Do your customers believe your advertising claims?

One of the biggest changes the Internet has wrought (I love saying the word “wrought”) on marketing has been the death of hype. People just don’t believe your claims anymore. They are looking for documented, verifiable benefits. It reminds me of the nuclear arms negotiations between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S., when the motto was “Trust, but verify.” Customers don’t blindly put their trust in advertising claims anymore, but they do want to trust those they buy from. As marketers, we need to figure out how to win that trust, and that won’t happen following the old hype play book. If you’re concerned that your claims have that hollow ring or that your customers might be letting your promises go in one ear and out the other, read on.


You see these kinds of claims all the time: “If you can find a lower price than ours, it’s yours free.” Now, how many freebies do you think they’ve given out? If no one believes it, then why do we keep saying it?
Or maybe your claim is just vaccuous: “Quality since 1923.” (Before 1923, it was utter crap.)
Or your claim is boring: “Your local hardware store.” Um, I kinda knew where you were located, thanks.
All this was brought to mind as I watch the steel-cage match being waged by companies that want my cable TV, Internet, and land-line phone business. They both offer a “triple play” package that seems about the same price to me. They each seem to like to instill fear about the other by talking about “phone company TV” or “cable company phone service” as though their competitor has a corner on bad will. (Face it, you two, no one likes either one of you.)
They argue a lot about who has the best package for HDTV, but I don’t really understand how they count how many channels there are, so that goes over my head. (I wouldn’t even know how many channels I get now, HD or not.) I similarly can’t figure out what the difference is in the phone service from each.
But my favorite is the speed comparisons for the Internet service. This one I actually can understand. They each seem to delight in comparing how much faster their fastest service is compared to the competitor’s slower service. Which just confuses all those folks out there into sticking with dial-up. (I had to personally walk my in-laws through the decision making process so they could pick one.)
I wonder why they can’t just say, “Hey, ours is slightly slower than the competitor’s [or about the same or slightly faster] but that isn’t what you care about. Our price is about the same, too, so don’t look at that either. What you really care about is…”
Now, I am guessing that I know. It’s because they don’t have much to say. Now, I know that cable companies usually don’t have a contract to sign (so no early termination fees) and that phone companies often throw in installation or equipment for free (one was giving away HDTVs around here recently), so why aren’t they talking about those things exclusively? Maybe I am naive (OK, OK, I know I am naive), but I think that there’s just too much out there designed to fool customers. And it backfires.
Some people (like me) see through at least some of it, and we then doubt everything else that is said that we don’t understand. Others (like my in-laws) glaze over and remain frozen in time, choosing neither option. Now, I am sure that some people really are fooled and go along for the ride in one car or the other—the companies wouldn’t advertise this way if it never worked—but I think the long term damage they are causing themselves is really sad.
Right now, they look at things as though there are only two players, but that will change. What would happen if a cell phone company bought a satellite TV provider (or vice versa)? What will happen as cellular broadband or Wi-Max spreads? And if none of these things happen, something else will.
Sure the phone companies and cable companies can adapt to the new technology, but they should expect more competitors, not fewer. And when the competitors come in, don’t be surprised if they aim for more authentic claims as a differentiator.
I know the old joke that says that if you can fake authenticity, then you have it made. So I don’t expect human nature to change. But as customers get smarter and smarter, your advertising claims need to keep up. P.T. Barnum said that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, but I personally think people will go broke doing that soon.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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