What do you sell? I mean really, what is it that you actually sell? Why do people visit your website, or even buy your product? What do you offer that compels them to do this?

In a world of substitutes and alternates, we have to learn to better understand what drives our customers. Understand this and you understand how to make your site more effective.

Let's start with a simple question.

Why do people buy expensive sports cars?

Well, in true Family Fortunes style, we'll pretend we asked 100 recent purchasers of sports cars and they predictably said:

  1. I like the classic styling
  2. I like the finely tuned engine
  3. I like the build quality of high performance sports cars

However, if you were then to ask them anonymously, they would say something like:

  1. It helps me attract sexy young women
  2. It lets me pretend I’m Jason Stratham in The Transporter

Jason Stratham in The Transporter
Really. They think that.

Think about your business model, what do you think it is? You could be in the business of selling clothes, plumbing supplies, online content or event admissions.

Now take what you’ve thought of and put it in this sentence: “X is just my route to market, what I actually sell is:”

Harley Davidson understands this. It’s probably apocryphal, but they’re famously quoted as saying

What we sell is the ability for a 43-year-old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him.

Jo Malone also understands this. Jo Malone, if you didn’t know, sells a range of luxury personal and home fragrances, and their candles can reach up to £250. What Jo Malone sells is not the ability to have a finely scented life, but that buying a candle allows you to pretend, for the burning length of a candle or the brief top notes of a fragrance, that you live like this:
Jo Malone Decor, nice, isn't it
instead of like this:

My Living Room

TV by Panasonic, coffee table by IKEA, boyfriend asleep on sofa after using laptop and watching Star Trek - Bloggers Own.

What we, as website managers and facilitators of our brand, have to understand is what is it that we actually sell?

So how does this work with your website? Well let’s have a look at mine (www.wiltshirefarmfoods.com if you haven't already seen it); We serve 2 types of people:

End Customers: WANTS

Agnes lives at number 3. She’s having difficulty cooking for herself nowadays, but doesn’t WANT to be seen as being reliant on anyone, Doris at number 10 is such a gossip. She’s also loathe to admit to defeat in that she can’t cook anymore.

Influencers: NEEDS

Robert lives a couple of hours away from his mother, Agnes. He’s worried that she’s not eating properly, but the distance and his job makes it difficult for him to visit regularly. He NEEDS to find a way to help.

So what I am actually selling? For Doris, I’m selling the ability for her to remain independent at home, and our brand is orientated to be aspirational, that our customers are making their own choice. For Robert, I’m selling the reassurance that his mother is still eating well. Informed by this, I can then for example create specific content for my site, addressing the questions and concerns that Robert has.

How do you apply this? For your specific business it's likely that you have USPs that attract the customer and form the basis of your business - otherwise you wouldn't still be in business. Your USPs are the things that support the purchase decision, and are likely elements spun off from the concept you're actually selling.

For example, at Wiltshire Farm Foods we spend a lot of time focusing on our delivery experience, our drivers are trained to not only be friendly, caring, reliable and supportive, but also we ensure that our customers always get the same delivery driver, order after order, so that a rapport and friendship quickly builds.

But that is an offline thing, how can analysing our business model help us to create online USPs into your website?

A little presentLet's take a generic example: Say you run an online toy store, if you think that “Selling toys is just my route to market, what I sell is:

I would argue the answer is “the ability for my customers to delight their children”.

You can then use this concept, Delight, to then form how your website aligns itself to the customer’s needs and wants. So, how do you provide Delight in an online toy store?

  1. Your customer wants to delight their children, so they need to choose the correct gift. Taking the guesswork out of which toy to buy, by having “Toy Trends” content - take a note from online fashion retailers and pull in third party content, adverts and reviews, you could then shoot off from this with a gift choosing wizard.
  2. Providing gift wrapping options that enhance the delight of opening the present - perhaps you could be the first toy retailer to offer “Pass the Parcel” gift wrapping, complete with user-customised (and branded!) forfeits. If you were savvy these forfeits could also included incentives that facilitate a loyalty scheme.
  3. Your customers need to make the gift giving timely, which you can support both in terms of event (say, Birthday) reminders and offering a next day or even better, a same day delivery service.

By focusing on the reasons why people shop with you, and realising your actual business, it not only allows you to align yourself better to the customer, but also helps you to innovate to meet their needs and wants.

Matthew Curry

Published 28 April, 2010 by Matthew Curry

Matt Curry is Head of E-commerce for online sex toy retailer LoveHoney. He spends a lot of time working on user experience and customer satisfaction is his highest priority. He frequently has to be penetration tested. You can follow him on Twitter, although he does often talk about dildos. He also has a LinkedIn profile, where he has to act professional.

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Comments (6)

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Chris Russell, Digital Marketing & Web Analyst at Chris Russell Digital Ltd

I like this article and for the most part agree. I think we're talking brand promise here, right? Whilst I agree that understanding the motivations of your customer ensures focus on delivering what's important commercially, I'd argue that somewhere down the line there has to also be a focus on proposition. For example, I could think of a whole series of ways in which (using your example) I could delight my children...taking them to Disney Land, to the park on a sunday, playing football and yes, challenging them to the latest XBox, PS3 game etc etc. As the toy shop owner, I could endeavour to ensure that, if my business strategy is "the ability for my customers to delight their children", then suddenly all of these options become open season. Does this mean when I sell a Mickey Mouse Toy, I should also offer a package deal holiday to Disney Land? Focus on what you do well and add value where it fits with the "flogging toys" proposition, rather than all things to all men. The customer in the toy shop example is a route to the children's market but even using the Harley Davison analogy, becoming Arnie in the Terminator takes more than black leather and a noisy moped...I seem to recall a small matter of sawn-off shot gun. In the states, there's no reason why Harley dealers couldn't add an introductory Smith & Wesson to the shopping cart. Somehow, I don't think they'll be employing this strategy anytime soon. Then again...

about 8 years ago

Matthew Curry

Matthew Curry, Head of Ecommerce at Lovehoney

Hi Chris, of course you're right, ultimately you have to apply this back to the remit of your business. If you go outside of your remit, you'd find yourself becoming childrens party entertainer pretty quickly, to use the same example. But to focus back, this is less about business dynamics and more about the psychology of the customer. Sure they can but a ticket to DisneyLand, but they've already decided they want to buy a toy. If you're going to succeed in getting that sale over your competitors, you have to align your online business with the customers mentality - maybe less what are you actually selling and more what are they actually buying? Matt

about 8 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Matt,

After recovering from the shock of seeing you asleep whilst staring at what looks like online Star Trek erotica, I started to think about the article:)

I think what you've said is closely related to how brands can and should approach social media. Mission statements, strategies and marketing plans have their place but understanding the basic motivations of your customers is hugely important. The role of psychology in business is interesting.

Social media requires engagement and compelling content to encourage people to listen, learn, contribute and share. I think your point about customer needs is the same - go beyond product/solution and think about aspirations and motivations. 

Producing interesting and relevant content is a challenge but an enjoyable one.



about 8 years ago

Matthew Curry

Matthew Curry, Head of Ecommerce at Lovehoney

hey that's not me! since when did I have a bald spot? That's www.twitter.com/daniel_penfold It's slightly more difficult with social media as there's no propensity to buy and not idea of task - and you can't roll out your website USP functions as a series of grained user treats (which I should have mentioned in the article I think!) , which means you need a broader brush - but certainly you make a good point about it.

about 8 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

So defensive... yes I realised that, just thought a bit of winding up was in order!

Take your point about social media but I do think there is a propensity to buy, it's just not as tangible or direct. Brands like Dell have shown the social media/buying link as well as smaller UK business like Accessories Online and Wiggly Wigglers. My take is that the propensity to buy comes as a result of adding value and building relationships. Most people don't go onto social networks to go shopping but they are receptive to messages from people they trust/admire/like (edit at will).

This to me is where the whole aspiration/motivation piece you allude to for ecommerce comes in to play. I have bought from a company because of what they have done in social media and how they have established a relationship with me first. I bought from their website direct. The motivation was "I like these guys, they gave me some attention and made me feel important to them - i'll check out their website now". 

I know that over-simplifies things but I'm all for keeping concepts simple. Implementation and delivery is where you need to get the difficult stuff right.



about 8 years ago


Rob Davis

Thanks for the post, well done. I wish more web designers would look deeper into what drives the customers behavior.

about 8 years ago

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