The “Word of Mouth” Trap

Let’s get this out of the way: Positive word of mouth is terrific. I can think of nothing more powerful than an instance where one reliable source tells another person how great a product or service is. It’s instant credibility for your brand.

Unfortunately, there are people who don’t know how to make word of mouth all that it could be. Word of mouth can build business but it can also build complacency in people that benefit from it because those same people believe they don’t need to do anything else or that everything they’re doing currently is just fine. But in time, that kind of philosophy can result in decreased market share or worse.

Still, maybe you don’t see the big deal. All is right with your world. Good things are being said about you, customers seem to be consistent…so who needs anything else when word of mouth is pulling in people for you and the numbers are up?

Well, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you’d rather have more money than less of it. Which is why I offer forth this little scenario about two companies for you.

Company A has 200 customers. Company A provides great service and a great product but does nothing to encourage its customers to put in a good word about Company A to someone else, like a friend or family member. Still, let’s say that every single customer tells 1 other person about how great Company A is. Those people become customers too.

Company A’s year-end total: 400 customers.

Company B has 200 customers as well. They provide great service and a great product. But they implement a referral program that rewards its customers for referring three friends to become qualified customers – Company B offers a pretty good-sized prize for doing so, but then, the return on investment in getting three new customers for every one is well worth it. PLUS for every successful referral, the customer gets a smaller, intermediate prize. PLUS Company B’s program allows each successful referral to count as one entry into a grand prize drawing, which means the more referrals you make, the better your chances to win.

Company B’s year-end total: 600 customers (at least).

I’d say the difference between doubling your customer base and tripling it can be mighty big, wouldn’t you? Everybody’s company is different, but my point is that while both companies shown here use word of mouth, one chose to cultivate its customer relationships off of that word of mouth with far better results than the one that stuck to the status quo and did nothing.

And by the way, the referral program idea is only one potential way of building on what you have.

Remember, word of mouth is a foundation, not the end result. It’s a springboard for even better results to occur because what you have is a happy customer base – however, just because that’s something that many other businesses would be jealous of doesn’t mean you should sit still.

Specifically, think about two things:

1) Where does your audience interact with your brand?

2) What will your reward for making a successful referral be when you get in front of them?

A better reward does not have to equal more money either. It can be a discount off of one of your products or services (perhaps a discount off of a new product or service you’d like to introduce?).

Word of mouth gives you the opportunity to be proactive and make that goodwill work for you even further. Otherwise, there’s only going to be so many words about you passing through so many mouths.

Where Have You Gone, Ashton Kutcher?

I heard you left Twitter the other day because you sent out a Tweet you shouldn’t have about Joe Paterno and the whole Penn State fiasco. And you’re right – it was dumb of you to jump to conclusions with that Tweet imploring the University to keep him before you knew the full facts.

But you know what, Ashton? It’s OK. Really. You made a stupid Tweet but it’s no reason for you to leave Twitter altogether (or hand it off to someone else to manage your account).

See, Ashton, while I respect you for trying to be more responsible, it’s exactly why I’d like you to come back. Because while you were apologizing, Magic Johnson was on Twitter calling Joe Paterno a “hero.” Within 5 minutes, he got a backlash so bad that he was trying to Tweet what he really meant by that. Last I checked, Magic is still on Twitter.

I suppose everything that comes out of Kim Kardashian’s Twitter stream is a stroke of educated genius? Or Paris Hilton? Or Perez Hilton? Or Lindsey Lohan? They’re still hanging around the Twitterverse.

You’re a Midwesterner, Ashton, so I know you must watch quite a few Bears games when you’re not shooting your sitcom. So you must remember when a few dumb NFL players last year shot off Tweets questioning Jay Cutler’s manhood when he bowed out of a playoff game due to injury? I’m pretty sure none of them were physicians with knowledge of the injury entailed, none of them were in the game and none of them were Jay Cutler, so they couldn’t know what the pain actually felt like.

Nope. They Tweeted anyway from a cowardly place that was nowhere near Soldier Field. And some of them, unlike you, Ashton, didn’t even say they were sorry for it. Gee, maybe they should leave Twitter too.

Point being, Ashton, is this: Celebrities, athletes and us common folk have all said things in our life, whether online or offline that we all wish we could take back. It’s what makes us human. We apologize for our shortcomings when it happens and we try to move on. Like you did. Why? Because we know this:

Tweets are not press releases.

They should not be treated as such.

The very thing that makes us enjoy this relatively new universe of social media is that we can feel closer to people we would never/rarely otherwise get to interact with in the real world. Some are respected authorities in our industry, some are celebrities. And in exchange for entering that domain, we should be willing to cut each other a certain amount of slack just as we would in the offline world. Particularly when it’s accompanied by a quick acknowledgement of the mistake.

Of course, I can’t suggest everything in the world is fine to say and allows you to be off the hook. That’s silly. There are extreme and dangerous exceptions, especially among intentionally hateful people who would use social media as an amplifier for their views.

But Ashton, you slapped your own hand in a way that suggests everything under your Twitter handle from now on will be screened and filtered carefully before it goes out – I don’t think that’s the answer. I’m just not in favor of a social media strategy that involves high screening by committee. I think I’ll see the Lochness Monster and Bigfoot hug before I see a fast-moving social media committee.

There has to be a certain amount of trust involved once you’ve given designated people clear guidelines. And yes, maybe they’ll still veer slightly off course from time to time, but come on. If every last Tweet and post has to be reviewed by multiple parties before it goes out, you’re defeating the purpose of being involved in social media at all because it’s probably not going to be as real-time as it should be. And THAT’S when you should get out or avoid social media because you’re missing the whole point of commenting on what’s current and relevant to an audience that expects that.

It’s a Tweet. It’s not an Official Company Position. That’s why people say things like “These views do not reflect my company” in their bio if they really have to.

So come back, Ashton. You screwed up and said something bad. It’s OK. I forgive you. I’ll even watch an episode of Two And A Half Men if it’ll make you feel better.

The Chicagoland Conversation with Free Green Can

In just three years, Free Green Can has taught thousands of Chicagoans to help the environment by doing what they already do – pitch their trash and recyclables into a dual purpose recycle/trash container. With the Park District and major sports teams in town on board, the company has some exciting plans in the works for 2012 – including building on the revenue sharing opportunities for potential advertisers and host companies.
I sat down with Dave Whorton from Free Green Can to discuss how his company is putting corporate profitability and environmental responsibility on the same page.

Dave Whorton of Free Green Can

How did the inspiration from Free Green Can come about? I hear it was from an unlikely source.

DW: That’s right. About 3 years ago, our founder, Steve Holland, was at a park where his son was playing baseball. After the game, his son wanted to recycle his plastic bottle, but couldn’t find anywhere to do it. So Steve wanted to champion that cause by helping the park out with some recycling bins. Before long, the concept grew to the point of where the can is now patented.

It’s great that the idea from a 13-year-old kid really spawned Free Green Can. When you say one person can make a difference, one person really did make an environmental difference – throughout Chicago.

To be clear, the Free Green Can isn’t just for recycling, right?

DW: Absolutely. We are a dual-purpose trash and recycling bin, with half the bin divided down the middle. What we believe is that if we offer a recycling solution everywhere there’s a trash problem, people will generally do the right thing. By having a trash and recycling option in one bin, it makes life a lot easier and people will always do the right thing when presented in that fashion.

What could one Free Green Can mean for the environment over the course of a year?

DW: One Free Green Can, in a year, will save 15 trees.* When you think about our impact in the Chicago Park District, we have 2500 Free Green Cans placed. That’s going to be a very exciting environmental impact for us. It’s one of the big motivations for us as to why we do what we do every day.

How many Free Green Cans are there in the Chicagoland area?

DW: There’s our crown jewel, the Chicago Park District, where we have 2500 cans placed on the Museum campus, in Grant Park and along 16.5 miles of lakefront trail – from 63rd Street Beach to Osterman Beach. Also, at U.S. Cellular Field, we have 375 Free Green Cans. We’ve got 35 cans surrounding Wrigley Field. We were just at Fiesta Del Sol, which is the largest Latin festival in the Midwest. Several Aldermen are working with us now to place Free Green Cans in their wards.

Besides the recycling advantages, speak to the revenue sharing opportunities for businesses that choose to use Free Green Can.

DW: We provide the cans for free. We can do this by the advertisers that have come on board to support us. Those advertisers have four panels to share their messages with a very captive audience that engages with the product.

We take 10% of the revenue earned and give it back to the venue that uses our cans.

Think how that affects municipalities, for example. Everyone’s struggling in these tough budget times. So when advertisers support us, we’re so excited to give back to these host locations in partnership with these companies.

How does a potential advertiser go about working with Free Green Can?

DW: You come to us and let us create a solution for your type of company. If we get the chance to know your brand, we have price points for everyone from small businesses to Fortune 100 companies.

We have companies coming to us with Quick Response (QR) Codes that link back to a website. Well, we can help create that QR Code for a small business or use it for large companies featuring it as part of their marketing plan.

What are your goals for the rest of 2011 and heading into 2012?

DW: What we’re so proud of is how we’ve been embraced by the city and the Chicagoland Chamber. We’re really re-inventing public recycling in the city of Chicago. At the end of this year, we’re going to be able to say we’ve helped the Park District, several wards, Cubs, White Sox and more.

We’re going to use that as springboard to help showcase Chicago to the rest of the country as we go into other cities and say, “Look what we’ve done for Chicago and we’re ready to do the same thing for you.”

That said, we want to make sure our backyard is taken care of, with small businesses here who never thought they could advertise in the out-of-home industry.

Your product is a help to the environment, but how can people make the business environment better for you to succeed as an entrepreneurial company?

DW: I’ve traveled a lot and believe this is one of the cleanest cities in the world. But it can always improve. Now it’s ingrained in people’s minds that recycling is what you should do and that throwing it in a garbage can is not enough.

We’re trying to preserve the awe that residents and visitors have for our city. So for us as a small business when considering where to base Free Green Can, the question was “why not Chicago?”

The Chicagoland Chamber has done a great job of helping us get the word out and offering support, advice, guidance and counsel. That’s one of those things as a small business that you rely upon – people who have a feel for the pulse of Chicago. The connections that the Chamber has made for us have been phenomenal. We want to start giving back to the Chamber with as much enthusiasm as they’ve given to us.

(This post originally ran as a piece for The Chicagoland Chamber.)

*Number is based on if Free Green Can is filled with 25% paper, 25% plastic, 25% aluminum and 25% glass.

Take A Really Tiny Page From Urban Outfitters

As I was in Urban Outfitters yesterday buying some fridge magnets I didn’t really need (c’mon, they were those iPhone button magnets, how could I resist?), I was waiting for my receipt and found that instead of providing a paper receipt, they took down my e-mail address. I’d get the receipt e-mailed to me.

A little move but actually quite brilliant when you think about it. They now captured my e-mail address and had a new way to connect with someone who had clearly shopped at the store. As long as they don’t bombard me with daily messages, it’s a smart maneuver on their part.

Not to mention it’s environmentally friendly. If we did away with all paper receipts and did them all electronically, we’d save a few more trees for sure.

Whether yours is a retail environment or not, consider how you can convert from paper receipts to electronic receipts to connect with them. It might be a more natural way to market to people vs. hitting them up to open a card/account that demands more of the money they just spent with you already.

What’s not to like here? Have some simple ways like this that you set the table for a relationship online with customers during their buying transactions in an offline setting that you’d like to share?

Dan is speaking at the Chicagoland Chamber Nov. 3rd!

What are you doing on the morning of Thursday, November 3rd before 9:00am? If you’re free and near downtown Chicago, I think you’ll walk into work energized and with a fresh perspective on how what you build internally can do a world of good externally in terms of your customer relationships.

I’ll be speaking at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce along with my colleague, management consultant Rob Jager, on:

Building The Brand Within:
How To Deliver Unexpected Surprises For Your Customers 

It’s a look at how content marketing can help you position your company as a thought leader in its industry, how to logistically put your people in a position to be better aligned with the company’s true mission, how to identify the best content providers within and what turning employees into brand ambassadors means for team loyalty and a healthier culture. If you’re a small business owner or department leader, I think you’ll get a lot out of our hour spent together.

7:45a.m.: Registration & Networking 
8:00a.m.: Presentation 
9:00a.m.: Q&A 

Location: Chicagoland Chamber, 200 E. Randolph, Suite 2200

Pre-registration for this FREE event is required on the Chicagoland Chamber’s website here:
http://www.chicagolandchamber.org/wdk_cc/events/eventDetails.jsp?cc_event_id=8afbc90d-a2de-473a-9ebc-8a026cd3e6b5

Why You Can’t Give Social Media To An Intern

“Could I just have some college kid do it?”

It’s a question I’ve heard before from small business owners when they consider the prospect of taking on social media. Before I answer that question, let’s do an experiment – and I genuinely don’t mean to sound like a smart-aleck when I say this, but rather to illustrate a point:

I’d like you to give up control of your company.

Not for a day or a week, but the next 3 months.

And I don’t want you to hand control to your VP or COO or CFO but a kid who is still in school who will be interning with you for 3 months.

He’s going to lead client meetings, speak with investors via conference call and interact directly with your prospective customers.

What, you have a problem with that? Sounds preposterous, you say? It makes you more than a little nervous and nauseous?

Of course it does.

And that’s essentially what you’re doing when you let a college kid handle social media for you. Because there are a few roles that put your brand on the front lines of interaction quite like social media. It’s the blessing and, for people who mishandle it, the curse. It’s oh-so-easy easy to take a glance at people who post on Facebook or Twitter and think, “How hard could it be?” The problem with that outlook is that it dwindles social media to an afterthought rather than an integral part of your brand strategy.

In fact, it doesn’t even consider strategy at all. It doesn’t consider the bigger reason and purpose for why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s saying, “This is what everybody seems to be on these days, so we should be doing it too.” Maybe you should. But not like this.

To be clear, I like interns and think they’re valuable. I’ve managed many and watched them have an impact on the industry I couldn’t be more proud of in writing and in design. They comprise some of the most rewarding relationships I have ever had in this business – and those people know who they are. Yet, when they come into the advertising and marketing world, even they would admit they have been given instruction in a closed environment that, try as it might, can rarely if ever simulate what it means to work in the real world in real time to represent a real company.

In other words, when they enter your environment, they’re a lot like Luke Skywalker the first time he faced Darth Vader without intense training. If you threw them out there and wished them luck from Day 1, you’d be lucky to emerge with just a flesh wound. As time goes on, you teach them the ways of what you’ve learned to impart hopefully some good things by the end of their training – things they never would have learned in the classroom. But that still doesn’t mean they’re ready to handle social media. Why?

The main challenge is that the person who handles social media has to get a great feel for your mission, your culture, your goals, your tone and manner, what can be said, what can’t be said and more. They have to understand the audience they’re interacting with and how that audience has to be respected. They need to be able to monitor and mine for insights that can be communicated to management (after all, I assume you care to know if what you’re doing is working, right?). They need to be a fountain of good content that resonates with the people you want to attract most.

Fulfilling those responsibilities is a very full plate for anyone. It’s next to impossible and downright unfair to someone who is just learning the basics of marketing. It’s not their fault, really. It’s just where they are in life. Of course, if a university isn’t teaching enough about new media, it’s certainly not helping.

It’s a place of experience and understanding that the “face” of social media of your company has to operate from that the intern doesn’t have. This person can come from within your company or can come from the outside world – yes, in all transparency, I do this for people who don’t have the time or internal resources or understanding right away to handle it. But the people who trust me to handle this great responsibility know that I am not a Junior who is in the middle of taking a Marketing class but someone who has a lot of experience in developing and managing the voice of a brand.

Is an outside consultant going to be more expensive than an intern? Yes. But all we’re talking about here is the perception of your brand to the outside world.

Is that really something you want to cut corners on?

1st Gen E-mail Is Over – Does Your Marketing Reflect It?

“Wait – what do you mean? Are you saying e-mail is going away? No way does e-mail go away. Everyone uses e-mail.”

I figure that’s the response I’d get from a headline like the one above. But e-mail marketing in its 1st generation form should be history. E-mail in its next generation form is where we should be thinking and how we should be acting in our marketing efforts already. Right now.

Why? Spammers and Yammer.

1) Spammers are ruining e-mail as we know it for the good marketers who have valuable messages the recipient can benefit from. The filters of unsolicited mail will only get stronger so we have to make our messaging more simple to identify with, customized as well as equipped with subscription and link mechanisms so people can continue the relationship if they so choose.

2) People won’t need internal e-mail as much with services that enable them to communicate in real-time formats like Yammer. The speed of how we connect within the company is ramping up quickly. In this internal context, regular e-mail with its lag time and ability to clog in boxes looks like a dinosaur.

Knowing this, what do we do as marketers? First, we relax. Second, we adapt to this development by equipping our e-mails and e-newsletters with springboards. In other words, we stop doing e-mail that doesn’t give people anywhere to logically go from there. Otherwise what you’re sending out there is a lot like the direct mail issue I mentioned earlier. No links to more info? No landing page or blog? No place to channel the conversation further toward an appointment and hopefully a sale? No ways to become a Fan, Follower or Connection from there? No pictures they can share or video they can watch?

Then I don’t get it.

Closing a customer when the e-mail starts and ends with that message is hard to do. Even if you’re designing it as something to be read in 60 seconds or less, you’re doing so with the intent that the person subscribe to get more of those e-tidbits. Yet, strangely, some things get sent out without them.

We should incorporate RSS Feeds into our content, giving people the ability to subscribe to us or providing even the option to choose certain sections of content that’s relevant to their world. And while we have e-mail and people use it, we need e-mail subscription sign-ups. It means we have to be more visible than ever before when it comes to producing great blogs, great videos, great e-books, great social interactions that aren’t just about how we’re having 3 for 1 Bud Light Specials tonight.

If we’re going to do e-mail, let’s do e-mail that respects the person’s time by getting in and out of the person’s life in a reasonable period. If they want to spend more time than that with us, they’ll Like, Follow, Connect, Subscribe and Download. The first interaction should not be a company’s life story nor should next steps be just about only a phone call or e-mail. That’s done as far as I’m concerned.

If all this sounds like it’s only going to get harder for you as a marketer, well, you’re right. But I see this as a good thing. People still crave answers to their challenges as much as they ever did. We just have to get smarter and more sophisticated how we pave the road from them back to our solution. We can’t blast away at them with nothing but ads that have virtually no response mechanisms or only “old school” methods like dialing a phone number. We have to create online and offline channels that enable them to learn more about us and understand our offerings – on their terms.

TV adapted. Radio adapted. Newspapers and magazines tried to adapt but aren’t doing a bang-up job of it. Now it’s direct mail and e-mail’s turn at bat.

The way we market through the mail, both in direct and electronic form, needs to change. Or it won’t matter how many days the Postal Service trims from its schedule because we won’t be effective or appreciated in any of them.

How has your brand been adapting? Or have you not yet?