How To Box And Sell Air

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Have you noticed anything about extended warranties at electronics stores lately?

They come in boxes.

There’s nothing in the box, grant you, except maybe a few pieces of paper that make you feel good about buying the box.

The warranties exist only in the ether. Promises of future support that may never be needed. And, very often, you don’t even need to open the box that comes with whatever it was that you bought. The service is activated automatically at the point of purchase.

So, what’s with the boxes then?

Why would you box a promise and sell it?

Simple reason, because it sells a lot more promises for a lot more money.

Giving a service or digital product a tangible representation makes it more concrete to buyers. More concrete translates not only to a higher perceived value than a purely digital product or service, but also greater proof of value (we believe more in what we can see, touch and feel).

The boxes also serve as a visual prompt, a reminder that the digital product or service is there to buy.

That’s what’s up with the boxes and the “product shots” with Photoshopped images of boxes, manuals and CDs on websites for digital products.

When you make the intangible tangible, people pay more…and buy more.

This has become especially important in the context of commodity businesses (like electronics), where competition is based largely on price. Very often, the actual product yields very little margin, while most extended service warranties expire unused or under-used, leaving a ton of pure profit in the sale of the promise alone.

And, it’s also become important in the digital product realm, where people have trouble getting their heads around value when they can’t touch and feel the product. A visual representation of a physical product, even one that’s purely screen-based, makes a digital product “real-er” and bumps sales…a lot.

So, how might that apply to your business or idea?

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25 responses

25 responses to “How To Box And Sell Air”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields, Rich LoPresti, Bambi Gordon, Salma Jafri, kurio's resource and others. kurio's resource said: How To Box And Sell Air […]

  2. Tim Brownson says:

    I really get this because I much prefer buying audio book on cd as opposed to downloading them. There’s the practical reason that I have lost downloaded stuff in the past when I’ve switched computers, but I think it’s more nebulous than that.

    I just like getting a parcel through the mail and having something tangible.

    I guess I’ll have to have some 10 foot cardboard cut outs of me made that I can then mail to all my coaching clients. That would definitely by a Purple Cow!

    • I agree Tim, I like having the cd’s, and the box. Still like having a manual vs. a PDF to search as well.

      As far as the life size cutout of you, I can always use another threatening looking figure in my studio to train people with. 😉

    • I agree. I reckon people would always crave for something tangible. Something they can see and touch, and since most of the goods and services nowadays are digitally procured companies have hit the jackpot with these boxes of air they sell. We’re buying it!

  3. gerry suchy says:

    I tend to think that tech savvy consumers see this for the ruse that it is. If you’ve done any of your homework prior to making a purchase then this “box of air is just that.” Here’s a personal example. I’ve been a Mac user for a long time. I use a Mac and associated Apple products because I know them to be reliable. I have never opted for an extended warranty and never needed one. I think it has to do with what experience the consumer brings to the buying table.

    P.S. New blog design I see, I like it. I must say though I miss the head rag you’re starting to look more corporate. I guess that happens when you’re making the big bucks 😉

    Take Care.

    • Paula Henry says:

      Gerry – I have heard the rave about using a Mac for years. It’s dependable, no viruses, lasts forever………etc. I bought an iMac exactly two months ago and it has been in for repairs for 8 days now. Early last week, I walked into my office to view a black screen. They said 5-7 days for a fix and I have heard nothing. Believe me, I am not a Mac fan and it will take me a long time to believe they are a reliable machine. They wouldn’t allow me to return it, so I spent more money than I have ever spent on a computer I can not use.

      Your experience is not mine and the same can be said for almost any product out there.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hey Gerry,

      Funny, I’m a long-time mac person, too, and the only service plans I’ve ever purchased have been for macs…and they’ve saved me thousands every time (failed hard-drive, dead battery, motherboard, sound card, defective screen, yadda, yadda). But, that’s not the point, you are very likely right, many tech-savvy consumers look past the boxes. But enough more “consumer-level” buyers are influenced by them to make creating and displaying them well worth the effort. The proof is in the fact that they keep using them. marketers test things like this all the time and the things that don’t have a positive ROI get tossed pretty quickly.

    • Interesting seeing all the positions, views and opinions.

      I agree with Jonathan, as much as I love my Mac they are not indestructible and I have used extended warranties to save me lots of money as well.

      And yes even Apple can have a bad machine come out, so how much do you lose out by drawing a line in the sand that keeps you from experiencing a really great product.

      Jonathan I love reading comments to see where people are setting their limiting thinking and beliefs. It teaches me to look at my own and how I can improve my business all from reading comments.

      It is natural human behavior that has been trained to want something physical when buying.

      Some of us have been able to un-attach ourselves to the waste it creates because we see a higher picture-plastic, paper,landfills.

      The key is what does the mass do and think THEN- how can you innovate and change behavior and create an income at the same time.

  4. Interesting point. I think all of us providing services, which might not initially have symbolic representation (anything tangible, be it boxes, cameos, lucky charms, corporate memorabilia :), might take an inspiration from the original service: religion. I mean it actually in a very respectful way, since appropriate (I stress – appropriate), symbols and rituals can truly enhance the client’s experience.
    So, Tim, you might mail your clients a little note card every month with the 3 bullet points that mark their porgress for that month. Just thinking out loud:)

  5. Sapeoblast says:

    I believe Tommy Boy went over this exact same concept years ago. . .a bit more eloquently as well 😉

  6. At the bottom end of the market flashy packaging matters. As you go more into the higher end it doesn’t as much.

    This seems weird, but check it. Go to Walmart and look at the packaging. Inexpensive commodities fight a war based on packaging.

    When your product is vertically positioned as more costly and prestigious, the absence of flashy packaging can actually be used as part of that positioning.

    With “digital” products an “e-cover” or “box shot” serves as a visual meme for what it is… but if you move into a higher-price category such a cover can actually cheapen what you’re trying to achieve.

    I’m not saying that graphics don’t usually have a valuable roll to play – just that as you move into some areas where you’re selling at above the commodity price, faux-packaging can work against your sales argument.

    Take a $1500 on public speaking (I’m thinking of a real example). A box or a picture of some CDs makes it look cheap and flimsy. The value is in the information, not the media, which everybody knows is cheap to reproduce. The marketer tested with pictures and without.

    Know what? The sales letter with no graphics outsells the salesletter with the packaging memes in it.

    Why? It’s hard to say for sure. Maybe the lack of graphical representation of “what you get” draws the target buyer into reading the letter better.

    Maybe the absence-of-picture undermines the “scroll and scan for price” habit.

    The letter is strongly-benefit oriented. That’s what the guy is selling, not the box-shot, not a stack of DVDs.

    … and it sells at $1500 a pop with no pictures of the product.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. I’d sooo like to agree with you on this, because it’d make me feel better about how rational and intelligent we all are. But after a lot of years both building businesses, marketing and copywriting, testing and having exposure to a wide variety of solutions at all price points, including premium products and services sold to discriminating markets, I can’t.

      I do agree that bad, cheesy, images, packaging or attempts at making the intangible tangible will detract from conversions because the cheese factor outweighs the attempt at “tangible-ization.” But, the “right” packaging, design or translation to tangibility will increase conversion almost every time, on most every solution “where having a tangible representation makes makes sense for the product.” Even high end ones that sell for thousands of dollars. I’ve seen this happen so many times…and been stunned by the results, because I didn’t expect it.

      So, for example, for a $1,500 public speaking live event wouldn’t benefit from a product shot because there’s no logical reason to package it that way, but for a $1,500 digital speaking product with manuals, audio and video, there is that logical connection. And, in that scenario, adding in a really well done product shot and component shots will outsell a plain text letter, provided there is enough sales volume to get statistically relevant conversion data (that’s often a big challenge, alone).

      The only time I’ve seen a straight text sales letter out-convert a sales letter with product shots is when the product shots are poorly done, poorly positioned and there’s no logical nexus to the shot (assuming the copy is really good already). And, here’s where you’re on the money, sadly, THAT happens more often than it should.

  7. Annette says:

    I can see the point, yet am struggling to understand why people prefer to download music instead of buying CDs? Anyone any suggestions when it comes to music? Is it because the iPod makes music “tangible”???


    • Annette:

      I can quickly come up with 2 reasons people prefer to download music instead of buying cd’s:

      1. Instant gratification. They have their music in a matter of seconds.

      2. Marketing and branding has made cd’s “old fashioned” to the younger generation, many of whom have never purchawed music through anything but downloading. They would no more consider buying a cd than I would an LP or 45.

      Apple in particular has done a great job of creating the allure for this medium. I Pods were designed not so much for their sales, but for the sales of digital products such as music, video and apps.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Interesting question, Annette. But, think about this, when you log onto iTunes what do you see on the top left for every band? A visual representation of the album and very likely an option to play a video. These all add to the experience and contribute to the emotions you feel when deciding whether to buy a song. But, that’s actually starting to move into a different topic than making intangibles more tangible. That’s about adding something tangible to ramp the experience of something intangible.

    • Monica says:

      Plastic plastic plastic (and whatever silicone based products and toxic inks on the CD). Clutter clutter and more trips to the recycling center. That’s why I prefer to download music. You can still get the album entirely WITH cover art!
      (I also own a record player and buy used LPs too. They come without plastic wrap.)

  8. I definitely agree with this! I have a fairly simple time selling my concrete products, I make hair art. But I tend to over think my informational products. Great post and lots to think about and mull over. Thanks. Raven.

  9. Bryan Lubic says:

    Can you make it real for your clients/customers/colleagues, etc.?

    Powerful lesson here–the ability to make something “real” for people.

    Maybe it’s (mostly) intangible–a digital download.
    Maybe it’s more abstract–love, honor, success.

    In any case, a great takeaway for me is the lesson that I can be more effective as a communicator if I can, whatever the issue/topic/concept, learn what would “make it real” for the people I am trying to reach and connect with.

    Thanks, Jonathon!



  10. Christopher says:

    Interesting. As a chiropractor, all the patient leaves with is less pain or greater range of motion. If I give them some papers (an e-book), information on what caused their issue, or how to heal better, they would have greater understanding and would perhaps even pass on knowledge that could help someone else. Appreciate this post.

  11. Kelly says:


    Interesting post, and hit me right at a moment when I’m thinking hard about these things.. We just released a new e-book on website usability yesterday—and making it real by including an image on the sales page (and a in few other ways) was one of my priorities. I agree completely that people have trouble getting their heads around value when they can’t touch and feel the product.

    Having said that, though, I think it’s a little like the digital music dilemma mentioned above—no matter how much we make our sales page rock (and I sure hope we did!), and address those issues, some customers will still see digital as a very hard sell—and some wouldn’t want it any other way, and so don’t need that extra “real-ness.”

    Are some folks comfortable with air and only need to be comfortable with *your particular* package of air, while some will always have a tough time with air, no matter whose? Still mulling it over as I watch the sales numbers, ha ha. I think it’s shifting over time.



  12. Kelly Ke says:

    I think there is a bit more to just an image making a digital product ‘realer’. Consumers are smarter than that.

    With digital or service-oriented products such as webinar products or eLearning services, ‘FREE trials’ become the norm. Why? Because consumers want to ‘experience’ it before ‘buy’ it. This not only makes sense for consumers, it also makes sense for companies because empowered consumers, i.e., those making purchase decisions by ‘experiencing the products first’ on their own, actually requires less support on the part of companies. It directly translates into lower ‘cost of sales’ and ‘post-sale support’. We see this every day in our own elearning side of the business.

  13. Kelly Ke says:

    I think there is a bit more to just an image making a digital product ‘realer’. Consumers are smarter than that.

    With digital or service-oriented products, ‘FREE trials’ become the norm. Why? Because consumers want to ‘experience’ it before ‘buy’ it. This not only makes sense for consumers, it also makes sense for companies because empowered consumers, i.e., those making purchase decisions by ‘experiencing the products first’ on their own, actually requires less support on the part of companies. It directly translates into lower ‘cost of sales’ and ‘post-sale support’. We see this every day in our own business.

  14. Rich D. says:

    This has been exceptionally difficult for wedding photographers to figure out.

    Many years ago, we went from delivering massive proof albums with hundreds of prints to handing over a single DVD.

    I know photographers who still ship DVDs in their generic case. Many of us spend up $50 for over-sized leather presentation cases. Much more classy for the thousands of dollars we charge couples.

  15. […] One great business post was published by Jonathan Fields, teaching us a very important lesson – How to Box and Sell Air. […]

  16. These tips are really practical i have to say and i never thought of some of the points you mentioned here. This post has got me really thinking very deep.