Igniting User Endorsements

So, how do you get people inspired to talk about you? Above all else, bring to market a product or service that is remarkable in and of itself.

Next, recognize that people already are talking about your stuff, both online and off. Some good, some bad.

While it’s tempting to spend all of your time cleaning up the bad, that’s really tantamount to a futile game of Whack-a-Mole. It’s never ending, and every time you quiet some naysayer down, another appears.

Instead, you want to make effort to facilitate and fuel the talkers who are saying good things about you and your products.

How? This may be the $64,000 question, and in some senses this is the hard part. Please COMMENT on this post with better ideas and I’ll add them to this list.

Let’s get started. In no particular order

  • Make sure your best customers feel in the loop.

Let them in on your company happenings, and even secrets. Think about MacWorld and the way that Apple makes their best customers feel part of the action every January in San Francisco. In fact, those zealots actually PAY to go to MacWorld.

Since you probably can’t organize a trade show, set up an insider status where you can communicate with your best customers and let them in on progress, updates, and preview the latest features of your product or service. Ask for their feedback, and let them feel part of the action. Have them test new versions of the products they already love. Invite them to participate on a user-advisory board. That sort of stuff.

  • Make it easy for them to spread the word.

If you can distill down your core message, that helps a lot. If you can make it easy for them to “share” with their friends, do that. If you do an “email a friend” program, give your users an easy and fun way to personalize it so as to add a human touch. Canned jargon be gone. Just be careful about being too slick about tapping into your user’s contact lists and spamming those folks. No one I know likes to get duped into spamming their contacts.

  • Ask them to talk about you.

Some people are shy, and if you ask (authentically) for people to introduce you to their friends, they will. Just be real about it. If you build a referral program, that’s fine, but be sure to be careful about choosing the incentives for the referral. Recognition is better than reward (see below for more on this).

You need to really do a great job of understanding the motivation of your customers in regard to why they might choose to put themselves out there and endorse your product. They must LOVE it, so that their endorsement is credible and authentic and therefore trusted. Recognize that they satisfaction they get from endorsing your product is from the feeling they have (as mavens) of sharing their expertise or insight on something cool. They are helping their friends, not you. If you introduce any incentives that make them feel like they are working for you, it will not only not work, but is likely to have a perverse effect of turning people off.

What NOT to do.

Don’t ever trick yourself into thinking that financial incentives or rewards – coupons, discounts, gift cards, cash – are a good idea. Ever. It may sound smart, but at the end of the day, the issue is that you get what you pay for. Nothing more, nothing less. And, the point is that endorsements are generally free, and when they’re paid, they lose credibility and ultimately their value in the first place. If it feels like you’re bribing or paying or creating monetary incentives, you’re off track. And, do yourself a favor and never use the word incentivize while you are at it.

  • Set up some community building structure for your zealots to get organized.

Create a place for your customers to openly and publicly talk about what they love and what they hate about you and your products. Let it flow, and don’t censor their commentary. Keep it real. Make it fun for them to participate in sharing their passion and evangelize your stuff. Recognize (but don’t “reward”) the most active contributors with increasing levels of status. Let these mavens feel like the experts that they are. Let them feel heroic.

Sounds hard, right? Lucky for you, there are companies (like lithium.com or getsatisfaction.com) who can set you up with turn-key platforms to build your very own community of zealots.

  • Measure how you’re doing

There’s this great thing called Net Promoter Score that you and everyone in your company should adopt as the #1 metric that you evaluate your success with. It’s also very simple, and there’s no excuse not to make the effort to track your score.

It goes like this. Ask your customers on a scale of 1 to 10 how likely they are to recommend your product. A 9 or 10 is considered a “promoter”. A 7 or 8 is considered neutral. 6 or below is considered a detractor. Your score is the percentage of promoters minus the percentage of detractors (ignoring altogether the neutrals). For a better explanation, Jeffrey Walker’s blog is here to help.

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Igniting Trusted Expert Endorsements

The endorsement marketing avenue other than customer endorsements is getting trusted so-called experts to endorse you. This comes in many forms:

  • Journalists (traditional media)
  • Bloggers
  • Like minded organizations
  • Business partners
  • Celebrities

The power of having trusted 3rd parties get your message out is undeniable. Almost without question, when your target audience reads about you in the New York Times, your credibility rises and with it, your 4As.

This is why even the most meager of budgets tend to find some ability to fund some sort of media relations effort – either through means of a PR firm or dedicated staff.

It used to be that PR firms and gurus were all about media and pretty much exclusively media. CEOs would get speaking engagements at key industry events so that the analysts and pundits would be impressed and reference those companies and products to journalists who rely on their expertise on such matters. Even journalists rely on trusted stranger endorsements!

Nowadays, while media endorsements are still important, the set of trusted stranger endorsers has broadened, especially with the onslaught of blogging. Bloggers have become celebrities, and their writing can often be somewhat more promotional in nature than a professionally trained journalist (although not always the case).

For example, if Perez Hilton now says that a new actress is hot, that literally makes it so. A couple of years ago, no one would have even heard of Perez Hilton. There you have it. Same for Michael Arrington or any number of bloggers who are experts in the areas that you are passionate about.

Like-minded organizations are also powerful. If you are marketing a product aimed at busy parents, and can get an authentic mention (and tacit endorsement) about your product or service by the PTA or the local parents’ club, well, what’s better than that?

Finally, celebrities are also of interest here. But, be careful. Just because Danny DeVito makes news gets blitzed drinking Limoncello’s doesn’t mean that other people will follow. OK, so there’s a better example here, but the point is that celebrities have the ears of their fans, but not always credibility in the domain that matters to your target audience.

So, even though trusted experts matter a ton, don’t underestimate the power of the everyday recommendation. In fact, analyst Jeremiah Owyang at Forrester Research was quoted in the New York Times as saying “83 percent trust opinions of a friend or acquaintance who has used the product or services. Only 63 percent of consumers trust a review of an expert.” But, then again, he’s an expert, so only 2/3 of you will believe that stat.

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Marketing and the 5As (used to be 4)

One of the frameworks that I like in regard to developing Marketing strategies and plans (particularly for consumer Internet sites) is the 5A’s:

Awareness (making your target audience aware of your site, and authentically communicating to them why they should care)

Acquisition (getting someone to your site – actually visit it!)

Activation (register, sign up, do something!)

Activity (engage, participate, contribute, buy something)

Advocacy* (get excited and tell someone about it!)

increase the flow of your funnelIn looking at this framework, you’ll immediately recognize that what you want to do is constantly pump people into the top of the funnel, and migrate them all the way down into the Activity bucket, as those are the ones who are the most valuable to you. If you imagine a funnel, the funnel narrows as you migrate your target audience down the 5A funnel, and what makes it through is your core customer base. Be sure to love and worship and stroke those who make it all the way down the funnel.

You’ll also recognize that each stage of the funnel has friction associated with the migration process. You might get awareness, but no catalyst to get someone to visit. You might acquire a visitor who leaks when it’s time to sign-up. After signing up, you might lose someone’s interest who doesn’t “get it” and never actually gets engaged. There are any number of ways that your users get lost or stuck on their way to becoming an active customer.

But, at the end of the day, when you think about the successful stories out there, the best companies have loads of passionate customers who flow smoothly and easily through the funnel, and become company and product zealots in the process.

*Update (May 30, 2008): After a stimulating and vibrant discussion with an investor this past week, he shared with me an idea that he credits to John Dillon and that is the notion of “Awareness to Advocacy”. The idea, as I understand it, is to strive to ever-shorten the cycle from customers first becoming aware of a product or service, to converting them to becoming a mouthpiece for it. I like this idea a lot.  See how dynamic and interactive this content is?

Hence, the 5th A, and arguably the holy grail of the A’s – advocacy.

Aside: This reminds me of my own awareness-to-advocacy experience where a co-worker turned me on to a great music stream called Radio Paradise, and within weeks, I was not only all the way down the funnel, but found myself pimping it to any of my music loving pals who would listen.

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The Art and Science of Marketing

Have you ever landed on a web site that is just as pretty as can be, but makes no sense, is hard to use, and just flat out doesn’t work? How about sites that appear to be so optimized (as if by a robot) such that every pixel on every screen has some higher purpose trying to convince you do to something (namely buy something), but somehow are so uninspiring that the most compelling button to click on is the Back button on your browser?

This is because consumer websites are built using a combination of “art” and “science” and sometimes the people behind them are 100% art and 0% science (pretty to look at, but missing cohesion), and sometimes it’s the other way around (effective but unappealing in its lack of soul).

On the Art side of the equation, this is where usability, appeal, creative design, and general aesthetic comes into play. Artistic marketing requires right-brain, creative thinking such that positioning and messaging and user-experience come together in a way that smacks the target audience on the head and says “you need this!” Often instincts and intuition contribute as much or more than data when developing marketing creative. Which can make non-creative types feel uneasy. Of course, when it’s done well, the messaging and user-experience is so clear and seamless, you barely know you’re being marketed to. The result is an intuitive user experience that is a joy to use, and delight to share.

When marketing programs are operated in an environment ruled 100% by art, the results can be devastating. Without discipline around performance and measurement, there’s no way to learn what’s working and what isn’t, no ability to test and learn, and worse of all, a disconnect from what the overall purpose of the marketing is in the first place – driving actual actions.

On the Science end of the marketing spectrum, you have lots of buzzwords and acronyms like SEM (search engine marketing), SEO (search engine optimization), A/B testing, LTV (lift-time value of a customer), CPM (cost per thousand), CPC (cost per click), CPA (cost per activity),conversion rates and lots of quantitative KPIs (key performance indicators) around customer acquisition, activation and retention activities. This sort of stuff is a data-junky’s fantasy.

The story line goes something like this. You determine that your customers are worth $37.00 to you over a 24 month time horizon. You know that of the new users who land on your welcome-version of your homepage, 14% of those become registered users. It follows, then, that you should back up the truck and spend every last dollar acquiring new customers any and every way possible for anything under 5 bucks per visitor. So, now you find a website with an attractive base of users that matches your target audience, and you can buy advertising for $7.50 CPM (cost per thousand impressions) with a 0.15% click rate or better, then you’re in business, right?

The risk here, is that before you know it, you’re optimizing for performance, sometimes at the expense of the overall experience. For example, think about the content that lands in your spam email inbox. Outrageous offers. Explicit and inappropriate content. Hoaxes. All of these are designed to get just one person in 10,000 to click. If your marketing gets to be 100% scientific, you risk finding yourself slipping toward techniques that may optimize short-term performance (using “sex” in a subject line of your newsletter) but erodes long-term loyalty of your customers.

Let’s just acknowledge that both individually can be effective, but more powerful still are when there’s a part art, part science approach that makes each discipline stronger than it could be on its own.

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Conclusion

Some overall key principles to keep in mind in regard to endorsement marketing.

  1. ENGINE. Start with bringing a remarkably great product to market. Don’t bother with good. Product is the engine.
  2. FUEL. Take advantage of your zealots and turn them into megaphones (while truly understanding their motivation in doing so). Endorsements are the fuel.
  3. IGNITION. Figure out authentic ways to ignite your fuel.
  4. PERFORMANCE. Keep yourself honest and diligently track your Net Promoter Score.

God, it all sounds so obvious and straight-forward. If only it were so easy.

Good luck, and let me know your thoughts, feedback, reactions, and ideas for igniting endorsers with comments on those pages.

And forward these pages to a friend! I’d appreciate the endorsement.

GOOD LUCK!

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Let them brag!

People I talk to about endorsement marketing constantly ask the same question: “How can I put my best users/customers/zealots to work in getting the word out for me?”.

This is the right idea.

The key is to first make sure you clearly understand the motivation of your users to when it comes to them actually evangelizing you.  And, don’t flatter yourself.  Only the most zealous of your users will do so out of their sheer passion for you and your stuff.  The rest are really just self-interested like the rest of us.

Put yourself in the mindset of one of your customers who might be in a position to spread the good word for you.  Most of your best prospects for this are people who thrive on recognition, fame, notoriety, and the pride in being known as an expert.  Classic “maven” stuff.  (Re-read Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” folks).

Thus, what you want to do is give them a vehicle for promoting themselves with you benefiting from a down-stream halo-effect of their self-promotion.

What do I mean, exactly? How about a couple of examples.

One that I’ve seen first-hand work particularly well is the “People Love us on Yelp” campaign I hadAllow me to help you help me help you. a hand in creating and implementing during my time at Yelp. This program is a recognition program for great local businesses who have received a requisite number of high quality reviews from their customers on Yelp.

The “window cling” is a badge of honor for the business owner, who typically prominently puts the sticker in their storefront window for all patrons to see.  All the while, they are tacitly promoting (and even endorsing) Yelp.

Awards are great for this sort of thing – particularly for business-to-business endorsements (“Zagat rated”, “Best of Citysearch”, “Webby Award Winner” and other recognition programs come to mind).  I mean, who wouldn’t want to brag about these honors?

As for getting humans (your users) to embrace this idea, there are fewer obvious examples. What come to mind are aspirational (and often high-fashion) brands where consumers willingly flaunt these brands as a way to express their own identity (think Abercrombie & Fitch, Coach, Honda Element, you get the idea).

In the realm of online, I’m starting to see this happen with so-called “widgets” (someone nuke this term, please) or “applications” on social media sites (like Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, etc.).  The way this works is that a brand or company creates a cool, funny or useful utility that a person can “install” on their page, thereby tacitly promoting the corresponding brand and spreading the word on their behalf.  Music brands (iMeem, Last.fm, etc.) have done this well and there are many others.  (Other examples folks?!)

Finally, giving customers VIP status and facilititing them to flaunt their VIP status is another idea to consider.  More than giving your best customer card-carrying status, see if you can figure out a way to enable them to flaunt their status in a way that is visable to others.  But, as always, be careful about authenticity and maintaining purity of motivation.

Let’s hear from you.  What are the ways you’ve seen this work in your world?!  Discuss!!!

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