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Making the most mileage out of testimonials

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Asked to assess the various promotional tools advisors have at their disposal, marketing experts such as Maribeth Kuzmeski will readily testify to the power of testimonials. “What better way to market yourself than have somebody else talk positively about your strengths and skills as an advisor?” asks Kuzmeski, who provides consulting services to advisors via her Chicago-based firm, Red Zone Marketing.

The power of a testimonial lies largely in its ability to influence the mindset of the target audience, says John Comer, CFP, whose Plymouth, Minn.-based firm, Comer Consulting, LLC, offers strategic consulting services for advisors. “If we walk into a situation expecting it to be fabulous, it’s more likely to be fabulous, simply because that’s what we were led to expect.”

These days, due largely to the rise of social media and to longstanding regulations that limit how securities-licensed advisors can use testimonials to market to the public, testimonials come in creatively packaged formats well beyond the traditional client statements that advisors have long used in their marketing materials. While traditional testimonials can still pack a promotional wallop, advisors are finding new ways to use the words of others to effectively promote their own skills and services, because as Kuzmeski asserts, “It’s so much better to talk about what somebody else said about you than just to talk about yourself, which can come across as braggadocio.”

Within the rules: Testimonials for securities-licensed advisors

Securities-licensed advisors likely are familiar with Rule 206(4)-1(a)(1), a Securities and Exchange Commission-enforced provision of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 that essentially bans the use of “any testimonial of any kind concerning the investment adviser or concerning any advice, analysis, report or other service rendered by such investment adviser.”

While that prohibition represents a “huge handicap” for the advisors to whom it applies, Kuzmeski says there are other ways for them to put the words of others to work on their behalf, without crossing the regulatory line. Here are some:

Client referrals are similar to, but often more impactful than, testimonials, says Nolan Baker, CSA, a securities-licensed advisor at Retirement Specialists of Northwest Ohio in Sylvania, Ohio. “I really encourage my clients to share by word of mouth and help make personal introductions to me,” he explains. “And I try to think outside the box about ways to make it easy for people to share information about me and my firm.”

One way he does so is by giving clients issue-specific CDs he’s produced on subjects such as “how to choose a financial advisor” to pass on to their contacts. He also invites satisfied clients to workshops and seminars he hosts, seating them strategically next to prospects.

Seminars and other live events give advisors a chance to use what Kuzmeski terms “verbal vignettes” on an audience—an anecdote about a client’s positive experience with the advisor that speaks to “what a client said about you that really captures what you do and how you impacted their life.”

Advisors who earn professional or community awards and accolades should consider using them as a form of implied testimonial from the organization handing out the honor. Displaying a Better Business Bureau Torch Award prominently in the office for clients to see—and issuing a press release about landing such an award—would be an example of that, says Baker.

Then there’s the social media frontier. While there’s been some fuzziness about how the SEC applies its testimonial restrictions to client comments and recommendations posted on sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, Kuzmeski says it’s an issue that advisors should explore with their broker-dealer. “When people can go in and ‘like’ your business’s Facebook fan page, that can be very powerful. It’s like a referral.”

Testimonials for advisors who aren’t securities-licensed

The process of gathering and using testimonials tends to be significantly more straightforward for advisors who aren’t securities-licensed. Still, a methodical approach and a little bit of creativity go a long way in generating impactful testimonials.

It starts with targeting the right people, says Comer. On the client side, “You want testimonials from people who represent your target market.”

It’s also worth seeking testimonials from professionals whose services complement your own, such as a CPA or an estate planning attorney. “Those can be just as valuable, or in some instances more valuable, than client testimonials,” asserts Comer.

Gathering testimonials is a matter of giving people plenty of opportunities to say positive things about you. Holding periodic reviews of your services with clients is one way to do so; seminar evaluation forms, client surveys and client advisory boards are other viable testimonial-generation options. Otherwise, it might just be a matter of an advisor simply asking a client directly for a testimonial.

In the age of social media, recommendations from clients and professional peers on sites such as LinkedIn also can serve as a valuable form of testimonial, Comer adds.

The content of the testimonial should match the specific niche, product or service you’re seeking to promote, Kuzmeski says. A testimonial in a marketing piece promoting a seminar, for example, should refer to a person’s positive experience at a previous seminar. Once the testimonial is gathered, she adds, be sure to vet the source before using their words publicly. “You want to be sure they represent you well.”

For maximum impact in a visual or print format, Kuzmeski suggests packaging testimonials with the names and photos of the people to which they’re attributed, if they’re willing to let the advisor use them. It’s vital that the advisor gets the speaker’s permission to use their words (as well as their name and image, if applicable). To preserve credibility, avoid using anonymous testimonials, she says.

How and where to use testimonials? Comer recommends putting some—but not too many—in relevant places on the firm’s website. Whether online, in print (in brochures, seminar promotions and invitations, etc.) or elsewhere, testimonials can add impact in most any kind of marketing environment—“anyplace you’re talking about your services,” says Comer.

Some opportunities to use testimonials are less obvious. For example, Kuzmeski recommends using them as part of a self-running presentation that an audience can watch before a seminar or other event, much like the advertising segments shown in movie theaters before the lights go dim. “They’re sitting there with nothing to do,” she says. “Here’s a chance to show them slide after slide of people saying positive things about you.”

Kuzmeski’s bottom line on testimonials: Package and deliver them creatively, play within the rules, and use them “everywhere, all the time.”