No Testimonials? Five Key Pointers to Telling Powerful Selling Stories

This past week I’ve been working on an advertising copywriting assignment for a good client. Writing effective long sales letters is something I’ve developed a real knack for over the years. There are some well-established quasi-formulaic approaches to these things and all of the approaches you can find will tell you one thing: testimonials are clinchers.

But what if, as is the case with this client’s new product, there aren’t any testimonials yet? We’re just introducing the product. What can you do in place of testimonials?

You could do what a lot of copywriters I’ve talked with do: make up testimonials from fake users with names like “Jim M.” or “CEO of software company”. But my client and I both hate those things; we suspect they’re pretty transparent to most prospects reading them and that they damage credibility.

storytellingI’ve found that strong short-short stories that engage the reader in what amounts to a long-form testimonial can work really well. As long as you’re clear by the way you write them that they are fictional accounts, you can really get prospects to identify with the characters in your stories. Sometimes I think these are even more effective than actual testimonials. (Of course, no reason not to use both, right?)

Here are five key ideas for creating stories that sell.

  1. Know your audience(s). You’ll want to create stories that seem relevant and that communicate in language your prospects are likely to identify with. Vocabulary, tone, subject matter, and setting all depend on getting this right. If you have more than one key audience, write a story for each.
  2. Tell their story and make your product an incidental or minor character, the solution to a problem that the character — and your prospect — is facing in the story. Focus on the character and the problem, not on your product directly.
  3. Keep it short. My rule of thumb is never to go over 300 words and I try to keep these stories in the 150-200 word range. Less than that makes it hard to tell an engaging story. More than that has the reader skipping over your story to find the next point in your sales copy.
  4. Write with emotion and color. The story should be interesting, engaging and involving without your product even  being included. In other words, the story must stand alone.
  5. Similarly, write conversationally. Narrative is more important than precisely correct grammar and syntax. It’s good advice to read these stories out loud to someone else before you finalize them. This will enable you to find spots where you’ve written some perhaps brilliant copy that just doesn’t fit the flow of the story.

Writing fiction is a different task from writing ad copy. You may need to find someone who’s adept at fiction and sub-contract your story assignments to them. (I’ll raise my hand here, unobtrusively from the back of the room.) But if you don’t have testimonials — and maybe even if you have — a well-crafted story can go a long way toward convincing your prospect that he’s just like your character and would benefit from your product or service just as the character in your story did.

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