Ignite Passion and Word of Mouth: Connect Your Customers!

Buoyed by eagerness to reach customers on the social web, many businesses have endeavored to build personable, direct relationships with customers and other stakeholder groups using social media. Businesses realize the potential to create deeper connections and loyalty, which should ultimately lead to sales over the longer term customer life cycle. However, many businesses are uncertain how to participate and consequently, in my opinion, few truly take full advantage of the business potential associated with social media.

One key is to create a strong and vibrant online community of ambassadors for your brand. It’s true that the web has made building individual relationships cheaper and faster than what was previously possible. However, scaling such deep relationships over a broad base of stakeholders is, in most cases, neither feasible not effective.

Alternatively, companies that focus on building brand loyalty with a small subset of customers might find that their efforts have an exponential impact.

Here are several companies that have done this successfully:

Maker’s Mark

Maker’s Mark is a small batch bourbon whiskey that is distilled in Loretto, Kentucky by Fortune Brands. For a number of years now, they’ve been running an ambassador program that is all about passion for their brand of bourbon. Maker’s Mark ambassadors receive access to a private online community, appropriately named “The Embassy”, through which they can receive a number of perks – including personalized business cards (ideal for handing out in bars), as well as having their name engraved on an actual barrel of Maker’s Mark bourbon. How cool is that? Additionally, amongst other things, ambassadors receive access to VIP tasting events and exclusive gift shop access.

Yelp

Recently, while on a group hike near Toronto, I asked a fellow hiker if she had any recommendations on Toronto events and restaurants I should consider checking out. Immediately, she provided a few thoughts and strongly suggested that I create a profile on Yelp – a social networking, user review and local search website for members to post reviews and get user feedback on local businesses and restaurants. She’s actually a member of Yelp’s Elite Squad – a program through which Yelp rewards it’s top users, providing them with exclusive offers and access to members-only events. In addition to rewarding loyal users, the program provides a great incentive for other members to post additional reviews, making the site content stronger while keeping the broader community active and engaged.

Fiskars

In an earlier post on Community Management Best Practices, I referred to Fiskateers.com. Fiskars, a well-known brand of scissors, created a vibrant online community by focusing on a shared passion for many of it’s customers – scrapbooking. The company started by recruiting some of its most loyal customers to the community – branding them as Fiskateers. Fiskateer ambassadors receive a number of benefits, including access to exclusive meetup events and the opportunity to share their passion for scrapbooking with others in the private online community.

So, what did these companies do right? They built strong connections with the most passionate segment of their customer base. In doing so, they essentially put their customers to work for them – spreading word of mouth through their personal networks, inspiring new customers and spurring community growth.

Building connections with customers takes both commitment and recognition that social media can be a great tool for achieving businesses goals. In oder to attain a tangible return, business must be willing to make an investment – online and offline – as Maker’s Mark, Yelp and Fiskars all did. They didn’t just focus on counting Facebook Fans, they created social communities that generated value – for themselves, the ambassadors, and other customers.

Do you know any companies that have connected their most loyal customers through innovative brand ambassador programs? If so, please share!

A Difficult Decision

I made a tough decision over the weekend.  I pulled the plug on Sip Social Group, a social club which I co-founded with my friend in May 2007.

Actually, my mind was already made up a few weeks ago, but I wanted to take some time and ponder whether it was really something I wanted to do.

And it is.  When I took over as organizer for the dining out group on Meetup.com, I really felt that there was a need in Vancouver for an open, inclusive and fun social group geared towards young professionals. I also wanted to explore Vancouver’s food and restaurant scene, and help promote establishments that truly stand out as being unique and first class.

Initially, we had aspirations of transforming Sip into a business, and we discussed ways that it could be monetized. Membership structures and advertising packages were conceived, with the hope of creating a unique brand that would be synonymous with fun and friendliness – one that could be extended and franchised to other cities.

In total, we held over 30 events at restaurants and pubs in Vancouver, including Irashai Grill, Salt Tasting Room. and Central Bistro.  We made a number of great friends at our events, which were well attended and generated positive word-of-mouth – as you know, the most powerful form of marketing. In the end, through Meetup, and group on Facebook, and our mailing list, Sip grew to over 1200 participants – making it one of the largest social groups in Vancouver.

However the reality is, Sip was not poised to generate revenue, not even a minimal amount to justify a part-time venture. In spite of the quality of events we created, and the reputation we garnered, there are just too many free social group alternatives in and around Vancouver. They may not be well-known, in fact part of our goal with Sip was to grow awareness outside of Facebook and Meetup, but their presence made it very difficult for us to even charge a nominal fee for our events.

In the end, with many lessons learned (more than what I can summarize here), the time has come to focus attention elsewhere.  In the success literature I have read, over and over again I learned about instances where entrepreneurs failed once, twice, three times and even more before achieving success.

I think Sip taught me a lot. And for that, I am grateful.