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March 1, 2015

Sell the Sizzle, Not the Steak

The actual phrase: “sell the sizzle, not the steak” was coined by stockbrokers, sometime in the ‘go-go’ years of the 80s - not surprisingly, coinciding with the birth of cold-calling. They figured out quickly that in order to get your attention it wasn’t enough to tell you any concrete facts about the company whose stock was on the verge of doubling - rather, it seemed more effective to push your ‘fear and greed’ buttons.

What worked on the phone then, works online today; and will continue to work until human nature changes. Yes, we want to know if your product or service works. But what we really care about is how its usage (or ownership) will fulfill a need that we might. As such, the most effective marketing and sales campaigns should always be focused on uncovering a specific need that your product or service might fill. In more concrete terms, think of these needs as being emotionally (benefit) driven rather than by purely concrete (features) solutions.

People’s objections to a purchase can essentially be narrowed down into 4 main groupings: No need, No time, No money, No trust. Please take a minute and think of something that you took a pass on. Keep breaking down the rationale behind your ‘no’ and eventually your destination will end up being one of those main reasons. I promise, it works if you’re honest about it. I’ve played through this exercise literally dozens of times with sales teams and have never failed to see the ‘Ah, ha’ moment.

Let’s jump back into the online context of this premise with a clear example that is fresh in my mind: Plastic Surgery. Fresh, not because of personal procedural work mind you, but rather because my agency was recently bidding on a redesign for a well-known plastic surgeon’s website. Consequently, in the course of due diligence, we spent a fair amount of time looking over a several dozen websites of various local and national doctors. Right away it became clear that this vertical, excluding a few notable exceptions, is entrenched in very familiar territory: the design of the website’s navigation aggressively focusing the user’s attention on the variety of services performed. As an after-thought, attention is drawn towards the benefits with languorous, stock photos of smiling women.

The interesting take on the perceived benefits portrayed was that, for the most part, they were purely of the Jenny Craig ilk: before and after pictorials of various G and R rated body parts. Big nose pre-surgery, aquiline nose after surgery; love handles pre-surgery, v-shaped torso after surgery. The implication being: “Hey, look, this could be you”, “No really, look again, don’t you recognize yourself in these case studies”? “Come on, I can do this for you, trust me - take a look at my credentials, I’m good!” Sorry to say, small, vertically aligned pictures, in quasi police line-up poses, just don’t have a tendency to convey positive emotions - especially in what is a fairly flat viewing medium: your screen.

Ahh, now just a minute, you might be thinking to yourself, the after shot is the sizzle. No? No. It’s still the steak, a lean steak, well sculpted one, mind you, but still a feature, not a benefit. It fails to touch on the emotional why someone would want to put themselves through these complicated, expensive and often times dangerous procedures. Everyone knows that there is an ‘after’ shot - that’s why it’s called plastic surgery. Showing the effects is emotionally superfluous. It’s not really helping to highlight - surface - the emotional need, but rather inventorying the features in a pictorial format. Visually, it’s more appealing than a list of bullet points, but at its core, not much more effective.

There are those who get it - and get it in a big way. The websites are designed around the emotional needs, and the navigation leads the user around gracefully. There is an implicit understanding that if you didn’t know what the ultimate features were, you wouldn’t be considering dropping the money on the procedure you had in mind. On their sites, design and navigation come together, highlighting the branding and messaging seamlessly. Check out: This Site - a well-crafted example of world class benefits selling. It should be noted, this time from personal experience, that the brick and mortar operations for those surgeons that have exceptional websites are, not surprisingly, exceedingly well decorated. Their practices - office decor, beach side pictures of people standing on rocks, brochures, video testimonials - use interior design to sell the heck out of the benefits of their craft.

Part of the problem, which I won’t touch on here, is a reliance on template driven web development agencies - which are delivering cookie-cutter solutions. It would never work in the brick and mortar world (anyone who has ever dealt with an Interior decorator/designer can attest to their finely honed sense of individuality), and it is becoming increasingly clear that it's fast becoming obsolete online as well.

Just for fun, try your own analysis on a software manufacturer, or a local service oriented business. Pick out a few websites and ask yourself: Is this business immediately highlighting what it can do for me or are they just telling me how they will do it; and letting me guess why it might be worth my while? You’ll find that the ones you buy from consistently let you know right away that yes, indeed, your life will be better, you will feel better and perhaps even save time if you spend your money here. That’s selling the sizzle!

Attila Sary