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When to sell features instead of benefits in tech

Selling benefits rather than features is one of the first rules of copywriting. But when should you break the rule?

“People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!"

This famous quote from Harvard professor Theodore Levitt summarises one of the fundamental ‘rules’ of copywriting: Always sell a product by its benefits, not by its features.

For the newbie writer, this advice is a game-changer. Applying the ‘rule’ is often enough to change dull, confusing copy into something that can actually sell.

But like most of life’s rules, this one can and should be broken—especially when it comes to tech copywriting.

Why do we normally lead with benefits instead of features in tech copywriting?

A feature is a part of a product that the customer experiences or interacts with in some way.

The benefit is the positive effect that the feature creates for the customer when they use it. It’s the ‘what’s in it for me?’ of your product.

So, for example:

·     A feature of my smartphone is that it has 5G connectivity.

·    The benefit is that my phone’s internet connection is fast, so I can visit websites or watch videos without waiting for downloads.

 Brian Clark of Copyblogger puts it another way:

 “People don’t really go to and the parents really don’t pay for college in order to get an education. Knowledge is what colleges are providing. But what people are buying with all those tuition dollars are the benefits of knowledge.”

In other words, what college dollars are really paying for is the superior career and lifestyle that the knowledge leads to.

Finding these deeper needs and desires, and showing how the products meet them, is our job as marketers. Here’s how this principle looks when it’s applied to technology advertising:

Picture of original ipod ad

This early iPod ad sold the benefit of ‘carrying 1,000 songs in your pocket’, rather than the feature, its 5GB memory.

Picture of classic betamax ad

This 'classic' advert sells the Betamax video recorder by highlighting an important benefit. Because of the automatic timer, the owner won’t miss his favourite shows.

Why is describing product benefits important when promoting technology?

1. People often aren’t familiar with the names of new technology features.

New technologies come out all the time. That means there’s always a significant part of your audience that hasn’t heard of5G, or whatever the latest innovation is. And talking about a technical term that people don’t understand is a great way to lose or confuse them.

Because of this, it makes sense to hook the reader’s interest by talking about a benefit. Then describe the feature(s) behind it.

Picture of instant capture ad

The feature here is ‘Instant Capture’ – but the name wouldn’t mean much to people unless they already have an LG phone with that feature. Accordingly, the primary headline here describes the benefit.

2. People are far more interested in their problems and desires than objects.

Most people don’t actually care about technology, they just crave the experiences and help technology gives them. What people do care deeply about is overcoming life’s challenges, like getting a promotion, managing finances better, or improving their social status.

If your tech helps tackle these challenges, even in a small way, that’s interesting to them. In fact, it’s far more interesting to your audience than any shiny object. Because when you sell a product on its benefits, you’re selling customers a better life and an improved version of themselves.

When should you break the ‘rule’ and focus on features instead of benefits?

As a tech copywriter, there are times when you’ll want to focus on features over benefits. Sometimes it’ll be when you’re describing a single aspect of the product, sometimes when you’re creating the overarching headline or value proposition.

1. When you’re selling a ‘world first’ or high-end premium tech product.

New technologies like OLED get hyped up quickly by press and people alike. Shouting that your product has this feature is enough to sell it—and to justify the premium price tag. The OLED 8K TV below costs $30,000, so anyone who buys it knows they are getting an exclusive, luxury product that few others have. 

Picture of 8k TV ad

This copy leads with the feature and even repeats its claim about the feature before explaining the benefit

2. When you’re in a highly competitive space and you know that your customers are comparing specific tech specs.

iphone 11 pro triple camera ad

Apple is still writing great copy, but the competition has caught up with its innovations. So the website for the new iPhone Pro shouts loudly about a differentiating feature: the phone’s triple camera lenses.

Talking about the triple camera system helps Apple to position the phone as ‘Pro’—a premium product. Even without looking at the camera's capabilities, the phone clearly has more of what makes a smartphone great.

iphone 11 triple camera ad

What’s interesting is that the iPhone Pro isn't the first smartphone to feature three cameras. However, calling the feature out helps Apple to position its phone well against others on the market, including earlier iPhones.

Notice that the rest of the copy above also talks very little about benefits, instead focusing on new features. Buyers already know what most of these features do, and this allows them to compare against other phones quickly. (And perhaps in this case, people just want to know the iPhone is the best and has more of everything!)

40 mp cine camera copy

For anyone comparing different phones, the 40MP camera spec makes the Huawei Mate 30 instantly stand out. (No idea what an MP is? It doesn’t matter. It sounds powerful, and the iPhone Pro only has 12!).

But what about B2B?

It’s easy to find examples of this in B2C tech, especially consumer electronics, but there are plenty of examples in B2B tech too. B2B buyers are always on the lookout for the most powerful product, or the tech that gives them the most bytes for their buck.

RAID server ad copy

What’s also important is that B2B buyers typically know the technology well. So you don’t usually need to explain benefits to them, unless you’re introducing something totally new.

In addition, businesses often have to get sign-off from multiple people when they buy things, and the benefit may actually be different for each party.

3. When the benefit needs to remain unspoken.

This ties in with the last two points. The fact is that with many products—especially shiny expensive ones—there’s a benefit that you can’t actually say out loud.

Sometimes you’re selling your customer a new TV. But sometimes you’re also selling them status, and the feeling of being ahead of their peers. And nothing says ‘way ahead of my peers’ like a phone that has three cameras. Or a TV that has a higher resolution than life itself.

4. When you’re showing customers how a premium product/service compares to a free one.

This applies in particular to apps and SaaS products. In this case, your audience already understands how the different features benefit them.

They may even experience the ‘free version’ features as a source of tension—Spotify is a great example, because the adverts in between songs get really annoying!

Presenting the premium features can therefore offer relief to that tension.

Spotify premum web copy
Youtube premium website copy
Todoist premium web copy

In the Todoist copy above, the features are highlighted in the sub-headings to quickly illustrate how the premium version is different. Benefits are then detailed underneath each one.

5. When the feature IS the benefit.

Sometimes the most important aspect of a product is a simple difference that profoundly affects the user’s experience. In this case, the feature and the benefit are essentially the same thing.

Oculus quest website copy

Oculus sells VR gaming headsets, and their previous models required a high-spec PC. The new Oculus Quest doesn’t need a PC, so it makes stunning VR gaming available to millions of people. Oculus is right to shout about it.

You turn the no PC/no wires benefit into something like ‘play anywhere’, but this would be less impactful. And more importantly, it wouldn’t resonate with those gamers who have been dying for a no-PC version of modern VR headsets.

6. When the benefit is just plain obvious

Sometimes, spelling out the benefit would be almost patronising to the user.

Dyson purifier website copy

The simple intro copy explains that Dyson’s technology captures and destroys formaldehyde particles. But there’s no need to explain what that means any further—we’re looking at a website about an air purifier, so it’s obvious that the benefit* is clearer air.

(*You could make an argument for a ‘deeper’ benefit or outcome here, but that’s a topic for another blog…)  

Conclusion

So there we have it. There are at least six situations where it’s ok to break the rule about selling with benefits.

The fact is that the ‘rules’ of copywriting aren’t that important. What IS important is that we go beyond simply describing a product or service and connect with our audience’s thoughts, desires, and emotions.

And in B2B, while decisions are made indifferent ways, they’re still made by people. Even when their key motivation is a technical need, businesspeople still have other needs—like maintaining their individual reputations—under the surface.

If focusing on a feature speaks to those motivations better, we’re doing our job well as marketers.

Happy writing!

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Cover photo by Christopher Gower on Unsplash

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