Spreading the Word
Corporate evangelists recruit customers who love to create buzz about a product
Two-way talk. True evangelism isn't a one-way approach to marketing. "It's not about creating a better megaphone," says Bill Hamilton, CEO of TechSmith, a software developer with 100 employees in Okemos, Mich. "To be successful, companies need better conversations with their customers." The TechSmith side of the conversation is handled by chief evangelist Betsy Weber. "My job is about relationships," she says. And that means loads of contact with users of TechSmith's products--software used to capture images and activity from Windows desktops for multimedia presentations. Weber estimates that she chats with 400 of her customer evangelists several times a month via E-mail, instant messaging, phone, private forums, and meet-ups on the road. What does she do for these people to help them keep and spread the faith? She tries to reply to each and every E-mail, forwards problems or complaints to product specialists, invites the customer evangelists to groups beta-testing new products, and, of course, supplies the occasional tchotchke.
That attention inspires incredible devotion from product users like Tim Fahlberg, who uses TechSmith's Camtasia Studio software for his business, CoolSchool.com, which instructs teachers and students in how to create multimedia tutorials. "I'd say that there are few people--outside of my family--on our planet who I appreciate more than Betsy Weber," he writes in an E-mail. "It's entirely possible that without Betsy Weber's help and encouragement I might have given up on my work years ago." Fahlberg recalls meeting with Weber in Seattle and walking across town in the rain talking about TechSmith. No wonder Fahlberg says he sings the company's praises every chance he gets when giving seminars.
Think a competitor is going to pry Fahlberg away with a slightly better product? Not likely, says author Huba. "This all has to do with loyalty," she explains. Satisfaction with a product is great, but a customer can switch as soon as the next cool gadget or service comes along. The highest level of a company-consumer relationship is where customers feel they have some ownership in the company. "This is where companies need to go," Huba says. But not all companies want to go there. They don't want to interact with independent users in forums and blogs. "The No. 1 reason companies don't want to do this is that they worry someone may say something bad about them," she says.
Forget about the critics. Look how many companies seem befuddled about how to deal with pro-company bloggers like McChronicles, a blog devoted to one McDonald's fanatic's take on the Golden Arches. It's written by a guy in the Northeast--he didn't want his name used in this story--who visits McDonald's here and abroad, reviewing the restaurants for service, food quality, and cleanliness. Sometimes the reviews are critical, but often they're positive. And even the negative ones are written with a constructive attitude. It's clear that McDonald's holds a special place in his heart and stomach. "I was poor as a kid and never went to McDonald's until my teens, but I always thought of it as a happy place where you have wonderful experiences," he says. This is a guy who admits there was a point in his life when he ate pretty much nothing but fast food from Mickey D's, yet he claims never to have gained a pound. What a powerful, personal counterpoint he would make to Super Size Me filmmaker and McDonald's critic Morgan Spurlock. And although McDonald's employees have visited the site, the company has never directly contacted the McChronicles man. This sort of nonreaction doesn't surprise Phipps. "Many companies are still stuck in the 'pre-participation' world," he says. "It is a world where a company did careful construction of your messaging and then got out their marketing death ray to beam that message into the community. The thought of a space where they don't control the message is terrifying." McDonald's spokesperson Anna Rozenich wouldn't comment on McChronicles, but she called blogs a "valuable communications tool," adding that "we appreciate that customers who relate to our brand are sharing their thoughts about McDonald's with others."