Nothing draws a crowd quite like a crowd.”
– P.T. Barnum

American showman P.T. Barnum was a man who knew a little something about the power of social proof, and his evergreen advice stands as a lesson that every business owner needs to learn:

Your customers will always be more persuasive than you.

No matter how compelling you make your copy or how beautifully you design your product, customer reviews will still play a pivotal role in enticing people to give your business a chance. Potential customers want the honest scoop on your business, and when evaluating you they heavily favor the opinion of the crowd.


A host of research supports this point:


  1. Over 70% of Americans say they look at product testimonials and reviews before making a purchase.
  2. Nearly 63% of consumers indicate they are more likely to purchase from a site if it has ratings and reviews.


Given the importance of customer testimonials and reviews, you can’t waste this precious opportunity to put your best foot forward by using “vanilla” praise about your products or services.


It’s time to put the fears of merely soliciting generic praise to rest. Below we’re going dive into academic research that offers proven ways to ensure you maximize the persuasive potential of each and every piece of positive feedback!

1. Use Photos to Increase Trust

Let’s begin with a hard truth for all business owners:

Just because you are telling the truth doesn’t mean customers are going to believe you.


This is an important consideration as we review research on increasing the believability of testimonials. Many entrepreneurs may be inclined to think, “Why should I worry about that? I’m already being honest!”


Recent research on increasing perceived trust, or “truthiness,” through photographs reveals that photos make facts and statements more believable ... even when the photo is unrelated or the information it supports is inaccurate!


Take for example a picture of a thermometer placed next to the text, “The liquid metal inside a thermometer is magnesium.” The photo increased the amount of people who evaluated the “fact” as true (even though it wasn’t, and the photo offered no additional supporting evidence).


The same is true when it comes to photographs of people. As seen in the below example from KISSmetrics' Customer page, you can enhance the persuasiveness of honest reviews by simply adding a picture of the reviewer who is passing along their thoughts on your business.

As an added benefit, faces are renowned as the aspect that draws the most attention on nearly every single web page. Research even suggests that seeing a face can increase the empathy we feel towards the other person, despite never having met them.


These findings all point to a simple conclusion: If you want prospective buyers to take note of and value the praise you’ve received from current customers, you must put a face with the name of the reviewer.


2. The Power of Stories: Why Transportation Leads to Persuasion


As psychologist Jeremy Dean notes, transportation leads to persuasion, and it's easy to see why. Imagine that you are looking for a new hosting solution for your online business, and you land on a page with a customer testimonial that reads like this:


Fantastic product, my sites all run super fast and the support is excellent!”

Sounds great ... but it’s something you’ve heard 100 times before.


Now imagine that you come across a competitor who has this review front and center on their homepage:


Every time my business gained a big feature in the past, our site would crash. Two months ago, when I heard that we would be featured on CNN’s small business section, I nearly had a heart attack. Scrambling, I looked for a way to upgrade my hosting and migrate my site painlessly; any downtime for me can result in thousands in lost revenue.

Fortunately, XYZ Hosting was my knight in shining armor. They set me up on their enterprise plan and handled the entire process (and all of my nagging questions) flawlessly.”

Captivating, right?

That’s because every webmaster out there has at least one horror story about a huge surge of traffic taking their site down. The idea of site downtime potentially costing them thousands of dollars is enough to make their hair stand on end.


This story illustrates this exact dreaded situation and how XYZ Hosting handled it. Although the first testimonial is shorter and has more “snap,” it’s far too generic and doesn’t tap into the power of storytelling.


Why are stories so effective? According to research on the persuasive effects of stories, the answer lies in the ability of a well-told story to “slip in under our radar” and persuade us when we least expect it.


That is to say, stories can capture our attention and wrap us up in the details. We are more likely to listen to a message when it is relayed through a story.


In fact, according to psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (authors of The Invisible Gorilla), stories tend to be more memorable than even facts and statistics.


Our ancestors lacked access to huge data sets and experimental methods. By necessity, we learned from specific examples, not by compiling data from many people across a wide range of situations.”

While most of us have a habit of blocking out aggressive marketing gimmicks, there is a certain level of suspense we feel when reading a good story, and we usually answer the call to finish it to the end because we want to know, “What happens next?”


If you are looking for the sort of testimonials that potential customers can easily relate to and actually want to read, you can do no better than presenting the enchanting story of a satisfied customer getting the most out of your product.


3. Appealing to Your Customer’s Inner Ego (and Future Aspirations)

I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”
—Bill Cosby


Why do personal recommendations from friends carry so much more weight than a multimillion-dollar commercial?


We know our friends will offer up an honest opinion with our best interests in mind. No advertisement can ever buy that sort of persuasive effect, no matter the marketing budget. It’s the reason why social signals are so popular on the web today (picture the Facebook feature, “3 of your friends like this”).

Despite their best efforts, it’s impossible for entrepreneurs to create a personal recommendation for every potential customer that might come their way. The next best option? Tap into the power of implicit egotism, our bias to be more interested, trusting and favorable toward people who are similar to us.


As accepting as you may want to be to people of all types, our brains have a subconscious bias towards our absolute favorite person ... ourselves! This has been proven through a variety of research that paints a clear picture of why we like people who are like us.

Since their traits resemble our own, we tend to activate positive, automatic associations with ourselves. A simplistic way to describe this subconscious processing would be, “I like me, and that person is similar to me, so I must like them, too!”


What does this have to do with smarter testimonials?


Simply put, if you want customers to envision themselves successfully using your product, make use of a testimonial from a current customer that they are able to relate to.

Too often companies rely on bland reviews from John Doe, customer #99217. You know from our previous look at customer profiling that you are very likely to have specific “ideal customers” who are the best fit for you business. You should be appealing to these ideal customers at every turn, testimonials included!


There is one exception...

The only time you should use a testimonial that doesn’t fit this mold is when you can leverage the power of authority, as seen in the Halo effect.


This psychological principle occurs when one’s judgment of a person’s character can be influenced by their overall impression of him or her. This explains why some influencers seem to have the Midas touch—everything they dabble in appears to gain attention and notoriety.

While these influential testimonials may not come from your typical customers, they work well because they utilize inspirational persuasion. The added social proof of a recognized name endorsing your company is just the icing on the cake.


In a case study conducted by Neil Patel, Vice President of Marketing for KISSmetrics, Patel found that featuring larger, more influential clients had a real impact on his conversion rates and his company’s bottom line.

When we showed potential clients all of the small businesses we worked with, our conversion rate of locking them in as a customer decreased by almost half versus only showing them the large brands we worked with.”


Featuring testimonials from these important clients allowed their prestige to rub off on his company, despite the fact that Patel’s usual client isn’t a huge company or brand like Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch.


In fact, recent research shows that the mere association with someone recognizable makes the other associated people or brands seem more popular, credible, and trustworthy!


With this in mind, you can see that there’s a reason we feature customer Gary Vaynerchuk on the Help Scout homepage.


Although Vaynerchuk’s popularity may be at a different level than many of our customers, his brand is built on taking care of customers. The fact that many small business owners readily recognize him makes him a great example to aspire to.


Gregory Ciotti

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is on the marketing team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software. Learn how Help Scout takes the headache out of email support.