Insider Exclusive: The Power of the People

Insider Exclusive: The Power of the People

The importance of using testimonials in advertising campaigns

By Shebby Lee          

In my “previous life” as an advertising copywriter and later as a documentary scriptwriter, I learned to appreciate the value of authenticity in any message I was trying to convey. That was a long time ago, but it is still true that consumers want to hear that personal testimonial rather than the more commonly used advertising campaign of an elusive, often baritone, actor voice-over.

I admire one local business that is bucking this trend, and I’ll bet it’s paying off for them. It is a locally owned family bank that has been around a long time. Their ads feature actual bank customers describing—in their own words—how their businesses have grown in partnership with this bank. It is very heartfelt and completely convincing.

I suspect that one of the reasons so few businesses use the more personal message is because it is hard to get nonactors to tell your story. I used to spend a disproportionate amount of my “writing time” transcribing hours of tape recordings to glean one usable 10-second nugget. Our modus operandi was to use these salient bits to tell the story, connecting them with a minimum of narration as needed for transitions. My partner, who did all of the interviewing, was very good at asking the right questions and steering the conversation toward the message we were hoping to convey. Over the years, we perfected this craft to the point where we often produced entire documentaries with no narration other than the people involved telling their own stories. This is an extraordinarily effective means of communication. Think Ken Burns.

This is my roundabout way of describing why my company relies on participant testimonials to tell our story rather than using slick marketing campaigns. Having worked as a step-on and tour director for a number of tour companies, I’ve seen my share of customer evaluations, and the ones we now use are based largely on what not to include. For example, our questions are not just numbered rankings of hotels, meals, and attractions, but rather are open-ended questions that invite participants to elaborate on their experiences. While ranking by number can be helpful for some things, we never ask a participant to rank a person (such as step-on guides, tour directors, or drivers) by an arbitrary number. These experienced and skilled professionals deserve better. I’ve even known tour companies to base tour assignments, salaries, and punitive actions on such information. By treating your guests with respect and urging them to express themselves freely (no signature required), you can reap such comments as:

“I would like to thank you for organizing such a wonderful holiday [Arizona] for us all and looking after us so well. It is one I will always remember. You have a fantastic country and one to be proud of, and the natural scenery is wonderful. Thanks again for all you did.”

“Thanks again for an interesting and fun trip [Old West Trail]. I sure enjoyed meeting and traveling with you, as well as the rest of the group. The trip was certainly well organized and you made us feel like special travelers.”

“I've really appreciated all the unusual experiences you've provided for us [on the Lewis & Clark Trail]—many more than I expected.”

If you are not already using testimonials in your advertising, I highly recommend it. Why do you think Trip Advisor is so successful? It isn’t just that it is provides helpful information, but that it also uses the comments of real people who slept in those hotels, ate at that restaurant, experienced that attraction. Nobody tells the story better than someone who has been there, done that.

Historian and writer Shebby Lee owns Shebby Lee Tours Inc. of Rapid City, S.D. Her tours focus on the history and cultural heritage of the West. To contact Lee, visit

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The American Bus Association (ABA) is the trade organization of the intercity bus industry, with more than 1,000 motorcoach and tour company members in the United States and Canada. Its members operate charter, tour, regular route, airport express, special operations and contract services. Another 2,800 members are travel and tourism organizations and suppliers of bus products and services who work in partnership with the North American motorcoach industry.


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