The No. 1 Rule in Advertising

Today's consumers are bombarded with flashy gimmicks and over-promises. How to stand out? Tell them the truth.

By Roy H. Williams • Jun 13, 2005

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In the past, decisions to purchase revolved primarily around features and benefits. All you had to do was explain--intellectually--why your product was better than your competitor's. So you spelled out the "features and benefits, features and benefits, features and benefits." And companies everywhere polished their sales pitches to such a degree that they dimmed their ability to persuade.

Let me say this plainly: Today's customers are only half listening because their inner selves are asking, "What are they not telling me?"

Here's what's happened in the past 40 years:

  • The fine art of hype has been perfected and refined.
  • Western culture has been submerged in it, held under until every last pore of our souls has been saturated with it.
  • Consequently, we've developed an immunity to "ad speak," the language of hype.
  • But we don't rage against it. We see the half-truth of hype as a fact of life.
  • That's why we're ignoring it.
  • And we're ignoring it in greater numbers every day.

The new trend in decisions to purchase is based on sympathetic vibrations, shared values, an alignment of perspectives between buyer and seller. Today's customers aren't just buying what you sell; they're buying who you are.

Our society is suffering from time-poverty, so we're looking for experts we can trust. Does your advertising convince your customers they can trust you?

The best channel for reaching today's customers is through the customers' own experience:

  1. Refer to things in your ads that you know your customer has experienced.I call this technique "using a reality hook." Here's an ad with a powerful reality hook that virtually everyone can relate to:

    "You've got a problem. You want it fixed. You call the repair people. They say, "We'll be there between 8 a.m. and noon." You say, "Can you narrow that down a bit?" They say, "No." Then about 12:30, they call and say, "We're running a little late. We'll be there between one and five." Hey, you should have called One Hour Heat and Air. Always on time, or you don't pay a dime. Seriously. If they aren't there within the exact hour they told you they were coming, you pay nothing. Whatever you need is FREE. No charge. Sorry we were late. Really sorry. One Hour Heat and Air understands that time is money. Your time. Our money."

  2. Tell the truth, even when it hurts.Today's customers have had a lifetime of experience sifting golden nuggets of truth from a world of hype and empty promises. Put this highly refined ability to work for you. Learn to name features, benefits and downside. That's right. I said "downside."

    Trust me, your customers are already trying to figure out the downside. Why not just tell them? It's the best possible way to insulate yourself from the backlash when they finally figure it out for themselves. Wouldn't the One Hour Heat and Air ad be even more powerful if it included the line, "We install the same units and charge the same prices as everyone else. The difference is that we're actually going to show up when we said we would."

    But be careful, because this powerful "tell the truth" technique is easily perverted into just another oily sales trick when the downside you name isn't the real one. As French author Francois La Rochefoucauld observed 350 years ago, "We only confess our little faults to persuade people that we have no big ones." I'm suggesting that you confess the big ones. Knock your customers flat with your candor. Yes, it may cost you a few sales you might otherwise have made. But it will earn you far more sales than it costs you.

  3. Deliver to your customers exactly the experience you promised them.Mass media is one voice speaking to many ears, and it's easy to purchase--you pay your money and you take your chances. But cell phones, instant messaging and e-mail are one to one to one to one to one to one to one; they're word of mouth gone exponential. And their messages can't be purchased. The only way to trigger this interconnectivity is to say or do something genuinely worth talking about. Remember, we're living in a generation more tightly interconnected that anyone dreamed possible just 15 years ago. Today's customer is saying, "Your ads may fool one of us, but that one will tell the rest of us."

Change what you're saying in your ads. Make it agree with what you're actually delivering to your customers. You can't believe the money it will make you.

Roy H. Williams

Roy Williams is the founder and president of international ad agency Wizard of Ads. Roy is also the author of numerous books on improving your advertising efforts, including The Wizard of Ads and Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads.

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