Give Your Testimonials a Reality Check

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After reading and re-reading the latest FTC guidelines, I’ve come to some important conclusions that I want to share with you. Particularly as they relate to testimonials.

Last night, my good friend and top copywriter John Carlton called me up, and we had an interesting discussion on this whole FTC thing and the hysteria it has created.

I expressed to John my opinions about them, along with a very simple solution. And John agreed with me.

It’s a huge benefit to those who understand copywriting, because they can actually turn around and use the FTC rulings to their advantage. Even make more sales as a result.

Part of the solution is actually simpler than you think. And it doesn’t involve tearing down all your testimonials, plastering a bazillion disclaimers around them, or conducting painful, mental contortions to decide what is typical or not.

You can start by doing this one simple thing…

Now, before I give you my opinion, I must preface this post with several key points.

First, this is my opinion only. I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. Consult with a competent, legal professional first. I encourage you to check out attorney Mike Young’s latest FTC report, as well as attorney Kevin Houchin’s well though-out synopsis.

Second, the guidelines are still confusing to some degree. My opinions are not final and they may be wrong. But as more clarifications are made public over time, and given that the FTC won’t prosecute first-time offenders, we will see if I’m right. Eventually.

(After 20 years in this business, I’m pretty sure I am.)

My opinions are not made as a direct result of reading the guidelines themselves, but after reading, dissecting, and interpreting some of the examples included in the report, as well as some post-publication interviews given by FTC representatives.

In fact, the FTC’s example scenarios are far more telling than the guidelines themselves.

Finally, this is going to be my last post on this issue. Enough has been said already. Since the FTC clearly stated they won’t prosecute first-time offenders but rather give them a chance to comply, I’ll wait until they shed more light before I return to this topic.

OK, enough blather. On with the show.

The biggest gripe most people have is with the “typical versus atypical” conundrum, especially because of the challenge they have in adequately determining, measuring, and publishing what is considered typical and what people can normally expect.

In some cases, this is virtually impossible to predict. Therefore, my opinion in here will be particularly useful in those cases. Of course, all disclaimers above apply.

First off, I think people are needlessly freaking out.

Admittedly, my post, “Is This The End of Affiliate Marketing?” didn’t help as it stirred up the pot. So I’m just as guilty as the best of them. But my concerns are real and justified.

In my defense, I did add updates at the end of the post, including links to supplemental interviews given by the FTC. It is from these updates and example scenarios from the FTC themselves that I’m drawing these conclusions in this post.

(Plus, aside from testimonials proper, affiliate marketing still remains a problematic issue as it relates to the guidelines. It only takes one rogue affiliate who doesn’t comply to cause you more headaches and grief than you can possibly ever imagine.)

Nevertheless, testimonials don’t necessarily need to be “typical.” The point I believe the FTC is getting at is to ensure people have reasonable, realistic expectations.

Since time immemorial, there have been truth-in-advertising laws. The latest FTC guidelines don’t really change much, except that they’re catching up to realities and technologies of today, such as blogs, social media, and the Internet in general.

Here’s what they’re saying, in a nutshell.

The truth is no longer good enough.

What the FTC wants is more than just telling the truth. Because, while something can be technically true, it still can be misleading. Deceptive. Delusive. Even downright false.

Until now, you can post a testimonial that’s 100% accurate and true. But it might still be misleading if it lacks enough context so that people can understand and appreciate what they can generally expect from using your product. After all, expectation is key.

From what I’ve read, it’s not about making sure the testimonial is typical. It’s making sure it doesn’t mislead readers into thinking such results are typical when they’re not.

For example, say you sell a marketing program. Someone tries it out and makes $5,000 in one week. This might be true, but what the testimonial failed to include are the circumstances, which are unique, under which those results were achieved.

Specifically, if the person who made $5,000 is not your typical user — such as someone well-versed in marketing, has an established business, and possesses a list of 20,000 subscribers — then the testimonial must insure that people know this from the onset.

Any newbie, without any business or marketing experience, and particularly without any list, may not achieve “$5,000 in one week.” Therefore, the testimonial might be true, but it is still misleading because people now generally expect this result to be the norm.

See the problem?

You’ve heard of the saying “lying by omission?” This is the case, here. While accurate, the testimonial is inherently misleading and false. Or false by omission, to be precise.

So testimonials need to be both real and realistic.

In other words, if the testimonial’s results are atypical, it needs to be stated in the testimonial itself or near it — not as a disclaimer but as qualifying information that puts the testimonial in proper context so people know what to generally expect.

So what you can do, which is that simple solution I was alluding to earlier, is something I’ve been teaching for many years in copywriting. Even on this blog. And it is this…

Convert your testimonials into case studies.

Case studies are more powerful than blatant testimonials. They give testimonials clarity, context, measurability, and weight. And best of all, case studies make testimonials more believable and concrete, which may even boost your sales.

(I know. I’ve tested this thoroughly.)

As John Carlton mentioned on that call we had, when the FTC forced advertisers to put ‘this is an advertisement’ near an advertorial in magazines and newspapers, marketers rushed to denounce the practice, saying it would kill their sales.

But in many cases, quite the opposite happened. It actually bumped up response.

I think the same thing is going to happen here. In the hands of a skilled copywriter, which is why good copywriting is going to be even more important as time goes on, these new requirements will become powerful tools that will dramatically boost response.

Now, let’s use the FTC’s own examples to illustrate this.

In their document, the FTC listed a ton of example scenarios. I’m going to base mine on their “WeightAway Shake” scenario (i.e., example #4 under guideline § 255.2, titled “Consumer Endorsements”). Here’s a possible testimonial you might come across:

“I ate two WeightAway shakes each day and lost 15 pounds in one week!”

First, the question to ask is, can someone really lose 15 pounds in one week? Let’s say it is true. The testimonial is not misleading only if people can expect that to be the norm (i.e., losing 15 pounds in one week by eating two WeightAway shakes a day).

But let’s say that person did a bit more. More than what her testimonial revealed. Let’s say she walked three miles every day and ate sensibly (e.g., nothing fatty or fried) during that time. With the help of those two shakes a day, she lost 15 pounds.

Therefore, the testimonial, while true, is misleading because it failed to highlight that the person also walked three miles every day and ate sensibly. The testimonial lacks context, and can therefore be interpreted, by itself, to be realistic when it is not.

So either the testimonial needs to state that, or you need to have copy on or around it that says, “Along with eating sensibly and waking three miles a day, Janice had this to say: ‘I ate two WeightAway shakes each day and lost 15 pounds in one week’.”

That, I’m gathering, is what the FTC really wants.

The advertisement accurately describes the woman’s experience, and such a result is within the range that would be generally experienced by an overweight individual who consumed WeightAway shakes, ate sensibly, and exercised as the endorser did.

As the FTC notes within that example (I’ve edited parts to reflect my example above):

Because the endorser clearly describes the limited and truly exceptional circumstances under which she achieved her results, the ad is not likely to convey that consumers who use WeightAway under less extreme circumstances will lose (15 pounds in one week). If the advertisement simply says that the endorser lost (15 pounds in one week) using WeightAway (or using WeightAway together with just “diet and exercise”), however, this description would not adequately alert consumers to the truly remarkable circumstances leading to her weight loss.

So by adding context, the ad is likely to convey that her experience is not representative of what consumers will generally achieve, unless they have those same or similar circumstances. Sure, it might communicate the product is effective. But it’s not misleading.

In short, it’s about either setting up realistic expectations, or avoiding unrealistic ones.

Again, a testimonial needs to be not only real but also realistic.

At best, couple your testimonial with results one can realistically expect. This is what the FTC wants, as stated in their guidelines. It’s what consumers want, too, I’m sure.

The goal is to convey what is generally expected from using your product. To make people aware of what is typical. If you can state what your program or product can reasonably achieve in the hands of the average consumer, then you must add it.

My initial contention is that, in some cases, such as the case of a training program, all results are arguably atypical — as results vary tremendously with every individual.

Then the best way is to ensure those exceptional circumstances are clearly delineated. Not with some blanket disclaimer, which is no longer enough. But with a clear understanding of how, and under what circumstances, those results were achieved.

If there are no “typical results,” then add context so people can understand the endorser’s unique or exceptional circumstances, as to prevent them from coming to the conclusion that such results are realistic and expected in all circumstances.

Again, I might be wrong. I’m sure you will point it out to me, if you think I am. Remember, I’m not a lawyer. But I think that, as time goes on, we’re going to see more and more testimonials presented in the form of case studies. Mark my words.

It’s simply commonsensical. For one, converting your testimonials into case studies help to create realistic expectations. Second, they make testimonials far more credible and believable. And third, doing so will, I believe, dramatically boost your sales, too.

Ultimately, in the hands of a good copywriter, this can become potentially powerful.

About The Author

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Michel Fortin is a certified SEO consultant, content strategist, and marketing advisor helping plastic surgeons, cosmetic surgeons, and medical aesthetic clinics attract more patients. Since 1991, he helps cosmetic and aesthetic professionals increase their visibility and grow their practices. He is the author of the More Traffic Memo™ SEO email newsletter.

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