The difference between benefits and advantages

It's useful to look at your writing with sales principles in mind. One of these principles is the difference between features, advantages and benefits. To truly sell someone on something, rather than just tell them about it, you need to articulate your argument in terms of benefits.

This makes sense in theory, but it's not uncommon for writers to get bogged down by advantages instead of writing about benefits. Here's how to identify the difference, and make sure you are writing about benefits instead of advantages. 

Starting with features

Features are straightforward. They are aspects of a product, service or idea. My car has a windscreen and an engine. It also has wheels and some other stuff. These are features.

It's also red, and poorly parked. 

It's also red, and poorly parked. 

Enter advantages

Now let’s add advantages into the mix. An advantage is basically a positive feature, of a feature. It's the good thing about your engine, windscreen or wheels. As I said above, one of the features of my car is the fact that it has an engine. One of the advantages of that engine is that it‘s pretty fuel-efficient, as engines go. Great.

This is where a lot of writers run into trouble. That advantage looks a lot like a benefit, and if someone was writing about my car, they might be tempted to write that it has a fuel-efficient engine, and call it a day.

This would be a mistake.

Onto benefits

To really sell something, you need to take a step past advantages, and into benefits. Where an advantage is a nice thing about a feature, a benefit is the positive effect that advantage has on your life. If we think for a second, we can quickly identify some benefits of my Honda Jazz's fuel-efficient engine. For example:

  1. I’ll spend less money on petrol.

  2. I’ll spend less time in the petrol station.

  3. I’ll get a good feeling from doing my (marginal) part to help the environment.

These are all things that I directly get, and they all stem from my car’s engine’s fuel efficiency. Unlike the fuel-efficiency, these three benefits have a tangible effect on my life. That’s what makes the difference between an advantage and a benefit.

Knowing your audience

Benefits are tricky to write because you have to know your audience in order to write about them. That engine from above is relevant to me because I’m a cheapskate when it comes to driving. I look for cars that are right in that sweet spot between “old enough to cost barely anything” and “young enough to be efficient.” My trusty Jazz meets that criteria.

But that’s just me. Judging by the number of SUVs I see in Auckland, fuel efficiency doesn’t rank particularly high in everybody’s purchasing decisions. If you don’t know what your audience wants, it’s going to be very difficult to describe things in terms of benefits they can connect to.

So in absence of this information about an audience, a lot of writers will fall back on advantages, rather than benefits. Advantages are obvious, and they’re universal - but they’re also less effective.

How to fix it

When you’re deep inside an organisation, and surrounded by its messaging on all sides, it can be really easy to mistake advantages for benefits. To test whether you’re doing this, just ask “so what”?

Here are some examples, from a scientifically chosen set of things that happened to be in my line of sight when I wrote this: 

Hot water bottle

  • Advantage: keeps water hot for 8 hours
  • "So what?"
  • Benefit: keeps you warm all night during the winter.

Pair of headphones

  • Advantage: blocks out ambient noise with active noise-cancelling.
  • "So what?"
  • Benefit: Makes air travel more tolerable by blocking out the incessant whine of the engine.

Can of diet soda

  • Advantage: Has no sugar, but is still sweet.
  • "So what?"
  • Benefit: Lets me enjoy a soda without consuming a zillion calories. 

When you lay them out like this, you can see a pretty stark difference between an advantage and a benefit. The advantage is nice, but the benefit is something that makes my life better. I don’t overly care if headphones cancel noise. But I do very much care about airplane engines, and their ceaseless whining.

Here’s the catch

While consumer products are great for illustrative purposes, you probably spend your time writing about things that are a lot more complicated. Most writing is about complex topics, has multiple stakeholders, and is generally just harder to boil down than basic day-to-day things like a pair of headphones or a can of soda.

For example, in the past few months, here are some of the things I’ve written about:

  1. Making better financial decisions.

  2. Tax policy that’s going to charge you a yearly fee to live in your own house.

  3. Why you should use a KiwiSaver provider with higher fees than other providers.

  4. How to protect patient privacy in a healthcare setting.

I’m sure you write about similarly tricky topics. Next time you do, have a think about what you want your audience to do or think after they read your work - and then ask yourself if you’ve laid out a strong, benefit-driven case that convinces them to do so.

And if all you see are advantages, just ask “so what” until you get to the benefit. Because that benefit is the difference between a good piece of writing that informs, and a great piece of writing that convinces.  

Or just have me do it.