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National Mail Order Association (NMOA)
Direct Marketing
and Mail Order

The Incredible Pencil Test
By Alan Rosenspan

Just for a moment, pretend that you're a direct marketing copywriter back in the year 1869.

You've just been handed a new product for a brand new client at the agency. Your assignment -- to launch the pencil.

You've been chosen for the job because you're creative. You like to come up with new ideas. You're darn clever, and besides -- all the other writers are working on the new paper clip account.

So you sit at your desk and summon your muse, and try to come up with as many features and benefits of an ordinary #2 pencil as you can think of.

Because you've done this before, you know that you shouldn't try to evaluate the ideas at this point. Just come up with as many as possible.

How many do you think you can come up with? Five? 10? Maybe even 15? Interested in the world record? We'll come to that in a moment.

First, try your hand at it. The way you should write the features and benefits down is as follows:

1. The feature is that the pencil is yellow, and the benefit is that it's easy to find it on a desk of white paper.

Now you try to come up with 9 more.

I've given this test to audiences all over the world, and the interesting thing is -- people remember it long after they've forgotten everything else I've shared with them.

I think it's because I involve the audience. I ask each person to hold the pencil in their hands, and call out their answer. And when I start at one side of the room, the other side slowly begins to panic, as all their answers are taken.

Here's a second answer: The feature is that the pencil's sides are beveled, the benefit is that it won't roll off your desk. Another benefit is that it's easy to grip.

The Incredible Pencil Test is fun, and it's a great way to get everyone involved and thinking. However, it has important lessons for direct marketers.

First, it clearly delineates the difference between features and benefits. As you know, a feature is what your product or service is or does. A benefit is what it does for the person who is using it.

But too many times, our advertising and direct mail talks about the features, and not enough about the benefits. Let me give you an example.

A few years ago, Ownings-Corning introduced a remarkable new eyeglass lenses that automatically darkened whenever you were out in the sun. So you never had to switch to sunglasses.

Both ads are for the same product -- which pulled best? This example is taken from "Which Ad Pulled Best" published by the National Textbook Company in Lincolnwood, Illinois. I highly recommend it to learn what stops people and makes them more likely to read or respond to your ad.

The first headline read, "If you had your eyes tested outdoors as well as indoors, you'd know why we developed photochromic lenses."

The second headline said simply this, "Eyeglasses to sunglasses in less than 60 seconds."

Which ad do you think pulled better? Most people correctly pick the second example because the benefit is right there in the headline. Besides, who cares why they did it -- I just want to know what's in it for me.

Here's a third answer: "The feature is that the pencil is made of lightweight materials. The benefit is that you can use it all day and not get tired. And also that you can comfortably tuck it behind your ear."

The second reason I give The Incredible Pencil Test is that it can help you identify important benefits for your product or service. You may even come up with some surprising new ones.

InFocus is one of the leading manufacturers of LCD panels in the U.S. A colleague of mine was working with them, and took them through the Incredible Pencil Test.

One of their features was that their LCD panel had a place to insert a floppy disk. That meant that you could run your presentation without bringing your computer along. That was a good benefit, however, by focusing on what the other benefits might be, they uncovered a far better one.

The real benefit, which everyone who has ever made a presentation will instantly recognize, is this: if your computer goes down, for any reason, you could still do your presentation.

This "presentation insurance" benefit became a very strong selling idea.

Here's a fourth answer for the Incredible Pencil test. The feature is that the pencil is made of almost 100% biodegradable materials. The benefit is that it's environmentally friendly.

The Incredible Pencil Test was inspired by Edward DeBono, the person who coined the term "Lateral Thinking. " DeBono believes that most people don't have a process for thinking, or even evaluating our thoughts.

DeBono suggested the PNI approach. "P" stands for positive, "N" for negative, and "I" for interesting -- things that can't easily be put into the positive or negative buckets.

He suggests you think of all the positive factors first, and list as many as you can. Then -- and only then -- think of all the negative factors. And after that, any other thoughts that are left over, are put into the "interesting" bucket.

After you go through this exercise, it will quickly become apparent which way you're really thinking.

All Benefits Are Not Created Equal

Now, suppose you've applied the principles of the Incredible Pencil Test to your own product or service. You've generated a dozen features and benefits, even one or two that you hadn't ever thought of before.

Unless you're selling Swiss Army Knives, not every benefit is of equal weight. There will be some that will be much more important than others. So how do you rank them?

I suggest that there are four questions to ask yourself about the features and benefits you've come up with.

1. Is it unique, or can you make it unique?

If you have a great benefit, but it's shared by every one of your competitors, it's probably not best to focus only on that.

There is an exception, though. If you have a great benefit that no one else is talking about -- it might be worthwhile. For example, I used to work on the Schaefer beer account.

Schaefer ran a very successful campaign on the fact that our bottles were "steam-cleaned" for freshness. The only thing we didn't mention was that every beer manufacturer steam-cleaned their bottles.

2. Is it important to your market?

You could probably add a new feature and benefit to just about any product or service, however, unless it is perceived as important to your customers and prospects -- it won't be worth much.

3. Is it credible?

I used to do a lot of work for Johnson Wax. One of the best new products they came up with was a wax-based antiseptic spray. Every other spray on the market was alcohol-based, and stung when you put it on. Ours did not sting, and that wonderful benefit was precisely why it failed.

People just didn't believe it was working.

In direct marketing, ways to add credibility include: using testimonials, making highly specific claims, including published product reviews and listing any awards the product or service has won.

4. And finally: Is it compelling?

Remember that in direct marketing, our goal is to get people to act. Our features and benefits have got to be as compelling as possible, and not merely interesting.

Here's a fifth answer: The feature is that the eraser is held on by only a thin strip of metal. The benefit is, if you lose a post on your earring, you can remove the eraser, and use it as a temporary post.

How Many Features And Benefits Did You Get?

The world record, and it truly is a world record, may surprise you.

In 1995, the new world record of 63 was set in Auckland, New Zealand at their Direct Marketing Day conference. (The thing that motivated them most was that the Australians had come up with 62 at the Pan-Pacific Symposium.)

In 1996, the audience at the Netherlands Direct Marketing Conference in Maastricht came up with 65. This record held until IBM's International Direct Marketing Conference in February where the new total was 72. (If Deep Blue can defeat Garry Kasporov, I shouldn't have been surprised).

And the new world record, set this year in Boston, at the New England Direct Marketing Days, was 77. I expect that to stand for quite a while.

Space does not permit me to list all the features and benefits of an ordinary #2 pencil. However, I would like to share a few of the more interesting ones.

The feature is that it's easy to break it in half. The benefit is you can share it with a friend.

The feature is that it gets shorter as you use it up. The benefit is you'll never be surprised by how much you have left. (like a pen).

The feature is that it's made of inexpensive materials. The benefit is that you never have to worry about losing it. And you can afford to buy a lot of them.

Finally, my good friend Ray Considine, sent me a news article about a group of people who were selling the answers to the SAT and LSAT tests. The cheaters received all the answers neatly written, up and down the sides of an ordinary #2 pencil.

The cost: $6,000. Now that's an Incredible Pencil!

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