Aug 01 2008

Stop Selling Products!

Stop selling your products! Yeah, that may sound weird coming from a company that builds e-commerce sites. But my point is that you have to stop thinking that you’re simply selling tangible products that are x-size and x-color and that these are the reasons people buy your products. People aren’t really buying a tangible product; they’re buying its “essence.” What you’re really selling might be peace of mind (e.g. alarm systems, long-term care insurance), longevity (e.g. vitamins, supplements), an improved relationship (e.g. “Re-connect with your sweetheart by booking our Jamaica Romance Package!”), treasured memories (e.g. personalized photo gifts).

So how do you figure out the essence of what you’re selling? First, you need to understand the difference between your product’s features and benefits. Think of features as facts. Think of benefits as the information that compels your customer, Mary Smith, to buy now.

When we buy something, we’re fulfilling a need. The need may be an essential one–we all need food to live, for example. Or it may be a need that takes some rationalizing on our part: while I can live without that gym membership, my joining the gym fulfills the need I have for better health.

I’m going to illustrate with a more indepth example. Let’s say we’re selling high-protein cat food. The features of this product would include things like size, color, shape, materials used to make the container the food comes in as well as the actual food itself. It’s not stuff that you have to convince me of; it’s stuff I accept as “fact.”

For example, our cat-lover customer, Mary Smith, sees that the high-protein cat food comes in three-ounce cans with pull-tab lids. Mary can click a button on our site and read the ingredients on the label: all meat with no by-products or grains (carbs). These are the product’s features; nothing but the facts. But are features enough to sell a product? No, because a feature is not the essence. So what will convince Mary to order our high-protein cat food as opposed to some other type of cat food? Benefits, benefits, benefits.

Think of benefits as the things you can’t see–those intangibles that are going to affect your life. By eating high-protein cat food, Mary’s cat is going to enjoy a diet that nature intended (cats, by nature, are omnivores).

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. We’re starting to touch upon this product’s essence. But let’s dig deeper.

If Mary’s cat has a diet that nature intended, there’s a good chance the cat won’t develop common “man-made” diseases that more and more cats are experiencing, like feline diabetes.

Okay, we’re cooking now, and we’re really starting to see this product’s benefits. But let’s keep going. By digging deeper into the benefit, we’ll also address Mary’s potential objections (her reasons for deciding not to buy our cat food). One obvious objection might be price. High-protein cat food is likely to cost more than the generic brands that are filled with things like meat by-products that you find in your local supermarket. How can I turn this objection into a potential benefit? Again, think about Mary’s needs as well as her cat’s:

Yes, it’s true, Mary, that you might have to spend a little more on our cat food now, but think of all the money you’ll save over time in vet bills and medications. Consider this: a diabetic cat needs insulin, syringes to administer the insulin, and monthly check-ups to monitor its blood-glucose curve. And studies suggest that more and more feline diabetes results from lousy diets, specifically ones that are high in carbs, which most commercial cat food is. By spending just a few more pennies a week on our high-protein cat food, you’re giving your cat a healthier diet, one that will likely stop your cat from developing feline diabetes, a disease that’s becoming all too common and one that costs a lot of money to treat–not to mention the anxiety and angst that you experience because you have a sick cat. Feeding your cat our food means you’re giving your pet a chance for a better life. And isn’t that what being a pet owner is all about?

Re-read that paragraph, and consider the strategies we’re employing. We’re appealing to Mary’s logical side–a healthier diet means a healthier cat, which means fewer vet visits, which means more money in Mary’s pocket, even though she might spend a little more up front to keep her cat healthy. Boom–we’ve just hit upon a major benefit while reducing Mary’s objection. But we do something else. We also appeal to her emotions: Mary’s desire to be a good owner, a true protector of her charge: her cat. We’ve hit upon the essence of this product.

Keep in mind that benefits result from features. The feature here–an all-meat high-protein cat food–results in benefits for the cat and the cat owner. Mary’s reason for buying is not the features themselves–the size of the cans, the ingredients, or even the pull-tab lid–but how these features benefit her. (Note: while the pull-tab lid is a benefit–e.g. it saves Mary time and it’s safer than having sharp and dangerous metal lids that come from using a can opener–it’s not the most powerful benefit. That’s the trick–you need to focus on the most compelling benefits that result from the features.)

So how do you find your product’s essence? Here’s one approach:
1. Make a two-column list. Label one column features and the other benefits.

2. On the feature side, write down all the factual things that you can identify about your product.

3. Now turn to the benefits column. Look at your features and ask yourself “so what?” How does this feature fulfill my customer’s needs? Keep in mind that not all features are going to have powerful benefits. For example, a feature of the high-protein cat food is its size: three ounces of food in a round aluminum can. Benefits include the fact that the cans stack easily in your cupboards and that they’re recyclable. While these are benefits, they’re probably not strong enough benefits to compel most customers to buy. Keep digging into your benefits until you hit upon the most compelling one.

4. Once you hit up some powerful benefits, test them. Maybe you have two powerful benefits, but you’re not sure which one will be most compelling. In other words, you don’t know which one is going to convert more prospects into sales. Again, there are a few strategies on what to do from here. You could ask your customers what they think. This might involve conducting a survey through your email marketing company and finding out which benefits existing customers value most. Or it might involve creating two different landing pages on your site with two different messages involving two different benefits. See which message converts into more sales.

5. Keep in mind that benefits change. As global warming continues to become a more and more important issue, the materials used to make the high-protein cat food, including the tin can it comes in, might be a more compelling benefit now than it would have been twenty years ago.

Would you like help digging up the essence of your product? Feel free to leave some of your product’s features in the comments, and we’ll see if we can brainstorm some of the benefits.

Blue Acorn

For all your ecommerce needs, Blue Acorn provides an integrated team of designers, developers and strategists who work together to deliver engaging shopping experiences for your customers and efficient processes for you. Whether you’re looking for a fundamental or incremental change, the team at Blue Acorn will adopt your ecommerce KPIs as our own and deliver the results that matter most to your organization. For brands like The Real Real, Peter Thomas Roth, and Too Faced Cosmetics, we provide services such as ecommerce design, systems integration, A/B testing, new feature development, and personalization.


Jan 16 2009

One of my Friend Asked me to Read Your Post on “Stop Selling Products”. Your Post is Well Written. Thanks . I love to Read Posts on “Online Marketing”.

Jan 20 2009

Baron–thanks for stopping by and for the nice comment!

Jan 31 2009

One of my client forwarded your link to me. Truely Speaking I Don’t read Articles too Often. But Your is a Revolutionary Idea.
Some people may call it a Trivial thing/idea.
But I feel ,Whats Important is… the EMPHASIS we give on a Particular thing.
Means…… Most of the Ideas and Things may be Left out by 90% of Population as Trivial….. But may get Emphasised and Thus Used by 10% SMARTER Ones.
Anyway, Nice Idea, Will try to adapt .

Mar 01 2009

very interesting and reminds us that successful sales needs an aggressive well thought out plan me attack in a competitive environment.
Our product is top end scale concrete machinary and have many cheaper types in opposition.

Quite difficult in drawing up such a list.

Mar 15 2013

Great post Robyn. For some reason, I feel like I should buy some high quality cat food. I need to buy a cat first.


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