This post originally appeared on iMediaConnection, a site for marketing professionals, in May of 2008.

Marketers, Lawyers, Politicians. These three groups are often accused of misleading people by spinning tales and moonshine. Marketers in particular are known for their ability to spin tales about anything. We’re known for the ability to excite and amaze, grab people’s attention and keep it for a while. That’s our job as storytellers.

So what happens when the story you’re telling isn’t entirely true? The lights fade and some people buy and then they learn after a while that you sold them on a story that wasn’t entirely real. At best these people will be mildly disappointed. At worst they’ll be downright angry. In either case, they will not listen to you again.

Marketers now face the toughest, most cynical audience ever – and it’s largely our own fault. The above scenario has happened too much and too often, as we’ve exaggerated the benefits and hidden the flaws of our products in an effort to sell ever more.  As banner click through rates continue to decline and most ads being largely ignored, we are becoming more and more desperate to cut through the noise and make an impact.

The Authentic Marketing Message

If there is any lesson from the advent of Web 2.0 and the rise of “New Marketing”, it’s that consumers are people; they like to be engaged and they like to be told the truth. In regaining the trust of consumers it’s time to sit back and be a little more honest. To cut through the noise and make an impact, we need to create more authentic marketing messages.

So what’s the best path to do this? How can we create a more effective marketing messages and product promises that resonate with the consumer that the customer willingly spreads?

I’m suggesting a great approach that we use at GoodBarry: get you and your marketing team to help out with customer service and support.

Get Involved with Customer Support

Whatever that is for your company, get on the front line and get involved. Do some tech support, some phone support, some front desk customer service. Hear the real voices of your real customers telling you their real thoughts.

There are two reasons this helps.

Get “Real World” Product Knowledge

Most marketers do understand their product and what it does. Unfortunately, this isn’t really the complete picture. Real product understanding comes from knowing more than the specifications, size, color and so forth. You need to know how the product is used in the real world and what the stumbling blocks are in the wild.

Which parts break most often? I remember a laptop I had once had a broken keyboard. When I called the support line and started to explain what I needed, the technician said “Ah, no problems. You need your keyboard replaced, we’ll send someone out. The keyboards are easy to replace, it’ll only take them a moment.”

Apparently, people’s keyboards on this laptop were always falling apart, and the support technician knew this and knew how to take action. I’m sure he passed this on to the manufacturing department, but the point is – he knew the stumbling blocks for his product and he knew that the modular design meant it wasn’t going to be hard to replace. This was a big plus, since I couldn’t afford to not have my laptop for long. I was happy to hear that it “wouldn’t take long” to fix.

By getting your hands dirty with customer support, you get to see your products in the wild, being used or consumed by real people. You’ll see what they complain about, what they really love and what they hate. You’ll begin to see your product through your customers eyes and understand its flaws, limitations and qualities.

Knowing Your Customer

Every marketer understands their target market, but how intimately you understand them varies. Getting involved with customer support teaches you a lot about your target market, and lets you intimately understand their needs, wants and motivations.

You’ll learn not only what they want to use your product or service for, but why they want to use it. You’ll learn the language they use to describe it and how they see it. There is no better way to hold a mirror up to your company than to talk to your customers about their experiences with your product.

Take Carol, for example. Carol is a customer of ours that I’ve helped on a few occasions with technical support. And she’s taught me a lot about our market – while some of it isn’t news, it’s confirmation that our approach is correct. For example, here’s a few things I know because of my support interactions with her:

  • She needs support. Free technical support and the ability to talk to us during our support Q&A webinars is a big reason that she loves us.
  • She loves to learn. She’s constantly exploring and learning more about functions in the system she could use, and she really appreciates our business advice (not just tech advice). This has influenced our blog’s direction and our technical documentation’s direction to include a little background, too.
  • She didn’t know what a CMS (Content Management System) is. She just works on her website. This isn’t a surprise and we don’t use that acronym ourselves, but it’s a good example of how you can glean knowledge of how customers talk and understand your product.

These traits are common to a large chunk of our market, and there are many more. We’ve got several customers that we have interacted with over time, and they’ve become archetypes of our target market.

So after all your effort doing support and customer service, let’s say you’ve gained a deeper understanding of your product and your target market. Now we can put that to work in our marketing messages.

Creating a More Authentic Message.

I worked regularly with the customer support team, and have I’ve definitely gained a great deal of understanding about our product and our customers. I would expect that most marketers would find similar benefits, such as:

  • Better understanding about which features our customers use the most
  • Greater appreciation of the areas of the system are easiest to use and which are harder.
  • Knowledge of the strengths of our products, according to the customer
  • Better understanding of what motivates and excites customers

To put it simply: I’ve seen the product in it’s true form, as it really is – not in an academic light. This feeds directly into our marketing messages, making them far more authentic for our audience.

So how can you create a more authentic message?  By applying those lessons you’ve learned from your time with your customers. By using that authentic experience and true understanding you gain from dealing with customers after they’ve purchased, you can create marketing messages that:

  • Set the right expectations – just as my laptop technician did.
  • Communicate the most attractive benefits of the product – as Carol has shown us
  • Better motivate your prospects to buy – by using the language the customer uses and the benefits they find most attractive in real-life usage.

And most importantly, these marketing messages are true and authentic – so they don’t disappoint.

Word of Mouth Marketing That Sticks and Stays

The best thing about authentic messages: customers repeat them. If they don’t agree with your message they’ll make up their own, which may or may not be favorable to you. But if they do agree with you, they’ll just repeat your message. It’s easier that way!

Real marketing messages that aren’t mere puffery and positioning but true representations of the benefits of your product spread smoothly and are accepted easily. Authentic marketing messages are a big part in successful word of mouth marketing.

Some Caveats and a Final Word

Maybe you’re involved in customer service every day, and if so that’s great. My primary role is as a marketer, but I’m also involved in support and training at GoodBarry. And I’m confident that this has helped improve our product and hone our messages.

Of course, not everyone can do support or customer service. Technical support in some organizations requires some serious knowledge that marketers might not have. But what you can do is sit next to them, listen to their customer calls or read their support tickets. Maybe you can pull the support team into your next marketing meeting and see what they think of your ideas.

Traditionally, marketers have worked with sales and legal departments, but the customer service team is too often ignored. These guys are at the forefront of dealing with your happiest and unhappiest customers, they know your product inside out and can tell you in five minutes the best and worst things about your service.

My key point is that as marketers, you should engage and understand the customer service side of your business. Talk to them, sit next to them, try doing their job for a day or two.

Trust me, it’s worth it.