Testimonials: Selling Tools or Just More Hot Air?
Testimonials are a quirky thing.
On the one hand, it's a safe bet that one of the first questions most copywriters ask their clients (right after, "Can I see the product?") is, "Do you have any testimonials?"
The reason is simple. When it comes to getting raw meat for great copy, a rave review from a buyer-turned-advocate can be potent stuff.
When you're building credibility in print, on the Web and in broadcast direct marketing, a testimonial can do much of the heavy lifting. And when it's brimming with specific benefits and a hefty dollop of relevant product details, a great quote can be as powerful as a generous guarantee in closing the sale. That's because, at its core, a testimonial gives the buyer intellectual assurance that he or she is making a good decision.
On the other hand, in this "age of cynicism" (to use a term coined by the copywriting master himself, Herschell Gordon Lewis), testimonials sometimes are viewed with a great deal of skepticism and outright dis-belief, especially by the Gen X crowd.
Believability Is Key
Unlike the offer, response vehicle, and targeted listwhich are the key defining components of any real direct response efforttestimonials are not mandatory. Plenty of financial services offers run without testimonials, and getting these customer quotes always is problematic in a new product launch.
However, the higher the price tag, the more important the testimonials.
"I do believe they count when the product is a large purchase, or is an involved process, [for example] a wine cellar or wine storage system for the customer's home, or a large corporate wine order in which a customer is placing their customers in our hands," says Tammy Boatright, president of both Windsor Vineyards and International Wine Accessories. Windsor Vineyards, in Windsor, Calif., is America's oldest and largest direct response winery, and uses testimonials in solo direct mail and in consumer and B-to-B catalogs. Dallas-based International Wine Accessories has offered "everything for the wine lover" (including custom wine cellars and racking systems that can run into seven figures) since 1983 via catalog and, more recently, online.
Mark Bloom, creative director of TargetCom, a full-service direct response agency headquartered in Chicago, agrees about the price/ testimonial equation. "If it's a higher ticket item," Bloom says, "I definitely think it makes a difference. A testimonial says, 'This is expensive, but this person says it worked for them.'"
The key to an effective testimonial, Bloom points out, is believability, which isn't the easiest thing to capture, especially on deadline.
Instead of asking consumersno matter how willingto "give" a testimonial about the product or service, TargetCom's secret is to spend a great deal of time interviewing the buyer about her experience with the product, both for taped and print testimonials.
"We'll sit down with them and have a conversation, get them talking about themselves, get them relaxed. Then they give you their true experience and they don't sound rehearsed. You're going for authenticitywhat it was they got out of [the product or service]."
That's when, Bloom says, "they give you these gems. You can never prepare for what these people give you. Amazing stuff. That's definitely the power of testimonials."
Bloom adds that getting the amazing stuff isn't fast. In fact, it can take a couple of hours to get a customer to talk about her experience enough to produce those gems. "Efforts to coach people are terrible," he notes. But, authentic testimonials are very powerful.
For Matthew Katz, creative manager for NorthStar Nutritionals, a Baltimore-based nutritional supplement company, truthfulness is the key to testimonials that not only are believable, but pass legal scrutiny. "We run them 'as is' as best we can, but more often than not we have to tone them down," Katz comments, adding that virtually all of NorthStar's testimonials are unsolicited.
"In supplement marketing, a testimonial counts as a claim just as a claim [in the copy] counts as a claim, so there are legal restrictions. It's actually legal to doctor a testimonial and still call it a testimonial. We have to take out specifics, like, 'My cholesterol dropped 30 percent after taking the supplement,' and replace them with something [more general], like, 'My doctor says my levels are great.' We can't make a disease claim, even in testimonials."
The Age of Cynicism and "Embedded Disbelief"
While practitioners generally agree that believable testimonials help shove prospects into action, there does seem to be a phenomenon I'll call "embedded disbelief" that affects the Gen X set. According to Bloom, tests of testimonials versus no testimonials in older demographic groups (55+) show that testimonials bump response. But in focus groups he's been part of, Gen Xers think anyone singing the praises of a product or service is "a paid corporate shill."
"They're totally cynical," Bloom observes. "They don't believe anything.
"People see so much crap out there. You can totally tell the difference between an actor or somebody who's been totally coached and a real person," he adds.
Of course, the lesson here may not be that testimonials don't work for Gen X buyers as much as it may be a call to arms for marketers to findand delivercredible testimonials.
Unleashing the Power of Testimonials
OK, so assuming you a) have some solid, believable testimonials, and b) have a product or service where a testimonial would really help nail the sale (think motor club, high-end kitchen appliances or a weight-loss supplement), how best to unleash them?
Although classically showcased in the product brochure, there are dozens of ways to creatively leverage your "gems." Here are just a few options:
* outer envelope teaser;
* Johnson box highlighted above the salutation;
* lead letter paragraph;
* as the basis of your entire copy platform in the sales letter;
* as a separate insert or small additional brochure;
* on the front or back of an order form (if possible, right next to the guarantee);
* one particularly strong customer reference showcased in a lift note; and/or
* with or without pictures of real customers.
In fact, Bloom currently is working on a print campaign for a medical client where each ad headline will be a patient quote and the ad copy has been crafted from the testimonial-giver's story about how the product in question changed his or her life for the better.
And Katz built a sales letter lead around a testimonial, creating a powerfully performing piece that drove one of his firm's supplements to the No. 1 position in its product line.
A Pinch of Reassurance, Please
Which brings me to my final point: Beyond their basic utility and the mechanics, testimonials have a unique ability to help you create a voice for your campaign. As Boatright comments, "I love testimonials. They build credibility and lend personality to a marketing campaign."
Indeed, perhaps the biggest contribution testimonials make to any direct marketing piece is adding that warm, reassuring voice that says, "Hey! I'm just like you. I had the same problem, need or desire. I wanted a solution. And I found it. This product/service made me richer, happier, more admired, thinner, more beautiful, smarterand it will do the same for you."
Lea Pierce is a freelance direct marketing copywriter and strategic consultant. She has been a copywriter for 18 years, and has more than 10 years of experience as a creative director. Pierce can be reached at (800) 932-4748.