Bad apples make you taller, thinner and better looking (until Dec 1 2009)

Sir Millard Mulch
Creative Commons License photo credit: rick

One of the things I’ve always counseled you to use in your marketing is testimonials: carefully chosen things your customers have said about their experiences using your products and services.

On Dec 1 2009, that changes a bit.

In some ways, it’s a good thing. It’ll make almost all those lame infomercials edit their fake testimonials.

In others, it’s a bad thing because it will punish (or frighten) good businesses by making them think they can no longer use testimonials or that the ones they can use have to be gutted.

Neither is true.

A great testimonial addresses…

…a common sales objection.

Getting a testimonial – particularly a strong, believable, honest one that directly addresses a common sales objection – can be difficult. Not so much because they are hard to get, but because people don’t always like to talk about their use of a product/service. A lot of that depends on what it is.

Not everyone understands what kind of testimonials are truly valuable. When people tell you they love the product or that they love working with you and your service is wonderful, those are nice and heartwarming comments, but they aren’t strong testimonials.

One type of strong testimonial states specific results, such as “We’re up 70% in same month, prior year sales after working with Mark to improve our marketing over the last 3 months”. That’s a good testimonial, and it’s (naturally) the exact type of thing the FTC doesn’t like.

Why? Because it states specific results that might be 100% factual for one person (or 100, if you have that many), but it still doesn’t mean that every single Joe Blow can achieve the same results by simply falling out of bed in the morning.

If everyone who buys your product can’t typically achieve a documented, 100% factual result stated in a testimonial when THEY use your product / service, you will have a problem using that testimonial EVEN IF 99% OF YOUR CUSTOMERS NEVER USE IT.

Isn’t that grand? “Lowest common denominator” comes to mind.

As you likely assume, these regulations came about mostly because of the bad apples out there. So be it. Let’s get to the details.

Bad apples beware

The new FTC regulations that take effect on December 1 2009 that will require you to be far more careful about the testimonials you use.

Quoting the hard-to-believe results of one highly-motivated person and then saying “these results are not typical” is no longer sufficient. You have to state typical results that your customers get when using your product or service. If those turn out to be difficult or impossible to achieve, expect the FTC to come calling – and not for dinner.

If you haven’t already done so, you need to check your marketing materials TODAY for any claims that – no matter how real and accurate – are not typical.

You can see the FTC-issued guidance on this at http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/10/endortest.shtm

This applies to bloggers, advertisers of products/services and many others, so I strongly suggest you give it a look. It’s not a game. Regardless of what party is running Washington, these folks seem to revel in making examples out of business people to ‘send a message’ to everyone else.

Sometimes, these things come down very unfairly. Don’t let it happen to you.

More details from the FTC are available here.

Be gone with you, Debbie Downer

Now that we have the “Debbie Downer” stuff out of the way, there is some good news in this because it does punish the slime in your market along with the good guys.

Several things come out of this, but one thing is clear – it makes measurement all that much more critical to your success.

If your product or service can somehow anonymously document what it does – easy for some products and services, almost impossible for others – you will be ahead of the game.

A lot of this applies to software businesses and those with automation in their products / services – but if testimonials are important to your business, measurement might become essential across your entire product line.

Implement results measurement into your products and services. Not only will it help your product / service, but it will help you sell them to those who REALLY need them AND it’ll be the evidence you need to prove the results of typical use.

NO, I’m not a lawyer. If testimonials are central to everything you do, I strongly urge you to consult your attorney about these regulations.

Meanwhile, you should be measuring results. Imagine what will happen if your products / services can prove to your customers what they are doing for them (and what they are not).

That’s why we’ve had this measurement conversation for years prior to the FTC forcing it upon you.

In a nutshell, the FTC is making some modifications to how US firms, and those advertising in the US, can use testimonials.

It’s no longer good enough to point out that the results mentioned might be exceptional. If you use results-based testimonials or case studies, you also have to tell the viewer or reader what the typical results are that your customers achieve using the product.

This is tough for physical products, such as weight loss programs and the like, but it’s doable. It’s damned near impossible for “how to” products.

The reasons are pretty simple: Most people buy them and don’t do anything with them. Others add or remove processes, or do various things really well or poorly. All of that affects results, and makes it incredibly hard to describe “typical,”

even if you can get people to tell you their results.

Getting them to tell you what they achieved can be a tough row to hoe to start with. Many people are embarrassed to tell you they did nothing with it. Others overstate their results out of pride, or as a means to get more credibility. Some will understate them, to keep attention away from their successes.

None of this has any reflection on the product, or the truth of the advertising involved. It’s a matter of record-keeping and regulatory compliance that may prove beyond the capabilities of many information publishers.

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