Benefits sell apps, not features

The following article will be included in my upcoming eBook on marketing secrets for app developers.

There are many reasons why an app doesn't sell, but one of the biggest reasons is that the developer focuses on the apps features rather than its potential benefits to the customer. Buying decisions are almost totally based on emotion, not features. You have to clearly explain how your app will make life easier and/or solve specific customer needs.

I was guilty of this when I released my first app, and my sales were awful. So I did some research and came across an article titled, "Marketing Features Vs. Benefits" at the website ( I learned so much from that article that I e-mailed the author, Laura Douglas, and asked if she would do a Q&A interview about the article for iPhone Life readers. She agreed, and this article is the result. After reading it, go back and look over your app's description in the App Store as well as how you present it on your website; make sure it's more focused on benefits.

Without further ado, here's the interview.

Q: What is the biggest mistake marketers make when writing about benefits?

A: The single biggest mistake is in not understanding the difference between a feature and a benefit. If you ask most marketers to list the benefits of their app, they will reel off a list of features. The problem is that most sellers have a hard time stepping into the buyer's shoes. There are two primary reasons for this.

First, sellers most likely created the app to meet a need of their own—to solve a problem, eliminate momentary boredom, to have fun, and so on. To create the app, they focus on the design and functions that meet their needs. All too quickly, the seller loses awareness of their original needs and flips to a focus on how the app works, i.e. the features. But the features are really only a means to an end—not the end themselves. It's the original needs and wants of the seller that made him/her create the app in the first place that make someone want to buy the app.

Second, after the app is developed, the seller's needs and wants have changed. Quite simply, they now want to sell the app. The problem is that the needs/wants of their potential buyers are the same as the seller's original needs. For example, when you [Kevin Sitek] created Soccer Card SKS ($1.99,, you did it for personal reasons. You may have wanted to make it easier to record your child's or team's stats, or to be able to share something with your child or the child's grandparents. You might have wanted an easier way to keep records for coaching, or to have something to help you when you're bragging about your kid. Whatever it was, it was a quite personal reason.

These are the types of needs that spur development, but they are also the type of needs that spur the desire to buy. These are the types of needs that should be used to drive marketing. The functions and other aspects of the app enable you to meet those needs.

The simple solution to the problem is for the seller/app creator to think back to their original needs and wants and create their marketing message based on them. He or she should craft the message to appeal directly to those needs and wants—not to the mechanics of how they are achieved. In summary:

  • A feature answers the question "What does it do?"

  • A benefit answers the question "What's in it for me?" or "What do I get out of using it?"

I actually prefer the term result rather than benefit because benefit has become a buzz word that few people really understand. A result gets to the core of the answer to the question "What's in it for me?"

Q: Can you elaborate on the difference between "feature" and "benefit/result?"

A: A result is something that is very personal and often varies from person to person. "Benefit" doesn't have as much of a direct connection to our brains as "result" does. For example, "live audio" and "hear the play-by-play" are features; "feel like you're there" and "get inside the fantasy" are results. A clear understanding of the results associated with your app is a better way to drive its marketing message.

Q: Why is it so important to focus on results in marketing copy?

A: Features and results are both important aspects of marketing copy. Especially with iPhone and iPad apps, there are certain features that users are looking for—a set of expectations that must be met before they'll considered a purchase. However, you have to capture their imagination first, or they'll never get around to looking for those features.

For example, there are thousands of game apps available. How do you set your game apart from all the others? Is your game funny? A good marketer doesn't just tell you so. If at all possible, he or she demonstrates it. Does it represent a cure for boredom? Or, perhaps, it helps hone skills needed in other areas of play. "Become a rock star—even if only in your own mind!" "Learn how the pros do it and be a hero to your team!" And so on.

Q: Can you give a step-by-step process on 
how to turn features into results?

A: This is both a very easy and a very tough process, and its results will only be as good as the time, effort, and honesty a developer is willing to put into it.

  1. First, take off your developer's hat and put on your buyer's hat and go shopping:

  2. Find at least 3 apps in the App Store that do essentially what your app does. If there are none (this is highly unlikely unless it is specific to an obscure field), then find apps that are similarly singular or limited to specific fields.

  3. Rapidly read through the copy for these apps, focusing on the app description and functions.

  4. Select at least one that you might like to purchase for yourself.

  5. See if you can figure out why that one appeals to you more than the others. The ones you are interested in for this process are the ones that appeal to you from the description—not the feature list.

  6. What it is about the description that gets to you? Does it imply that you will feel powerful, in charge? Does it imply that you will feel smart? Does it imply that you will feel like a fantasy is real? Be honest; what does it touch in you?

Next, take your list of features for your own app and select the 3 that you feel are the most important. Then follow this process for each one:

  1. For each feature, write down at least two reasons why you think this is important to your buyer.

  2. For each of those reasons, drill down at least one more level. What often happens is that the feature you pick is actually comprised of a set of features. For example, you might list as a single feature the fact that an app brings a news channel to your phone. Drilling down on that uncovers that it lets you read and watch breaking news. (But the real question is: Why do you want or need breaking news in the first place?)

  3. If that second level does not match up with some real need or want in you, you need to drill down to another level.

  4. After going through all 3 features, you need to distance yourself from your role as creator/developer and look at your app as if you were a buyer.

  5. Determine what real needs or wants—not intellectually perceived needs—can be met in the mind of your buyer. The only real way to do that is to figure out what real need or want your app provides to you.

Q: Can you give some examples benefits/results associated with specific features of an app?

A: I'll use the features you list for Soccer Card SKS:

  • Feature: Customizable, virtual soccer card (front and back) with player's own photo, first & last name, position, team name, number, season year, season schedule, season record, and season stat totals. Benefit/result: Make it personal. Your child, your team, your schedule.

  • Feature: Easy to use interface. Benefit/result: You already know how to use it.

  • Feature: Player stats with season record and totals. Benefit/result: Your child is always a star!

  • Feature: Create and e-mail an entire player's season stats and schedule to others as an easy-to-read color html e-mail. Benefit/result: Keep grandparents up-to-date.

  • Feature: Use your iPhone camera to create an instant card photo or select from your own library of photos. Benefit/result: Make it personal!

  • Feature: Track player's seasonal win, loss, and tie record. Benefit/result: Become a supportive coach. Be able to provide an accurate history for scouts.

  • Feature: Keep individual notes for each game. Benefit/result: Quick and easy coaching tool.

  • Feature: Create virtual soccer cards for your entire team. Benefit/result: "Make it personal. And share it!"

Q: Since most app developers don't have a budget for researching their target market, how would you recommend them to go about doing this?

A: Classic statistical research isn't usually necessary for small-app developers. These apps tend to have a primary single purpose that makes it easier to determine a profile of the potential user. The easiest and first way to gather such information is for the developer to go back into his/her mind and remember why they wanted to create such an app in the first place. Here are some samples:

  • Did you create a game to keep your child occupied and quiet during a dinner out? Then that's the benefit/result of buying the game.

  • Does a buzzing alarm clock ruin the entire day for you so you created an app so you could wake up to sounds that put you in a positive frame of mind for the day? Again, that's the benefit/result—not the fact that it is customizable.

  • Did you create an app that stores all your passwords and critical info because, although you are smart enough not to use the same password everywhere, you have a hard time remembering which site uses which password? Do you waste valuable time resetting passwords or having reminders sent to you? Then the benefit/result is "never forget a password again!"

Your second source for great feedback information is to ask friends and family to test the app. Ask them what they like about it and how and why they might use it. Ask them what problem it solves and why they think it might do so.

Another extremely easy and valuable resource is a feedback link in the app itself or on its splash screen. Offer something for free to get buyers to tell you why they bought it, what they like about it, how they use it, etc. Keep it very simple—a few key questions in the form of a survey. Offering additional skins or variations, a free upgrade, or something similar not only can provide a developer with an excellent source of information about the people to whom his/her app appeals and why it does, but it also gives you a mailing list for announcements about new apps or other developments. Just ask for their name and a valid e-mail address to send their freebie.

Buying is an emotional task

It's important to keep in mind that buying is an emotional task—not a rational one. That is why features don't sell. If you focus on features, the potential buyer has to do the work of mapping a path from the rational feature to a specific and personal emotional need or want. When you ask a potential buyer to do that work, you are likely to lose them. The marketer should draw that map for the potential buyer—if they do, they'll get the sale!

An interview with Laura Douglas
Sept/Oct 2010
Creating Apps
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