The 'No Rules Rule'

I’m sure you’ve heard this many times: “Sell benefits, not features.”

Today I’m telling you that this ‘cardinal rule’ of copywriting is not always true.

Before I tell you why this cardinal rule isn’t true, let’s look first at why this rule became so popular and why it’s powered many controls.

For the most part, people make their decision to buy, sign up, or donate because you’ve touched an emotional chord with your writing. Your reader even makes the decision to continue reading based on how well your headline and the first few sentences of your lead touch his emotions.

Simplified, their heart makes the decision to buy before their brain has kicked in.

So what touches the heart most, features or benefits?

To answer that, let’s look briefly at what features, benefits, and deeper benefits are.

Features are what the product brings with it. Features are things like the number of pages in an investment newsletter. Or how many issues you get in a year. Moroccan leather is a feature. So is the capsule size of a nutritional supplement.

Benefits arise from the impact the product has on your prospect’s life. The investment newsletter will increase your prospect’s income (simple benefit). It can relieve fear of a cat food retirement (deeper benefit). And it can elevate your prospect above his peers, earning him respect and even a little jealousy (deepest benefit).

Deeper and deepest benefits really, truly impact the emotions. They capture your reader’s imagination and help him see his life richer, stronger, healthier, better.

You can see how important, then, it is to sell benefits and not features.

The crucial exception to this cardinal rule …

Wait a minute. At the top of this article, I made the bold statement that the “sell benefits, not features” rule wasn’t always true.

I did it so I could tell you about one of Mark Ford’s (AKA Michael Masterson) most strongly held principles about copywriting that is always true.

And that principle is this: There is only one hard and fast ‘rule’ in copywriting that overrides all others. And that’s “Know Your Prospect.”

Here’s a real-life example of how knowing your prospect trumps the features/benefits rule …

Carline Anglade-Cole is one of the very best alternative health copywriters of all time. She has many multi-year controls for companies like Healthy Directions, True Health, Weiss, Health Resources, NatureCity, Soundview Publications and Sun Chlorella USA.

I was lucky to hear Carline explained how she might have missed out on one such control if she had blindly followed the benefit/features rule.

Carline was writing about a supplement targeted at older users. Before she wrote the promotion, she interviewed many potential buyers, all of them fifty and above. Her research showed that the biggest benefit she could promise was actually a feature.

Her prospects told her that they wanted all the health benefits the supplement promised, but one thing got in the way of them realizing those benefits.

As we get older, many of us experience some problems swallowing. Prospective buyers complained to Carline how many supplements come in what can only be described as horse pill-sized capsules.

So instead of dismissing capsule size as simply a feature, she turned the smaller sized capsules her client sold as the leading benefit. (Not only was it a benefit, it was also the USP – the Unique Selling Proposition. But that’s the subject for another TGT).

Of course she didn’t just talk about the capsule size in her copy. She related that size to other, more personal benefits. But the copy was really built around the idea that the prospect couldn’t get the numerous health benefits of the product if they didn’t take it. And they were not likely to take it if the capsules were too big. Smaller capsule size equaled better health.

As a master copywriter, Carline understands Mark Ford’s principle about copywriting rules. She did not let the benefits/features rule control how she looked at the product … or at her prospect. Instead, she started from the only for sure rule there is in copywriting: Know your prospect. Because she did that, she knew she had to turn the most important feature of her product into its most important benefit.

While the copywriting rules you’re learning (like sell benefits, not features) will certainly help you write stronger copy, don’t let them constrain what you write and how you write. Unless, of course the rule is Know Your Prospect!

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Published: June 10, 2013

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