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How to apply "features vs. benefits" to marketing higher ed

September 1, 2020
Messaging & copywriting

Once upon a time I was a young copywriter at a design and branding firm, where I was learning much about the trade on the job. “Show, don’t tell” was, of course, one of the first valuable lessons I absorbed, but it was the “features vs. benefits” rule of thumb that really transformed my understanding of marketing. 

While the concept is typically applied to the marketing of tangible goods, it translates well to higher ed. The general idea is this: Making a list of every feature your product offers is a great place to start, but the copy we write shouldn’t be about those features. It should focus on the consumer benefits that align with each feature. How will a given feature impact the user and make her life better? What problem is that feature solving? Why should your audience care? 

Take task chairs as an example. (I learned all about “features vs. benefits” while I was writing a lot of copy for contract furniture clients, who design and manufacture furniture for workplaces.) A task chair feature might include “advanced lumbar support.” But it’s the corresponding benefit – supporting better posture so you can focus on your work rather than on your aching back – that speaks to the end user. Because they’ve been there. And now they feel seen. You know their struggles, and you’re offering a solution.

The same principles work for marketing higher ed – we’re just selling a less tangible (and much more profound) product. The admissions homepage, for example, touts “150+ programs....” That’s a feature of a U of I education. But admissions doesn't stop there. They continue with a benefit: “...chances are, we have the major for you.” The number on its own doesn’t mean much to most 16 and 17-year-olds. But when that number translates to a world of possibilities – the opportunity to explore before they commit to a major, or the chance to study something that smaller colleges don’t offer – they understand why that number matters.  

When you have some extra time, make a list of features your unit or program offers your target audience. Then, for each feature, ask “Why should they care? How will this feature help my audience – the heroes – achieve their goals and dreams?” With the answers to those questions in hand, you’ll have the ingredients for some powerful marketing copy.

(Visit our website for more copywriting guidelines!)