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Preaching to the Converted

In the minute that has elapsed since I sat down to write this column, PubSub reports that the blogosphere grew by nearly 1,000 new posts. And that's just on a Sunday. The chatter volume actually runs substantially higher during the work week. A good percentage of this torrent of content is being created by customer evangelists.

Customer evangelists are vocal consumers who come from all walks of life. What they share in common is that they gush with enthusiasm online about their favorite products and services -- perhaps even yours. Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba coined the phrase in their 2002 breakthrough marketing book, "Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force," a must-read for today's marketers.

Customer evangelists are nothing new. They have been around since cavemen opened up the very first "Clubs R' Us." What's different now is that advances in blogging technology have made it easier for these individuals to express themselves actively online, get scooped up in Google results and influence others.

Take Mike Kaltschnee, for example. By day Kaltschnee works for a stock photography company. By night he adopts his alter ego -- the Hacking Netflix blogger.

Kaltschnee started Hacking Netflix in November 2003 to help other Netflix members maximize their use of the by-mail DVD rental service. Despite the blog's title, he is a true evangelist for the company. HackingNetflix.com regularly doles out tips, tricks and advice to his loyal readers. As a result, it is now the second highest result on Google searches for Netflix, surpassed only by the official company site.

Despite his influence, when Kaltschnee tried last year to reach out to the company's PR team, Netflix initially gave him the brush off. Eventually, however, Netflix came to their senses and they now give Kaltschnee substantial access. VP of Corporate Communications Ken Ross recently told PRWeek.com that bloggers like Kaltschnee represent "a good way to keep our finger on the pulse of the consumer marketplace."

Netflix understands the power of customer evangelists. Others, meanwhile, continue to miss the boat.

One of those companies is Starbucks. One of their loyal customers, John Winter Smith, is on a mission to visit every Starbucks store in the world. So far, he has visited an astounding 4,500 stores in North America and 213 overseas, according to a recent report in the Baltimore Sun. He even chronicles his adventures, complete with photographs, at StarbucksEverywhere.net. Still the company, while acknowledging Smith's influence (he's number six on Google keyword searches for Starbucks), has yet to sponsor his escapades or even celebrate it. Sheesh.

It's also worth noting that Smith isn't alone in worshiping at the Church of Starbucks. Jim Romenesko, a well-regarded media watcher, tracks the company on his Starbucks Gossip blog. He's number four on Google's results for Starbucks.

Nevertheless, despite the influence of blogs, spokesman Alan Hilowitz told the Wall Street Journal last week that Starbucks has neither a policy regarding blogs nor a formal system for monitoring them.

If there's one thing to take away from this column, it's this: Be like Netflix, don't be like Starbucks. Develop a system to work with your customer evangelists and enable the willing to spread your message for you. At CooperKatz & Company, our Micro Persuasion practice takes a four-phase approach to customer evangelist marketing:

  • Find: Step one is to use tools like PubSub, Feedster and Technorati to locate where the hubs of evangelists gather. Then get a sense for the scale of their networks by drawing a blog map. Your goal here is to find who your Mike Kaltschnees are.

  • Listen: Once you've honed in on who your online influencers are, you need to listen to them actively. Know what makes them tick. Why are they enthusiastic about your company and products? What commonalities do they share? At CooperKatz & Company, we pull together all of this chatter on a dashboard where we listen, observe, annotate and share this information with clients.

  • Engage: Once you’ve located your brand evangelists and fully understand how influential they are, you are ready to engage them in a dialogue. This can be as simple as starting an email conversation to build rapport. A more powerful venue, however, is launching your own blog so that your employees can engage customers in a transparent dialogue that everyone can see and participate in.

  • Empower: At the highest level, companies that are fortunate enough to have very vocal raving fans can try to hatch marketing programs that empower these consumers to shepherd your message. This might even entail giving them the right to blog on your site. That's what CooperKatz and Vespa are currently working on with VespaBlogs.com. When it launches later this summer, VespaBlogs will feature two different blogs on lifestyle issues that are written by Vespa brand evangelists.

Customer evangelist marketing, provided it's truly authentic, can have a tremendous impact on your brand. When customers can see and feel the passion coming from fellow birds of a feather, they are more likely to flock together.

Next month: What do you do with your brand vigilantes?

Steve Rubel is Vice President of CooperKatz & Company, a New York City public relations firm, and author of the Micro Persuasion blog. He evangelizes the application of blogs and RSS in traditional public relations campaigns and runs the firm's new Micro Persuasion practice.

Steve Rubel is a senior marketing strategist and one of the most influential bloggers in the world, according to Technorati. He currently serves as a Senior Vice President with Edelman, the largest independent global PR firm. Rubel is charged with...

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