The UX of Product Testimonials

I saw an interesting question on UXExchange about product testimonials.  Are they good or useless?

We all know that referrals are tremendously important to people in their decision making.  An advertisement for a new restaurant is worth a fraction of a recommendation from someone about the restaurant.  This is why Yelp and Amazon recommendations exist.  So it stands to reason that a testimonial on someone’s website saying, “This product is great” should go a long way.  Entrepreneur magazine even has an article with a checklist of how to make your testimonials good.  However, I think these kinds of testimonials usually fall flat.  Here is the psychology why:

The business world has done everything in its power to make people cynical.  Enron-type scandals, credit-card policies, oil company record profits, startups blowing through millions on first class airfare, vaporware, spam email and millions of other reasons have made people skeptical and downright hostile to anything a company says.  When I hear a company is dedicated to the environment, I think “No they aren’t.  They are just paying for a commercial to make people think they are.”  We have become cynical of PR statements and websites that have thousands of words and yet say nothing. A testimonial is off to a bad start because it is easy to be faked and people assume you have ulterior motives.  (which of course, you do!)

Closure is the phenomenon that occurs when human beings are presented by an incomplete picture.  They automatically close the gap and fill in the empty spaces.    It’s assumed that you (as a marketer) don’t have a balanced view. You are paid to make your product look good.  Testimonials are the best messages or even hand-crafted by the marketer.  At least Yelp and Amazon gives me both sides of the argument.  Testimonials give me just the good.  I have an incomplete picture, which makes me want to fill in the gap with the bad stuff.  Let me tell you, my imagination of the bad is much worse that your hand-crafting of the good.  I read good quotes and imagine worse ones were left out.

Lack of Human Gestures
Testimonials are usually text.  Text is a very difficult medium to convey emotion.  Most products are purchased based on emotion, so there is a mismatch of mediums.  No matter how emotional the speaker is, text will suck the life right out of it.  You don’t get smiles 🙂 or winks 😉 or shock 😮 or anger >:( in text testimonials.  Even emoticons don’t convey the details people need to believe the speaker.

The Solution
At Marketo, we put up video testimonials instead. This was a B2B application, and we paid for the video production ourselves.  In a B2C situation it’s possible to get people to make YouTube videos if you can tap into the viral nature of your product and create a “tribe”.  The effect was tremendous.  People believed the videos because they could see the person speaking and see the authenticity and sincerity.  We started with 5 videos and it grew over time.  I would point people we were hiring/pitching at that page.  It was a quantum leap better than showing them a text-based page.  Reactions were wonderful.

Text-based testimonials are not very effective, unless you show both sides of the story in an unedited way.  Video, if you can do it, is a much better medium to convey that you have happy customers.

Whatya think?