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Let your customers tell your storyLet your customers tell your story

Advertising agencies and marketing research firms learned long ago that credible testimonial messaging can do more to bring in new customers than just about anything. If you think about it, it makes sense. 

When you’re new in town and need a dentist, what do you do? Ask your neighbors and co-workers, right? Their recommendations are testimonials, and you trust them more than that “Free X-Rays” coupon you got in the mail. Trust is an important component of successful marketing. Difficult to gain, easy to lose, the trust factor is often the difference between success and failure.

Asking around about flight training is a little trickier. Not many people have taken flying lessons, so you'd probably have to ask a lot of random people to find one who could give you any advice on the subject. That's where advertising and marketing efforts come into play, and where well-done testimonials can take the place, to a large degree, of that missing trusted friend.

Here are a few tips on where and how to use testimonials, as well as some do's and don'ts when integrating them into your flight school's promotional campaigns:

  1. Use only real customers. Don't even think about hiring professional talent to tell your story, even if their hair does look better. To appear insincere or manipulative is the kiss of death for a small business.
  2. Don't put words in your customer's mouth. Interview him or her extensively, using open-ended questions such as “Why did you choose our flight school?” or “What was the most important factor in choosing our flight school?” Never use a script or a statement prepared in advance. The words should come directly from them, in as free and natural a manner as possible. It will then be your job to go through the hours of audio or video to select the most poignant few sentences. Your job is to edit, and just keep the very best.
  3. Use high profile or respected personalities if you can. Odds are you have some recognizable people as customers—perhaps a well-known local business owner, or a doctor, or a member of the clergy who would be interested in providing some testimonial content. Research shows that the more recognizable a person is, or the higher the social status, the more likely people are to believe what they say and follow their recommendations. Their words and images will provide a nice little promotional bump to their business, too.
  4. Pick out language in your customer testimonials that builds trust and speaks at an emotional level. “Frank's Flying Service helped me achieve a lifetime dream of becoming a pilot,” is much better than “Frank's taught me to fly and now I'm a pilot.” Trust gets conveyed directly through the actual words of the customer, but also (and more powerfully) indirectly by the production values of the message itself.
  5. Don't go cheap on production values. What's that, you ask? Production values speak to the quality of the medium. Spend a few bucks on quality, professional photography for print and web distribution. Ditto for video. Even the best messaging can get lost in poor quality imagery.
  6. Use testimonials in every promotion piece you do, whether for video, print, radio, TV, email, web, or social media. Some messages might feature the testimonial as the main thrust, while others may put the testimonial as a minor feature. The point is to use testimonials generously, and to make them part of your branding.
  7. Mix up your content. One testimonial can talk about realizing a dream, another about the welcoming environment at your school, and still another about how your school is preparing students for careers as professional pilots. Your testimonials should target specific market segments, such as young people seeking a career, women, minorities, older folks who now have the time and money to train—the list of market segments is long and varied. Include them all in your testimonials messaging.

Never use someone's words or image in a testimonial without their written permission. Casual approvals or handshake deals are never good enough. That doesn't mean you have to write a 10-page contract. A plainly worded paragraph will suffice.

Researchers have surmised that testimonials work so well because of something called social proof. “If everybody says the sky is blue, it must be blue, and if people are comfortable going along with that, well, who am I to disagree?” It gets a little more complicated than that as variables related to the person giving the testimonial change. As a professor at Yale, Stanley Milgram conducted a series of social science studies in the 1960s in which he tested the willingness of people to follow leaders who varied by age, familiarity, occupation, and social status. People were more willing to follow leaders who were older, of higher perceived social status, were well-dressed, and from high-status occupations. Taking a page from Milgram's playbook, managers are advised to consider these parameters when choosing testimonial providers. Just make sure they're real people.

William Woodbury is a flight instructor and freelance writer in Southern California.

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