Monday, July 21, 2008

The Benefits of Features

Common marketing wisdom is: Benefits sell, features don't.

Benefits are what the customer wants; features are merely the means to the end. Customers are interested in "saving money" or "saving time" or being "easier to use;" features aren't interesting until the customer understands and wants the benefits. Everyone says so.

My instinct is opposite. But, not wanting to second-guess tradition, I've dutifully fought my instincts at the behest of marketing and sales gurus. Since the first advertisements at Smart Bear I've had conversations like this:

Guru: Why is this here: "Integrates with version control systems."

Me: That's one of our features.

Guru: Say I'm a customer. Why do I care that you integrate with those things?

Me: Well normally you have to collect files for review by hand, but with this integration we can collect the files for you. So a mundane, 5-minute task reduces to a few seconds.

Guru: So it's going to save me time?

Me: Yes, and doing it by hand is error-prone and it's boring and ...

Guru: OK, OK, but mainly it saves time.

Me: Yes, it saves time.

Guru: Fine, than that's the benefit. "Saves time." I don't care yet how it works, just tell me how it will help me.

Me: So that's it? Just write "Saves time?"

Guru: How about "Cuts 80% of the time out of starting a review." That will grab my attention.
We'd do this with each of my feature points in the ad. So what started out as:
  • Integrates with version control systems
  • Threaded chat in context with code
  • Automated metrics and reports
Turned into:
  • Saves time
  • Easier to manage than email
  • Eliminates manual tasks
Looking back now over the last five years and considering what worked best for us, this technique still doesn't seem right to me because these benefit statements eliminate the interesting, unique properties of our product. Claims like "Saves time," "Easier to use," "Automates tasks," these are things that almost all software promises to do. Although these might indeed be the ultimate benefits, it's the same message as everyone else. I suppose I could claim "Saves more time than competitor X," but is that really the strongest message I have?

I agree that customers are interested in end results. Furthermore they need to picture themselves using the product and achieving those results. TV advertisers have long recognized the power of visualization; nearly every TV ad shows someone using and enjoying the results of the product.

But statements like "easy to use" are completely unhelpful in visualization. Even if you trump it up as "Cut code review time in half," I still cannot picture how that's going to happen. If I'm already a skeptical person -- quite likely with our target audience -- I might not wait around for you to explain it.

If your potential customers are experiencing pain, they'll automatically see how the feature achieves the benefit. Our customers already know code review incurs busywork and can be a huge waste of time. If I say "Writes reports for you" or "Collects metrics automatically" or "Packages and delivers code with one click," it's clear that the benefit is to save time and help with chores, but now you can visualize exactly how.

Be specific and tangible about what you do, just phrase it so it leads automatically to the benefit.