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Say what you mean, mean what you say

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY We all know about "impact words" in marketing -- language that is proven to be most likely to get attention or elicit a buyer response. But using these powerful trigger words and not backing them up -- or qualifying them so much as to make them meaningless -- can be worse than not using them at all. The advertising of a good, reputable company is a promise; and good, reputable companies and business people don't make promises they can't keep.

Clearly it's difficult to make powerful, one-, two-, or three-word claims that are completely string-free and ironclad, so it's important to do a reality check when you use impact words in your marketing. If there are too many "ifs, ands, or buts" attached to your promises, or if the likelihood is low of the typical customer getting exactly the promised service, product, or experience, you could be crossing into teaser territory and it could backfire on you.

Here are some commonly used impact words and thoughts to consider before using them:

"Instantly": If you can't give a discount, rebate, or service in real time, on the spot (whether at a cash register, website, or someone's front door), don't call it instant. There's nothing vague about the word, so the customer's expectation is clear. If it's not going to happen immediately, then use more accurate words like "fast," "speedy," "while you wait," or "at point of purchase."

"No questions asked": If you use these strong and unequivocal words, abide by them. Too often those words are tossed out -- most often as part of a warranty or return policy -- but not really honored. Returns and other after-sale interactions are often where the customer is most sensitive to the quality of your service; they can be make-or-break situations for your business. So if you say it, do it, using your mouth to smile, apologize if needed, and say thank you -- not to question, challenge, or back-pedal.

"Guaranteed": It's admittedly very difficult to use this ubiquitous word without some kind of qualifier (though some companies do it very well). So if you do use the word, be very upfront and specific about exactly what is guaranteed and how. We've all been in situations where we make a claim on a guarantee, only to have some clause pointed out to us that happens to specifically exclude our problem.

If your guarantee is truly unconditional, that's fantastic, and you should trumpet it. But if it's not, be clear. Say, "Our guarantee," and then say what it is. It comes down to common sense -- read your promise as a customer would, then envision a scenario where it comes into question. If there is any chance it might be misunderstood or misleading, your guarantee isn't clear enough. Here is a perfect example of a clear and solid guarantee; it's short, sweet (no fruit pun intended), and unambiguous.

"Free": Free is free (or at least it should be). Free with a patently ridiculous handling charge -- as is common in late night infomercial pitches -- or free with conditions that are not disclosed clearly or until late in the process, can be sketchy. The "free" may be technically accurate in some fashion, but the further something gets from truly free, the more of a buzzkill it is for a customer. You may be sending me a free collector's coffee mug, but if you mumble, "You just pay shipping and a $12.95 handling charge," I'm not feeling the free quite as much.

"Limited time": It's common practice for companies to advertise sales, promotions, or other offers as being "for a limited time only," for the obvious purpose of creating a sense of urgency and forcing a faster buying decision. But when that limited-time opportunity gets advertised in near-perpetuity, or kept alive by the usually questionable "extended by popular demand," customers become incredulous and less likely to buy into future time-sensitive offers. If there is no specified end date, or you aren't sure you will end your offer in what would reasonably be considered a limited time, don't position it that way. On the other hand, if the claim is accurate, be specific: Say "one week only" or "offer ends July 31st" -- no ambiguity there.

"No small print": This is really part-and-parcel of all the other words and situations above. "No small print" means not a single condition, caveat, or codicil. If there's so much as an asterisk or footnote, you've broken the promise. Here's an example I found of those words used to elegant perfection. If your offer requires small print (as most do), that's OK. But then just state that some conditions apply... or don't say anything and make the offer details clear in the big print.

The bottom line is that if you overpromise, set customer expectations at an unrealistic level, or use cloudy language to prompt customer behavior, you do so at your peril. If you can make a clear, powerful promise and honor it with confidence, go for it. If not, better to skip the trigger words and not risk having them come back to bite you.

Image courtesy of Flicker user vectorportal

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