The Web provides an incredible opportunity to generate referrals, and yet the corporate world has barely begun to leverage this potentially powerful resource: the chance to create authentic evangelism. Stop thinking of your customers as utilitarian transactors and start thinking of them as partners. This isn’t just opportunity—it’s an easy and immediate payoff.
It’s one thing to ask a customer, “Are you willing to recommend?” It’s another thing to actually generate a recommendation—which you can do quite easily on the Web. Customers are connected to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances—people they already know and who already trust their opinion—on Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Plaxo, and so on. All their friends, colleagues, and acquaintances are also linked. These connections collectively form a massive recommendation engine; tapping into that engine creates a positive force that validates you. [Editors’ Note: See CRM’s August 2009 Connect column, “Managing Social Customers for Profit,” for more on the value of actual referrals.]
You can access consumer evangelism right now on the Web, but because of a nearsighted view of the Web as a channel instead of a co-creation platform, many organizations don’t even consider the opportunity. They also hesitate because of the fear and the fallacy that everything on the Web can attack them. Some companies are starting to discover a little secret: If products and services are designed to delight customers and not just to deliver “me too” value, then relationships, repeat business, and, yes, evangelism develop naturally. The people who will speak positively about you are out there, and you can help give them voice. To build a movement around these people, design the Web experience with collaboration in mind. For example:
• Appoint a cross-functional committee responsible for maximizing the power of word of mouth. Establish mechanisms for aggregating customer discussion content and acting on it.
• If you’re delivering a great experience, invite customers to read what their peers are saying in an objective environment. One site that exhibits a way to build positive promotion is Yelp.com. Yelp is a platform inviting consumers to rate local businesses—restaurants, cleaners, and so on—positively or negatively. Many small companies have begun sending customers to read reviews of the companies on Yelp as a means of natural and authentic promotion.
• Provide customers with a forum for discussing products, services, or the actual company among themselves.
• Finish positive customer contacts by saying “Don’t forget to link to us on your Facebook page” Or “Don’t forget to mention to your friends that you’re one of our customers.”
• Design a Facebook button consumers can easily integrate on their social-networking pages.
• Consider paying customers to advertise your company on Facebook and other platforms.
• Encourage customers to contribute ideas for improving products, services, and support. Celebrate customer commitment to making your company better. Reward and recognize customers for their ideas—for example, place a picture of a contributing customer on the corporate Web site.
• Celebrate five-, 10-, and 15-year customer-relationship anniversaries right on your Web site. Show the individual customers involved how proud and appreciative you are of the continued relationship, give them some public star treatment, and demonstrate to your other customers how much you value those who do business with you. That will get some positive conversations started.
• Create a referral program and enroll everyone who interacts with your company. Reward all references and referrals. Hype the program—with, say, annual referral programs to drive awareness and results. Surprise top referral customers with added incentives and recognition.
Companies are beginning to realize the immense financial benefits of customers who are constantly connected and who share their opinions and experiences with friends and connections who in turn share them with their friends. These networks can reach thousands—even hundreds of thousands. Product evangelizing, customer recommendations, and the spread of goodwill by people who have bought your products or services are invaluable. These customers may also provide competitive information and offer ideas for new products and services. Repeat purchases, reduced customer attrition, increased referral rates, and a rise in customer lifetime value will shortly follow.