Building a customer fanbase

Most companies know how to use social media to promote their business, but some are building successful cohesive and supportive online and offline customer communities, who are working almost as hard to back the brand as the paid employees. Hazel Davis reports


Businesses launch customer communities for a variety of reasons – to help customers with products, to improve the effectiveness of marketing efforts, to create customer feedback loops, to use market data and to improve customer satisfaction.

North of England-based open-access train operator Grand Central has developed an extraordinary reputation for great customer service, largely through word of mouth and the efforts of its very vocal fanbase, the customers.

The company’s communications and stakeholder manager Kate Thorpe says its success in this area has a lot to do with the need it serves. “As an open-access operator, Grand Central Rail exists because the local communities we serve did not already have a direct rail link to London,” she says. “Local support for our services in the early days gave communities a sense of ownership of Grand Central Rail services, and we work hard to maintain and develop close co-operative links.”

Ms Thorpe says Grand Central seeks out opportunities to support, promote and develop local initiatives which benefit the community, “from supporting Brass Factor – a brass band talent competition in West Yorkshire – to jobs fairs and other stakeholder activity”.

The company runs a station ambassador scheme manned by volunteers. “As a small company which does not own or manage any stations, we do not have the infrastructure or resources to staff stations on Sundays, when smaller stations are traditionally unstaffed and the majority of rail engineering work takes place, disrupting rail travel across the country,” she says.

“The station ambassadors model we adopted allows us to provide face-to-face customer advice on travel, tickets, rail replacement services, taxis and directions using fully trained, uniformed volunteers from local business communities, who donate their time in order to provide help and assistance. Their presence has had a positive effect on our passengers and staff, and contributes to developing rail travel in the North East and Yorkshire.”

It has paid off. Figures released by Passenger Focus earlier this year found that 95 per cent of Grand Central passengers were “satisfied” or “very satisfied”, which is something you don’t often hear in the same breath as the words “train company”.

Social media marketing with the highest ROI

LISTENING TO THE MARKET

Enterprise business technology provider Avanade uses social media as a core platform for its thought leadership as well as creating dialogue with its customers. Jessica Brookes, global director of media and analyst relations, says: “Simply put, we listen to the market, making sure we are staying on top of developing industry trends, emerging technologies and enterprise pain points that are on the minds of our enterprise customers. The data we glean from this active listening helps inform our marketing campaign focus and content creation.”

Avanade generated 3.5 million impressions on LinkedIn last year and has 25 different groups there, with 15,000 members combined. But using social media to mobilise customers isn’t about gathering followers indiscriminately. It’s about how well you use the followers you have. Avanade uses social media channels to manage its brand presence online, identifying who its audience and influencers are, and measuring how effective it is at reaching them. “We tailor our content to be relevant and personalized, and respond in real time to questions, comments and trends,” says Ms Brookes.

“We do this at a corporate level, regional level and with specific ‘digital executives’ who share their unique point of view. We are aiming for two-way communication with social platforms such as our blog and Tumblr accounts.”

Avanade hosts regular tweetchats, and even uses Instagram and Pinterest. Though Instagram, which isn’t typically used by large companies, might seem like a time-consuming and non-cost-effective use of labour, Avanade’s chief marketing officer Stella Goulet says it’s a great way of humanising the company and showing its personality, and this filters down to the bottom line.

Communities thrive on shared interest, engaging dialogue, freely exchanged stories and mutual support

The company joined Instagram about 18 months ago and says Ms Goulet: “We leverage Instagram with teams and customers at various tradeshows, Formula 1 [motor racing] events, as part of its sponsorship with Lotus F1 Team, and showcase fun things happening in our offices worldwide.”

Social tools such as Instagram might not gather millions of followers, she says, but they, “ increase employee engagement and, hopefully, communicate to potential recruits that Avanade creates change”.

Research into consumerisation of enterprise sales, published by Avanade at the end of 2013, showed that enterprise buyers are beginning to mimic consumer shopping behaviours and the value of the customer experience is now more important than cost in the buying process.

The research found that the value of the customer experience surpasses cost as the top factor in a business-to-business (B2B) purchasing decision. Customers report they are willing to pay up to 30 per cent more for a superior experience. In fact, 56 per cent of those surveyed report paying more for a product in the last six months because the customer experience was better than other less expensive options.

According to the research, 61 per cent of B2B buyers report third-party sites and feedback from business partners, industry peers or social channels as more important than conversations with a company’s sales team when making a purchasing decision. They also talk about their business purchase decision publicly – 32 per cent posted a review on social media channels and 19 per cent posted comments about the company on Twitter.

RESIST SELF-INTEREST

Jim Prior, chief executive of brand consultancies The Partners and Lambie-Nairn, says: “Communities are built in the virtual world in the same ways as they are in the physical world. They thrive on shared interest, engaging dialogue, freely exchanged stories and mutual support, and tend to resist more dictatorial or self-interested approaches.

“For companies, successful community building requires a different approach to the one-way broadcast technique of traditional marketing. It needs companies to be prepared to listen and respond to their audiences, in real time, with honesty and humanity.

“They need to be prepared to go ‘off-script’ – there’s no place in social media for carefully crafted press releases and catch-all corporate blurb – and engage in conversation with their customers as human beings would. They need to think less about what they want their customers to do and more about what their customers might like to do, providing them with invitations, but not instructions, to contribute and share their thoughts and ideas. This kind of approach often goes against the instinct of large companies – it requires them, in part, to cede some of the control of their brand to the customer.”

And then, of course, this control needs to be carefully managed. The best companies do this in a very subtle way. Mr Prior concludes: “The key to managing them is to stay a part of the dialogue without appearing to exert too much control. The most fundamentally important point about building social media communities is to think and act like a human being, not a corporate machine.”

CASE STUDY

‘GRAZING’ FEEDS THE BOTTOM LINE

Grazebox

Mail-order snack subscription company graze has built an entire empire on involving the customer in its development process.

“A big part of graze is letting customers influence the products we make and the ones we stop making,” says Angus McCarey, the company’s chief marketing officer. “They do this through the ratings they give us.”

The company takes the 15,000 product ratings they get every hour on their website and launch new products every week in response to what the customers are telling them.

“In fact,” says Mr McCarey, “it takes a mere 24 hours to launch an entirely new product thanks to communications technology, bespoke machinery and a supply chain that is designed around late customisation.”

The company takes the 15,000 product ratings they get every hour on their website and launch new products every week in response to what the customers are telling them

Recently, the company even asked its customers whether one of its more controversial snacks – Holly’s Spicy Satay – should stay in the range.

graze has a community of more than 150,000 people on Facebook between the US and UK. It also has nearly 100,000 on Twitter and it has started using social media to extend its customer influence, “for instance by letting people tell us whether a particular recipe should be launched or not”, says Mr McCarey.

The company tracks the number of people who read its posts, and how often they are shared and commented on. “We’re proud that we often achieve far higher levels on these metrics than other brands or typical comparisons,” he says.

“This data also allows graze to do something that traditional retailers shy away from – take risks and surprise customers with a product they might not usually choose. It creates a truly novel customer experience.”

Because graze develops, manufactures and sells directly to the consumer, unlike traditional retailers, it gives the company a unique relationship with its customers. It prints personalised customer inserts in every box sent out which, says Mr McCarey, “enables us to know whether a customer recommends us to other people because they have a unique code”.