Know Thy Features and Benefits (article + quiz!)

•October 19, 2011 • Leave a Comment

A cardinal rule of marketing is to always think about and promote your product’s features and benefits. And while that sounds easy, it isn’t. Most people don’t know the difference between the two.

Now it’s your turn to become a features and benefits expert. Read on, learn fast, then take the quiz to show off your new know-how.

The Basics

FEATURES are what your product is, the product’s essence as well as its components.

ENHANCED FEATURES are any elaboration on a feature by use of superlatives or by figuring out what the feature does when in use. The term “enhanced features” isn’t something you’ll find in many textbooks or elsewhere on the web, but having this extra category will help clarify some things. Trust me.

BENEFITS
are how your product makes customers’ lives better. You can also think about benefits as “results.”

EXAMPLES:

Feature: Voice-activated dialing.
Enhanced Feature: You can operate your cell phone hands-free while driving.
Benefit: You won’t get in a car accident.

Feature: Weekly emails highlighting marketing blog posts from the past week.
Enhanced Feature: 
Free marketing tips, direct to your inbox.
Benefit:
Sound smarter at your next job interview, and land the job!

Feature: Sherpa fleece lining.
Enhanced Feature: Feels soft and cozy.
Benefit: You’ll stay warm when the temperature drops.

Making Features More Exciting

As you saw in the above examples, features can be enhanced with the addition of descriptors such as “soft and cozy.” You can also try bolder options like “lightning fast” or “the best on the market.”

Playing with language or referring to multiple features at once can also help up the excitement quotient. This example does just that; it’s from Apple, and it’s about the iMac: “Power and Performance. Beautifully packaged.” When you look past the dramatic language, you see that Apple is highlighting the quality of its processors and the aesthetics of its design: features, plain and simple.

How to Find Your Product’s Benefits

Figuring out a product’s benefits can be tough because it requires knowing your audience and thinking critically about how your product will serve them.

Let’s say you’re selling an extremely high resolution computer monitor. Who is the audience? Presume there are two markets: consumers for home use and hospitals/medical facilities for professional use. The benefits will be different for each.

Start with your consumer market. Let’s say it’s mostly techie geeks who always want the latest and greatest, and their primary use for the monitor will be watching movies. The benefits, therefore, should play to these desires by emphasizing that the owner will be the envy of his or her friends, will enjoy movies more, and be happier overall.

Now let’s tackle the medial B2B (Business to Business) audience. Let’s assume that doctors will use these monitors during endoscopic procedures such as colonoscopies and endodontic surgeries. If the doctor can get a crisper, clearer view, then he or she will be more likely to catch potential dangers, remove the entire tumor, or be successful, whatever the goal. The benefit, therefore, should speak to improved patient outcomes and possible money savings due to a reduced risk of lawsuits.

Are You Blown Away?

For many of you, this is likely a new way to think about features and benefits. In the past, you may have stopped at the “enhanced feature” stage and not pushed further to really figure out how your product or service enhances the customer’s life.

If you haven’t thought about benefits before, don’t worry. First, product features are important, too, so there’s nothing wrong with highlighting them. Second, nothing’s stopping you from revising your presentations, editing your website, and updating your ads to let customers know how you might help improve their lives.

Quiz Time!

Take this short quiz to see if you know what’s up when it comes to features and benefits.

Note: These are real-world examples taken from actual websites, so features and benefits are often mixed together. In the case where both are mentioned, it’s still a benefit, so be sure to treat it as such.

Tweet that you passed!

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Will Facebook Be Free Forever?

•October 3, 2011 • 6 Comments

If you’ve logged onto Facebook recently (and who hasn’t), you may have noticed a little promise front and center: “It’s free and always will be.” But many out there don’t seem to believe it – are they right? And, in general, should we believe any corporate promises?

If you’re skeptical about my claim that many people don’t believe Facebook’s promise, just look at the chain post that spread like wildfire a few days ago:

FACEBOOK JUST RELEASED THEIR PRICE GRID FOR MEMBERSHIP. $9.99 PER MONTH FOR GOLD MEMBER SERVICES, $6.99 PER MONTH FOR SILVER MEMBER SERVICES, $3.99 PER MONTH FOR BRONZE MEMBER SERVICES, FREE IF YOU COPY AND PASTE THIS MESSAGE…

That hoax wasn’t a stand-alone incident, either. According to Snopes.com, rumors of Facebook charging have flared up every few months since late 2009.

In response, the company has repeated their “It’s free and always will be” pledge, but to my eyes that promise is not as clear as one might think.

When Facebook says, “It’s free,” what exactly is “it”? Is “it” our personal profile, our status updates, our links to connections, our social games or one of the other million and a half services Facebook provides? When it comes to promises like this, it’s often future lawyers that will fight for meaning and with a word like “it,” Facebook has the advantage.

When you read Facebook’s terms and conditions, you’ll see a few indications that charging for services that we currently see as inherent is open to possibility. For example, mobile is “currently” provided for free.

Screenshot of Facebook Terms and Conditions

Screenshot of Facebook Terms and Conditions

What’s more, as we recently learned from Netflix, just because Facebook’s many services are under a single umbrella today doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way tomorrow. And when tomorrow comes, perhaps the new “Facegames” company will require a $2.99 monthly membership fee.

Now I’m not saying that Facebook will charge you. Spinning off Facebook gaming apps today would be like cutting off Facebook’s arm and then expecting it to take dictation. But if you imagine five, ten or twenty years down the road, you realize that Facebook may not be on top – may not even be in the running – and would need major cash to afford to store your long history of updates. Or maybe Facebook will be public and thereby subject to the collective greed of anonymous shareholders.

If you’re skeptical, then I’m sorry to say that you’re also naïve. In The Art of the Steal, Albert Barnes’ seemingly ironclad will is eroded slowly as its board creates excuse after excuse to violate nearly every clause. What’s more, as we’ve witnessed during the financial crisis, the government is very willing to forgive transgressions much more extreme than a small promise like Facebook’s.

So now that I’ve convinced you that Facebook could start charging, let me throw out a new argument. From a business perspective, Facebook won’t charge the average user – not now and not for a long time.

Whether that original promise was made out of ignorance and chutzpah or business savvy, I’ll never know, but what’s clear is that charging users would not only mean bad PR and bad mojo, but it would also mean the loss of millions of users and an open door for Facebook’s competition. Your personal data and traffic are Facebook’s top assets, so to put those in jeopardy would be a colossal mistake.

But before you start cheering, let me add that getting charged by a website like Facebook isn’t necessarily a negative. Currently Facebook’s priorities are split between creating an optimal user experience and improving their revenue opportunities. Better targeting for display ads is better for Facebook and kind of better for you, but like the new Timeline user interface is good for you. Now imagine a future where Facebook is primarily a paid service. In that future, a larger percentage of the company’s focus would be devoted to keeping users, which would mean constant innovation and improvement to the user experience.

In the end, I’m skeptical whether Facebook’s pledge and others like it are beneficial or whether they even matter at all.

On the one hand, I commend Facebook for making the kind of vow users dream of but rarely receive. On the other hand, many users either don’t remember it or don’t believe it. Like so many others who have been burned by corporations again and again in the name of profit, I’m skeptical and am ultimately only convinced that Facebook will hold true to its word because it’s word is in the company’s long-term best interest.

Do you think Facebook will charge one day? Let me know in the comments!

Bonus Links!

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A/B Testing Done Right

A/B Testing Done Right

•September 27, 2011 • 4 Comments

A/B testing, a.k.a. “split testing,” is not as easy as Jackson 5’s lyric “As simple as…ABC” would have you believe. Sure, it sounds basic, but that doesn’t stop people from screwing it up and then swearing by their flawed results.

Are you testing yet? (If not, you should be.) Are you getting the most out of your tests? Read on for quick tips on A/B testing the right way.

Tip #1: Only One Variable, Please

“15 Items or Less” may work at Trader Joe’s, but it’s not good for testing. Granted, sometimes you want to study more than one variable, but unless you’re overhauling the site or rebranding, you shouldn’t do it.

The reason for my stern warning is that if you’ve tested subject line, photo, headline, and layout all at once, then how do you know which variable had the greatest impact?

This type of “too much of a good thing” experimentation also tends to lead to sweeping generalizations that all elements in the test are equally responsible for the variation’s success or failure. Obviously that’s untrue and it simply means you must test again, which begs the question: why not just do it right the first time?

Tip #2: Look at the Whole Funnel

I’m a big fan of whichtestwon.com, a cool site that offers a weekly A/B or multivariate test case. What makes the site cool is that it features a variety of tests (print, web, email) run by a wide cross-section of companies. What makes it slightly less exciting is that readers typically only see one statistic, which is good for a brief article, but bad for making business decisions.

To truly understand performance, you should be looking at a variety of numbers. Ideally your tracking codes will be monitored at every step of the process. If they’re not, well, maybe it’s time to change that.

Testing subject line and looking at open rate is a classic example of how marketers can take a myopic view. The subject line “Cheaper Than a Meal!” may get more people to open your message, but if your price point is too high, it may not generate as many orders as a version that’s upfront about your product’s cost.

Tip #3: Test Interesting Variables (and Test Them Again)

True, you can’t go wrong with a good subject line test, but don’t limit yourself to something so basic. You can also test things like photos, layout, benefit descriptions, and the size, shape and color of your call to action buttons.

Also don’t assume that just because something worked once or worked last year it will work again. Designs go in and out of fashion just like clothes, so it’s important to retest, lest you be caught wearing pastels when brights are all the rage.

Tip #4: Mix It Up With a Four-Way

Puns aside, a four-way test can help you get even more out of your testing. To conduct a four-way test, simply pick two independent variables and plan to test all of them. You can use a chart like this:

Variables 1 2
A Version 1A Version 2A
B Version 1B Version 2B

Four-ways are double the work of a basic A/B tests, and if you want accurate results, you’ll need a large audience. But if you’ve got the time and the audience, getting to test two independent variables at the same time – and getting reliable results – is pretty rad.

Tip #5: Dig Deeper for Answers

Probably the biggest mistake I’ve seen people make is to assume that the numbers tell the whole story. While data is essential, you may not have all of it. And when you dig deeper, a new story may reveal itself. Even though one email may have sold more widgets or garnered more downloads, if your tactics were shady, it may do long term damage to your brand. The lesser-performing message could also have unexpected value if it appeals to a different segment of your users.

Don’t feel boxed in by the statistics you have. Go with your gut and come up with new ways to test by segmenting your audience, soliciting feedback or simply coming up with new metrics to track.

What tips do you have when it comes to A/B testing? Share them below!

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Netflix’s Big Goof: 5 Copywriting Blunders in Its Recent Announcement
The Copywriter’s Secret Weapon
How to Write With Credibility

Netflix’s Big Goof: 5 Copywriting Blunders in Its Recent Announcement

•September 20, 2011 • 7 Comments

If you’re a Netflix user, then you’ve probably heard all the outrage about the recent splitting of Netflix streaming from its DVD by mail service, which will soon be known as “Qwikster.” Now, I’ve got an opinion about the decision (and it’s not a positive one), but I’m more interested in dissecting the many mistakes of the email and blog post that announced it. It’s like a spectacular car crash – so awful, you can’t look away.

And the most amazing part? This was supposed to be their improvement from how they announced the separation of DVD and streaming services a few months ago.

If you haven’t read the announcement yet, check it out here. Then let’s take the slip-ups one by one:

Blunder #1: It looks like SPAM!!!

Would you open an email from “Reed Hastings, Co-Fo…” with a subject line of “An Explanation and Some Reflections”? I wouldn’t.

The name is unfamiliar, his title is so long that most email clients cut it off at “Co-Fo…” or “Co-Founder…”, and the subject line sounds suspiciously personal, the kind of language an evil virus might use after it seizes control of someone’s computer and forwards itself to everyone that person has ever emailed.

Open it and you will experience the blue screen of death – no thanks!

Subject line and from name are the keys to a strong open rate, and Netflix failed on both accounts. For a simple fix, have the email originate from Netflix, a name recipients know and trust. For subject line, try something that shows excitement about what’s to come: DVD by Mail Will Be Better Than Ever. Or something that tells you what the content really is: More Info About Recent Changes to Netflix Streaming & DVD.

Blunder #2: It offers an apology that doesn’t really apologize.

Let’s read the opening apology paragraph closely:

It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology…

Notice what Netflix did there? Hastings only apologized for the fact that many members felt disrespected and perceived a lack of humility. It doesn’t even acknowledge that the method of announcement was flawed.

Reed Hastings and Netflix only seem to regret that people were unhappy – and they should regret that. But if they want to increase people’s happiness, the way to do it is through a real apology, not a half-hearted one.

Blunder #3: It’s WAY too long.

When it comes to time-wasting, Americans do a pretty good job already, so they don’t need you to do it for them by writing  an email that’s much longer than necessary. That’s why most commercial emails are short or picture-based.

Netflix, however, decided to go another way: 645 words and 13 paragraphs to basically say, “I’m sorry” and “Introducing Qwikster!”

If a similar message had come from a colleague, my response would have been “TLDR,” which stands for “Too Long, Didn’t Read.”

Blunder #4: It contains too Many “I” Statements.

Your challenge as a writer is to find out what the reader wants to know and focus on that, not on what “I the author” or “we the company” want to convey. This goes for content as well as language and sentence structure. Successful copywriters find ways to put the emphasis on “you” rather than “I” or “we.”

Here are just a few of the “I” statements and some suggestions for how they could be reworked:

I owe you an explanation. —> You deserve an explanation.

So here is what we are doing and why. —> Here’s what you can expect and why.

One improvement we will make at launch is to add a video games upgrade… —> When the site launches, you’ll also be able to receive video games…

Blunder #5: It puts too much emphasis on the negatives.

There’s always a downside, but if you want to keep customers, then you need to find a way to soften the blow. Suggest alternatives, sandwich it between positives or downplay it by putting the emphasis on related benefits.

Unfortunately, Netflix missed the mark when they included this gem:

A negative of the renaming and separation is that the Qwikster.com and Netflix.com websites will not be integrated.

Not only did that sentence fall at the end of a paragraph, but Netflix actually used the word “negative” – not smart. Here’s how you can take a sentence like that and turn it around:

As you may have guessed, the Qwikster.com and Netflix.com websites will not be integrated, but we’ll make it easy for you to transfer your existing DVD queue when the time comes. Also, maintaining and updating your queue will be easier than ever on the new site.

When it comes right down to it, there’s very little this message got right in terms of email marketing or copywriting. It was a disaster from start to finish, and the majority of news coverage has confirmed as much. But the good news is that there’s much to learn from Netflix’s mistakes. So take head and don’t follow Netflix’s bad example.

Now that you’ve learned some basics, find out how to write with credibility or uncover the copywriter’s secret weapon.

The Copywriter’s Secret Weapon

•September 15, 2011 • 2 Comments

The magic of this copywriter’s secret weapon is that the “secret” part is not in the weapon, but in how, when and when not to use it.

So are you ready for the magic? I’ll give you a hint: red zigzag underlines. That’s right, I’m talking about spell check.

“Oh, I already use spell check,” you might be thinking.

But the truth is, you probably don’t use it effectively. If you’re relying on those zigzag underlines I mentioned, then you’re relying on a false confidence.

Those zigzags are the vision attention equivalent of the boy who cried wolf. Your documents are already covered in “look at me!” marks for funky names and words like “econference.” Naturally you ignore the real alarms along with the false ones.

To solve this problem, the first step is to get in the habit of running a spell check program that takes you through each potential typo, one by one. For emails, you can often set it to auto-check all outgoing messages. (Here’s how to do it in Outlook.)

The key is habit. When you hit spell check without even thinking, that’s when you’re set up for success. And think how happy you’ll be when you spell check a high-profile PowerPoint and notice that you’ve misspelled your own name? (Well, you’ll be happy after you fix it.)

Speaking of names, add yours to your custom dictionary. Add lots of stuff to the custom dictionary. The more words you add, the less false alarms will distract you.

And speaking even more of names, they fall into the category of important things that spell check can’t accomplish. Also in that category are numbers and dates. Before sending any email, giving any presentation or printing any document, always do a manual once-over of names, numbers and dates.

Got it? Good. Like Smokey the Bear has never said, “Only you can prevent embarrassing spelling errors!”

Warning: As a Writer, You Will Have to Butcher Your Pets

•September 8, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Whenever I write, I think about the William Faulkner quote, “In writing, you must kill your darlings,” and today I decided that “kill your darlings” is too weak and too 20th century. It’s time to bring the concept into modern times. It’s time not just to murder our beloveds but to butcher our pets.

If you haven’t learned to kill your darlings yet, you should learn now. (Side note that Faulkner wasn’t necessarily the first to say “kill your darlings,” although he has handily become the most famous.) There are already countless blog postings on the subject, but if you don’t want to Google it, let me explain:

Killing your darlings is all about taking an unbiased look at your prose and deciding which parts are not helping achieve your overall objective. Often enough, your most cherished prose is also the weakest link, and so you must delete it. This is an invaluable lesson for copywriters and creative writers alike.

When you get to the point where you write eight hours a day, five days a week as I do, you start “killing your darlings” before they even hit the page. As point of fact, I’ve already killed about 20 darlings on this blog post, and I’m only on the fourth paragraph! Nonetheless, the ability to know a weak sentence before you write it does not preclude you from the gut-wrenching experience of having to massacre entire civilizations (i.e., crumple up what you thought was a final draft and start over). However, the good news is that it does get easier to commit these heinous acts of writing injustice once you realize that it’s a natural part of the revision process.

But today’s writers have undo, redo, “Save as a Draft” and “Are you sure you want to overwrite this file?” We also have the internet where our articles can be edited after they’re published, and (lest you are under some type of disillusion) even “sent” emails can be edited to a limited extent.

With the way writing has changed, writers can easily fall prey to a “we’ll change it later” attitude, which is why you need to think of it not as killing your darlings but as butchering your pets. To be your own editor, you need to be tough and unforgiving, especially on your cleverest content. So go ahead, go Freddie Kruger on your golden retriever. Just don’t do it literally.

 

Have you had to butcher a beloved pet? Share your favorite lines or phrases that you had to delete for the sake of the greater good.

Use the Right Word, Don’t Wait for the Dictionary

•August 19, 2011 • 1 Comment

Today the Oxford University Press announced the release of the new 12th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (COED), which contains more than 400 new entries including such contemporary pearls as cyberbullying, domestic goddess, gastric band, sexting, slow food and textspeak.

While I am a grammar nut and therefore a fan of dictionaries and of the OED in particular, my reaction is not one of excitement. Instead, I’m thinking, “So what?”

If you’re a writer – and on some level, we all are – you should already be using these words. Just because mankini is in this new edition, doesn’t mean you should manipulate your copy to include it. Similarly, edupunk isn’t in there, but does that mean you should avoid it? Of course not! Widespread usage is how words enter the dictionary in the first place.

Simple advice: Use the right word, now and always.

As I wrote in a previous post, writers must be experts in their subject matter, and that includes knowing the current vernacular of the industry. Based on this expertise, you should judge whether it makes sense to use recently coined terms. And because writing isn’t an exact science, you will need trust your judgment.

So what is the true value of a word’s inclusion in the dictionary?

At the moment, I see the value as slim to none. Some words may gain short-term popularity as they make headlines (for example, CNET’s coverage featured woot in the headline, giving the word a major boost), but most of the 400 new entries will go unaffected. Inclusion in the dictionary is only one step on the long staircase to permanent relevance and usage.

Over time, many of these words will increase further in popularity, auto-correct and spell check will recognize them, and news outlets won’t feel obligated to define them at each inclusion. But it’s not an exact science. Wait another 50 years and many of the 400 newbies will disappear from our collective memory. Popular new words in 1911 included motorist and radioactive (still around), but also macronigram and kinematograph. Know what those mean? If not, how about consulting a dictionary. Hey, maybe that’s what dictionaries are good for!

What’s your perspective on the new edition? Which words do you want to see in the mainstream? Let me know in the comments!

 
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