When in Doubt, Just Tell the Truth

Have you ever wondered why some people are “direct mail responsive” and others are not? Why some buy from catalogs, the Internet or home shopping shows and other wouldn’t even consider it?

There are many reasons, of course. But I’m convinced that one of them is good old-fashioned distrust.

You really can’t blame people. With all the phony sweepstakes, crooked charities, flimsy products, faux invoices, “free” offers with suspiciously large shipping and handling charges, plus other rip-offs and sleights of hand, people have good reason to distrust direct marketers.

And things are getting worse. Mention direct mail and people think “junk.” Bring up telemarketing, and people squeal “scam” and race to sign up for new do-not-call lists. And now virtually all commercial e-mail is defined as “spam,” leaving an entire industry hanging in the balance.

I think most people in direct marketing are honest most of the time. But with deadlines and budgets to meet and massive competition, it’s just too easy to tell those little fibs and white lies to get the job done. And if you do that often enough, you start losing track of what’s true and what’s a lie. That’s a slippery slope. So for those of us who want to stay on the straight and narrow, let’s take a friendly little refresher course in basic honesty.

In “Telling Lies,” Paul Ekman gets to the heart of the matter, saying that you’re lying if you meet three simple conditions:

· You know the difference between truth and falsehood.

· You choose the falsehood over the truth.

· You tell the falsehood without consent from or a warning to the other person.

He also defines two distinct ways of lying: concealment and falsifying. Concealment is withholding information. You may not say anything untrue, but the omission prevents the other person from making an informed choice. Falsifying goes one step further and presents false information as if it were true.

From these simple concepts, we can create a short list of questions that we should ask about everything we do in direct marketing:

· What is the truth about this product, service or cause?

· Am I telling the truth in my selling message?

· Does my prospect understand that this is a solicitation?

· Am I concealing or omitting any facts my prospect would want to know?

· Am I falsifying any information?

· Is any element of my message or format misleading?

· What is my intention with this technique?

· Does my success depend on trickery?

· What would my customers think if they knew what I was doing to get their business?

· What are the long-term consequences of what I am doing?

Of course, the ultimate question is: Can you be truthful AND profitable? Suppose you answer that question “no.” What does that say about you? Something is seriously wrong if a business reaches a point where deception is a requirement for profit.

What happens if your search for the truth uncovers a problem? Maybe your product stinks. Or the offer is lousy. Or the sales claims are unfounded. Well, that tells you something, too, doesn’t it? You need a better product, a better offer or improved features.

I think there is great power in the truth. Truth sells. When you set aside the tricky techniques and focus on a truth, you end up with a more cohesive and believable message. And you preserve your credibility. You may even find buried benefits and reveal the true value of a product, which can help your message resonate with prospects. Most importantly, truth is the only way to build trust in our industry and make more people responsive to our sales pitches.

We keep telling lawmakers that we’re better off self-regulating. So let’s get serious about it. Personally, I’ve turned away businesses hawking rip-off products. I’ve scolded clients for unethical offers. And I’m not bashful about quoting the Direct Marketing Association’s various publications on ethical business.

But you really don’t need an armload of publications to deal with ethics. It’s simple: When in doubt, just tell the truth.

(You can read a longer and more irreverent version of this article in the Article Archive section of the Learning Center at www.DirectCreative.com.)

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