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The #1 Mistake Startups Make When Talking About Their Product

At InterimCMO, we meet with a lot of startup founders who talk about their product in terms of what it does. They’ve needed to focus on the fundamentals of their product so much during its development that they only know how to communicate its value in terms of functionality. This becomes an issue as soon as they start trying to sell their product. (Another common mistake? Relying too much on media coverage. Here’s why press is only a bandaid for other problems.)

People don’t buy on features, they buy on experiences and benefits.

When you speak or write about your product, you need to address who you’re helping, what you’re disrupting, and why people should care.

Knowing the difference between the features and the benefits of your product and when to talk about each is a marketing essential.

What’s a feature?

Features are the the literal, technical components of your product. What it does, how it functions, what it’s made of, etc.

When to talk about features:

Glorify your product’s features to your heart’s content when speaking with other startups, potential partners, and some investors — they’re the ones that are interested in the nitty-gritty backend stuff and in understanding how your product works and what makes it distinct from others. Founders should be excited to talk about the intricate features and capabilities of their product in tech circles, but most customers aren’t going to see the value in those things.

Customers want to know how and why they should use the product and what it can do for them.

The exception is when customers understand the benefits of your product and are deciding between your brand’s product and a competitor’s. Then they’ll go the specs of your product to examine the features. Features will also be useful if a tech person is sent to evaluate your offering for their company. They’ll want to know how it can be implemented and how it can integrate with their existing tech.

To summarize, the values and features draw the interest of the customer. Only then will they review the product features.

What’s a benefit:

The benefits of your product are the aspects that translate to value for potential customers. Is your app or bot going to make their life easier somehow? Great, tell them how. Are you creating a service to benefit people with a certain disability? Awesome, explain to customers and investors why they should be interested, even if they’re not directly affected by it.

Being clear on the benefits you’re offering is really a practice of stepping outside of yourself and figuring out why people would talk about your thing.

If you’re unsure, we recommend doing more informal market research. Go to parties, tell people about what you have to offer.

Talk to people about what your company does and watch their faces. If they look confused, it’s probably not the right angle to describe it. If they ask questions and seem like they get it, think, “okay, that works with this kind of person at least.” Then ask yourself, “is this person my ideal client?” If not, then it matters less. If so, then it’s an indicator that you might have gotten closer to nailing down the benefits that are most relevant to your target audience.

Talk with other people in the media industry or in publishing and get their input too. Even if they’re not the right people to be covering your story, just chat with them and see what their reaction is — do they dismiss it or are they intrigued?

When to talk about benefits:

When you’ve nailed down what the benefits of your product are and which ones catch the attention of your audience most, use them to craft your company’s core story, byline, website copy, press kit, and any other customer-or investor-facing materials.

Experienced marketers will sometimes intentionally mix features and benefits together in descriptions — but you still need to understand how each is working in order to make it effective. Keeping features and benefits separate, however, can make it incredibly easy to know what aspects to mention when and where.

Not sure where to start?

  1. Make a list of every component you can think of that composes your product as a whole. What makes it unique? What’s it do? What’s it offer? What’s it made of?Make two columns next to the list labeled “Features” and “Benefits.”
  2. Go through each component on your list. If it’s a core component of your product/service, like its hardware, composition, or what it’s doing on the back end, put an X in the features column. If it has to do with your average customer and why they would assign value to the product, or why/how the product is useful in daily life, mark it as a benefit.

Key terms like, “…that allows for X,” “…is good for X,” or “…helps achieve X” are easy-to-spot bridges from feature zone to benefit zone. For example, you might write something like, “the pre-set formulas in Distrosheet allow users to tweet directly from their content calendar.” Here, “the pre-set formulas” are the feature and “users can tweet directly from their content calendar” is the benefit.

In the example above, the feature and benefit combine to make a marketing claim. The two won’t always be so easy to combine, but for these cases, it can be helpful to add a third column to your chart entitled, “Marketing Language” in which you practice combining features and benefits in engaging ways.

Knowing how to separate the features of your products from the benefits will allow you to build all of your marketing materials with a better intentionality and understanding toward who and how they’re going to engage.


The #1 Mistake Startups Make When Talking About Their Product was originally published in InterimCMO on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.