How to Build Super Credibility Without Testimonials
by Dean Rieck
Here's a typical phone conversation with a client during the research phase of a direct mail project:
Dean: "Okay, we've gone over product features, your customer profile, the offer, and all the other points on my list. Oh, yes, there's just one more item ..."
Client: "What's that?"
Dean: "Yeah. How many testimonials can you give me? Thirty or so to choose from?"
Client: "Uh ... actually."
Dean: "If you only have twenty, that's okay."
Client: "Hmmm ..."
Dean: "Can you give me say, ten?"
Client: "Well ..."
Client: "It's kind of embarrassing, but ..."
Dean: "You DO have testimonials, right?"
Client: "Oh, yes. Absolutely!"
Dean: "How many?"
Client: "Well ... a gentleman from Ohio wrote us with some kind words a couple of months ago. Let's see, where did I put that?"
This is the point in the conversation where I sit back in my chair, close my eyes, and start daydreaming about selling off some investments and opening a quaint little bed-and-breakfast. My wife could handle the guests. We'd hire a couple of people to help clean and cook. And I would just tend the garden all day. It would be so peaceful and quiet and ...
Client: "AH-HA! Found the letter!
Dean: "Anything we can use?"
Client: "He says he loves our product and uses it all the time. How's that?"
Dean: "You ever stay at a bed-and-breakfast?"
Getting Creative With Credibility
Testimonials are a great way to support and prove your claims. And they take advantage of the powerful psychological principle called Social Proof: If others are doing it, it's a good thing to do. And when the display of social acceptability becomes big enough, when lots of people are shown doing it, acceptability transforms into desirability. This is what I call the Bandwagon Effect, and it is one reason I suggest that you present testimonials as a group rather than individually.
However, a testimonial is just one way to use Social Proof to your advantage. With just a little thought, it's easy to come up with dozens of other techniques. Here are some of the most effective.
- List businesses that have used your product or service. If you sell seminars, for example, you could say you've trained personnel from American Express, Exxon, Microsoft, and other impressive organizations. All you need is one employee per company to ethically make the claim. I call this an "indirect testimonial." Variations on this idea include listing the states or countries in which you do business, the industries you serve, the various categories of professionals who trust you, and so on. It's really a matter of digging through your customer data and seeing what information is available.
- Show pictures of people using your widgets. This is usually better than a still life of your product sitting idle in a photo studio. An action picture can simultaneously show the product, the kind of people who use it, and benefits and results. Plus, psychologists tell us that people are hardwired to be interested in people more than in things. So, in general, well-shot people pictures tend to draw the eye and stimulate interest more readily than inanimate objects.
- Share case histories or success stories. This is particularly powerful in business-to-business marketing, but it can be used equally well in consumer marketing or even fundraising. Simply show how someone solved a problem or derived a big benefit from the thing you're promoting. Before and after descriptions are particularly effective. The key is to be specific. Success stories can be long or short, though I usually prefer many short ones instead of one or two long ones.
Consider this short success story used in tandem with a dozen others in a direct mail lead generation package for a high-tech firm:
AT&T recently moved from a high-maintenance document management system to WebLightning, an Internet-based system accessed through a standard web browser. This has resulted in a savings of $4,406,322. They have reduced paper costs by 80%, lowered shipping costs by eliminating most overnight mailings, and saved 45 hours a week in duplication work. The bottom line: a 684% return on investment.
- Mention the age of your company. This is a subtle indication of popularity and a blatant indication of reliability and consistency. But what is impressive for one business may be lackluster for another. If you're a software company, being in business 10 years makes you an old timer. If you're a bank, 10 years makes you an infant. You can simply mention your company's age in the copy or go the extra mile and create an attractive seal or banner to feature in your design.
- Tout the number of products sold. McDonald's built an empire by displaying on their signs a running count of the number of hamburgers served. This number said, in effect, "Everyone eats here, so you should, too." If you don't know the numbers for your business, dig through your sales reports and see what figures you can come up with. If you have to estimate, that's okay. Just make it reasonable and believable. And be sure you can explain how you arrived at the number in case anyone questions your claim.
Believe it or not, McDonald's is still counting, though they have reached truly ridiculous numbers. The sign in front of the McDonald's down the street from my house reads, "Billions and billions served." Another one downtown reads, "Over 99 billion served." You probably won't have the fortunate problem of so many sales, but you can always hope.
- Display the number of customers you serve. This is similar to the previous idea. An impressive number says, "We satisfy lots of people, so we can satisfy you, too." A secondary message is, "By choosing us you won't be taking a risk." Risk avoidance is particularly important for business purchases. I use this one myself, telling people that I have satisfied over 150 businesses in the U.S., Canada, and England. And that's conservative, since I'm not counting any of the clients I worked with during my years as a television producer.
- Say how long your product or service has been a bestseller. This says popularity, quality, and consistency. And it can be more effective than just saying how long you've been around. "The Widget 2000 has been a top-seller for over 20 years." This is another good candidate for a graphic seal or banner.
- Cite information on your market leadership. Being top dog in your market is a great advantage because it removes the perceived risk in that first purchase. Oracle uses this technique in television ads, claiming that 96 percent of the "Fortune e50" run Oracle. Notice here that the percentage would be smaller if Oracle settled for a percentage of the Fortune 500. So they use another slice of the market where the percentage is higher.
- Reveal seasonal demand. Not only does this show public acceptance, it also overcomes inertia and can encourage early orders. A good example is the yearly rush to buy the latest fad toy during the holidays. Simply remind customers about shortages last year. Warn them that they have to get it now, or they may not get it at all. You can even build an entire promotion around this idea. Heavy demand plus scarcity equals a powerful, urgent sales message.
- Show well-known people using your product or service. This invokes the Halo Effect, connecting positive feelings for a celebrity to your wares. But understand that celebrities can fall out of favor quickly if something bad happens. Smart companies often use celebrities who aren't in the news every night and, therefore, don't run the daily risk of being victimized by unfortunate events. Mickey Rooney endorses insurance. Robert Redford lends his name to charity. William Shatner represents Priceline.com.
- Display a seal of approval. Approval from Good Housekeeping or an industry group puts an official stamp on public approval. However, I don't condone making up a bogus organization to fake the rating. There are plenty of Social Proof techniques at your disposal. Simply choose one that allows you to sell honestly.
- Cite favorable reviews. Getting the thumbs-up from a third-party is always powerful, especially when it's from a source your customer trusts. Some products, such as software, are routinely reviewed. However, television commentators and experts writing for publications and Web sites often review a wide variety of products and services. If you have something unique or interesting, make sure the right people know about it. This falls into the public relations arena, but once you get good reviews, you can import the information into the marketing department to use in ads, direct mail, packaging, etc.
- Cite mentions in the media. Newsworthy products and services are always more trusted because of the principle of "familiarity." This is what most mass market advertising is all about simply making people familiar with a product so that there is a preference when a buying decision is made. If you get favorable media mentions, you can quote them. But you don't even need that much. You can simply list media sources that have mentioned your wares, regardless of the context. This is yet another argument for a good public relations effort that gets you talked about. Use of this information can be as simple as saying, "You've probably seen Whizbangers mentioned in USA Today, The New York Times, and U.S. News and World Report."
- Borrow the credibility of the media you advertise in. If you run print ads in Better Homes and Gardens, you simply say, "As seen in Better Homes and Gardens." If you run ads in several well-known publications, list the most impressive. I've even seen some advertisers display logos from publications they run ads in, though I'd check with your legal advisor before trying this. And if you advertise on television, there's the tried and true "As seen on TV" icon, which works because television carries enormous credibility. However, you can list stations and networks as well.
I hope you've learned some useful testimonial techniques in this series of articles. But remember that the strategy is more important than individual tactics. Once you understand how persuasive Social Proof really is, the techniques at your disposal are limited only by your imagination and persistence.
Copyright © 2000 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
Click here for reprint policy.
Copyright © Direct Creative. All Rights Reserved.