Testimonials: Friend or foe?

by Philip Webb on 1 August 2005

When done right, testimonials can be a strong ally in establishing the credibility of your website. When done wrong, they can actually do more harm than good. Here are a few tips to get you started in the right direction.

Don't try to fake sincerity

I'm sure you've seen websites loaded with testimonials that all sound as though they were written by the same bad advertising copywriter. Breathless, urgent, loaded with supposedly "hypnotic" sales trigger words - and completely unbelievable.

Nothing will ruin your credibility faster than the use of phony testimonials

It's perfectly okay to solicit testimonials. Ask your customers for feedback, and include the best comments on your website. However, do not under any circumstances succumb to the temptation to write your own testimonials or to hire someone to write them for you.

Just who are these people, anyway?

I get sales letters and flyers all the time with testimonials from alleged "satisfied customers" identified only by their initials. Just today, I saw a television advert with testimonials from folks identified with just names and generic titles such as "businesswoman" and "professional."

"Professional what?" I wondered. Professional actor, most likely.

Frankly, I don't put too much stock in these so-called testimonials. Maybe these people are real, and maybe they're qualified to give an opinion, but I don't buy it. I generally don't buy the products they're pitching either.

For each testimonial you should include at a minimum the customer's full name and location. If they're speaking on behalf of a business, include the business name. Mention if they have any professional certifications or titles that would enhance their authority. If they have a website, a link to it will also help establish that this is a legitimate testimonial.

Photographs can also help prove that these are real people. Just make sure that the pictures aren't too "professional". Oddly enough, photos that are too good may be perceived as generic stock photos, while those that have a slightly more amateur quality will seem genuine.

It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, but ask for permission anyway

Always ask before you publish someone's comments on your website. Ask for permission to include their comments and to edit if necessary. Get their consent in writing, and keep it on file.

When you ask permission to include their comments, be sure they also agree to let you include their identifying information. Only include testimonials from people who are comfortable with the level of personal detail you intend to provide.

The last thing you need is to have a customer getting upset because you published what they intended as a private letter or e-mail on your website without their knowledge, or included their personal details without their permission.

Specifics are more compelling

Try to pick comments that address a specific benefit or positive result brought about by the use of your product or service. These are much more powerful than more generic compliments.

For instance, which of these makes a stronger testimonial?

Joe's Deli is great! I just love them!

...or...

Our previous caterer went out of business just a week before our annual company awards banquet, leaving us with no food service for over 200 expected attendees. On extremely short notice, Joe's Deli came through for us with delicious food, impeccable service and excellent presentation.

Spread the wealth

It's a good idea to have a testimonials page on your site. Prospective customers may find a long list of favourable comments from all your previous customers to be very impressive. But to increase the impact of your testimonials, try also interweaving them with the content on your main pages.

Site visitors may skip or accidentally overlook a separate testimonials page. Testimonials that are interwoven with the body copy or in a sidebar have a better chance of being read by more of your site visitors.

If your testimonials are focused and specific, this can be a powerful technique to improve your sales conversions by directing attention to the benefits of your product or service.

Brevity is the soul of wit

You've probably run across websites with testimonials that could constitute a full page in themselves. They just go on and on and on...

Now, be honest. Do you actually read them all the way through? Or do you do as I do and simply scroll past them?

If you want your testimonials to do their job, they need to be readable. Try to keep the quotes to five lines of text or less. If a customer gives you a very long - but excellent - testimonial and you want to use substantially all of the comments, consider breaking it up into several segments to scatter throughout your site.

In conclusion

There are few marketing tools more powerful than word of mouth, but you can't fake it. Generic, questionable or obviously phony testimonials will do you no good, and may actually harm your reputation. On the other hand, succinct, believable, benefit-specific testimonials from real people, properly placed on your web pages, can enhance your website's credibility and boost your conversion rate.

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