Do Listener Testimonials Work? Still?

Do Listener Testimonials Work? Still?

by Tracy Johnson

I’ll start by saying I LOVE listener and celebrity testimonials on the air. Nothing sells a brand better than a sincere, well-produced story from a passionate listener or credible celebrity. Their recommendation can be highly valuable.

But only if they’re believable. The marketing world is filled with fake testimonials. You’ve seen the fake reviews and endorsements for products on retail websites and social media.

It’s become so widespread that U.S. federal laws have been passed against them.

Meanwhile, 90% of all consumers assume testimonials in marketing messages are “made up.” While they trust reviews for a product on some non-sales, third party platforms, most consumers do not trust testimonials when they see them as being in a brand’s self-interest.

Does that bias extends to radio? Of course.

There’s a difference between “reviews” and “testimonials.” How do we deal with these trust issues as programmers who love how they sound on the station?

Celebrity Testimonials

Studies show respected celebrities endorsing a product has a positive impact. Now I can see your sales manager jumping up and down as he pushes another live read or endorsement for a weight loss product through the system.

But there are a couple of qualifiers:

They work IF:

  1. the endorsement is believable, and
  2. It’s specific.

But this isn’t a rant about the quality of advertisers most personalities endorse…we’ll leave that for another time.

I’m thinking of music promos many music stations use today. You know the ones that feature a string of artists saying their name, then end with “and you’re listening to (your station). Sometimes it’s even followed by a positioning statement.

These positioning promos may have fooled listeners in the past (but probably not). Today? They don’t work. Yank them off the air right now. They aren’t believable.

There’s no credibility because they aren’t specific. And by specific I don’t mean “Hi this is (artist) and when I’m in (your town) I always listen to (your station).”

If Justin Timberlake talked about how proud he is that his song is on the same station as your morning show because of the $100,000 you raised for the local pet shelter…now that’s saying something. That’s worthwhile. That has impact. Credibility.

Celebrity Testimonials & Relevance

Lack of specificity isn’t the only problem with testimonials. Beware of the relevance issue. If the celebrity isn’t relevant to the target audience, results could be mediocre, or even counterproductive. Most stations can easily get an up-and-coming artist to say something for them.

The problem is, those artists carry no weight with the audience. It doesn’t resonate. Even worse, the audience may be left with an impression that you’re the station that plays music by artists they don’t care about.

And if you do score that A-lister, it’s not necessarily a good idea to have Miley or the Biebs endorse your station. Just because they’re famous doesn’t mean they fit your brand.

A study by the University of Colorado found celebrity endorsements can cause people to transfer a celebrity’s personality traits to a brand they are endorsing. That’s why Nike and Gatorade dropped Tiger Woods  like he was hot as soon as his image took a hit a few years back. Tiger’s image is repaired now, but when is the last time you saw him on a commercial?

In the Colorado study, participants read a series of celebrity stories, including one about Jessica Simpson, and a brand she was endorsing. After the study, they were asked to evaluate the brand. The participants described the brand as “sexy and fun,” but they also described it as “ditzy and weak.”

Don’t air a testimonial just because the celebrity is somewhat famous, Select someone who will be perceived as a relevant and credible source that you want listeners to identify with your station.

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Using Testimonials Effectively

The solution is to seek relevant figures that inspire trust,They don’t necessarily need to be household names, but they do need to speak with authority and specificity.

They could be celebrities, but most stations don’t have the means or budget to recruit the most popular figures. So consider a campaign featuring typical listeners to represent your brand.

Shopify’s Point-of-Sale page uses testimonials from typical consumers. This works when the audience believes they are real, and feel they can trust the message.

That’s why it makes sense to use ordinary people who are “just like me”, as long as they clearly demonstrate your brand values and inspire trust from listeners.

 Listener Testimonials: They Can Be Imperfect

When creating a listener testimonial campaign, include testimonials that aren’t entirely in your own self-interest. I’d even go so far as to let listeners mention other station or shows in their testimonials.

What? Oh no! We’re advertising for the enemy. Why on earth would we do this?

Simple. It’s the most effective way to build instant credibility.

Dr. Elliot Aronsen (considered one of the world’s top psychologists) devised an experiment where participants read a fictional newspaper article about an interview with Joe “The Shoulder” Napolitano, a convicted cocaine dealer.

Half of the participants read a version of the interview where Joe argued for stricter courts and severe sentences. The other half read a version of the interview where Joe argued for looser sentences and more lenient courts.

When Joe argued for lenient courts, he was completely ineffective at changing people’s minds. But when he argued for stricter courts, he was a much more believable and sympathetic figure, winning the respondents to be on his side.

How does that apply to radio testimonials? Though reviews and testimonials aren’t quite the same thing, think about how you react to product or restaurant reviews. Most of us discount a glowing review that goes on and on about how perfect everything is. But we put great credibility in those who point out one or two things that could be improved or fell short of expectations.

Research proves that people who see a wider range of positive and negative reviews are more likely to make a purchase.

But Be Clear In Promoting Benefits

Clearly, this isn’t a recommendation to run a listener promo that claims your 90 minute music marathon is never really 90 minutes, or that the morning show isn’t all that funny. You aren’t trying to convince them you suck! In fact, it would be so odd that listeners would probably assume it was some kind of reverse-psychology trick.

But think about ways to position the brand so it’s more appealing to the target audience by airing a testimonial that is technically negative but at the same time helps define what and who you are, and what you are not.

For example, consider this testimonial from a cute, bubbly woman:

I can’t listen to (show) in the morning because they embarrass me when my kids are in the car.  They talk about sex too much.

This may be a perfect positioning promo for an aggressive rock station.

You can effectively communicate the message that “This station isn’t for [so and so], it’s for [so and so].”

Use a testimonial that will rule out the kinds of customers who won’t be satisfied with your station anyway. It’ll be that much more attractive to those you want.

This actually works in your best interests, as it inspires greater loyalty and affection from the core audience.

 All Testimonials Must Be Specific

Testimonials are short stories, and stories are best when told with detail and specifics. Don’t air promos that say, “I love the station because the morning show is fun and they make me smile”. That may be the desired goal of your campaign, but there’s a more effective (and creative, and interesting) way to communicate it.

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A listener that retells something they heard on the air, and starts laughing as she gets to the end is far more effective than just saying you’re funny.

And, laughter can be contagious as it makes a statement.

To prove the effectiveness of specific statements, researcher Dan Schley asked a panel of consumers about the believability of a claim.

Statement A said that 60% of American households recycled. Statement B said 60.37% percent recycled. The precise number was far more believable than the rounded number. 78% of those who chose the more precise number said they chose it because it implies accuracy. 

So when launching a commercial free music guarantee, maybe you should promise 92 minutes, or 87 minutes, changing it each time to match exactly what can be delivered, rather than rounding it or matching your frequency.

This principle applies to everything, not just numbers. The point is to use testimonials that are as precise as possible. They explain exactly why they needed you, and exactly how you fit their lifestyle.

Online Testimonials

We often think of endorsements as an on-air thing. But think of how you can use them off-air as well.

Photographs of real people inspire trust. According to research published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, people are more likely to believe a statement when accompanied by a photograph, even if the photograph has no direct information related to the statement.

Think how powerful this can be for your station. And these endorsements would be easy to collect.

What if you asked listeners to tell you what your station means to them in a UGC (user-generated content) promotion? They could upload a photo and enter their comment. Then, use the best entries on your website, in email campaigns and on social media.

An image of real listeners assure others the testimonial isn’t fake, assuming the customer doesn’t look like a paid model. You could even have your station voice read some on the air in third person:

Thanks for listening. Here’s what you’re saying. Jennifer from (suburb) tells us….


All testimonials must inspire trust before they can influence listeners.  The takeaways:

    1. Use testimonials from trusted experts. They can be either celebrities or not. Trust is the key.
    2. Your listener’s story should be the centerpiece of the testimonial. Don’t make it directly about your station.
    3. Craft testimonials that rule out listeners who will be dissatisfied with your station.
    4. Be precise and specific, which inspires credibility and believability.

If this helped, please share it. And if you’d like to discuss more, you can reach me anytime.

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