Value Proposition: Selling the Category vs. Selling the Product
I’ve been doing some copywriting for two different companies lately that require a different strategic approach. One requires communicating the value proposition of the category itself before getting to the product. For the other, it makes sense to jump directly into the product’s value proposition.
Before you put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) for your next piece of marketing, consider which approach your ad, email or direct mail piece needs.
Selling the Category
I’m working on landing page optimization for an insurance company. This is an example of an industry where selling the product first is often the right approach for two reasons.
For one, there are many types of insurance, and prospective customers likely want a basic understanding of the type of product they might be buying especially before getting on the phone or filling out a form for more information.
Second, people aren’t necessarily sold on wanting to buy insurance. Even when they’re searching for it. Even when they have it already. Insurance is not an instant pleasure, people pay now for the possibility of maybe getting something in the future. And even if they have insurance, there is high perceived friction and switching costs involved. So they really need to understand the value proposition for the overall category first, before they’ll even care about the value proposition for the product.
For example, in this landing page optimization experiment, the page that began with communicating the overall value of a Medicare Advantage plan generated 638% more leads than the plan that sold the value proposition of the product first – in this case, a call to an insurance agent – even though adding the category information made the landing page longer.
Some brands push back on this approach. They don’t want to waste space (especially in paid media like a print ad) selling a commodity customers can buy from the competition. But keep in mind, customers go on a buyer’s journey for each product they buy and decision they make. And if you hit them with the product value proposition before they’ve decided they’re even interested in the category, you may lose them.
Some examples of when you should test starting with the category value proposition include when the category is:
- Complex and not well understood
- Filled with high switching costs (it helps to reaffirm the value of why they have a product in that category to begin with)
- Tilted towards instant expense with value far off in the future (e.g. funerals and cremations, saving and investments, etc.)
- A “broccoli purchase” (the type of things everyone knows they should buy, but no one really wants to purchase)
- More expensive than its monetary cost, usually due to the time investment needed (e.g. insurance underwriting, a graduate degree, etc.)
- More expensive than the current category they are likely in
- Unique (you have few if any competitors)
- Totally new
- Relatively new (it’s reached early adopters but not mass adopters)
That last bullet highlights a unique challenge. Customers may already have that need served by a different product category. And if you jump ahead and just sell your product, they may overlook its value and assume their needs are already being met.
For example, as I mentioned in the MECLABS Newspaper Paywalls and Digital Subscriptions report, “Consumer data suggests one key challenge newspapers may have overlooked is the need to sell the value proposition of the category (digital subscription), and not just the product. The fairly typical example in figure 1 assumes that customers already want ‘news on the go.’ The ad is communicating the value of a smartphone more than the value of a specific digital subscription, because customers can access free news on the Internet through their smartphones and get ‘news on the go’ this way.”
Selling the Product
I’m also engaged in some copywriting for a website development project for an event. In this case, it rarely makes sense to sell the category. For example, the website offers video replays of event sessions. The visitors understand and know the value of a video in general. So the copy is entirely focused on communicating the unique value of the product itself.
Some examples when you should test starting with the product’s value proposition include when the product is:
- An impulse purchase
- A necessity
- A product that is consumed in its use and the customer is likely making a re-purchase
- Bought by a highly motivated customer/rabid fan base
- In a mature, well-known, and simple-to-understand category
- A commodity (and you’re adding value over-and-above the normal commodified category)
Understand the Buyer’s Journey
Let me end with one giant caveat. The suggestions above are broad brush strokes, and the entire calculus above can be thrown off based on your understanding of the buyer’s journey.
For example, if you know in the previous step of their journey they’ve already learned about the category’s value, you likely do not have to spend too much reiterating. If you’re buying paid search advertising for category-based keywords with a product-focused ad, you may assume that they’re done with background research and ready to dive into a product.
Seasonality may have an effect as well. While a gym membership is usually a “broccoli purchase,” around the new year many people are “highly motivated” and focusing on product value may be the most successful strategy to test.
And of course, different personas and segments may be better served by different approaches. Early adopter types might already well understand a category’s value proposition while stragglers may not yet be sold. While I was on Twitter before Oprah, my mom still asks “So what’s that Twiddle thing and why should I care?”
Daniel Burstein is the Senior Director, Content and Marketing at MECLABS Institute. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the marketing direction for MECLABS — digging for actionable discoveries while serving as an advocate for the audience.