Scientists and engineers are put off by copy that sounds like advertising jargon.  They resent it if you talk down to them.  When writing copy, don’t try to be clever, just give information about the product.”

Sudhalter’s lead-generating self-mailer for Macmillan’s Asyst and Asystant software follows this model.  The copy has a scientist-to-scientist tone and talks about such arcane matters as Hermitian matrices, spectral slicing and QR factorization.  Yet, it is successful, having generated a 4 percent response with Macmillan’s in-house prospect list.  Vivian tells me that she has conducted many tests of feature-oriented vs. benefit-oriented mailings, and the feature-oriented mailings win every time.

4.Equipment.  Copy that sells equipment and systems must not only stress the benefits, but it musts also describe how the product works and what it can do.  And it must list complete specifications - so the buyer can make an intelligent decision. 

If I buy a newsletter, I subscribe because of how I’ll benefit from the information it contains.  Features, such as whether it is 8 or 12 pages long, or whether the editor reads 287 publications instead of 240, are secondary.  Either the information is useful to me, or it isn’t.

But the situation is different with tangible items.  I recently received a catalog that sells computer furniture through the mail.  I was thinking of buying, but the catalog didn’t provide the information I needed.  For example, the drawing failed to show dimensions, so I couldn’t tell whether my printer would fit on the printer shelf - or even whether the desk would fit through my front door.

Moral: Benefits may generate initial interest in a product.  But with many customers, you make or lose the sale based on whether you mention a particular feature.  Copy that doesn’t highlight all the key features can cost you sales.

5.Practicality.  Is your product sold on glitz and glamour, hopes and dreams?  Or is it bought for more practical reasons?  Products with practical appeal must be supported by feature-oriented copy that gives your prospect the assurance that he’s buying a good solution to his problems. 

For example, the dozens of “How-to-Get-Rich-Quick” books sold through mail order ads are appealing to the buyer’s dreams rather than hard reality.  (How many of the people who buy such books actually become rich?)  And so the copy - quite appropriately - concentrates 100 percent on the promise of riches beyond the dreams of avarice, without revealing the actual features of the plan...which would only be a disappointment.

On the other hand, if the same person needed a new gas furnace for his home, he would look at your product with much more attention to detail.  Here, copy would have to concentrate on explaining technical features, and on building confidence in the performance of the product and the reliability of the manufacturer.  Features would likely have equal billing with benefits in your brochure of mail package.

OK. Let’s say you want to include some features and technical specifications in your next piece of copy.  Here are some of the methods I use for integrating technical information into a sales-oriented piece.

·FEATURES/BENEFITS TABLE.  This is simply a two-column table or checklist.  The left-hand column lists all the features of your product, while the right-hand column describes the benefits the customer gets as a result of each feature.

Many copywriting books and courses suggest that you make such a list as preparation for writing any piece of copy.  I’m suggesting you go one step further and actually reprint the features/benefits list as a page in your brochure.

·TWO-PART “CAUSE-AND-EFFECT” STATEMENTS.  With this technique, used in headlines and body copy, you first describe a feature of your brochure, then talk about the benefits that result from this feature.  You are saying: “Because our product has Feature X, you get Benefit Y.”  Some examples:


Because the system uses L-band frequency and improved MTI (moving target indication), it can detect targets up to 50 times farther away than S-band automobile radars.


No mechanical systems or moving parts are required.  Which means Hydro-Circ consumes less energy and takes less space than conventional sump pumps.


The geometric shape of the seal ring amplifies the force against the disc.  As the pressure grows, so does the valve’s performance.


·SPEC BOX.  A spec box is a separate box presenting all technical specifications and features of a product in list form.  A good place for the spec box is the back page of your flier or brochure.

Have your artist put a border around the spec box to separate it from the main text.  Another technique for visually separating your spec box from the rest of the body copy is to print the specs over a light tint.

·VISUALS.  Use tables, graphs, charts, diagrams, illustrations, photos and other visuals to highlight features and technical information.  Save body copy for a discussion of benefits.