Say you're the producer of a hot new play. You want to tell the world it's the best thing since "Macbeth." What would you put on your Web site? A big announcement your play is well worth plunking down $150 per seat? Or how about, "Our production is three hours of dramatic genius. You gotta believe us!"
You wouldn't, would you? That's about as believable as posting a testimonial from the Bard himself.
What you need is a testimonial from an authoritative third party. An excerpt from a favorable review by a known drama critic would do the trick. Better still, link to that critic's review in its full, unadulterated form. Or, get permission to post the piece on your site, untouched by your copywriters.
Often, what we don't write ourselves speaks volumes. Sometimes, letting others do the writing is far more effective than anything we could commit to print. A few examples:
Third-party testimonials. In many cases, it's best to post the whole review, not just excerpts from reviews or articles. Check the site for the Broadway production of "Rent." It includes a not entirely glowing, but honest, opinion published in The New York Times. Posting just the effusive "sound bite" often raises the question of whether a little creative editing was performed (as in, "The Springfield Gazetteer" says, "This film is perfect!" when the actual quote is, "This film is perfect for screening at the village idiots' convention!"). Allowing readers to link to a full piece provides credibility. Remember to ask permission before linking to avoid becoming embroiled in a deep-linking controversy (e.g., linking to content for paid subscriptions only).
Valued relationships. It's one thing to say you're a valued partner with a well-respected company. It's far better to demonstrate you're so valued you're mentioned on the partnering organization's Web site or, better, the subject of a positive case study. Linking to these important "mentions" raises your credibility without tooting your own horn at ear-splitting volume.
Creativity and discretion. Many factors can prevent your organization from publishing sensitive information. Yet, getting the word out to reporters and the public can help your cause. In such situations, creativity and discretion are key. Linking to news articles that help tell your story is a solution. Getting partner organizations to address the situation on their sites is another tactic. Or (this should be used with caution), consider using your organization's intranet or employee hotline to familiarize staff (your unofficial publicists) with the issue.
The company you keep. Which organization has more class: the one that posts an ad banner for "male enhancement products" or the one that posts an ad for a Fortune 100 company? The company you keep, even when it comes to ad sales, speaks volumes. Having well-respected advertisers on your site bodes well for your organization (and saves the embarrassment of writing, "We're so cool, Coca-Cola bought space from us!").
Graphics and layout. Compare the site for Children's Hospital Boston to the one for Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Both are for fine institutions with similar missions. Both have very similar content. But the Boston hospital's layout and its compelling photos of children are more welcoming and reassuring than Cincinnati's photos of white-coated adults fiddling with lab equipment.
Less-is-more commentary. Like most professional communicators, I'm all for fast, full disclosure. There are a few times when a short statement speaks louder and with more profundity than pages of rambling text. The key is to make the statement as direct as possible. "Our planes will begin flying again out of O'Hare at 7 a.m. tomorrow" is clear. A three-page treatise on meteorological conditions in the Chicago area is completely unnecessary.
And if you don't have anything nice to say... Just as your mother told you, dumping on others is poor form. In some cultures, knocking the competition is considered the lowest of the low or is illegal. Steer clear of smearing competitors, and you're more likely to stay clean yourself.
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Susan Solomon is the executive director of marketing and public relations for Memorial Health Services, a five-hospital health system in Southern California. In this capacity, she manages promotional activities for both traditional and new media. Susan is also a marketing communications instructor at the University of California, Irvine; California State University, Fullerton; and the University of California, Los Angeles.
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