«Return to Blog List A Future without Case Studies? 5 Conclusions about the New FTC Rules
Suddenly, the marketing world is in a panic over the new FTC rules regarding endorsements (testimonials).
It’s December, and the new guidelines went into effect yesterday.
Some are asking, should we pull down every customer testimonial, success story and case study?!
While it sounds bad, the impact on case studies may be minimal compared to stand-alone testimonials. Even then, there are ways testimonials can comply.
After reading the official guidelines and various interpretations, here are some of my conclusions:
(Note: This is my take on the guidelines – and I’m not an attorney.)
Conlusion #1: Stand-alone testimonials need to be clarified
Testimonials expressing satisfaction or opinion – without mentioning results – usually seem to be OK.
It’s those with specific results that are a particular problem. Consumers can’t really know what’s behind them or if results are typical.
Yet, statements such as “results not typical” are no longer valid under the guidelines.
Here’s a sample problem statement from the FTC doc:
“I lost 50 pounds in 6 months with WeightAway.”
Who knows whether this is typical or what went into these results?
Under the new guidelines, testimonials with results can’t omit the “how.” Endorsements must have context.
Here’s the FTC’s revised example:
“Every day, I drank 2 WeightAway shakes, ate only raw vegetables, and exercised vigorously for six hours at the gym. By the end of six months, I had gone from 250 pounds to 140 pounds.”
It’s not as crisp and succinct, for sure. But it explains much more accurately what went into the weight-loss results.
IF this is typical of someone who drank the shakes, ate well and exercised that much, then it’s fine.
If not typical, then use of such a testimonial requires you to mention what the typical result would be with this combination.
Conclusion #2: Case studies likely BENEFIT from the new rules
As noted above, a glowing testimonial of a sentence or two ususally doesn’t show the full context.
I have to give Michel Fortin credit for being the first to point out that case studies just may be the answer in many cases.
Customer case studies are intended to go beyond just the results – to show what’s behind the numbers.
By showing the path to success, you eliminate the ambiguity or the implication that magically plugging something in produces success. There’s usually more to it.
To that end, if you write or manage customer stories, make sure that you accurately portray the steps that led to success – which may be more than just your solution.
That may mean fleshing out success stories a bit so they are not just overviews but more detailed accounts.
Also, instead of pulling out specific results quotes from case studies and using them elsewhere, you may need to get customer approval on a second version of each quote that can be used as a stand-alone.
Conclusion #3: Check back with customers regularly
I listened to a recent webinar that Jim Edwards conducted with Richard Cleland, assistant director in Advertising Practices at the FTC.
Cleland clarified a lot of questions.
He also pointed out the importance of updating your endorsements regularly.
Technically, if you’ve left your testimonials and customer stories up for a year or so, you should check back with customers on whether they still feel the same way.
Doing so may even result in updates that make your testimonials or case studies stronger.
Conclusion #4: Introduce affidavits or modify release forms
Cleland also suggested that customers sign an affidavit that their statements are in fact true at that time.
Many legal release forms have wording to this effect. If you use email approvals, you might want to create a very short affidavit doc or email approval string that has wording to address this.
Conclusion #5: The guidelines aren’t totally clear
Even with example scenarios in the doc, the guidelines are still a bit fuzzy when you try to apply them.
At times, it seems a few words can make the difference between compliance or non-compliance.
Just keep in mind the intention of the newly clarified guidelines. They’re intended to protect us from misleading and fraudulent claims.
If we simply learn how to work with them, they’re a good thing for us all.
The FTC has said that, if by chance you are out of compliance, you will receive a warning and a chance to fix the issue.
Over time, these should become clearer, as we learn what real-world examples the FTC finds out of compliance.
Evaluate your inventory of testimonials, success stories and case studies per the guidelines.
Update or get new approvals of old endorsements.
Decide whether you need to revise or add affidavit language into any approval documents.
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Thanks for this Casey! I was actually hoping you publish something just like this when I heard about these FTC rulings. Appreciate all you do!
BTW – Over the last month, I’ve come to the decision to strike it out on my own doing leadership/team development consulting and coaching. My offerings will help create collaboration amongst diverse groups and teams, helping them create a shared vision of the future. The goal of my programs is to establish an aligned purpose for inspirational breakthroughs. In addition, I have taken on a select group of life coaching clients, with a focus on defining their dreams and creating a pathway forward. A unique aspect of my business is that I will incorporate a mixture of Appreciative Inquiry, and in some instances nature and equine guided learning. It’s truly a dream-come-true for me – combining all of the things I loved best in the corporate world with my passion for nature and horses, and I’m ecstatic about this new journey I’m on. Official launch won’t be until March 2010, but I am able to take on a few clients before then if you know of anyone interested. I’ll keep you informed as things get closer to launch!
Thanks for your comment! It took me a while to sort through all the info to write it.
Congrats on your new plan! That sounds like a really perfect fit for you. Please keep me on your email list for updates, communications, etc.
All the best,
Wow. Thank you. I appreciate the effort you put into this generous, informative post. I immediately followed the link to the FTC guidelines. As I read I started to calm down. It seems to me those businesses that have made it a habit to function with an honest level of integrity and transparency have nothing to worry about. Conversely, those who need to be most careful are those that have repeatedly distorted the truth about their products and services. Digging deeper, it’s these unsavory practices that have contributed to consumers’ general lack of trust in marketing. And I agree with you, case studies/success stories are an excellent and logical answer.
P.S. Kami–I’m also an equine lover (have an off-track thoroughbred I train for eventing). Congrats on your new venture!
You’re very welcome! I had to sit down and really try to understand it all myself to realize it’s not the end of the world as I know it.
I think the FTC will be plenty busy with gross abuses of this. The honest businesses, if they are somehow in violation, will have time to learn what’s OK and what’s not.
PS – Very cool about your horse!
I think the most difficult part is the idea that a business needs to revisit claims made on a testimonial to make sure the client still feels that way.
I mean, seriously? Did I interpret that correctly? Why isn’t it legitimate to look at that testimonial as a snapshot in time, always accurate for the time it was written? How long is a testimonial considered valid?
It seems that’s what they’re saying, unfortunately. The webinar of the FTC guy with Jim Edwards indicates after “a year or two.”
I agree that it seems testimonials should be a snapshot in time. I wonder if putting dates on any endorsements would be more “truth in advertising.” A client of mine lists dates next to all the case studies on its website. Maybe companies just need to do that from the outset, instead of going back and verifying. But I’m not sure that would be OK under the new guidelines.