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Creating Customer Evangelists

Dawn Anfuso
Creating Customer Evangelists Dawn Anfuso

Want more word-of-mouth marketing for your product or service? Create customer evangelists.

In a Leadership Forum Seminar last month, Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba provided tips on how to cultivate word of mouth by creating these ultra-loyal consumers.

According to McConnell and Huba, who co-authored the book "Creating Customer Evangelists," the number one indicator of growth is whether a customer would recommend a brand to a friend or colleague. Citing statistics from RoperASW, they demonstrated that the best sources of information for customers interested in new products and services ranging from restaurants and hotels to prescriptions drugs and financial services is word of mouth.

Customers who make recommendations for such things to their circle of friends and colleagues are considered evangelists -- customers with a true loyalty to your brand. Approximately 20 to 25 percent of customers might be evangelists.

McConnell and Huba define loyalty as the willingness of someone -- a customer, an employee, a friend -- to make an investment or personal sacrifice in order to strengthen a relationship.

If that sounds too good to be true, take a look at Southwest Airlines. During the airline industry's toughest time after 9/11, loyal customers did all they could, including contributing money, to keep "their" airline afloat. A letter from one customer read: "We are encouraging our clients to fly Southwest Airlines. We are buying more stock… and we stand ready to do anything else to help. Count on our continuing support."

An evangelist like the Southwest fan above demonstrates a behavior at the top of a customer behavior hierarchy - taking responsibility for the brand's continued success. At the bottom of the chart is mere satisfaction with a product, service, company. In the middle: frequent purchasing, a commitment to the brand and evangelist behavior (convincing others in the brand).

Evangelists will support you, defend you, help you improve your products and services, recruit new customers for you, and spread the word.

So, how does one gain evangelism? The authors list five steps:

1. Customer plus-delta. The point here is to continually gather feedback. One way the authors suggest to do this is by creating a customer advisory board. C&M Auto Service, for example, created such a board, asking select customers to find areas where improvement was needed. Their comments and suggestions resulted in a 30 percent increase in revenue for the company.

McConnell and Huba suggest you make it a voluntary system, but provide the board members with access to leaders and principles, and keep them in the know with what's happening at the company.

2. Napsterize your knowledge -- Make it a point to share knowledge freely -- even if you think it's secret or proprietary. "The value of an idea increases in value as it reaches more people," said McConnell.

MIT, for example, is making its entire courseware available for free -- teachers' notes, presentations, syllabuses, et cetera -- enabling people to become pseudo MIT students. The reason: increase value of the institution by attracting more people.

Another way to share knowledge is through a blog, ala Microsoft's Channel9 and Bob Scoble blogs.

3. Build the buzz. Evangelism is a long-term strategy -- buzz is the fodder that keeps the evangelists talking. To stimulate buzz, the authors suggest disclosing information to invitation-only lists, creating sneak previews for "hubs" (those widely connected), go beyond the obvious, make your "behind the scenes' visible and be a little outrageous.

Of course this requires identifying your brands' network and the hubs that supply the most connections.

4. Create community. Don't think of customers as transactions. Think of them as a community of like-minded people. Then, address the community, not the transaction.

One bike company, for example, created Bike Friday, encouraging someone from various cities to organize Friday bike rides. These put the customers together, and the evangelists will talk -- and sell!

Other tactics include inviting customers to dinners, or creating calendars of events in which your community would be interested.

5. Make bite-size chunks. Do you have a service that is complex? Devise specialized, smaller offerings to get customers to bite. For example, consultants can create workbooks or deliver seminars to provide a piece of what they have to offer.

6. Create a cause. Think about what your organization stands for. How are you trying to change the world?

Every organization can have a cause in which it's passionate. Starbucks, for example, isn't just about serving great coffee. It's about creating a gathering place, a place where people get together, talk and, yes, buy coffee.

Among the benefits of a well-defined cause:

  • It embodies a vision

  • It makes people better

  • It generates big effects

  • It catalyzes selfless actions

  • It polarizes effects.

Dawn Anfuso is editor of iMedia Connection.

4. Ignore non-web-page elements of search (namely video)
YouTube is now the second-largest search engine behind Google. Brands should plan on consumers looking for their logos, commercials, and store locations and optimize accordingly. For example, if somebody types in "Harley Davidson Commercial" on Google, we are given video results, but none of them are from a Harley Davidson Brand Channel, and the split results I'm shown do not feature official Harley pages.   

In this particular search result, an official Harley page is not shown until below the fold and, even then, it has nothing to do with commercials. This is a great opportunity for Harley to capture a particularly brand-engaged consumer, and there are almost 15,000 queries per month for "Harley Davidson Commercial." Furthermore, with the advent of Facebook's Open Graph, Harley could seed pages with "Like" buttons to further evangelize the channel and its brand.

5. Fail to optimize for the website's goals
Perhaps I'm being presumptuous in assuming I know what everyone's goals are, but if a site has a transactional goal (we'll say to produce sales), then that should be apparent from the onset. In the hosting realm (a competitive search space), you'll see that Hivelocity is a very transactional site  with four price-point offers above the fold on the homepage:

However, the meta descriptions that inform the organic search listing have no call to action.  In fact, calls-to-action in this search result aren't very apparent at all:

If you aren't reflecting the goals and purpose of your site (especially in a highly competitive search result), you're losing out to those that do.

6. Mischaracterize who your competitors are
This happens a lot with emerging technologies and markets. I'm talking about that time when a new technology emerges, and the world becomes rife with sellers and "let-me-the-expert-explain-what-this-is" authoritative websites. In these cases, it's important to trust the engines to separate the wheat from the chaff. They use aggregate query intent data to decipher how best to show results. Evaluating a balance between being largely informational websites versus transactional websites can give you plenty of insight. Take a look at the search results for "3G Wireless." As we can see, there's a host of informational data (Wikipedia), local data, and retailers. 

If you're the marketing manager at Cricket, your online competitors aren't necessarily Sprint or Clear or transactional websites but, rather, a healthy set of tech information sites. This should inform the nature of the content presented for pages trying to rank on this term. However, on the Cricket site, the content on exactly what 3G is and why you need it is fairly thin:

Adding a simple FAQ or speed comparisons could help this page rank for 3G informational queries.

7. Run a paid search campaign independent of SEO rankings and visibility
Many studies have shown that the more page real estate a brand can occupy for a given search query, the better.  In this example, see how the description in this natural link trails off at the end: 

Assuming the copy in the paid ad is the best performing message, that 85,000 number should be repeated in the natural search description. It would surely stick out to searchers on this page. Also, perhaps for the term "best hotel prices," Hotels.com should bid up to a higher position for its paid ad since the natural ranking already covers lower-fold real estate. This way Hotels.com could have coverage over the whole page wherever the searcher's eye should dart.

8. Implement a CMS without applying SEO best practices
Content Management Systems (CMS) have become increasingly effective at producing SEO-friendly pages. However, there are still certain methods of implementation that can wreak havoc on SEO best practices right out of the gate. Speaking from personal experience, most of these issues are best addressed when making decisions about which CMS works best for your company. But ultimately, anytime you use a CMS, you're already a leg behind the crowd that is publishing unique titles and descriptions per page. Additionally, if you go to market with an un-optimized CMS, you also create files one level behind the root domain right out of the gate. This makes it difficult to establish a content hierarchy as the "homepage" isn't actually "home" but rather a few sub-directories deep. 

In this case, the Borders.com CMS redirects the user to a directory three levels away from the domain (/online/store/home). Architectural issues such as this make it difficult for engines to understand what the main pages are on the site.

9. Lack of Robots.txt
One of the most bone-headed oversights I see is when old versions of pages are being crawled because there is no robots.txt file telling the search engines to ignore them. This can have a negative effect on how a spider can get through the site, and it's such a simple thing to implement.

For example, Coca-Cola's multilingual site has no directory guidance for spiders due to the lack of a robots.txt file. This will impede the crawl-rate and make it difficult for Coca-Cola to get specific pages ranked for relevant queries (e.g., Diet Coke page for "Diet Coke" queries).

10. Ignoring how the public perceives your brand
Disclaimer: I do not have a vendetta against Coca-Cola. In fact, as I write this, I have a Cherry Coke Zero by my side! It turns out Coca-Cola is called Coke by 90 percent of the population (don't take it from me, see what Google says). This wouldn't matter if it weren't for the fact that Coca-Cola now serves up two distinct user experiences to searchers. Observe the differences in user experience in Google (when logged out).


The latter is clearly more dominated by Coca-Cola- branded sites. One of the videos even originates from an official Coca-Cola channel. The company could alleviate this situation by optimizing images and videos to both Coca-Cola and Coke in a consistent manner to help engines understand the relationship between the two better. 

It's hard enough to get a first-page ranking in the organic search results. Don't screw it up by making one of the 10 mistakes I've pointed out here. Capture the full value you deserve from SEO and win the hearts and minds of your customers, not to mention your bosses!

Dave McAnally is an associate director of content solutions at Resolution Media, an Omnicom Media Group Company.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


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