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Crowd control: A digital native approach to fanatical customer engagement


By Anne White
Director Customer Experience, Global Solution Management, hybris

You’ve heard it before; the customer is in control. They now decide when, where and how to engage with your brand. They can tell the world they love you on Facebook, talk trash on Twitter when they’re not pleased with you, or just plain ignore you and your constant stream of e-mail offers, even after opting in.

Traditional marketers are struggling to maintain relevance and the digital natives are stepping in with their #selfie, Snapchat, Instagram, crowd-funding, Gen-C, maker mentality. They’re building brands where customer control is at the core of the business strategy.


My favorite example of this is Betabrand, a B2C fashion brand, or C2B, depending on how you look at it. Their homepage proclaims “New products every day, zillions of photos, and a fan-fueled fashion machine.” Those three promises set the stage for driving a new business model, delivering a rich content experience and optimizing customer lifetime value, all while having a whole lot of fun. Let’s take a closer look.

New products every day

Really? How is that possible? Because, they’re not all for purchase today. Betabrand crowd funds their manufacturing. Products are presented at various stages, from a great idea to a completed prototype, and consumers are asked to provide feedback in multiple forms, including votes, comments and a pre-purchase at a reduced rate. (Do you see the irony here? Most manufacturers and retailers offer a reduced rate after they’ve overestimated demand and need to move inventory.) Threadless, started in 2000, is arguably the original pioneer of crowdsourced fashion, spawning numerous similar offerings that productize the work of designers and artists. The power of this play is that the customer can tell a story about the creation of the product, they know where and who it came from, and the customer is an integral part of that story.

Even if a product doesn’t get funded, giving the customer control early in the process can effectively collect enough feedback to know if you should make some changes and re-launch or dump it and move on. Iterate fast and release often, this is a methodology of Silicon Valley, based on the idea that “the perfect product is shaped by the users,” applied to a fashion brand! But the Betabrand customer feedback loop doesn’t stop once the product gets funded and moves onto the regular catalog. Input from customers using their product results in new, improved versions. The ongoing interaction between the brand and their customers is presented as rich content. Immersive and engaging (check out their VagiLab collection to learn about it’s positive impact on Bonnie W from Springfield MO, who likes to relax in them during Chemo, or their Sock Insurance which will replace single lost socks for up to a year after purchase), it pulls you in and tempts you to share. Using memes to market via social channels also helps keep costs down, effectively crowdsourcing your marketing. Are you seeing a pattern here? The customer is central to everything. They own your brand as much as you do…maybe even more.

Even mega-brands like GE, P&G and Unilever are adopting crowdsourcing and co-creation to gather market intelligence, generate product ideas and connect directly with consumers. Technology vendors with descriptors like “crowd intelligence”, “community”, “idea management”, “open innovation” provide the platforms and data management needed to harness the power of the crowd.

Zillions of photos

Betabrand content combined with user-generated content creates a very immersive, sticky experience. Betabrand motivates the #selfie generation to share by offering limited-time, tiered offers for submitting photos. “Model Citizens” get the highest discount offered by submitting photos of the products in action, out in the real world, living the Betabrand life.

As proven by GoPro, LEGO, and numerous other brands, tapping into UGC to show off the product and build a fan culture is not an entirely new idea, but compensating customers to share is gaining traction and will soon become the expectation. Software like Social Rebate make it easy for brands to implement what might be considered a next-gen loyalty points program. Seamlessly integrated with your e-commerce site at checkout, customers can opt in “to earn a pre-determined percentage back from their current purchase when they share your marketing on their favorite social network. They can immediately earn cash back just for posting — and then earn even more when THEIR friends click YOUR posted link. Are you dubious? They’re tracking at over a 30% conversion rate.

Fan-fueled fashion machine

Betabrand doesn’t have customers. They have fans.

Creating fanatics is the ultimate accomplishment for any brand. From Lady Gaga to Apple, true fans feel connected at an emotional level to you and a like-minded community, and will buy whatever you’re selling, and evangelize you to whoever they can. Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 True Fans” model, based on the metrics associated with optimizing customer lifetime value, set the stage for a new generation of entrepreneurs and makers who fervently embrace direct contact with their customers.

The psychology behind what makes a lasting connection between two people is the same as what will connect your brand to consumers and create true fans: active listening, a little empathy, relevant and timely responses. Beyond relevance of message, there is necessity to present in the tone and manner that best resonates with your audience. Like the iconic brands mentioned above, your brand tone and manner needs to be pervasive and consistent across every touchpoint. Managing this level of engagement is an investment that many brands aren’t willing to make. Traditional marketers like a little separation between “us” and “them”. It’s arguably easier to analyze data and create segments, push out messages and measure results, than to have a real-time, hands-on relationship with your customers.

As our industry builds technology to help brands listen, respond and deliver in their authentic brand voice more efficiently, the Holy Grail will always be relevance. I’m eager to see how far can data mining and marketing automation take us towards a 1-1 personalized engagement. In the meantime, I’m taking notes from start-ups like Betabrand, who think like a digital native but still bank on the authenticity of the human touch.


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