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Customer Relationships are Fundamental

Scott Rafer
Customer Relationships are Fundamental Scott Rafer

Robert Manning wears his org chart on his sleeve in Blogging is Not Fundamental. He's quite right to point out that many second-generation dotcoms have yet to prove their staying power, but his focus on blogs for online marketing is misplaced. Blogs work beautifully as conversation, customer support and as entertainment -- but they fail utterly as infomercials. Employee blogging, official or unofficial, will influence the quality of customer relationships -- not radically change the quantity of them. Demand creation and lead generation will still be handled in other ways.

Blogging itself is the leading indicator of what customer interaction will be like in an always-on internet world, where customers must be listened to because they are easily able to listen to each other. It is easier to find out what individual shippers think of UPS compared to FedEx than it is for me to find the official UPS position on the topic. Treating the broadband-connected customer as a consumer of information, viewer of keywords and clicker of links will be a market-share losing strategy in two or three years.

We should focus on blogs in crisis communications and blogs as an advertising medium. Before we can be very effective, we'll likely need to educate those around us as to the nature of blogging as a medium. The most common misconception among corporate communications and marketing groups is that their blogs need to be fascinating, or interesting, or controversial. The only things required are that they be timely, give the reader some mechanism for feedback and that they meet the expectations set by their authors. If your local car dealer wants to start a blog that lists this week's specials, that is completely appropriate as long as he sets expectations, meets them and responds when he hears feedback from his readers. That latter circumstance is the most important. In each of our businesses, our customers and potential customers want things from us that they are not yet getting. If we give them a public, timely forum based on internet standards (as opposed to proprietary message boards common over the last ten years), they will tell us exactly what we can do to sell to them more effectively.

Having a boring but extant blog has another, less obvious benefit, which is where crisis communications comes in. Every company needs a place for bloggers to show up when things go wrong as they inevitably do. Minutes after a crisis starts, the "boring" blog described above can include a message from the company CEO that bloggers can easily find. It can, after corporate counsel quickly views the text, explain how to trust UPS with tonight's shipment regardless of the 3.9 million customer data sets that UPS recently helped Citibank lose. UPS would have had a critical voice in the ensuing internet conversation if searching Google or Feedster for "UPS blog" had turned up anything that appeared relevant. Not only do experienced and influential bloggers use blog-specific search engines like Feedster but also, more importantly, blogs confuse Google's underlying math and appear a lot more important than they are in Google’s search results.

In their better-than-most article on blogging, BusinessWeek carefully avoided saying that blogs changed online marketing -- but instead that blogs are changing online business. Specifically, the only place BusinessWeek even mentioned marketing was to point out the lack of it:

"The bigger point, which is blindingly obvious when you think about it, is that the dotcom era was powered by companies -- complete with programmers, marketing budgets, Aeron chairs, and burn rates. The masses of bloggers, by contrast, are normal folks with computers: no budget, no business plan, no burn rate, and -- that's right -- no bubble."

Blogs are also starting to come into their own as an advertising medium., particularly ads placed within RSS feeds. The frequency and tone of the ongoing dialog between a blogger and her subscribers is a great platform on which to layer relationship-driven marketing messages.

The success of corporate blogs cannot simply be measured in clicks and registrations or purchases, they must be measured in the tiny increments that either turn customers on to your brand -- or turn them off. Your most vocal advocates and detractors use blogging technologies effectively. Join them.
Scott Rafer is president and CEO of Feedster, a fast-growing blog search engine and advertising network. Feedster delivers more relevant, and timely information by continuously collecting data from nearly seven million RSS content feeds. Before Feedster, Rafer co-founded WiFinder, the Wi-Fi hotspot directory; BookBroadband, the broadband hotel finder; Fresher Information, RSS indexing way too early; and FotoNation, a creator of connected photography solutions.

Previously, Rafer led the internet products group at Kodak Hollywood and worked in investment banking at Needham & Company. For school, Rafer graduated from the Management of Technology program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rafer's blogs are License-Exempt Soweto and, at Feedster.

It’s axiomatic that marketers must know their audience to apply their craft effectively. Virgin knows this better than most brands: while its brand is associated with luxury and sophistication, Virgin does not attempt to be all things to all travelers. The Virgin brand’s success is largely due to its strong knowledge of and connection with its target customer. 

Questus’ "Never Forget Your First Time" campaign pays homage to Virgin branding by engaging an affinity audience that seeks out premium travel services. We turned to the Questus research unit -- using online surveys, qualitative research and ethnographic research -- to develop Virgin America’s existing ideal customer profile, their "Virgin American."

Who are the Virgin Americans? They’re young professionals, urban in mindset and sophisticated in taste. They’re managers and junior executives, with higher than average wealth for their age. They’re the trendsetters and fashion forward crowd: mavens of what’s cool and hip right now. Virgin Americans are also consumers of the newest time-saving technologies, latest forms of media and entertainment and the hottest restaurants, night spots and entertainment venues.

They’re definitely not the Jet Blue crowd -- a more touristy and "general public" audience type -- and though they wouldn’t be interested in joining another online community, they’d love an experience that syncs their existing communities (MySpace, Linked In, LastFM, FaceBook, et cetera) in new ways.

The Virgin Atlantic brand has always been about the consumer experience, from limousine service and in-flight massage to being the first airline to offer its business class travelers in-flight televisions. Key to the "First Time" campaign is developing awareness of the Virgin America brand and its differentiators. By learning and experiencing these differentiators, consumers associate themselves with the Virgin brand identity. The ultimate goal is that consumers make Virgin their first choice for air travel.


When introducing new brands, marketers must create awareness. Using interactive banner ads, a Virgin America microsite, customized dop kits and an email campaign, the "First Time" campaign hits hard, capturing the attention of future Virgin Americans. The microsite, depicted below, offers Virgin’s interactive guides to New York or San Francisco. Each guide not only provides information on and reservations to trend-setting local entertainment for specific dates of travel, the site also makes restaurant suggestions based on the flyer’s user profile.

Through user profiles, the microsite tracks favorite destinations and music listened to on previous Virgin flights. The social component of the site enables travelers to link to their MySpace pages while offering Virgin’s own internal social networking site so travelers can connect with other registered passengers before or after their flight.

The "awareness" phase continues with Virgin America’s first-in-class, unique toiletry package, the Survival Pack. The Survival Pack program recognizes that for many Virgin Americans, the new restrictions on liquids can be a major travel headache. When booking Virgin America flights online, customers may choose from a wide array of luxury products that will be waiting on their seat when they board the plane. All products in the Survival Pack resonate with the Virgin American audience and are luxury-oriented brands.

Travelers can choose from a wide variety of products, ranging from hair and body care products to contact lens solution and toothpaste. First-time flyers receive a complimentary Survival Pack; regular flyers can purchase their Survival Pack through the Virgin America site at the time they book their ticket. Each purchase of Virgin Survival Packs and other items earns Virgin Americans "points" that can be redeemed for any other Virgin America service.

In the "association" phase of Virgin America’s campaign, consumers are encouraged to try Virgin America again. To engender loyalty, the association part of the campaign continues to be directed at savvy, fashion-forward travelers and business travelers looking to maximize their time and experience.

The campaign will continue to present parallels to the Virgin Americans' most common communication methods and preferred media consumption. Post-flight emails will list the songs passengers listened to on their flights with the option to purchase them via Virgin/Atlantic as "Mile High Tunes" playlists. Emails will also provide information about the products in flyers’ Survival Packs, and where these items can be purchased in New York and San Francisco will be sent to all passengers. Selected Virgin America flyers will receive a free $50 gift card to Virgin Megastores or a post-flight offer via mail.


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