No matter what you do, you need a unique selling proposition.
Yes, even if you aren’t selling anything. Your blog or free report needs a unique selling proposition as much as your product or service.
In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know to create a highly effective, compelling USP. If this is a topic that has mystified you so far, you’ve come to the right place!
We could get bogged down with definitions and different terms like unique value proposition, primary benefit statement and more. I’m sure there are volumes written on the difference between various shades of USP.
None of that matters to us, though. For practical purposes, what I’ll refer to as the USP (unique selling proposition or unique selling point) is the answer to the question:
Whatever your product is, you are offering something. Some benefit or solution.
And you’re probably not the only one offering such a benefit or solution. Your prospects are well aware of this, so the question “why should I choose you?” is on their minds, when they look at your offer.
Especially if you are a startup and you’re up against larger, older and more established brands, having an answer to the above question is absolutely crucial.
Your USP is one thing that clearly separates you from your competitors. Something only you offer.
Keep in mind that this is equally true whether you are selling something or not. Your visitors also need an answer to the question: “why should I read your blog instead of a different one?” for example.
In their book “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing“, authors Al Ries and Jack Trout emphasize the importance of being first to market. According to them, it’s better to be first than to have a better product.
A unique selling proposition is extremely important for any business, but one thing that can throw you off is that you’ll often see market-leading companies that don’t have a very good (or any) USP. In fact, you’ll find small, innovative companies battling against big, boring giants in most markets.
If those giant companies don’t have a good USP, why do you need one?
Because the giants were first. That’s their USP, even if they never state it explicitly. They were the first or one of the first in a (now) big market. They were in a position to gain massive amounts of brand recognition and it’s something you can’t replicate – unless you create a new market.
Trying to create a new market is a huge gamble, which is why I don’t recommend attempting it.
The take-away is: you need a USP, even if your big competitors don’t seem to have one. Sure, you can do without one, but having a strong USP will make marketing and selling your product a million times easier.
With this next step, we’ll make your USP more practical and more measurable.
A good USP needs to fulfill these five criteria:
This is, of course, the entire point of a unique selling proposition. Your USP needs to be something that no one else is offering and it needs to set you apart from your competitors.
Your USP needs to be something that your ideal prospect cares about. This means that it doesn’t have to have universal appeal (remember: never try to please everyone), it only has to appeal to a specific group of people.
The end result should be one simple sentence that perfectly summarizes what sets your company apart from all the others. Your USP needs to be short because it needs to be communicated early on.
Your USP does not equal your headline or your tag line, but ideally, your headline and tagline should communicate or at least hint at the USP.
Any visitor needs to be able to learn about your USP within a few seconds and above the fold. If they have to scroll half-way down the page to find out what’s unique about your business, you’ll already have lost most of them.
Avoid fluff-words and conceptual words (e.g. “monetize latent brand equity” might be unique and short, but it’s not at all clear). When you write out your first drafts for your USP, always ask yourself: “how can I make this more specific?”
Don’t talk about how your product saves time, tell me how much time it saves. Be very clear about your statements and write like a human being. Avoid buzzwords and lingo.
The last one, the x-factor, is difficult to nail down. A USP can be unique, desirable, short and clear, but still be bland and forgettable. A USP has the x-factor when it’s really memorable, when it makes you smile or when it has emotional appeal and speaks directly to your own experience.
The right USP with the right x-factor for your ideal prospects can often only be found via testing. Something that works for you might not work for them and vice versa.
Let’s put theory into practice and look at two examples of unique selling propositions and run them through our checklist.
Message: “Power-packed Project Management & Collaboration”
The headline is followed by a list and description of features, which means that beyond the headline, it’s very difficult to find the unique message StrikeBase is trying to convey.
The message is not unique in any way – every project management tool I’ve ever heard of offers collaborative features. The message (and most of the page’s content) also fails to address anything really desirable. People don’t want to buy a project management solution. They want a result. They want to get work done with a team. They want to keep tabs on what employees are working on and make sure they aren’t wasting money and time.
To accomplish these things, they may need a project management tool, but they desire the outcome that they hope they’ll end up getting.
A benefit is only useful if someone could reasonably take the opposite position.
Simplicity is a real benefit. You can claim that a streamlined, minimal solution with no distractions is a good thing. Someone else could sell a different product and claim that all these simple and minimal solutions are too limited and lack features needed to get the job done. This would be using complexity, the opposite of simplicity, as a selling point.
Effective, on the other hand, is an empty benefit, because no one would ever advertise a solution as being ineffective.
Message: “Build better software, faster” and “agile project management tool for software development”.
This is an example of a USP done right.
The message here is very clear and very specific: this is a solution for software development. And not just any kind of software development, but the “agile” kind.
If you aren’t a programmer, you probably don’t even know what that is and that’s fine, because you aren’t in the target market in the first place.
Pivotal Tracker also does a great job of communicating something desirable (building better software, which is what potential clients truly want), unique and being very clear about what their product is about… in just three lines of text.
The only thing I don’t know about here is the x factor. The message doesn’t seem particularly memorable and possibly a better phrasing could be found through extensive testing. I don’t doubt that the current phrasing is already very effective, though.
Let’s take a step back: how do I know what the USP for the above two examples is? Do I just check the headline?
Yes and no.
Your USP is a concept and that concept may be communicated in the headline, but that’s not the only place it will be communicated.
The USP needs to be communicated above the fold, though. This may be accomplished with a combination of headline, sub-heading, images and more, but don’t make your visitors scroll down a long page before they can learn what’s unique about your offer. If a visitor takes a 10-second look at your homepage and they don’t know what you do or what’s unique about you, then you need to improve how you communicate your USP.
Now that we’ve seen some practical examples, let’s dive a little deeper into the topic.
A typical go-to USP is “lowest price”.
Newbies love to go for this one when they don’t understand business costs (they look at a competitor and think “I could do that for cheaper”) and don’t realize prices should be based on value, not on margins.
You should never compete on price.
If you do, you start a race to the bottom and you don’t want to be involved in one of those.
As a startup, you also have the odds stacked against you. Bigger companies with established brands and bigger budgets can almost always out-cheap you.
Another USP to avoid is “we offer more”, which is really just a “lower price” USP in disguise. If you tack more features on to your product, offer more storage, more content, etc. than your competitors, that’s a nice bonus, but no more.
Sometimes, offering more can be a good secondary selling point, but it should never be your main or only selling point.
Your USP doesn’t need to do all the selling, all by itself. In fact, it doesn’t need to sell your product at all. That’s what all of your other sales material is for.
The USPs job is not to convince people to buy your product. Instead, its job is to act as an anchor in your prospects’ (and even customers’) minds.
You know how you can read a book and just two weeks later, all you can remember are some of the core concepts?
Your visitors experience the same thing with your website. They won’t read all of it to begin with and they’ll forget most of what they read within hours. The USP is the one thing you want them not to forget.
A USP doesn’t always have to be big. Sometimes, a seemingly small or even trivial factor can make for an effective USP. Here’s an example:
Wunderlist is one of thousands of to-do list applications. Their USP is noted in the sub-heading (what a waste of a main headline, by the way…) and becomes clearer in their video: Wunderlist is pretty.
Let’s put the sub-heading through our analysis:
“Your beautiful and simple to-do list.”
We can ignore the “simple” part of the claim, because every single task manager and project manager in existence makes this same claim. It becomes a non-factor.
Whether a to-do list is pretty or not might seem trivial, but dig a bit deeper and you can see why it’s desirable to some people. For example, maybe you’ve just spent a fortune on a brand-spanking-new iPad and now you’re looking for something to show off its capabilities.
Are you going to use some ugly but practical to-do list?
Hell no! Give me that HD image background!
The video they use might have the x-factor, but I think they could definitely be more specific about the fact that their app looks better than the competition’s.
Here’s another example of a USP. Get a load of this weirdo:
Personal branding is a form of adding a USP to any business. For me, this has always been part of what I do. That’s why I often appear on video, I transparently share my own experiences and opinions etc.
The greatest example of personal branding is Gary Vaynerchuk, who very successfully promoted his family wine business with personal videos. Gary is energetic, highly expressive, charismatic, entertaining and at least a little bit weird. He’s also very knowledgeable about wine and can share many valuable and interesting insights.
These qualities make up the USP of the Gary Vaynerchuk brand – the things he brings to the table, that you can’t get anywhere else.
In most cases, personal branding leads to a USP that is neither short nor specific. It’s difficult to put your finger on exactly why Gary has so much success with what he does. There are many facets to a personality and they all play a part.
Personal branding done right is always unique and the desirability comes from the attributes of the person in question. Finally, the x-factor here could be summed up as “charisma”.
If all this makes you think that you can’t possibly do personal branding because you aren’t interesting or charismatic enough, you need to read this.
How do you come up with a great unique selling proposition?
The USP should be a big part of the reason why you even set out to create your business, product or website. Maybe you were looking for a solution to a particular problem, but couldn’t find exactly what you were looking for, so you decided to create a solution of your own.
Maybe you were fed up with all of the other websites in a specific niche being so damn similar and missing the most important points, so you started a website of your own.
In this post with examples of successful online business models, I also wrote about what not to sell. One of the things to avoid are “me-too” products. Simply copying an existing business, thinking you can get a piece of the exact same pie is not a recipe for success.
The same is true for any business that doesn’t start out with a customer focus.
If you create a website or a product because you want more money, you need to change your focus.
At the outset of your business, you need to focus on what you can offer your future customers and why they will be better off buying from you, than from anyone else.
Most ideas are not original. Often, a new product is like an older product, but different in some aspects.
Thrive Leads is not the first list-building plugin for WordPress. Not by a long shot. But we weren’t happy with any of the existing solutions. Most of them didn’t offer the kind of customization or targeting options we were looking. And A/B testing is usually either absent or lousily implemented. Those are just two of the reasons we set out to build a product and both are part of the unique selling point for Thrive Leads.
Tim Ferriss is famous for his “4-hour” line of books.
What’s his USP? A combination of his personality and the 4-hour concept: big goals compressed into a minimal time-frame.
He didn’t just luck out with this idea, either. Before he published his first book, he ran AdWords PPC campaigns, testing several potential book titles against each other. In the ads, he made it seem like the book was already available and he ran the tests until he could clearly determine which title got the most attention (the highest CTR). “The 4-Hour Work Week” won the test, even though it was not his personal favorite.
To test the appeal of your USP, you can do the exact same thing. Alternatively, you can run a survey (like I did to determine the title of my free guide) or find any other means to get feedback from your potential future customers.
If you want to solidify your learning even further, here’s a video with a series of unique selling proposition examples. In this video, I pretend to be a content provider and I present five different pitches, based on five different USPs. What you get here isn’t just a succession of brief selling points, but examples of how to turn a USP into an actual sales pitch:
If you liked this article and you think others might benefit from it, share it on twitter, Facebook and wherever else you hang out!
Write down the answer to the question “why should I choose you instead of your competitors?” and run your answers through the 5-point checklist.
And don’t forget to share your USP ideas as well as your thoughts and questions by leaving a comment below!
I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better marketer and product creator. Read more about my story here.