Establishing Credibility in Business Writing and Advertising
The philosopher Aristotle once wrote of three different modes of persuasion–three different ways of appealing to your audience. The first two should be fairly familiar: logic (logos) and emotion (pathos). Many forms of business writing use one or both of these modes, but the third is somewhat underrated (and, arguably, of the greatest importance). An appeal to credibility (ethos) directly concerns the way that the audience perceives the speaker. In other words, it’s all about convincing your audience to trust and respect you enough for them to take action.
Audiences don’t only consider the advertising information they receive; they take the information’s source into account as well. Would you be more likely to buy a product recommended by a reliable friend or a shady, grinning stranger? Facts and emotional appeals won’t do you much good if your target doesn’t believe the source that they’re coming from.
There are many ways to establish credibility in persuasive writing and make your message worthy of your audience’s trust.
Know your audience
When you take details about your audience into account, it often helps you say the things that will appeal to them most. For example, if your marketing materials are targeting industry insiders, then using technical jargon will make your voice more authentic and credible. When you know that your product is mainly purchased by parents for their children, you should make sure you’re using an appropriate tone in your writing. Make sure you understand how your audience communicates so that this doesn’t come across as “fake”–people tend to have a good sense of when they’re being pandered to.
If you don’t know much about your consumers, consider test marketing a sample of people to learn more about their demographics and opinions regarding your brand, offer or product. Not only will this give you valuable data and allow you to pinpoint your target audience, it may result in positive testimonials that you can utilize later.
Back up your claims
Somebody who proclaims that their brand or product is “award winning” isn’t going to sound nearly as reputable as someone who can specifically name the awards that they’ve won. Audiences will be more receptive to your claims if you can back them up with evidence.
This usually comes down to using statistics and hard facts rather than general statements. Think back to the 2012 Democratic National Convention and former President Bill Clinton’s widely acclaimed speech. One of the main reasons that the speech was so persuasive and well-recieved was that Clinton used specific numbers and statistics to support his claims rather than making sweeping generalizations (a major criticism of the Romney campaign at the time).
Use specific facts and figures whenever possible. You may even want to perform a study to collect statistics related to your product (for example, evaluating the number of experts who endorse your product or measuring some degree of the product’s effectiveness) and incorporate those statistics into your persuasive writing. Remember that it’s always better to have too much data than not enough; a customer can always choose to skip over the facts and numbers you present, but they can’t take in evidence that supports your claims unless you provide it to them.
Always make sure that the evidence you provide is valid and accurate. If someone chooses to verify your claims and finds your facts and figures to be incorrect, it will damage your reputation. Remember to cite the sources of your information; this will make it easier for readers to follow up on your claims as well as give credit where credit is due.
Cite your sources
When writing academic papers in high school or college, your instructors probably insisted that you cite credible sources every time you stated a fact or made a claim. This same technique lends credibility to persuasive business writing as well.
If you say that your product is “recommended by experts” or provides a benefit that is “scientifically proven,” make sure to provide a specific citation of the source whenever possible. This will both help to support your claims and prevent you from accidentally plagiarizing your information.
Most sources can be cited in the text itself. For example:
MoldOut has been scientifically proven to eliminate 99% of mold spores (based on a study by Dr. Karen Torrence of Orange County University).
You may even want to include a URL or other contact info to make it easier for readers to double-check your sources. Consult a writing guide for further details.
Show, don’t tell
Implementing the “show, don’t tell” advertising strategy is an excellent way to establish credibility. Most of us are relatively willing to trust ourselves, after all, and that’s what this technique is all about–leading the audience to develop a conclusion on their own.
Directly telling an audience “our product is great!” is rarely a good idea; not only is it a vague and sales-oriented generalization, it comes across as rather desperate. Instead, your goal should be to convince your audience to realize that the product is great based on the details you provide to them.
If you’re selling a minivan, for example, you could detail the various benefits customers would receive by owning the vehicle: safety certifications that ensure their family will stay safe, plenty of room to store supplies for fun camping trips, etc. That’s a much more reputable appeal than simply stating “This minivan is safe and fun.”
Scale back the hyperbole
In small doses, exaggeration and hyperbole can be very useful for copywriters becase they help to appeal to your audience on an emotional level. For instance, a steakhouse with a gruff and “manly” image might advertise “steaks big enough for a monster.” Obviously, the business isn’t actually advertising to monsters and most audiences are smart enough to realize this–but this expression helps to create a visceral image of the company’s brand personality.
What you should never do, however, is allow your hyperbole to turn into baseless boasting and self-flattery. A few examples:
Our prices are so low, we’re practically giving away our products!
This is the one product you absolutely can’t do without!
Our society is so saturated with advertising these days that most people have developed a mental “bunk detector” that weeds out these sorts of blatantly exaggerated statements. If you’re making claims like these, you’d better have the evidence to back them up; otherwise, they just sound like empty hype.
Be realistic and avoid making broad, sweeping statements such as “Our product is guaranteed to always stop headaches!” Instead, use language that is tentative but still suggest authority; a better alternative would be “Our product is highly effective against headaches, according to clinical research.”
Misleading your audience (even accidentally) is sure to damage your ethos and discourage prospects from trusting you. Even if it’s not an outright lie, business writing that “stretches the truth” can often backfire. Some advertisers will try to “fudge” the truth by saying things like “contains natural ingredients” when in fact only a miniscule fraction of the ingredients are natural. If your claims don’t hold up under scrutiny, you can be sure that it won’t ingratiate you with potential customers.
The classic comedy film Crazy People concerns a marketing specialist with a revolutionary concept: absolute truth in advertising. This results in ads like “Buy a Volvo: They’re Boxy But They’re Good,” leading to complications for our protagonist–but the concept is actually fairly sound. Being completely honest, accurate and upfront about your product (including its faults) can greatly boost your credibility.
You should also never plagiarize your copy from other sources. It’s one thing to reference well-known quotes or stories (such as writing a print ad based on the story of the Three Little Pigs), but claiming credit for an idea that isn’t yours (such as using another company’s tagline) will compromise your entire message.
Provide extra details about your brand
The more data you can provide about your company and brand, the more reason prospects will have to trust you. This could include any of the following:
- Contact information – If possible, provide info for multiple contact methods such as phone, e-mail, street address, etc. When customers call or e-mail you, make sure they talk to a human (not a recording or automatic bot) and always follow up right away. This lends extra legitimacy to your business.
- History – Long-standing businesses tend to have a greater degree of credibility. If you’re highly experienced in your field, be sure to discuss how long you’ve been in business.
- Affiliations – Being a part of a association of partnering companies or organizations can lend prestige and ethos to your advertising. For example, the Green Business Association provides a “Green Business” seal that eco-friendly companies can place on their materials.
- Photos – Whether it’s a portrait of your CEO or a group shot of various employees, a photograph of the “face” of your company can help to assure audiences that your business is made up of real people (and not some faceless, shady character scamming people from the shadows). You should also consider including photographs of your product or service so that prospects have the chance to see it before they buy.
Testimonials provide social proof, a phenomenon that leads audiences to take action based on the opinions of others. A positive testimonial from fellow consumers will make it easier for your audience to trust you.
If possible, reach out to specific individuals whom your audience will recognize and ask for an endorsement. Potential customers will be more likely to trust quotes that come from a reputable source such as a well-known personality or community figure.
Provide samples and demonstrations
That old phrase “I’ll believe it when I see it” isn’t just a figure of speech. People have a tendency to trust products most when they can interact with them hands-on (or at the very least, see them in action).
There are a variety of ways to implement this technique. You might record a video demonstration of your product or service and upload it to your company’s Youtube channel. Consider including a free product sample in your next mailer (as long as you’re offering a product that lends itself well to samples). You might also provide free consultations so that customers have a chance to interact with you (and your product) first-hand.
Share your knowledge
If you’re considered an expert in your field, you already have a fantastic source of credibility. Make that resource known by offering your knowledge to the rest of your community.
Offer free and honest advice to your customers; they’ll be more likely to trust you and recommend you to others. Taking part in conferences and trade shows is a good way to establish yourself as a thought leader or subject matter expert. You can even share knowledge through your company’s website by offering informational webinars, podcasts or blog posts.
Whenever possible, put your customers at ease by reducing the amount of risk required for them to take action. The fewer roadblocks and pitfalls in the way of their purchase, the more they’ll be able to trust in you.
A good risk-reduction can help make up for other areas where your communication may lack credibility. For example, a money-back guarantee allows customers to feel confident that even if your product isn’t what you claim it to be, they’ll be compensated for their purchase.
Establish an online presence
When people hear about a product or service that intrigues them, often the first thing they do is head straight to Google. If their search for your brand comes up empty, how trustworthy do you think you’ll appear in their eyes?
Be sure to set up a website and/or a social media account on sites such as Facebook. It doesn’t have to stop there, either; try writing guest blog posts or encouraging other users to review your products. Even commenting on other blogs related to your industry will help to legitimize your brand.
Get in the news
When your company is newsworthy, it gives your image authority and makes it more reputable. Build up your public relations to make your business attractive to the media. Send press releases to media outlets you respect–whether that’s a local paper or a national magazine related to your industry. If you can get journalists to feature you in their work, it won’t only increase your exposure–it’ll make your business more credible.
After you’ve been covered in the media, this becomes a testimonial of sorts; you can include the reference in your advertising by saying things like “featured in [magazine]” or “as seen on [TV show].” Don’t forget to highlight the story on your blog or social media accounts, as well.
Use unique, professional marketing materials
Your physical marketing materials (including business cards, presentation folders and promotional gifts such as pens) often end up being the major representative of your company’s image. If they’re unprofessional or shoddy-looking, audiences are unlikely to take you very seriously.
Take the time to ensure that every piece of your marketing collateral is designed to match your message, brand and target audience. You should also proofread every bit of copy for printing errors, typos and mistakes. Even a relatively minor mistake can end up being a major blow to your ethos.
It helps to have materials that aren’t just technically accurate but visually distinctive as well. Whenever possible, be sure to use unique, original photos rather than stock photography or images you’ve already used in the past. Using the same, tired images that customers have already seen dozens of times before just makes your company look lazy.
Establishing an ethos is of utmost importance because no marketing technique can succeed without first gaining credibility; building a rapport with your reader should always be a major priority. By making your writing and advertising accurate and reputable, you’ll ensure that the entire campaign is more effective.
Do you know of more ways to establish credibility in writing or advertising? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.