Listening to one of my favorite podcasts last night, I had to grit my teeth on hearing the co-hosts cite the importance of testimonials but then gloss over how to create them and what it is specifically that makes them good or bad.
Of course, the most important part of the testimonial is to have and deliver a great product and service. That’s the prerequisite and I won’t cover it here.
But maybe that’s also why testimonials are starting to lose a little bit of their impact – glowing testimonials are now so ubiquitous. So can they even be trusted? Is every product and service now spectacular all of a sudden?
Let’s be honest, most testimonials are starting to feel like marketing bullsh*it.
But they don’t have to – if you’re willing to put in much more effort than before.
A Theory of Testimonials: Reverse Testimonials
I’ve talked before about master copywriter (at least in a direct marketing context) Sean D’Souza’s early ought’s classic, The Brain Audit, where he describes his “trigger” theory of conversion-optimized messaging.
But another interesting set of opinions of D’Souza’s are around testimonials.
He argues that testimonials should have three characteristics:
- Authentic – This means not ghostwritten, let alone ghostwritten by a marketing or communications person, which is the common practice. Instead, the testimonial consists of the actual words people use, off the cuff, to describe your solution. In fact, he recommends asking probing questions live, recording the conversation, and transcribing the audio word for word. I’ve done this for clients. It’s not easy and it doesn’t always work but it’s a great approach.
- Reversed – Starts off by containing doubts and objections, then concludes in praise. You ask questions that elicit comments about doubts. The problem is, most people are too polite to express doubts, so it takes some skill to uncover them.
- Detailed – The praise should, of course, be backed up by details. This is much less hard to uncover than doubts or preliminary objections. But details also hard to get at through text communications; by following up on praise by pressing for details.
D’Souza calls testimonials that have these characteristics, “reverse testimonials” because they end with praise but don’t start with them. And are in other ways counterintuitive.
Exhibit A: The Typical Testimonial
“Cedar Creek Coworking is amazing! The people are really friendly and the space is very nice. I love it and it’s been an awesome investment!!”
- Includes no doubts or objections the rest of us can relate to
- Starts out positive; ends positively
- No details
Now contrast that with Exhibit B: The Reverse Testimonial
“I wasn’t really sure whether the Cedar Creek Coworking would work for me because it seemed too crowded and honestly a little intense, I mean just the general vibe of it. Also, just from looking at Google Maps, it seemed a little far away. But then it turned out to feel very spacious and relaxed. And quiet. I mean, I think that’s because of the way the desks and walls are laid out – and the flooring is super quiet; it’s like oh yeah, there’s a reason professional offices have carpeted floors. I also found myself working longer hours because it was really pleasant to be there, so I started to commute back home later after rush hour. The two years I’ve been here have actually been the most productive period for my business. I also realized how friendly the people are once I got to know them. This is by far the best coworking ever! Just an awesome thing for me overall!!”
This doesn’t even entirely resolve all of the customer’s objections – working longer hours isn’t a solution to a long commute. But other objections (too crowded, too serious/unfriendly of a vibe) were resolved. Taken together we have in this example:
- Authentic language (“it turned out to feel very spacious and relaxed. And quiet.”), including negative and positive assertions.
- The reverse pattern, starting with doubts (“wasn’t really sure”) but closing strong (“an awesome thing for me overall!!!”).
- Details (“carpeted floors”)
Why does the reverse pattern work? Because people actually read testimonials all the way through, especially if there’s a relatable doubt expressed. That perks our attention, the same way negative consumer product reviews have to be balanced against positive ones.
Another important point here: what’s implied is the need for a testimonial interview – and for developing the skill and practice of efficiently conducting these interviews. You have to set up the interview, you have to customize your script for the interview, you have to make sure the recording works (ideally video), and you have to followup, with thank you’s and confirmations. And then you have to transcribe.
I will confess that this is time-consuming and seems to be a drain on both parties. It seems counterintuitively laborious.
There’s also a certain awkwardness that comes with asking something to do something a different way.
All of this is good news for you; it means this approach is unlikely to become widespread, no matter how much quarantine time we have on our hands.
Another piece of bad advice I hear on marketing and consulting podcasts is, “get lots of testimonials”.
I think that used to work when fewer of us had testimonials at all, especially. I remember being so impressed when a guy I worked with had 137 LinkedIn recommendations – in 2008. And I definitely don’t think having lots of testimonials or reviews is a bad thing, especially if taken as a whole they are authentic, genuinely praiseful, and detailed.
On a related note, you also have to know how to use testimonials. For example, where exactly to place them on your website or presentation deck. Too often, they are quarantined to their own section or page or slide, and thereby deprived of their power.
But properly created and properly presented, less is more – no matter how big or small, most brands only need a handful of true testimonials.
I hope you and yours are OK,
Footnotes & Errata
- evoking authenticity is harder with larger clients, especially if you must procure your testimonial from in-house communications or marketing director – they tend to talk in marketing-copy style, at least in a business context. If you think in cliches, you speak in them and vice versa