The Death of Features and Benefits: Why storytelling now rules marketing and sales

I want to tell you a story. A few years ago I had the privilege of helping a wonderful man start a new business. It was literally a paper-napkin experience. We met at a coffee shop and mapped out his business plan on the back of a napkin. Our initial ideas for what his business should be quickly morphed as he began talking to clients in the field. The company rapidly grew from a supplier of backup tapes for IT infrastructure into a true IT consulting and integration firm. Best of all, revenues grew from zero to nearly 10 million dollars within three years. It was such a fun ride!

Several factors account for this firm’s success. Its founder was a high-energy guy with a great attitude. They had a clear mission. They hired great people who were passionate about their mission. eHeThey made good choices about technologies to support and partnerships. But really, one factor stands out above all others. Their founder was a good storyteller.

At the time, I didn’t quite get how important it was to be a good storyteller. This is a sad confession from a guy with a degree in English literature.

Why storytelling

He used to say to me, “I’ve noticed that when I tell a good story, good things happen.” He wasn’t talking about children’s nursery rhymes. He was talking about the experiences his clients had with various technologies and most importantly, the results this had on people. One IT director who picked the wrong technologies and had an implementation go terribly awry ended up being fired. He then divorced and disappeared. A cautionary tale certainly works. But positive stories are usually more effective.

He told stories about his clients whose staff felt a great sense of relief when their IT infrastructure suddenly became stable. The weekend calls to “come in and fix the data center” almost instantaneously disappeared. Happy employees rule! He told stories about how the executives of a government contractor slept better at night because their highly sensitive data had better protection.

He told many stories and continually collected them. The one thing they all had in common was the human element. He didn’t just focus on the features and benefits of the technology. In fact, he rarely talked about these. It was a given that the technologies actually worked. Instead, he focused on the human impact of the technologies. Could this be why his company grew so fast?

Who cares about features and benefits?

As a marketing guy, I grew up in a world where features and benefits ruled. We believed that if we could just get people to see how our products and services would benefit them — they would probably buy. I believe that the rise of social media and a highly-connected buyer network has radically displaced features and benefits. Don’t get me wrong. You still need to be able to articulate the features and benefits of your products and services. But you can no longer begin a conversation there. They key word here is — conversation.

The Cluetrain Manifesto

In 1999, four brilliant web marketers wrote a book called the Cluetrain Manifesto. The central thesis of the book is that “markets are now conversations.” This is a fundamental shift in the way we’ve conceived of markets in the past. At the heart of this proposition is the tenet that whoever controls the information controls the dialogue.

In the world in which I grew up as a marketer, we controlled the information. We built our products and services and told you about them. We told you what features and benefits we included and you had the choice to either believe us or not. But outside of our statements, you had few other data points to validate or invalidate our claims.

There was a closed loop, two-way communication system. We spoke — you listened. You spoke — we listened (in theory). If you asked for proof of our claims, we could present numerous success stories, which we had carefully crafted from hand-picked happy clients. No unfiltered third-party information was available to you as a decision-maker.

That all changed with the rise of social media. Social media is a disintermediation technology, where a third party speaks independent of the first (company) and second (potential buyer) parties. The credence many buyers give to this third-party dialogue cannot be overstated.

It is now the challenge of every marketer to not only craft your own useful success stories (which I still completely believe in), but also to try to influence the third-party dialogue that occurs in the world of social media. What is the best way to do that? I’ll come back to that in a moment.

How storytelling has changed the B2B buying cycle

Some things have not changed. To be successful in sales and marketing, you still have to develop a clear profile of your ideal client. You have to deeply understand their goals, challenges and opportunities. You have to successfully navigate them through the buying cycle, which likely consists of the following:

  • Awareness. Where they become aware of your brand and how you might help them achieve their goals, realize their opportunities and resolve their challenges.
  • Interest. Where they express a willingness to engage in dialogue and explore how you can help them.
  • Evaluation. Where they request a proposal and evaluate it based on their needs and compare it to competitive solutions.
  • Selection. Where they select your brand and move ahead.

How has storytelling changed the way this all works? In the past, a potential buyer would begin this process by listening to you talk about your features and benefits. They would do this online, through a brochure, a web page, a white paper, a webinar or maybe watching a video about your products and services. Then they would reach out to you to enter two-way dialogue. But the starting point for this “conversation” would begin with your products, services and company.

Smart marketers have figured out that many buyers in this new communications paradigm don’t care about features and benefits — until much later in the sales cycle, near the end when they are conducting due-diligence. This new breed of buyers places more credence in the rolling commentary of colleagues and other like-minded individuals in their social network than they do in “filtered” statements from a company selling products and services.

This new breed of buyers is not swayed by what marketing-types dream up in our laboratories. Yet they cannot resist a good story. Especially a good story about a goal, opportunity or challenge that resonates with them.

This is the new starting point in the buying cycle for the new breed of buyer — a great story. This story becomes more powerful when it gets circulated in a social network and unfiltered commentary bandies it about. This is the connection between social media, storytelling and productive conversations.

The shifting of features and benefits

So maybe features and benefits aren’t dead. But I do think they are displaced — to much later in the buying cycle, during the due-diligence phase. One thing is for sure. A great story is an excellent starting point for fruitful conversations that create revenue. Just try one and you’ll see.

About the author

Randy Shattuck is a senior marketing executive and founder of The Shattuck Group, a full-service marketing firm that specializes in growing professional services firms. You can reach him at randy@theshattuckgroup.com.

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