Bladder-Challenged Teenagers and the Power of Testimonials

by Dean Rieck

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This is the first part of a four-part series on testimonials. To get us started, let me tell you a story about a bunch of beer-guzzling teenagers whizzing in the bushes along I-71 just north of my home. The connection? Read on.

About a year ago, one of my wife's associates invited us to a house-warming party. The term "house-warming" makes the event sound quaint, but I find the tradition a strange Americanism. It should be called a "we have a new house and want to show it off" party. The admission price is a grueling twenty-minute tour of every room, including, inexplicably, every bathroom and closet.

I loathe such silly events, but when my wife says we go, we go.

We were driving to the party when traffic slowed to a standstill along the highway. Nine out of ten cars were filled with teenagers, so I quickly concluded that there was a concert at the nearby arena and that the ill-designed off ramp was clogged.

But the long wait paid off with unexpected entertainment. A young man jumped from a car ahead of us and, in obvious physical distress, ran into the weeds to the right side of the road. Thirty seconds later he reappeared, smiling the smile of a man relieved of a great burden. He reentered his car to the approving whoops of a highwayful of instant fans.

A few moments later, a girl wearing one of those glorious "I'm doing something my parents would never understand" expressions followed the boy's lead, plunging into the overgrowth, beer can still in hand.

Within seconds, two-dozen others ran staggering into the bushes. And when the available flora offered no more occupancy, the less shy simply turned their backs to the road and conducted their transactions under a bright Ohio sky.

Actually, I would have liked to use the facilities myself, but my wife's disapproving look — not to mention the traumatic memory of insulting a nest of hornets the last time I improvised a rest stop — kept me in the car.

The Power of Social Proof

Besides appealing to my puerile sense of humor, why do I tell you this story? What could possibly be the connection between testimonials and these bladder-challenged teenagers?

It's a straightforward demonstration of the thing that gives testimonials their power. It's an example of Social Proof, the psychological principle of accepting something because others accept it, of doing something because others are doing it.

Most of those teenagers had been drinking. And I'm sure many of them needed to relieve themselves. But the idea of doing it in public didn't strike them as acceptable until they saw someone else doing it. And the more who did it, the more acceptable it seemed.

And that's as good a definition of Social Proof as any: "If others are doing it, it must be the right thing to do." It's a natural human instinct to follow the behavior of others, whether it's wearing the same type of boring gray suit as your associates or laughing at your boss's lame jokes because everyone else around the water cooler is laughing. (Or, for that matter, taking a tour of someone's walk-in closet simply because that's what all your buddies are doing.)

Social Proof is one of the most powerful psychological forces in our lives. But does it work in advertising? You don't need to look any further than the Pokémon craze to prove to yourself that it does. "Gotta catch 'em all!" Really? Sure, because all the other kids are!

And what is the most popular — perhaps the most effective — Social Proof technique available to marketers? It's our old friend, the testimonial.

The Power of Testimonials

The standard testimonial is a customer or client saying, "I've tried this and I love it." The power it carries is enormous because it works on so many levels:

Credibility — A testimonial builds confidence in your message, offer, product, and company because it offers proof that it has worked for others.

Objectivity — People expect you to say good things about your product, so your persuasive abilities have a limit. But your argument is multiplied tenfold when they see that other people agree with you, especially when those other people have no bias and nothing to gain.

Similarity — The best testimonials are from those similar to your prospective customers. People give more weight to the opinions of those who are like themselves. Doctors trust doctors. Housewives trust housewives. Teenagers trust teenagers.

Expertise — If your product lends itself to testimonials from experts, this can have an effect as great as testimonials from similar people. I'll listen to a person like me about the high quality of a tire for my car, but I'll also listen to a mechanic who gives the tire high marks. Imagine a mechanic saying, "The Everlast Tire is the best tire on the road. Actually, it's a little too good. Because once I put them on a car, I never see that customer again. Those tires could put me out of business."

Bandwagon Effect — When many testimonials are presented together, they not only engage the Social Proof Effect, they also trigger what I call the Bandwagon Effect. "Lots of people are doing it, so I have to get in on this and do it too. How can X number of people be wrong?"

Enthusiasm — Excitement breeds excitement. And if you're aggressive in your testimonial collection, you should be able to gather comments that brim with energy. One testimonial, around which I framed an entire direct mail package, started with the word "WOW!" Others in the same package contained statements such as, "What a treat!" and "I love it." The cumulative effect was like getting zapped with a bolt of lightning.

Benefits — Testimonials also offer an objective means of relaying your most important benefits. And by collecting lots of testimonials, you have the option of organizing them so the most informative are at the beginning.

Features — Along with benefits, features can surface in your testimonials. Because of the quirky, disorganized verbiage of real testimonials, a bullet list may be more thorough, but people are likely to mention the most important or popular features or relate how particular features help in particular situations. It makes features tangible.

The People Factor — On a basic level, communication theory tells us that people are interested in people more than in things. Testimonials represent real people talking about their experiences and sharing their opinions. Anything real people say will be more interesting and relevant than most of what a copywriter can concoct.

Quotes — Along the same lines, people like to read or hear what others have to say. Readership studies show, in fact, that anything in quotation marks, even if it's not a quote, gets high readership. It's also easier to read than running text. That's why good children's books have a high percentage of the text as quoted dialog. It actually encourages reading!

Specifics — And finally, good testimonials allow you to share specifics about your product. And because of the higher readership value of testimonials, they will be absorbed and understood quickly and effortlessly.

The Appalling State of Testimonial Usage

I've used testimonials to sell books, magazine and newsletter subscriptions, personal development courses, consumer and business software, herbs and natural supplements, office equipment, waste management services, security services, workers' compensation management, business courses, web technology — I've even used them in fundraising efforts.

And they're not limited to a particular medium or format. I've used them in letters, brochures, inserts, lift letters, order forms, envelopes, print ads, television commercials and infomercials, radio spots, and Web sites. They've even proven effective in two-step promotions and lead generation.

Testimonials are so powerful and influential, I encourage my clients to collect them every chance they get. And I urge them to use them wherever they can. In fact, one of the first requests I make of any client is to send me a file of their best testimonials. I would like 50 or 100 to choose from. I usually ask for 20. I generally settle for 10, sometimes fewer.

I would estimate that only about 10 percent of the clients I've worked with have any system at all to collect testimonials on a regular basis. Most simply file the chance letter or e-mail that finds its way to the marketing department. Some have a handful of comments culled from an old survey. Many simply rely on the same three or four that get passed from promotion to promotion ad infinitum.

So I propose to do something about this travesty. Starting with the next part in this series, we'll discuss how to collect testimonials. We'll look at how to use them effectively. And we'll use the principle of Social Proof to go beyond the tried and true testimonial to look at countless response boosting techniques.

Will reading these articles be time well spent? Well, look at what your colleagues have to say about my articles in this and other industry publications: (Note: This article was originally published in Direct Marketing Magazine.)

"Great stuff, Dean. Your focus on the power of social proof is a tool I know many of our readers will jump on — if they're smart. I've been sharing your concept with several colleagues and have literally seen the light bulbs go off!" - George Wright, Publisher

"Just a note to say thanks for writing such useful articles in the magazine. I enjoy reading your column/series. I like your witty writing style and the enthusiasm that jumps off the page." - Bob Martel, JMB Marketing

"I wanted you to know how much I appreciate your articles ... there isn't one that I haven't enjoyed and been educated by." - Jim Farrell, Coupon Connection

"I've got to tell you, I read your column ... regularly, and I just love it. Great stuff, simply presented, always useful. THANKS!" - Larry Mersereau, The Success Strategist

"What a hoot! It was great to read such a humorous treatment of important issues facing direct marketing. I only hope that the reader takes the time to fully appreciate the lessons to be learned from your piece." - Richard Hren, Ph.D., Nykamp Consulting Group

"I had to write to tell you how much I enjoyed your article. Actually ... it was a very painful experience. Over the course of my 30 years in the business ... I've experienced everything you described." - Steve Tharler, Former President, New England Direct Marketing Association

And that, my friends, is the power of testimonials at work.

Copyright © 2000 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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