For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, B2B products were sold by what specifications they met. This made sense in an age when industry was based on mass producing hard goods, but it doesn’t make sense in the digital age, where new products can be made with a simple keystroke. It’s disheartening to see so much marketing still use a spec-based approach after its time has clearly passed. What’s worse, technology firms whose marketing depends on specs may actually be hurting their cause.

What’s Wrong with Marketing on Specs

Specs function as a proxy for identifying what customers want – and that’s all. While it’s true that these specs are appreciated by other technologists, there are very few products that engineers buy on their own. Even sophisticated products are now evaluated by end-users; these people aren’t swayed by a product’s “plumbing,” they only care about how it helps them. Prospects only want to hear about technical specifications in the non-technical context of how it solves their problems.

Saying you have the same specs everyone has is no way to differentiate yourself

Specs can also be a dangerous weapon in salespeople’s hands. Many reps are used to transactional sales where the client is simply ordering what they want. Trouble begins when prospects open up about their business problems and the technology reps don’t know how to visualize a solution. What do they do? They start handing out sales literature and dumping specs on the prospect out of context, taking your product down to the lowest common denominator of all similar products, commoditizing the very product that you worked hard to differentiate from what everyone else makes. The prospect infers from the salesperson’s chatter that all your products manage to do is to meet the minimal requirements, giving them an easy way to eliminate your product from their selection.

Let’s be clear here. I am not talking about product categories. Specs are not the same as product categories. A Hex screwdriver belongs to its own category because a whole ecosystem of objects were engineered to be adjusted by it and it alone. A Hex screwdriver’s specs would detail its length, the conductivity of its handle and other minutae. For someone who owns hex-based equipment, a hex-screwdriver isn’t just another screwdriver with “hex” in its spec; to them, it’s in a whole other screwdriver category! If buyers have put your product in its own category, then go ahead and trumpet the aspects of your product that place it all by itself.

 

Buyers set Specs, Not Sellers: A Cautionary Tale

Intel spent much of the 2000s racing against AMD for bragging rights for the world’s fastest microprocessor. But the speed of their chips remained about the same as rival AMD, so Intel tried to shift attention to another facet of its processors. They rolled out a specification that their chips would dominate in. Speaking at Intel’s 2005 Developer Forum, CEO Paul Otellini predicted that environmental footprint would be how most companies would come to evaluate chips. He said that Intel would rate their chips by “performance-per-watt,” touting the fact that they would lead the market in terms of power consumption for MIPS (Millions of Instructions Per Second). The problem was that Performance-per-watt didn’t matter to Intel’s customers the way that chip speed does. After spending lots of money on the idea, an embarrassed Intel withdrew this spec from their marketing messages.

 

Yes, Virginia, There is a Way to Market with Specs

How can you move from narrow focus on specs to a broad message about your products? A client of mine in an engineering-intensive industry did this first by knowing for certain that their products had the right specs. They did this by showing up at a major trade show with a questionnaire that they only gave to clients and close partners. We tabulated the data, which showed that my client indeed had the right specs. They then dropped specs from their broadcast messages and instead sold the fact that their product solved problems.

If you’re in a technology company that loves to cite all the specs that your products contain, consider instead staking a claim that you have leading technology and backing it up with client success stories. The way to do it is to first identify your product’s applications by audience, price range or the environment. In the case of a website, these could appear as several pages devoted to different industry verticals, each showing how your product is the right solution for their need. Only at this point should you introduce the specifications – as they will underline your ability to deliver on the solution previously mentioned.

It is true that customers want proof that you know what you are doing, specs are only one way of proving yourself, so be careful not to rely on them too heavily in your marketing. It’s better to build a brand whose claim is that you will always have whatever specs the market needs.