Online Marketing Needs to Match the Physical Reality of Your Business

Lots of business owners approach online marketing as an opportunity to reinvent themselves. It’s true that online marketing can attract new customers and give existing customers a new perspective on a business, but there is also a limit to what online marketing can do.

Online marketing cannot change the reality of a business, how it operates, and what it has done in the past. It can be creative, persuasive, and forward-looking, but it should also reflect the reality of the business. You should respect your brand identity and maintain a uniform message across all online and offline channels.

One of the bigger mistakes some businesses make is overselling themselves online. This strategy can fail on two different levels. First, new customers who are lured into the high expectations can be disappointed when they see the reality of the situation. Second, existing customers who know the real business, can find the new message dishonest or inconsistent with the previous brand image and messaging.

This doesn’t mean you should undersell your business either. Don’t sell your business short. Just make sure you give an accurate portrayal of your business. The goal should be to make promises you can keep and set expectations that you can meet and hopefully exceed most of the time.

Why Promises and Expectations Matter

First, forget the old adage of “underpromise and overdeliver.” Ayelet Gneezy, who has a PhD in marketing, and Nicholas Epley, a research psychologist, determined that over delivering on promises is a total waste of time. People do not value or feel more happy when someone does more than they promised to do. While you don’t need to overdeliver, they did find that you need to live up to the promises you make.

Don’t Break Promises

In practical terms, this means if a business advertises that they have two color options for a product at their physical store, they better have two color options available when a customer arrives at their store. If they have one, that customer will likely be unhappy with that business.

If that business has three or four color options available, the customer won’t view the business any better. The customer will just view the business as having kept the promise they set of have two color options. No additional credit is awarded by customers when a business goes beyond their promise.

Try to Exceed Expectations

Gneezy and Epley also found that people do recognize when people exceed expectations. You’re probably thinking that doesn’t make any sense given what they said about promises, but it does if you think about it carefully. When someone promises someone else something, like when a business offers a certain numbers of options, the other person is just thinking about if that promise is kept.

If a customer expects a certain type of experience at your business, and you wow them with unexpectedly great service, they will think of your business more positively. The key here is that you are over delivering on an expectation they have of your business in their mind versus you delivering on a promise you make to them.

People see promises as agreements, and all that is important is that you live up to your end of the agreement. In the absence of a promise, the person can only judge you based on their expectations and how you perform in relation to that expectation they have.

Make Promises to Avoid Falling Short on Expectations

Interestingly, Gneezy and Epley also found that you must exceed another person’s expectations just to make them as happy as they would be if you had done the bare minimum to keep a promise with them. That’s right, if you meet someone’s expectations they will be less happy with you than if you came to an agreement and just did what you promised.

Businesses can use this evaluation dichotomy to their advantage. Let’s say a business finds itself with customers who are consistently not having their expectations exceeded. If the business feels their customers’ expectations are set unrealistically high, they can change the dynamic by outlining realistic expectations in the form of a promise or guarantee.

This shift in marketing to the customer can have a huge impact. The business now has redefined what a successful experience should look like and clearly communicated it to the customer. The business now just needs to keep that promise with their customers versus trying to exceed unrealistically high expectations.

Pizza Delivery Guarantee Example

A perfect example of this in the real world is a pizza place that advertises “fast delivery” during their online ordering process. They think they are doing great, because they deliver 99% of their pizzas in 20 to 30 minutes. Yet, a small but sizeable subset of customers are complaining when their pizza takes 30 minutes to arrive, because they think fast delivery means 20 minutes or less.

The pizza place could change their website to read “we guarantee delivery in under 30 minutes.” Customers will no longer complain unless the pizza takes more than 30 minutes, because they know the promise and will be happy when it’s kept. There is no longer a murky expectations game. The business can now focus their efforts on a more a tangible problem, like creating a process to reduce the 1% of orders that take longer the 30 minutes to deliver.

Make Promises You Can Keep

In terms of online marketing, this means promise things that your business can deliver. It seems pretty basic, but plenty of businesses offer things they can’t sell just to lure people into their store.

Consider the classic and illegal technique of bait-and-switch. This technique is at least as old as The Book of Swindles by Zhang Yingyu. That book illustrates over eighty stories about fraud in the Ming dynasty of China including tails of bait-and-switch. The morale of the book is that people are not who they appear to be, and that idea is at the heart of any swindle.

Shady Car Dealership Example

A current and prevalent example is the shady car dealership that advertises an amazing lease deal for brand new cars in online banner ads. It’s $0 down and just $127 / month! You arrive at the dealership, and they tell you about how that deal is only for a base model car that is not on their lot.

They coincidentally just sold the last base model car, and the deal only applies to cars on their lot. But lucky for you, they have plenty of fully loaded models that you can lease for a killer deal of $1,000 down plus $279 / month. You’ve just been the victim of bait-and-switch.

The car dealer avoids breaking the law by using verbiage like “limited quantities.” Nonetheless, the car dealer promised a car for $127 / month, and they failed to keep that promise. Most customers will not be happy with that business, and they will hold it against them.

Be Honest and Transparent in Online Marketing

Every business owner should want to be the exact opposite of the shady car dealership. No honest business should want to be perceived as shady or engaged in fraudulent activities. And no customer wants to buy from a business that has that perception.

When a business markets itself online, they should make clear and transparent promises to their customers. If a business offers a 20% off promo code for their online store. It should be 20% off of everything, or the exclusions or other rules should be very clear in the advertisement.

If a promise is full of unexpected or nonconventional restrictions, customers will view that business as dishonest and be unhappy with what amounts to a broken promise. Customers are people, and people don’t like to be tricked or deceived. If a business is using shady tricks or legalese to get customers to make a purchase, they will not be customers for long.

Set Expectations You Can Exceed

If you’re not making explicit promises, you need to be very careful about expectations you set with your online marketing. Be cautious about use overly flattering verbiage on your website or in online ads.

Remember that people want to have their expectations exceeded, not just met. So when a business creates a picture of already high expectations, they have to work doubly hard to exceed those expectations when the customer finally makes a purchase with the business.

Better Than Wagyu Steakhouse Example

Imagine a quality mid-range steakhouse that has been relatively successful for years with very little marketing. The owners decide they want to grow their business and maybe expand to three or four locations in the next few years.

They decide to use Google and Facebook ads to promote themselves as a high-end establishment that serves one-of-a-kind steaks that are more delicious than wagyu beef. This steakhouse could have easily used online marketing to expand. Instead, they have likely squandered that opportunity, and may even have damaged their existing successful business.

Based on what we know, they likely have been a great spot for date nights or families looking for a great steak dinner at an affordable price. Now they’ve launched an online campaign that appears to be targeting people celebrating rare special occasions or wealthy patrons.

These wealthier customers will likely be disappointed, because they will have very high expectations based on the online advertising they viewed. These expectations will not be met, let alone, exceeded. Also, this campaign may even confuse or scare away the restaurant’s existing customers, because of the appearance that prices will be rising.

Super Soft Mattress Hotel Example

The travel industry, and more specifically lodging, is relatively well known for slightly deceptive online marketing practices. Hotels and motels routinely use pictures on their websites that are taken at weird angles or are decades old. The practice is so widespread that Oyster, a hotel review site, actually sends investigators to find what they call “photo fakeouts.”

Let’s set deceptive pictures aside for a moment. Think about a hypothetical hotel chain that advertises itself across that internet as having “the softest mattresses in the world.” Every soft mattress connoisseur that sees these ads will think it’s great. But this is a horrible idea, because how can this hotel chain exceed expectations of having the softest mattress?

Potential customers will think about silk, a baby’s skin, or maybe that perfect mattress they have at home. A mattress that may not even be soft, but they just love it because they are accustomed to it. Or they’ll imagine sleeping on clouds during their next vacation.

So now they have this crazy unrealistic idea in their head about a hotel that features these super soft mattresses. When they go to travel, they’ll book a room at one of these hotels. Will their expectations be met or exceeded? It’s very unlikely!

Market Amazing Yet Realistic Expectations

Think about what your business is really good at and your customers truly appreciate. What is unique about your business? What do customers always compliment your business on? These are places you should begin when thinking about expectations to mention in your online marketing.

Your online marketing efforts should create an amazing vision for your customers. The images it creates for your customers should be realistic though, and your business should be able to regularly exceed these expectations in the mind of your customers.

Online Marketing Must Match Reality

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that online marketing should be creative and attached to reality. You are advertising a real business and your marketing needs to reflect reality. That’s true if you have a retail location or an entirely online operation. Describing a business that doesn’t actually exist doesn’t help the business or potential customers.

That being said, don’t undersell your business either. Marketing is meant to attract people to your business. Your marketing efforts should be creative, inspiring, and fascinating. They just also need to be rooted in the business as it exists. Always try to keep the promises your business sets and exceed your customers’ expectations.

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