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Marketers mobilize 'advocate armies'

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It has long been a rule of thumb that a customer who has a good experience with a brand will tell seven people.

But now, through the magic of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, a customer can tell a positive brand story to hundreds, thousands or even millions of people with just a few keystrokes. CDW, Parallels Holdings and
other b-to-b marketers are taking advantage of this opportunity by empowering their most satisfied customers to post to Facebook and other social media.

"Companies are getting amazing results by letting their customers do their marketing for them," said Rob Fuggetta, CEO of Zuberance, a San Carlos, Calif.-based marketing agency that helps marketers harness their brand advocates.

In the past, the difficulty marketers came up against in taking advantage of happy customers was twofold:

  • Identifying satisfied customers.
  • Providing a forum in which those customers could tell a positive story to more people.

"Every b-to-b company has customers who are recommending them," Fuggetta said. "The problem is they don't know who these customers are and they're not engaging them to generate quality leads and sales."

Relatively new approaches to measuring customer satisfaction, such as the Net
Promoter Score (NPS) system pioneered by Bain & Co., have simplified the identification of promoters or brand advocates. Marketers can also use social media to identify brand advocates, for example, among their Facebook fans or Twitter followers.

At the same time, social media forums such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter, have made it easier for these brand advocates, once identified, to promote a company across the Web.

CDW, a Zuberance client, is one b-to-b marketer taking advantage of this new landscape. Lauren McCadney, CDW's senior manager-social media, said the company identifies its promoters using NPS, the system championed by Fred Reichheld, director emeritus at Bain.

Using this approach to measuring customer satisfaction, CDW asks what Reichheld calls "the ultimate question," which typically takes this form: "On a scale of zero to 10, how likely are you to recommend CDW?" This query is followed up with questions asking for the reasons behind the response.

Reichheld considers anyone answering nine or 10 to the first question a "promoter." An answer of seven or eight identifies a customer as a "passive." And an answer of zero to six marks a customer as a "detractor."

Since Reichheld introduced the business world to the NPS system in a Harvard Business Review article in 2003, companies have been using NPS feedback to improve their services and products.

But now companies such as CDW are taking an extra step and using NPS as a marketing communications tool. These companies are identifying their promoters and then encouraging them to actively advocate for the brand. It's an approach Reichheld, who views NPS as an "open source" system, applauds. "There's nothing wrong with that," he said in an interview with BtoB.

At CDW, when customers identify themselves as promoters, they are sent an email asking if they'd like to write a review of the company that could be used on CDW.com. About 36% of promoters opt to do so, and 22% share their reviews via social media or email.

"Facebook is the No. 1 place where people elect to share their reviews," McCadney said.

Additionally, she said, CDW promoters spend about 14 times what a typical customer spends. The company examines these promoters to uncover what they have in common to see if there are ways it can create more of them. "Who are the account managers who handle these accounts, and how are they doing what they do?" McCadney asked.

Aon Corp. takes a slightly different approach than CDW. The global insurance broker began using NPS four years ago and employs the system in about 60 countries. Chris Camerieri, Aon's senior director-corporate marketing, said the company's risk business has seen a 24% aggregate improvement in its net promoter score, which is calculated by subtracting the percentage of detractors from the percentage of promoters, since it began using the system.

Aon's granular approach

Aon calls its NPS program the Client Promise Initiative. This granular approach aims to have each customer contract evaluated against certain goals, such as timely service and claim assistance. When Aon identifies promoters through this system, it does not currently encourage them to post positive content about the company. Instead, Camerieri said, Aon approaches some promoters to take part in case studies and testimonials, which it then uses as fodder for its own content marketing.

Fuggetta said his experience at Zuberance indicates that about half of a typical b-to-b company's customers will answer the ultimate question as promoters. "This is a stunning finding," Fuggetta said. "[Marketers] have an untapped source of advocates."

Fuggetta said the starting point to building an "advocate army" is simple. A marketer should email its customers the ultimate question and put those answering nine or 10 to work. Among Zuberance's clients that have put NPS into action is Parallels, a software company with about 10 million end users.

Kim Johnston, Parallels' VP-marketing, started an email campaign that quickly identified 30,000 promoters. The company then encouraged them—with no incentive included, Fuggetta emphasized—to review Parallels' products on Amazon. In less than a month, Parallels' average product rating on Amazon increased from 3½ stars to 4½ stars.

Next, Parallels asked its promoters to pass along a 10% discount to their social connections. In a three-week period, the offer produced a 30% conversion rate, Fuggetta said. "Most companies are thrilled with 2%-to-3% response rates," he said.

Not every company employing NPS focuses on its promoters.

Rackspace, a hosting and cloud computing company, is a big believer in NPS. It uses social media not to empower its advocates but to address its detractors. Rob La Gesse, director-customer development, leads this effort.

Rackspace built a platform that tracks activity across the social Web to locate detractors anywhere online. La Gesse said his social media team consists of engineers, who typically can address a customer problem immediately.

The first step, La Gesse said, is to engage the disappointed customer with an email or phone call addressing the problem. In addition to solving the customer's problem, this approach also takes the discussion offline and removes it from the social Web.

La Gesse said Rackspace plans to double the size of its social media team to six this year. The squad monitors the social Web 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"When you have 180,000 customers and 80,000 servers," La Gesse said, "there's going to be a problem somewhere. There's no avoiding it."

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