Testimonials and word of mouth are the driving force behind 20–50% of all purchasing decisions, and yet only about one-third of businesses actively seek and collect customer reviews on an ongoing basis.
If you’re not investing in testimonials right now, you need to read this.
Customer loyalty expert Fred Reichheld also reports in his book, The Ultimate Question, that businesses saw an average of 2X revenue growth simply by increasing their overall brand advocacy by 12%.
But if recommendations from peers are so valuable, why don’t we prioritize our marketing investments to get more—or more valuable—recommendations?
Why we don’t prioritize testimonials
As an informal observation, I think we neglect testimonials because we have a difficult time attributing growth to having showcased what our customers say. It’s so much neater to equate growth with something less sentimental, like ad spend.
Consider the amount of money spent on Super Bowl advertisements. The 2020 Super Bowl commercials commanded an average of $5.6 million for a mere 30 seconds of airtime.
Does this type of advertisement really pay off?
A survey conducted by the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association (RAMA, a division of the National Retail Federation) provided some interesting information.
Only 10.7% reported that the commercials had any influence on them actually buying the products. An even smaller number, 9.1%, were motivated to do more research online.
A higher ROI may lean in favor of word-of-mouth advertising. As an excerpt from the McKinsey Quarterly report states:
Consumers overwhelmed by product choices tune out the ever-growing barrage of traditional marketing, word of mouth cuts through the noise quickly and effectively.
[. . .] Its influence is greatest when consumers are buying a product for the first time or when products are relatively expensive, factors that tend to make people conduct more research, seek more opinions, and deliberate longer than they otherwise would.
Now consider that in Google’s Zero Moment Of Truth report, they found that the average buyer uses 10.4 sources of information before buying. Can you guess which sources shoppers found most influential?
According to Econsultancy, when a site has customer reviews, 63% of visitors are more likely to make a purchase, and reviews produce an average 18% uplift in sales.
Other, more recent studies confirm that earlier research: Some 85% say that they trust online reviews even more than personal recommendations.
Case study: WikiJob improves conversions by 34%
To see just how powerful testimonials can be in action, let’s look at WikiJob, the UK’s largest graduate job site.
WikiJob conducted a split test in which they added three testimonials to a treatment to compete against the original version.
The testimonials said:
- “Good training for the work environment in Europe.”
- “Very useful for practice!”
- “Almost a carbon copy for the real aptitude test.”
Simple enough, right? Nothing too flashy—the testimonials don’t even include names or a source.
However, the test page with the testimonials increased conversions by an impressive 34%.
Where you position your testimonial matters.
Just adding testimonials isn’t enough. Bury your testimonials too deep in your site—or too far below the fold—and they may not get noticed.
Take, for example, Michael Aagaard’s testimonial split test. Aagaard offered a free ebook called 7 Universal Conversion Optimization Principles. Even though the book was totally free, he still wanted to include testimonials to encourage more downloads.
Four colleagues wrote glowing reviews about Michael’s book, so he added them and then tested their placement.
On the treatment page, the testimonials were split, with two testimonials above the button and two below.
The rearrangement of testimonials proved to be a win, with an impressive 64.5% conversion lift.
Please understand: Placement isn’t just about how high or low a testimonial is on the page. To get the most out of your testimonial placement, you have to understand how people view websites.
Why do real faces increase credibility?
We’ve written before about how images can improve your conversion rates, and you’ve probably heard that using real faces has been proven to increase empathy and improve conversion rates, so I’m not going to rehash that here.
But have you ever thought about why photos of real people increases credibility?
It may be because we expect to see real faces, especially for testimonials.
After 4 years of quantitative research that analyzed more than 6,500 participants in a variety of web studies, professor BJ Fogg came up with the Prominence-Interpretation Theory.
Fogg postulates that the prominence of certain elements on a webpage have a direct impact on whether or not that page is interpreted as credible.
If you’re in software or ecommerce, there are plenty of “credible” competitors—and non-competitors—who feature faces with testimonials in prominent areas of their websites.
If credibility is determined by prominence and interpretation, that creates a subconscious expectation that your site will showcase a real person giving a real piece of feedback.
If your testimonials and images aren’t where they’re “supposed” to be (e.g., product pages, above the fold, etc.), you could very easily get filed away as “not credible” by a visitor—even if they don’t even realize they’re doing it.
Add video for even more credibility.
Imagine that your company generated significant improvements to Microsoft’s business storytelling strategy, and Shivonne Byrne, the strategy director, is so impressed that she’s willing to give you a short video testimonial.
The beauty of video testimonials that involve high-profile clients—unless you’ve hired a body double—is that they’re impossible to fake.
Unbounce ran a split test to determine the effects of video testimonials. Their control page contained a text testimonial, while their test page let visitors watch a video version:
The video testimonial won, yielding a 25% lift in free trial sign-ups.
Something to consider with video testimonials—if you’re in B2B—is the customer’s position within their company. Generally speaking, the more their job title reflects your ideal customer, the more credible the testimonial appears.
A match between the title of the testimonial giver and your ideal prospect reinforces the “who is this for” message you’ve (hopefully) established in your value proposition and copywriting.
Ask for a celebrity endorsement
Do celebrities affect your credibility? You bet. William Shatner’s Priceline stock, it was rumored, rose to roughly $600 million in the first four years he was their endorser. (That figure has been debunked, but Shatner is apparently “doing OK” after getting paid in equity.)
The Journal of Advertising Research evaluated the effects of endorsements by athletes, both on stock market valuation and sales data. It was found that stocks with celebrity endorsements went up about one-quarter of a percent while sales went up 4%.
They also found that when athletic endorsers “won,” there was a correlating boost in sales. (Stock investors were unmoved, focusing more on staying power.)
An endorsement from a prominent figure isn’t as hard to attain as you might think. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of asking. That is, of course, if you have something to offer that’s actually worth an endorsement.
Jeff Goins, a writer who regards himself as “nobody special,” took it upon himself to get an endorsement for his book, The Writer’s Manifesto, from Seth Godin.
How did he do it? “I just asked.” Here’s what Jeff got in return:
Does it always work out that way? No. But there are things you can do to increase your chances of success.
How to get celebrity testimonials
Okay, so clearly it’s not always as easy as just asking for a celebrity testimonial, especially when no one knows who you are. In that case, you should follow Shaun Neff’s strategy.
Ten years ago, when Neff launched Neff Headwear, he:
- Wasn’t well known
- Operated in a very competitive market;
- Had a limited cash flow.
Neff worked his way up to celebrity endorsements by giving away his merchandise to up-and-coming competitive (but amateur) snowboarders.
Knowing that celebrities and other taste-makers are always looking for rising stars to endorse, Neff attached his brand to people who were:
- Already getting noticed;
- Extremely grateful to get free stuff in exchange for a little promotion.
Early on, his tactic captured the interest of high-profile hip-hop celebrities like Lil Wayne. Those early partnerships put him in a position to negotiate profit-sharing endorsements with iconic celebrities, such as Snoop Dogg:
Neff says the strategy was so successful that he increased his revenue by 300% in just three years.
This post provides a insight on how to identify “up and comers.” Even though it focuses on up-and-coming artists, the principles apply to any industry.
Of course, if you want a shortcut, you can always go with a celebrity endorsement agency like CelebExperts, which reports that more than 60% of their client base is startups and emerging businesses.
Can bad testimonials help?
Believe it or not, even a few (a very few) bad testimonials help. If you read customer reviews, you’ll typically notice that they’re a mix of good and bad reviews. A bad review helps authenticate all the reviews—especially the good ones.
Reevo, a social commerce company, researched this theory by analyzing 2.5 million customer reviews. What they found was impressive:
When there was a mix of positive and negative reviews, 68% of consumers trusted the reviews more. When there were no negative reviews, 30% of consumers suspected that the reviews might be fake.
What’s more, they also found that those who sought out negative reviews converted 67% more often, viewed 5X more pages than the normal customer, and spent an average of 26.1 minutes on the site—more than 6X longer than a normal customer.
Like the image says, it’s not that consumers are looking for a reason not to buy; they’re just ensuring they’ve made the right choice.
But be careful—too many bad reviews, not surprisingly, has the opposite effect:
According to a survey by Lightspeed Research, 63% of shoppers are deterred once there are 2–3 negative reviews. One negative review has very little effect.
This tolerance of bad reviews also varies among age groups. According to the survey, 33% of 55–64 year olds and 28% of 45–54 year olds report being deterred, whereas only 10% of 18–24 year olds report that negative reviews have an impact on their purchase decision.
This all, of course, indicates that younger Internet users—raised with ecommerce and Internet culture—have a slightly more balanced perspective when it comes to reviews and shopping online.
Despite these figures, your product page isn’t doomed if you get three negative reviews, as long as they’re outliers among the more positive reviews.
For example, most reviews for this mouse on Best Buy are positive. Going back to what we said earlier, the negative reviews add perspective to the overall purchase, and, in some ways, make the four- and five-star reviews look more credible.
Testimonials aren’t valued equally by all people.
While I believe that every business should invest more to collect customer feedback and showcase their reviews, research shows that not every market will be influenced by testimonials in the same way.
For example, a glowing testimonial for a software product that targets high-level executives might not be as valuable as a positive review for a car seat.
In a study by Martin, Wentzel, and Tomczak, they found that buyers who are more influenced by their peers and seek social acceptance are also more receptive to testimonials.
In contrast, the study found that buyers who are not as easily influenced by their peers have a tendency to focus more on product attributes and features.
Invite feedback at the best possible moment.
If you haven’t already, make customer feedback a part of your purchase cycle.
By asking directly through email—and, in some cases, incentivising the review—companies can make leaving a review enticing. Sports retailer evo used just such a method for reviews and received 280 reviews for one product after a single email.
If you’re not in ecommerce (or don’t rely on review plug-ins), you can still use the technique to get more personal testimonials. Ask open-ended questions like:
- Would you refer us to a friend?
- In your own words, how would you describe our [strongest attribute]?
- What obstacle would have prevented you from buying our product?
- What did you find as a result of buying the product?
- What feature did you like most about the product?
Tools to gather customer feedback, testimonials, and reviews
Finally, to make this all work at scale, you’ll need a reliable method for collecting customer feedback, testimonials, and reviews.
There are additional benefits to collecting customer feedback at scale:
- Crowd source your customer support (Mint reduced support tickets by 75%).
- Discover new product ideas.
- Use user-generated content to win search engine traffic.
Some tools that will help you get it done:
For a side-by-side comparison of these tools, click here.
Testimonial gathering software and techniques
- Video Genie or Nimbb (for video testimonials);
- Search these 26 sites for existing customer reviews;
- Google Forms (if you really need to bootstrap).
Rating and review platforms
- Bazaarvoice is full-featured review platform used by Dell, HP, and Samsung).
- Rating-System.com has affordable pricing for businesses looking to implement ratings.
When all is said and done, testimonials are really just affirmations that help your customers validate or solidify their feelings for a future purchase.
By putting testimonials and reviews where they’re expected, making sure they speak to your buyer persona, and prompting them at the right time, you put yourself one step closer to winning that zero moment of truth.