What is “Truth in Advertising,” and How Does it Affect Marketing Strategies?
May 28, 2014
An article in my news feed about a recent congressional push for “Truth in Advertising” got me thinking about the roles that truth, disclosure, and deception play in the modern marketers world, and affect marketing strategies and campaigns.
Lying all the time doesn’t work
In the year 1870, a smooth-talking medicine-peddling charlatan could make a living traveling from town to town selling a useless product with the help of a well-versed sales pitch, fancy bottles, and deception. However, even in the hay-day of snake-oil sales, the story always ended the same: said salesman sneaks out under the cover of the night before his fraud is discovered (or covered in tar and feathers if he waited a few days too long). This was the last time that outright lies sold anything effectively, and even then it was a lot of work.
The modern marketer doesn’t have the option to “skip town.” In fact, the increasing use of social media as a part of most buying cycles (even B2B based purchases) means that any business plan that relies on people not actually using your product won’t work. If your sales team is pitching product functionality you don’t have, you might make an initial win with a signed contract, but customer retention rates will be terrible and you’ll quickly find yourself running out of leads that haven’t heard of how bad your product is. Just how dangerous outright deceptive marketing campaigns would be for your business centers around your dependence on customer retention, repeat purchases, and “trust” buying.
Full and immediate disclosure doesn’t work either
On the other end of the spectrum is the idea that marketing should be 100% truthful and forthcoming in all claims. While this has the benefit that customers who purchase your product would rarely, if ever, be disappointed with their purchase, this tactic could turn off a lot of potential customers to your brand for the wrong reasons.
Imagine if you were trying to market with complete immediate disclosure. Pictures in diaper ads would show toddlers with food all over there shirts screaming at parents while trying to rip off their soiled diaper and fling it across the room. Fast food companies would be trying to entice customers with images of deflated buns, greasy patties, and wilted lettuce. Software companies trying to sell me a lead generation platform would open the conversation with “buying our product means you’ll have to commit 5-6 hours per week for a few months to figure out how to make this work,” before talking about anything else. This method would lower sales for all products across all categories (and probably depress consumers on top of that).
Segmentation and custom messaging works!
For those businesses with a longer buying cycle, the answer is in segmentation and customer messaging. Your message to early lead life cycle customers should be focused on the positive benefits of your product and the advantages that can come from using it. As the customer moves through your pipeline consider introducing the costs and short-comings of your product after they have come to understand the benefits. For example, a gym might open with advertisements showing the health benefits of consistent exercise, and after a customer is acquired (or possibly during a facility tour before they sign), start discussing ways of how to benefit the most from the membership. It is worth the effort to segment off different portions of your prospective customers based on where they are in the buying process and feed different content to them at different times.
Customer satisfaction relies on a reasonable amount of disclosure, and getting a lead interested enough to explore your solution requires a certain amount of “idealizing”. So, is “truth in advertising” a good thing? Yes. Especially if it’s the right amount of truth at the right time. Find balance and use marketing automation tools to help serve the right point in the buying cycle to maximize both customer satisfaction and closed deals.