Look beyond the obvious, and you’ll cook up a storm
I’ve been de-junking (again).
First to go were the old pullovers with funky designs, that now look so yesterday. Then the jeans I hadn’t worn for ages, the smart work shirts (why did I ever think I’d need them again?) and the mohair overcoat (don’t go there). They all went to the Red Cross.
Then it was the turn of the novels I swore I’d read again, but secretly knew I wouldn’t. They were in every room in the house, to the point where they were beginning to take over. And since I’m now a zealous e-reader convert, physical books are like funky pullovers. So they went to the British Heart Foundation.
Next on my list were the hundreds of leaflets and flyers that I’ve hoarded over the years. Just in case I really want a conservatory, or an attractive bright orange fence, or even a TOWIE-style crazy-paving patio.
Not to mention the service leaflets. Cleaners, tree-fellers, plumbers, sash-window repairers, window cleaners and gardeners. Reflexologists and knife sharpeners, party organisers and personal trainers.
I couldn’t bring myself to throw them all out, so I decided on a simple but effective system.
If they sold benefits, they were in. If they sold features, they were out. If they gave me convincing reasons to use them, they were in. If they simply listed the services they offered… well, you get the picture.
The idea for the features/benefits challenge came to me when the latest leaflet landed on my doormat. It was for something I definitely don’t need – Slimming World (‘you need fattening up’, says the woman at the Italian delicatessen whenever I drop in for some pasta sauce).
So then, how do you sell the benefits of Slimming World? Simple – you don’t focus on the problem (being overweight) or the process (the self-denial, the exercise regime, the hunger pangs) but on the result.
And the result is this:
Sara (does she even exist, I wonder?) is ‘the mum I’ve always wanted to be’. But what exactly does that mean?
Well that’s the genius of this particular line: it means whatever people read into it. Perhaps she can keep up with the kids, or compete with the yummy mummies at the school gate, or not embarrass her daughter. Maybe she gets less tired, can do more, smiles a bit more often, feels better and communicates that to her daughter.
Or maybe not.
Each reader will have their own interpretation of Sara’s line. But the important thing here is that they’re not selling the sausage. In fact, I imagine sausages are off the menu for a very long time. Instead, they’re selling the sizzle – the anticipation of what’s to come, the promise of something that has you imagining what it’ll feel like.
In other word, the benefits, not the features.
A game of two halves
I sorted my leaflets and flyers into two piles. And the features pile (A) was much, much larger than the benefits one (B). Most people just listed what they did, and left it at that. And the contrast between A and B was striking:
Cleaner A: Reliable and experienced cleaner available for home or office. References provided.
Cleaner B: Free up your time and enjoy your house. Leave the hard work to us.
Gardener A: All types of trees lopped, topped, pruned and felled. Hedges & shrubs lowered, trimmed and shaped.
Gardener B: We take care of all the garden chores so you can enjoy the view.
Sash-window company A: Sash windows repaired or replaced. Wooden or PVC frames.
Sash-window company B: Add value to your property, reduce your energy bills and improve security.
Now let’s be clear here: it’s not that the benefits people don’t talk about the things they do. Just like the features people, they list them so that prospective customers can see exactly what they’re offering.
But they don’t just leave it at that.
They also tell a story, which almost always comes back to one of the three things that people want to save: money (even if it’s actually spending money to add value), time (which you can never get enough of) or effort (we’re all lazy at heart). Add a dash of aspiration, and a little imagination (this is what you’ll feel like) an you’ve got a recipe for success.
There’s always a place for features, but they play a secondary role. Centre stage should be occupied by the benefits every time. It’s the difference between pile A and pile B.
I know which one I’d rather be in. And so do you.
If it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work
Before you read any further, I should open the kimono a little and let you know something: I suspect I’m a closet techie.
I know, I know, it’s a shameful admission, but there you have it. There’s not much I can do about it. So, with that out of the way (you have been warned) let’s jump into the world of cool ideas.
Just recently, I met the term responsive web design for the first time. Or RWD if you’re a closet you-know-what. It’s a concept that’s spread like wildfire among the web developer community.
The idea behind it is quite simple. More and more people are surfing the web on mobile devices, so websites need to cater to them. But that mobile device could be a 10-inch Nexus, or a 7-inch iPad Mini, or a 4-inch HTC phone. Or any of the hundreds of other devices out there, with varying screen sizes.
So how do you ensure that the website adapts to them all? You use RWD. That’s where the cool stuff starts. Using a CSS media query, you check the size of the screen in pixels, and modify the website layout accordingly.
You don’t just squash everything into the available space. Instead, you rearrange the menus, graphics, columns, headers and everything else so they’re optimised for the screen real estate. So an iPad Mini user sees a different layout to an HTC Mini viewer.
Simple, but highly effective.
This particular cool idea came from a web developer called Ethan Marcotte. Back in 2010, he wrote an article on A List Apart (a web-developer virtual hangout) and ever since then, the idea has been gaining traction.
He even put together a cool (sorry, that word again) demo that shows you exactly how it works. You don’t even need to have an array of devices to try it: you simply resize your browser and see the site magically rearrange itself.
I was blown away. Until I spoke to an actual web developer.
One man’s meat
I was working on a website copywriting project, and the client suggested I spoke to the developer to make sure we were on the same page.
And on the direction of the website, we were. A less-is-more approach to the home page, branch-offs into more detail, bullet-pointed business benefits, and a tagline that held out a promise of marketing heaven.
Then, I strayed off my turf and on to his, asking him about the ins and outs of the design.
“So tell me,” I said with an air of authority, “are you thinking of using this famous responsive web design I keep hearing about?”
There was a pause. A too-long pause.
And then he let rip, pouring scorn on the ‘latest fad’, a ‘crackpot idea’ that was ‘solving a problem that didn’t exist’. On and on he went, bursting my bubble without even realising it.
And as we went on and on, I suddenly saw that he had a point. And it was this: mobile users don’t want the full desktop experience.
They don’t want all the menus, columns, graphics and so on to magically rearrange themselves to the size of the screen. They don’t have a proper keyboard, so typing is more difficult. And because they’re mobile, people are generally on the move, so they want easy, point-and-press solutions, with big buttons, clear choices and simple navigation.
In other words, he said, what they really want is an app – a cut-down, bare-bones version of the site, that allows them quickly to achieve their goal: book a flight, check a schedule, buy their groceries. Mobile devices need a task-oriented approach. And that means one thing: apps.
Of course he was entirely right. How could I have been so easily led astray?
Right and wrong (and somewhere in between)
In exactly the same way as lots of other people were.
Except that in the case of web design, there’s no right or wrong, better or worse. In some cases, apps are better; in others, responsive websites. The RWD question has the web development community in a spin, as techies decide which camp they’re in and slug it out for supremacy.
The takeaway here is simple: ideas are seductive, and often, we follow them blindly. We get so caught up by the momentum of these ‘cool’ ideas that we don’t realise we’re forgetting what’s really important: our readers, customers and prospects. Because it doesn’t really matter what we think – if it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work.
So what cool ideas have floated your boat recently? Have you felt, as I did, the surge of enthusiasm and the rush of admiration? The helter-skelter ride of seduction? The absolute confidence that you were onto a winner?
A new website, app, marketing campaign, pricing structure, special offer or membership scheme?
If so, take a moment, temper your enthusiasm and take a long, hard look at it. Play devil’s advocate, and force yourself to list the negatives.
You may well find that just like responsive web design, it’s not as attractive as it initially seems.
Find out more:
- Revolution or evolution? The article by Ethan Marcotte on A List Apart that kicked off the RWD debate. Try out that cool demo by resizing your screen.
- A balanced view: Forbes.com puts the case for and against responsive web design.
Loose talk may no longer cost lives – but it could cost your reputation
We’ve all had that feeling. The sinking feeling that comes from wondering if somebody’s googling us, and what they’re likely to find.
Did we post something embarrassing at 3am on Facebook? Did we remember to tighten up our security? Did we even read the last email that Facebook sent out with its interminable privacy settings? Did we really understand it?
And Twitter? Is there anything embarrassing in the ether that might compromise our career prospects, our chances of closing the deal or winning the contract?
In the last six months alone, I’ve heard a number of horror stories from friends and clients:
- A woman who called in sick, but continued tweeting all day long about shopping, TV programmes she was watching and what her plans were for the evening.
- A senior manager who dropped out and did his own thing, wrote several devastating posts on his blog about the corporate world, and even gave an interview to a lifestyle website about how destructive full-time employment was. Subsequently, he had a change of heart, and decided he wanted to rejoin the world of work. It was then that he discovered the term ‘Google CV’ – the one that’s more revealing than your carefully managed version.
- A corporate tweeter who got involved in a slanging match with a fan of the competition. It became more and more heated, and he ended up saying things that damaged the image of his company – and his job prospects. On reflection, and trawling through the tweets, he realised that the ‘fan’ was in all probability a plant by the competition – a sponsored troll, as it were.
There’s never been as much chatter out there – or as much danger of damaging your image. It’s something that political parties have learned to their cost. If you’ve ever watched the BBC’s The Thick of it, you’ll have laughed at chaos caused by 24-hour news management in the always-on world of the Westminster village.
But it’s not just politicians. Companies too have to make sure they’re coordinated on all fronts. They need to manage the message across every conduit, and often, that’s not easy.
Act in haste
Publishing online has never been simpler. A client of mine that helps organisations manage and monitor website standards quotes a wonderful phrase when it comes to publishing content: ‘empowering the irresponsible’.
It’s not so much a criticism as an observation on how easy it is for somebody – anybody – to put ‘stuff’ out there. That stuff can be off-brand, off-colour and off-message.
And that can be devastating to a company brand – which can easily account for 50% or more of a company’s market capitalisation.
So what do you do – indeed, what can you do – to control the message in an always-on, 24×7, 360-degree world?
Well, you can start with the basics: ensuring that you say the same thing, in the same tone of voice, through all channels.
- If you’re tweeting, remember that the world is watching. Twitter is great for getting the message out and building a community, but what you say needs to maintain the same standards as everything else you communicate. Somebody once told me they treat every tweet as if it were a press release. That certainly focuses the mind.
- Make sure all your people are on the same page; and if that page is Facebook, make sure they know about it. Just recently, I spoke to somebody who told me that their support people had no idea they even had a corporate Facebook page, or what they were saying on it.
- Make your default mode corporate. By that, I don’t mean that you should fall back on the dreaded business-speak. Just remember that corporate Facebooking, tweeting and blogging are not the same as the personal equivalents. It’s the difference between a business dinner at a staid restaurant, and a raucous meal at your local pizzeria. It’s all about context.
- If you’re tweeting, posting and blogging, make sure to keep an eye out for developing situations. Monitoring things regularly is the best way of heading trouble off at the pass.
And lastly, if in doubt, leave it out.
‘Think twice, post once’, a friend said to me recently. He said it’s saved him from innumerable spats on social media. By taking the time to think of an appropriate, measured response, he’s managed to maintain the moral high ground, and keep his company’s reputation intact.
Managing the message is often more about what you don’t say than what you do. Silence rarely gets you into trouble.
Which is a good note to end on.
From two wheels to two feet, it pays to paint a picture
Just recently, a friend told me about a bike that a friend of his had bought.
It wasn’t just any bike. This was a racing bike, hand-built to his exact specifications. It had state-of-the-art everything, and more electronics than the average car. But that wasn’t all it had in common with its four-wheeled cousin.
For this bike carried the princely price tag of £8,000. That’s $12,000, give or take a few cents.
So why did he do it? Why not buy a bargain bike for less than £100? Here’s why:
- It’s unique. This type of bike, with this configuration, doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
- It’s hand-made, which means it must be better than something that’s come off an automated production line. In fact, the company he bought it from said it was ‘lovingly crafted’, which makes it sound more like a Stradivarius than a bicycle.
- It makes a statement about the owner (he’s wealthy, has good taste, recognises quality and is prepared to pay for it).
- It makes him feel good. Well let’s face it, blowing £8k like that would make anyone feel good – for a while. But it’s more than the adrenaline high of the purchase; it’s the ongoing pleasure of owning and using something that’s the best.
But here’s the thing: this friend of a friend doesn’t actually cycle that much.
In fact, in the year or so he’s owned this masterpiece, he’s taken it out a handful of times. Mostly, he simply likes telling people how much it cost, and how it was ‘lovingly crafted’ by expert bicycle makers.
In other words, he didn’t really buy a bike. He bought a story. About the bike, about himself, about his lifestyle.
Buying is never an easy process – for the buyer. For the seller, it’s just another sale, and after a while, one feels very much like another. But for the buyer, it’s always a bit of a wrench to make a decision and go for it.
It’s not the cost. Or at least, it’s not just the cost.
Almost as bad as spending too much, or too little, is making the wrong choice. The one you’ll regret later, or that your friends will laugh at. The one that keeps you awake at 3am, or has you scrambling online to see what the returns policy is.
So we look for affirmation and validation. We check with friends, we look for testimonials, we read reviews. But there’s always a little twinge of doubt, which never really goes away.
Just last week, I bought an app for my tablet on Google Play. I wasn’t sure it did everything I wanted, but I was pretty confident I could return it if I had to.
And I could – but Google’s returns window is 15 minutes, so you’ve got to be pretty snappy. Luckily for me, a couple of minutes was enough: the app did all I hoped for and more. Plus, it was 50% off, so I’d made the right choice at a bargain price.
Things aren’t always that clear-cut, though. Reviews can vary wildly online. Friends can give conflicting advice and opinions. And your initial impressions can be mixed, so you’re left none the wiser about whether you’ve made the right choice.
One clever way of giving people a feeling that they’re doing the right thing is by showing them just that. So it’s not about the purchase (the feature) but about the knock-on effect (the benefit).
These boots were made for talking
Tom’s Shoes knows all about selling the benefits.
Their tagline is One for one. For every pair of shoes you buy, they give a pair to kids in the Third World. So the more you spend, the more you give. Suddenly, your shoe addiction becomes an act of charity.
Guilt is turned into pleasure, and pleasure into virtue. Talk about a win-win situation.
Now we can’t all do a Tom and give away our products and services to make people feel good. But we can make people feel better about buying.
It’s really just a case of taking the sale and turning it into a story. The car is about freedom. The new smartphone is about having fun with friends. The life insurance policy is about caring for loved ones. The coffee is about making sure producers earn a living wage.
Behind every sale is a story. Behind every feature is a benefit.
Behind every lovingly hand-crafted one-of-a-kind bike is… the £99 one that I noticed as I walked past the bike shop the other day.
Now that’s my kind of story.
Find out more:
- A step in the right direction. You win, they win, with Tom’s Shoes.
A bitter taste and a different view
Dog bytes man
Many years ago, when I was a big cheese in the high-tech arena (don’t worry – I much prefer being a small cheese, answerable to nobody) we had a saying: eat your own dogfood.
It’s not as disgusting as it sounds, and it made perfect sense. The dogfood was what we pushed out there: software. And the dogs, if you’ll forgive the canine comparison, were the users.
So the message was clear: if it’s good enough for them (users, not dogs, you understand) it’s good enough for us. And that went for all software, from dodgy betas right down to the occasional roller-coaster experience of alpha code. If you expect people to use it externally, to run their businesses on it and trust their data to it, you have to get chomping.
And chomp we did.
It was wonderfully liberating. Just like the Queen Mother in the East End in World War 2, you could look users in the eye and tell them you too had experienced the terrors of crashes, dodgy performance and features that were more bug, less feature.
But it doesn’t stop at software. Service is just as edible – in a metaphorical sense.
Every so often, I’d phone the call centre, disguise my voice and ask a difficult or sensitive question, just to see how the staff handled it. I’d ask product-related questions to see how accurate their answers were.
And occasionally, when I was feeling really mischievous, I’d phone up as Mr Angry and demand to be put through to that accursed product marketing manager (me). Now that was an eye-opener.
Putting yourself in your customer’s shoes can be distinctly uncomfortable, as you feel the pinch of bad service and the squeezed toe of off-message comments. Getting the run-around can be even more tiring, but imagine how much worse it is for your genuine clients, who can’t snap out of the role play and reveal their identity.
Seeing how you treat your customers is a sobering experience. But it’s one that we should all try now and then to see just what a dog’s life is really like.
Speaking of which, last week I had my eyes tested again. I’m still not quite used to the idea of wearing glasses, two years after finally having to admit that I couldn’t read the small print. Or any print, come to that.
I’ve avoided the dentist for more years than I’m willing to admit (post-traumatic brace syndrome) but I decided I really couldn’t put off the optician.
Not that I’ve noticed a deterioration in the last two years, but they did say that’s the standard testing interval. And they scared me with stories of people leaving it for four or five years, then really struggling to adjust to their new glasses.
So I gave in.
Besides, there was a gentle reminder from not one, but two opticians that it was that time again. (See how effective and easy following up is? And the knee-jerk reaction to a simple, computer-generated letter?)
I’ll spare you the endless details of the bottom lines (small print), balloons and red/green boxes, but instead focus in true blogger style on the 5 marketing lessons I learned from having my eyes tested:
- Free should be free (the eye test, that is) not ‘free if you subsequently buy a pair of glasses from us’. It’s really important when you’re making a promise that you don’t raise the reader’s hopes, only to dash them on the rocks of reality.
- Too much choice is no choice, especially when it looks designed to baffle. I was presented with so many options, I just stared and went blank. One pair for £69, with a free coating worth £30. Or a two-for-one offer, but you pay for the coatings. Or a budget pair for £25, and again you pay for the coating. There was one choice the nice lady didn’t give me: do nothing, have a think about it, and come back later (or maybe never). Which is the one I went for.
- Wear your own glasses – which is another way of saying the dogfood thing. When the optician finished my eye test, she obviously hit a real or virtual bank-robber-button-under-the-desk gizmo, which brought the saleswoman to the door to segue into the selling process. It felt creepy and manipulative, but they’re so used to it they’ve probably stopped wondering what it feels like to see things through their clients’ eyes. If you see what I mean.
- Walk away from a sale, and clock up those brownie points. When I got home, I reviewed the numbers, and the difference between my original prescription and this one was minuscule. I found out online (where else?) that I could easily wait another year before changing my glasses. If they’d told me that, they’d have been my new best friends, and top of my Christmas card list. But they didn’t, and I felt just a little bit used.
In the end, of course, I was the one who walked away from the sale. Or at least from that sale. And when I do change my glasses, I’ll order them online. I found a great site with huge choice, fast delivery and excellent how-to videos. And free coatings. No, not ‘free’ – just free.
They also pass the only test that really counts for me: the focus on my bottom line.
Speaking of which, you’re right – my five lessons are actually four. Well spotted. Perhaps I can’t last another year.