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Buzz Is Overrated – Do This Instead

Last week, Reuters published an article called Americans more loyal to brands, country than company. For employers, it poses a wake-up call. But what I found most interesting was this statement at the end:

When asked how companies could improve loyalty the top answers included offering cash awards to consumers, replacing automatic answering machines with real people, making good products and not raising prices.

I think this shows why consumer opinion and sentiment shouldn’t always be taken at immediate face value. The way we think about things is complex and requires us to go exploring for more specific answers. This is were doing more qualitative work is an important complement to the quantitative work of surveys and polls.

Thinking about the snippet above from the Reuters article…What does making good products mean? How about not raising prices? Before you go thinking you know exactly what the answers are, take a step back and consider how many different possible answers are possible here. A good product can have a multitude of meanings in the mind of the customer. Now amplify it by hundreds or thousands of customers. And the desire to not raise prices may be contradicted if there is the possibility of adding more value to the product.

As an anthropologist, we’re trained to not just look at what’s said, but also look for what’s not said. Interestingly, what’s omitted here is listening. Well, sort of. We might be able to extract listening from the desire to talk to real people instead of answering machines. But…

What would happen if our companies set up experiences that encouraged customers to talk, to share ideas, to voice frustrations?

What would happen if we genuinely listened to what was said and not said?

What would happen if we took all of those opinions and sentiments and put them to action so our customers would feel heard?

Can you imagine how powerful that might be? Forget short-term buzz. Think long-term customer movements.

photo credit: abrinsky (via Flickr)

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Great Customer Engagement Starts On The Inside

Most businesses that know they need to create a customer engagement program start with good questions:

How do we establish our brand promise and get it in the forefront of our customers’ minds?

How do we become an essential partner with our customers?

How can we best understand their everyday needs and challenges?

What’s missing here, though? Most questions and objectives that drive customer engagement programs focus on the external but give little thought and planning to the internal…you know, those people you might know as “employees.” I’m probably preaching to the choir if you’re a community manager or in a similar role where your success is tied to gaining internal buy-in (if this is you, feel free to share this post with your manager, CMO, or CEO who needs a good prodding).

Okay, so if you or your company is intent on implementing a customer engagement program think about how it will integrate into your organizational cultures and dynamics. The question that needs to be asked is:

How can we generate acceptance and adoption of this program throughout the organization?

Success in your program begins with making sure your entire organization and workforce is aligned to your program’s goals. Here are a few ideas to make that happen:

Get internal buy-in. Yeah, I know…easier said than done. But consider this: your customers are savvy enough to know when they’re being conned and even a whiff of insincerity will trigger a nasty visceral response that will only get amplified through the web and social media. Avoid that insincerity by making sure that each one of your employees – not just the ones who are customer-facing – know the objectives and expectations of your customer engagement program. Each employee needs to embody the soul of your program. If they don’t, they might as well just answer the phone with “Hello, how can I lie to you today?”

Identify prospective employee evangelists. Just as you’re going to want to locate your customer evangelists, you need to figure out who among your employees are going to be crucial to successfully launching your program. Not sure? Conduct a social network analysis inside your organization. That will help you determine who your prime influencers and connectors are. These folks are not always managers and execs…they could be your receptionist or mailroom guy or junior salesperson. But whoever they are, you need to encourage them on-board, get knowledgeable about the program, and give them all the tools and resources they need to evangelize your program from the inside.

Understand and build competencies. Don’t assume all your employees are techno-wizards and social media smarty-pants. Many are not so it’s your mission to figure out which individuals need training and then deliver it. If you’re developing an online community, give your folks a chance to get their mitts on it. If you’re using video to connect with customers, make sure your employees know what’s happening so they don’t sound like ignorant buffoons. Nothing is worse than developing a slick new program but not having all your employees reading and working from the same playbook.

And for heaven’s sake, BE REAL. I’m going to level with you about something you probably already know: trust in corporations is at a pretty dismal place right now. Customers are on hyper-alert for any phoniness so if you’re thinking you can glide your way through an engagement program, you might want to let your PR folks know up front. Your program will only be successful if your business and brand are real, honest, transparent, and caring about your customers. Get that right and your customers will be open and willing to build a great relationship with your company.

photo credit: pdxdiver (via Flickr)

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Community, Not Campaigns For Small Business

Is your business still thinking of marketing as a set of campaigns? It might be time to switch gears and start thinking more about connecting with prospects and customers via community. Today, we learned that two major brands are rethinking their strategies (also read here):

Coca-Cola and Unilever are shifting their digital focus away from traditional campaign sites and towards community platforms, such as Facebook and YouTube, as social media begins to dictate their marketing activity in 2010.

Yes, these are the big kahunas of the corporate branding universe…but can their strategies work for small and medium-sized businesses? Not only do I think the answer is a resounding “100% yes!”, I believe that building community over campaigns is an absolute must for nearly any enterprise today. Why?

Read the full blogpost at BaileyHill Insights…

photo credit: scoobay (via Flickr)

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Is Your Website All Pretty and No Purpose?

I hate the holiday shopping hoards and the inevitable battle against the sea of over-tired and under-patient humanity. Thank heavens for the internet. I try to do most of my Christmas shopping online these days, but it’s almost unavoidable that I’ll need to pick at least one gift up at an actual brick-and-mortar store. So it is that I found myself at one of the local upscale outdoor shopping centers that are prevalent throughout Austin. These places are far more than your everyday, pedestrian strip malls. They have immaculate boulevards and well-landscaped walkways to entice us weary shoppers out of our hard-earned money by convincing us we’re far more cosmopolitan than we might actually be. These shopping centers also have their typical upscale retail establishments like J. Crew, Coach and Burberry with their artfully designed storefronts. But as I entered another of these stores, I found myself faced with a parallel to something I see frequently in my work.

The store’s windows and exterior were creatively developed to be eye-catching. I imagine someone painstakingly took their time to design and arrange the various props to entice casual shoppers like me to open the door. It was all so neatly done that I felt compelled to go inside and see if they had a gift for my wife. And here’s where the disappointment hit me like Santa himself swinging a bag of coal at my head. Not one of the sales staff welcomed me, not one asked if I was looking for anything in particular, not one did anything that would potentially complete a successful transaction. As easily as I entered, I left. What the hell was the whole point of the work devoted on the outside if it all goes to waste inside?

Now before you think this is just a problem with the retail buying experience as a whole, let’s think about a similar experience in the online world. Most businesses know they need a web presence to compete and so they go through the exercise of creating a spectacularly beautiful site. It has all the bells and whistles we associate with business or e-commerce websites. It’s chock full of animation and sliding panels and dancing kittens and all the usual links to every single social media network known to man. You look at it and think, “My word, this is the most impressive website I have ever seen and will likely see ever again!” And then what? Well, this is often where all that wondrous and creative design talent goes straight down the crapper. No one ever thought to ask about business objectives or about generating a sale. In other words, your customer just walked through the door based on an artful exterior but doesn’t know what to do next…so they wander aimlessly and likely leave.

Most consumer-driven websites unfortunately don’t focus on the all-important Ask, which is the primary funnel for directing visitors toward taking an action. But there are a few things you can do to ensure that your site not only looks great but fulfills the investment you’ve made in your web presence.

Know your goals before ever thinking about design. Don’t spend all that time on the external window dressing only to ignore the reason why your customers enter in the first place. I can’t say how many times I’ve seen clients get wrapped up in the design process without a clear vision for what they want their site to achieve. It’s the classic case of putting the cart before the horse. Before building a new site or committing to a redesign project, get clear about what you want your site to do to drive business to you.

Be crystal clear and inviting with your Ask. Think of your website’s Ask as the warm greeting your customer receives when they enter the store. If you know your audience’s needs, then your Ask should be a knowledgeable sort of “How can I help you today?” What does your business do and how does your website help you do it better? If your business is built to sell directly to your visitor, then develop an Ask that guides your prospect toward making a purchase or bundle of purchases. Or perhaps you’re a B2B company that uses your site to offer product information and generate leads; if so, then create an Ask that funnels visitors toward a lead generation form. Whatever you choose for your Ask, make it not only clear, strong and tied to your business goals, but focused on the psychological needs of your customer.

Measure your results. You just can’t assume that your Ask is going to be automatically successful. That’s like having a great storefront and a greeter at the door only to take whatever money you receive from purchases and toss it in a bag and forget about it. You have to know whether what you’re doing is leading to achieving the key objectives you set for your business at the beginning. Same thing for your site. Know whether your Ask is funneling prospects toward completing a goal. There are several tools to help you like Google Analytics. It’s free so you have no good reason for not incorporating measurement into your plans for success.

Your website isn’t just there to look pretty. It has a purpose. Help your customers achieve their purpose through a great Ask and you’ll see successful results.

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Why Social Media is Like a Gigantic Refrigerator

Today, my youngest daughter, Katie, brought home something super-incredible and imaginative she did in art class. She was so proud of her work she practically burst through the front door so she could show me. And indeed, it was something to take pride in.

What did I do with it? Did I bury it under my papers or throw it aside with the bills? Nope. I hung it on the fridge so everyone in the family could admire it. And for Katie, it serves as a visible reminder of her own creative talents.

Isn’t this what social media is…a big whopping refrigerator? Each of us has the ability to create something magnificent and now share with the world. We get to be kids again complete with the same giddy excitement we once got when proudly sharing work.

Now, let’s flip this around a bit. As a company, are you creating a fridge for your customers to post their own proudly created content? Perhaps a video or pictures showing what they made using your product? Or a story about how your service made their day (or work) better? (Nonprofit organizations, you can feel free to ask yourself similar questions.) Imagine how much your customers will feel about your company if you give them a place to show off their best work? If they’re like Katie, they’ll be beaming from ear-to-ear.

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Sales Are Driven By Relationships Not Ads

How do you communicate with your current customers? Do you only send them mail when you’re launching a new product or email them when there’s an upgrade to purchase? Have you taken a good hard look at what you communicate and how often you communicate it? Is it all BUY, BUY, BUY?

If so, that’s a prescription for buyer fatigue. The reality is that sales are driven by relationships not broadcasted advertisements.

In many ways, this is nothing new. Years ago, when I took over as director of membership development for a professional association I encountered similar outreach attitudes. The only time the association sent a message to a member was when their membership was about to expire. For first year members, the communication path was to send an overwhelmingly large welcome packet (or the “hernia kit” as it was jokingly termed) and little else until their membership expiration notice nine months later. As you can imagine, that did nothing to build the kind of engagement necessary to guide that new member toward renewing for a second year. Does this sound familiar?

When I entered, we assessed the plan but we did more that just retool around specific objectives. We knew what we wanted: renewals. What was missing from the prior plan was what our members actually wanted. They wanted value, they wanted a relationship with the association, they wanted to be recognized as more than a walking wallet.

Take a look at how your company is building relationships with your customers. If your only communicating more ways for customers to buy, then you’re likely not cultivating the long-term relationships necessary to generate more sales to your current base. And this is a base that – if they’re wildly engaged and passionately loyal to your company – are going to spur referrals.

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Online Community Roundup: April 3 2009

For all who work with online communities, you should read these two exceptionally insightful blogposts from the past week:

Rachel Happe writes about encouraging respect, acceptance and patience in online communities. One challenge that many community creators and managers face is how much oversight to impose. It’s a delicate balance where you don’t want to squelch activity and yet there are certain “rules of the road” which community members need to adhere to. There’s a lot of room for exploring this topic and Rachel’s post is a great starting point.
Read The Social Organization: Respect, Acceptance, & Patience

Spike Jones at the Brains on Fire Blog has a terrific take on Ellen McGirt’s interview with Chris Hughes in Fast Company. Chris is one of the key figures behind President Obama’s innovative, grass-roots campaign. What I dig about Chris is that he understands that the technology behind online communities is important, but without people and relationships it simply becomes digital nothingness.

Spike highlights this quote from the article:

It doesn’t matter if it’s a company or a campaign; you build around commonality. If it’s real people and real communities, then it’s valuable. Otherwise it’s just playing around online.

Spike goes on to make a few points that every organization should consider: Be thoughtful in approaching social media, have a specific strategy for connecting to your audiences, aim to build deeper relationships that focus on the needs of customers, and be courageous enough to communicate transparently.
Read Brains on Fire Blog: Real People + Real Communities = Commonality

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Three Questions On The Future Of Online Communities

Online communities have the potential to bring your customers closer to your company (or constituents closer to your organization if you happen to be a nonprofit). Okay, there’s nothing new in that proposition. Since the web’s infancy, we’ve known about the potential of tearing down geographic barriers and bringing different people together around common causes. But how far have we truly come?

There’s a rather insightful article from CIO dated 2001 that talks about online communities as a way to engage customers so this idea has been around for a while. It’s interesting to see how the case for communities evolved during this decade. For instance, remember when online communities were synonymous with discussion boards? Companies were pursuing stickiness by getting site visitors to interact with other visitors. The assumption was that once a company created such forums, visitors would know what to do and a vibrant community would magically form. And the community would pretty much self-manage itself. Oh, and companies would not need to invest many resources or effort to maintain the community. Did I capture all the assumptions?

We’ve learned much in the past decade about how to most effectively incorporate communities into a company’s online and brand presence. But online communities are still not in the mainstream. I think this could change in the next few years. Not only is the technology improving, but companies are finally beginning to understand that online success means focusing on the social dimension of community.

Here are three questions that come to my mind when thinking about the future of online communities:
1. Will there be widespread adoption among businesses and nonprofit organizations?
2. Will online communities become an integral part of business strategy or continue to serve an ancillary function?
3. Will communities live up to their immense potential or will they serve as mere tools for selling and moving product?

Thoughts? Any other future-focused questions we still need to explore?

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