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Anyone who has worked in sales knows that features are what something is, whereas benefits are what it does for you. And that's easy to incorporate when you're writing about your product or service.

But how do you write successfully when you're selling something intangible to people who aren't customers—but are almost as important?

Often this is what you face when you're writing marketing communications not for customers but for what some of us call “stakeholder” groups (although, of course, customers are stakeholders too.) If you can't quickly identify who I'm talking about, think employees, suppliers, share/stock holders, influencers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, community members, etc.

With these groups, usually you're trying to persuade them to change their thinking rather than buy your product/service. Yet the success of what you write depends on converting features into benefits just like it does when you're selling cans of beans.

Only this time, it's feely rather than touchy, and that's more of a challenge. You've got to sell a sizzle. But there's no sausage.

The Poor Relation of Marcoms

Despite our increasing commitment to write honest, “you-oriented” text connected with every form of marketing communications, you still see a lot of pompous, boring “us-oriented” BS, both offline and online. And nowhere is this nonsense more commonly seen, than in stakeholder marcoms.

In customer marcoms, such BS usually gets noticed and chopped out before the message leaves the building. The stakeholder variety of BS, however, often sneaks through unimpeded.

It's not in the front line of product/service sales. Its impact on the bottom line is not obvious—in fact, if anything, it's seen as a cost. Yuk. It's just not important enough to bother doing properly.

Yet when you think how an organization can be snarled up by a drop in share/stock prices (uninformed and unmotivated retailers... irritated, resentful suppliers... angry, offended members of a neighboring community), you see why getting the words right in marcoms for these groups can be pretty crucial.

What Counts Is Why, Not Just What

Ironically, the reason there's BS in stakeholder marcoms is only rarely because the subject matter itself reeks of ordure matter. Usually, if you dig deep enough, the argument is perfectly valid.

A problem arises when the writer hasn't bothered to figure out why the stakeholder reader should change his/her beliefs or attitude toward the subject matter. Yet that, if anything, is what will make those marcoms work. Not merely the validity of the organization and what it stands for, but also why the person receiving your message should change the way they think about it now.

Startlingly good examples of this problem can be found in the following:

  1. Corporate documents/reports in which all text is about the organization and its achievements

  2. Corporate Web sites that are online versions of the preceding

  3. Recruitment presentations that glorify the organization and patronize potential employees

  4. Supplier newsletters focusing only on the organization's products/services and achievements

  5. One-way employee communications (little or no opportunity for them to provide feedback)

  6. In-company presentations that don't relate the subject matter to the audience's interests

  7. Share/stock holder communications that try to BS their way out of bad news

I'm sure you can recall at least one if not more examples of these in your own experience of being a stakeholder. Remember how negative it made you feel toward the organization?

Your Objectives = Features

In the same way that customers approach changing their car insurance or trying a new brand of hair conditioner, stakeholder groups don't see why they should change their behavior, opinion or attitude unless there's “something in it for them.”

In this case, you don't have features as such, but you do have objectives. Objectives are usually your objectives, not your audience's. So, in effect, they can be considered “features,” and once again you need to turn them into benefits, by asking “so what's in it for them?”

For example:

If your objective is to ___, what's in it for your audience?

Inform… increase their knowledge and awareness

Train… increase existing skills or gain new ones, so they're better at what they do

Correct (rebuke)… learn how to overcome the difficulty and avoid it next time

Complain… can give even better service next time

Entertain… enjoy themselves, relax, feel good

Calm… stop worrying

Sympathize… know that, despite difficulties, the organization supports them

Reassure… are reminded that a difficulty is temporary/resolvable/etc.

Uplift… enjoy a feeling of team-based optimism and power

Gain support… feel a sense of ownership of the organization

Increase esteem… feel they're being really cool to support the organization

Prove viability… feel they're investing wisely by buying into your organization

And so on.

This list is the tip of the iceberg, and please feel free to disagree with some of the parallels I've laid out. But if nothing else, I hope you see what I'm driving at.

To Write Powerfully, Use These Benefits as Hooks

No matter how oblique and ethereal your stakeholder marketing objective might be, if you can't find a real related benefit for the recipient of your message, forget using it in your marcoms writing in the first place. It won't work.

Hardly anyone buys anything—especially anything new—without a good reason. So why should stakeholder groups buy a new attitude from you, unless you give them a good reason to do so?

By treating your objectives as features and turning those into audience benefits, you can create powerful writing hooks for your stakeholder marcoms almost as effectively as you do with product/service benefits in customer marcoms.

They will be hooks that work, because they give your audience good reasons to change from where they are now to where you want them to be. Hang your document, online text or script on those hooks, and you won't go far wrong.

Who needs a sausage, when the sizzle does the job well?

Continue reading "How to Write With Sizzle When There’s No Sausage" ... Read the full article

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Suzan St Maur ( writes extensively on marketing and business communications and is the author of the widely acclaimed Powerwriting.