“Truth in Advertising” has long been the butt of many jokes. After all, advertising and marketing are inherently manipulative. Their purpose is to alter behavior, to persuade the prospect to take an action he might not otherwise have taken. Truth may be part of the story, but – more often than not – there’s a wee bit of embellishing going on. But, you have to be careful in today’s market. One faux pas – magnified by the social Web – and you could find yourself not only embarrassed, but doing great harm to yoru business.

The people formerly known as customers
The danger with embellishing in the social world of Web 2.0/3.0 is that consumers are no longer an audience held at arm’s length. They are now in a position to collaborate with companies on everything from product development to customer service protocols. “The people formerly known as customers” is a phrase coined by Jeff Howe (the man who brought us “crowdsourcing”). The concept conveyed by this description is dead-on for today’s marketplace – consumers are no longer passive agents, they are active participants in the commerce process. As such, they need to be treated as respected partners, not an audience to be duped.

Experience vs Performance
Before we go further, I want to explain the subtle difference between delivering an experience and a performance. An experience is an “authentic illusion” designed to serve the customer by meeting her every need and exceeding her expectations. Although there are elements of showmanship in a good experience, the foundation is an in-depth understanding of customer needs, and a genuine desire to deliver over-the-top products and services in the context of a positive interaction.

Performance is the slightly shady sibling of experience. Performance overlooks customer benefits in favor of shiny objects and sleight of hand. Performance is more concerned with appearances than with substance. The Great Oz put on a great performance, until someone looked behind the curtain.

Passing on the Kool-Aid
In the hyper-connected and increasingly “transparent” world of Web 2.0/3.0, the curtain is gone. Consumers are no longer confined to the front of the stage. To an increasing degree, they are joining you backstage, visiting rehearsals, and even helping you re-write the script. They aren’t interested in drinking the corporate Kool-Aid. And, if you want your company to survive, you’d better make sure none of your marketers are imbibing either.

It’s easy to get caught up in the internal rhetoric, and even easier to repeat it in the form of Web copy, white papers, trade show materials, and all manner of marketing assets. Don’t. Before you put a single word on your Web site or in your product catalog, make sure you’re equipped to deliver on your promises.

Delivering on a Promise
The old idiom, “under-promise and over-deliver” is more relevant than ever in today’s conversation-driven marketplace. We know that customers are getting savvier every day. We know that they have no qualms about voicing their opinions – good or bad – through social Web channels. So, when your marketing makes a promise, you’d better be able to deliver on it. If 24-hour response time is part of your offering, you’d better make sure you’ve got a customer service staff that is on the ball and actively tracking turn-time on callbacks. If smooth integration is the cornerstone of your solution, you’d better make sure you can deliver a pain free installation. If increased profit through better energy use is one of your selling points, you’d better … well, you get the point.

The bottom line:

  • Understand that your customers no longer live completely “outside” your business. Think of them as an extension of your team and show them due respect.
  • Create a customer experience that is built on customer needs and benefits.
  • Make your promises carefully, and then keep them. Break your word, and risk losing a customer. It’s as simple as that.