Cleaning up with customer evangelists

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Five years ago, iRobot Corp. of Burlington, Mass., scored a breakthrough when it introduced Roomba, the first successful consumer robot. The Roomba is a squat, 10.6-lb. vacuum cleaner that zips around a room at appointed times and learns to avoid furniture and other obstacles. IRobot has sold more than 2 million units.

But early on, the company discovered something remarkable. Roombas began coming into its service center sporting elaborate paint jobs. Customer support reps reported that callers were referring to their Roombas by name and gender. The people at iRobot thought they were selling an appliance, but they discovered that they had really invented a new kind of family pet.

Where some people might have smelled a brand confusion problem, iRobot saw an opportunity. The com-pany changed course, opening up the Roomba's programmatic interface to developers and encouraging customers to invent new uses for the vacuum. Early this year, it introduced the iRobot Create—a stripped-down version of the Roomba for developers—and a Web site that shows off customers' latest inventions (

IRobot not only discovered the power of customer evangelists, it may be on the road to a much bigger business opportunity. The idea of leveraging customers as deputized marketers is nothing new. Busi- nesses have distributed T-shirts, bumper stickers and decals for years. But social media is giving new power to this venerable concept.

This fall, JetBlue Airways will send dozens of students back to school for the third year in a row toting a bag full of goodies and incentives to encourage classmates to try the discount airline. Students will set up and promote events from their blogs and on Facebook. "The power of it has been remarkable," said Tara Ryan, JetBlue's manager of national promotion.

Federated Department Stores has a Web site ( where students can submit clothing designs and win prizes. Its American Rag Squad is a team of college kids who host parties and hand out incentives to promote the brand. Local Macy's stores host fashion shows with students as models.

What works on campus can work for b-to-b marketers, too. Put up a Web site where customers can submit photos or descriptions of their work with your products. Give away prizes for the first, the best and the most innovative ideas. Create badges customers can display on their blogs and Facebook profiles to trumpet their elite status. Invite them to exclusive chat sessions with your executives.

Customers are a low-cost and high-powered extension of your marketing team. Their words carry more credibility than any ad or promotion you produce. Thanks to the new wave of online publishing tools, they have unprecedented potential to spread the word about your brand and seed the market with their spontaneous enthusiasm.

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