Do you sell “things” or experiences?

sell things or experiencesYou’ve probably heard the expression, “People don’t want drills. They want holes.”

This is a reminder that benefits outweigh features. While this is good advice for creating more effective advertising and marketing messages, it’s not the whole story.

Top advertising and marketing pros have long known that people are less interested in having possessions than they are in having the benefits of possessions.

But the word “benefits” implies a utilitarian approach to buying things. It sounds as if people are always on the lookout for practical ways to solve problems.

Unfortunately, people just aren’t that rational. Apart from basic necessities, most purchases are discretionary. We buy things we want, but don’t necessarily need.

I’ve written about the motivations for buying, but an article at Psyblog got me thinking about this in a new and simpler way.

The article cites research that shows buying experiences make people happier than buying possessions. The author gives three reasons for this:

1. Experiences improve with time (possessions don’t).
When you buy a pair of shoes, all you have is a pair of shoes. But when you buy a Caribbean cruise, you have a memory that gets more pleasant every time you think or talk about it. The cruise is abstract and can take on symbolic meaning.

2. Experiences are resistant to unfavorable comparisons.
If you buy a big screen TV and later learn that your neighbor has an even bigger screen TV, you can easily become unhappy with your purchase. But it’s much more difficult to compare the joy you get from woodworking to your neighbor’s joy. Experiences are unique in a way that possessions are not.

3. Experiences have more social value.
Experiences tend to increase social relationships, which are related to happiness. They are also more acceptable topics of conversation. Others want to hear about your cruise, but aren’t as thrilled when you prattle on about everything you buy.

What this research suggests is that experience trumps things on the happiness scale. But I would modify this a bit and say that it’s not only activities, such as cruises or having dinner out, that makes people happy. It’s about experiences of all kinds.

In other words, I think that people are looking for an “experience” even when they’re buying “things.” Things may be more likely to disappoint, but it’s the experience we’re after when we buy a new pair of shoes or a novel.

The shoes aren’t just footwear, they’re a token that lets us become a new person and feel successful, sporty, or beautiful. The novel isn’t just a book, it’s an escape into a world of adventure, thrills, and drama.

Why are novels arranged by genre in book stores? Because we seek out particular experiences, rather than particular books.

The lesson here is that when you’re crafting an advertising or marketing message, you should understand the experience your customers seek and position your product or service to deliver that experience. Sell an experience, not a thing.

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7 Responses to “Do you sell “things” or experiences?”

  1. Curated Stories Feb. 16, 2010 on February 16th, 2010 5:48 pm

    [...] Do you sell “things” or experiences? Published: February 16, 2010 Source: Direct Creative Blog You’ve probably heard the expression, “People don’t want drills. They want holes.” This is a reminder that benefits outweigh features. While this is good advice for creating more effective advertising a… [...]

  2. Catherine Caine on February 21st, 2010 7:18 pm

    I’ve read the benefits explanation 10,000,000,000 times (I may be exaggerating a tiny bit there) but I’ve never read anyone explaining the “experience” over “widget” so succinctly and usefully. Well done!
    .-= Catherine Caine’s last blog … 5 minute mission: Find new ideas =-.

  3. Dean Rieck on February 21st, 2010 7:45 pm

    Yeah, sometimes the simple explanations are more enlightening than the complex ones.

  4. Philip Baldwin on March 6th, 2010 11:40 pm

    Dean, Great way to look at the selling experience! Thanks

  5. Money Can Buy Happiness | RevMason on March 8th, 2010 10:38 am

    [...] If in you’re marketing or sales, this verifies the tried-but-true belief that you aren’t selling your customers a product or service; you’re selling them an experience. [...]

  6. Shawn Carpenter on May 5th, 2010 4:45 pm

    Interesting. I was just explaining a concept to some friends of mine about a coffee shop that I am thinking about opening. It was more about the experience of the place rather then the coffee. The atmosphere, the music, the people, the whole social aspect behind having a cup of coffee with friends and having a place to chill. You can sell cheap coffee and get away with it if you offer a unique experience to the customer.

  7. Frank Steineck on June 19th, 2011 6:33 am

    Nobody is interested to find out eventually it was all “On the house”. So we indulge in a game in which we can’t have it this way or that way or not entirely one way. Great fun. I think selling membership and magic is the greatest promise. Personally I go for patronage on the outgoing line and exclusivity as James Joyce demanded it (nobody should ever read anything but Finnegan’s Wake ever). The experience I bought so far reads like an abstract causative surrealism-expressionism dream book. And yours? Saying “do not only sell experience – sell all of life – for all wants to be improved upon”. Product in itself is merely death.

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