Note: The following is a guest post from Jeremy Epstein, founder and marketing navigator at Never Stop Marketing, a marketing consultancy based in Washington, D.C. It is the second in a series of guest posts from social media thinkers working in agencies and firms around the world. Perspective from the front lines, if you will. The series was inspired by Chuck Hemann, the research manager at Dix & Eaton in Cleveland, Ohio. He wrote the first in the series called, “The Five Ws of Social Media.”

Conventional wisdom about how to “get the word out” about your products is focused on finding and relating to the “influencers.” If you do this, so we’re told, you will get the “big hit” from a mention in a powerful blog or mainstream media publication and that will drive traffic to your website, generating leads that turn into closed business. Now, there’s no doubt that a TechCrunch, Scobleizer, or New York Times can, sometimes, serve as kingmaker, but here’s the equation to consider.

Is the return on your effort really worth it?

Bullseye!
Image by Gare and Kitty via Flickr

That was precisely the premise of a highly trafficked and tweeted post, where I challenged the notion that going after influencers was your best strategy if you have limited resources (and who doesn’t?) Instead, I humbly suggest that the ROI on identifying, cultivating, and activating your Raving Fans would be much higher.

I will take it one step further.

Raving Fans are so valuable that you will soon start seeing models to calculate their worth and, not long after that, you’ll see “Customer Evangelists” as a line item on corporate balance sheets.

Sound far-fetched?

Let’s look at it from three angles.

  1. theoretical and analytical
  2. anecdotal
  3. common sense ;-)

The Analytics Side

The analytics folks are already attacking the challenge and while it’s not quite ready for prime-time, they are headed in the right direction

The most advanced effort I’ve seen thus far (and there have been a few) comes from Baekdal.com and suggests in the “Power and Value of a Fan” that 1 active fan is worth 445 people.

Believe me when I say that I am the first to admit that this whole hypothesis is far from scientific fact. We are all trying to figure this new world of marketing out and I’m just making an argument here, but now, let’s take it from the anecdotal side.

The Anecdotal Side

Most of the “social marketing” stories that you hear about are from big brands. Most of you (and most everybody) doesn’t work at a big brand company. So, this example comes from my friend, Russell Yearwood at I.T. Works in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Russell was part of a pilot program that I ran through Microsoft (full disclosure: client) which generated 559% ROI (here’s the case study) and focused on Raving Fans as the core of his effort.

He sells Business Software solutions (such as accounting packages) for companies in the Gulf Coast region.

His #1 Raving Fan is a man by the name of Clark Spencer.

Clark works for a company that owns 300 Sonic Burger franchises and would “go to the ends of the earth to help Russell spread the word about his business.”

So, what did Russell do? He:

  1. actually brought him to help create proposals and solutions for any deals associated with any restaurant or food related industry.  With his involvement, IT Works had a better insight as to what to propose, and if/when a deal would close.
  2. turned Clark into a “sounding board” for new ideas and products.  For example, when they started getting into the Hosting (SAAS) applications, they contacted Clark, got his input, and made the appropriate changes early-before going to market. (And a side benefit: since Clark was involved in the process of creating the solution offering, he has now become a customer of that solution and will soon be moving his applications to a hosted environment soon
  3. has enlisted Clark as a marketing asset. IT works will be attending the upcoming Sonic Franchisee Annual Convention and Clark is leading the charge in driving attendance to their booth/presentations.

and what happened as a result?

As Russell writes:

“With the help of Clark and the group at Sonic, we have been able to develop relationships with not only other Sonic franchise owners, but also many other fast food franchise owners, i.e. RPM Pizza, the largest Dominoes franchise. What’s more, we had stories that served as great raw material for our blog

And those stories became the “hook” that generated a phone call from a prospect that I had been nurturing for a couple of years. She finally reached after after reading one of my posts and said, “we need to talk, I need a proposal, we are ready to make a move.  Enjoyed your blog!”  With that, we were able to deliver a new proposal, are continuing to finalize details to complete the sale.  Total price of proposal – $167,000.

The “It Just Makes Sense” Side

And finally, let’s just apply common sense. Of course, my common sense is what you consider lunacy and vice versa, right? ;-)

But, let’s agree that know we can’t control our businesses with 100% certainty.

We do know, however, that there are certain things we can influence (deliberate use of the word) more than others.

For example, we can influence (not entirely, but to a great degree) the experience that our customers/clients have:

  • when they engage with our product or service
  • when they come in contact with the elements surrounding our product or service (customer service, website, whether your invoice is remarkable or not, etc.)
  • when we make it easy for them to share their passion for us with others
  • what information we learn about them to increase the relevance of our communications

None of these are simple, but listening (it’s cliche that this is a core part of social media, but heck, it is) and collaborating will make it easier.

Now, compare that with our ability to affect whether we get the attention of an “influencer.”

First off, you need to know that it’s the right influencer. According to Duncan Watts, this is a big assumption.

Second, you usually get a one-shot deal and timing may hurt you. I learned this the hard way back in 2001 when my fledgling start-up got a nice spread in the Washington Post — on September 11.

Third, you need to spend a cultivating the relationship and learning about them (see Jason’s series on pitches for what works — which still takes time) and sometimes you have to spend money with a PR firm that has the relationship (and can’t guarantee the placement anyway.)

Lastly, the high profile influencer is most likely not going to keep spreading the word about your product or service. After the one post or tweet or mention, it has become old news.

Your Raving Fans, however — they are with you for the long haul. It’s like the Long Tail of customer passion and you can ride it on down for a while.

As is often the case in the blogosphere, some of the best content on a blog comes from the comments and Andrew Mueller’s effort is no exception, so we’ll point to his (edited) thoughts to help summarize.

I just read the interview with Watts, and think that in the real world “influencers” for your product find you (not the other way around) because you create a brand distinction that drives an emotional attachment to your product service or company.

You can reach out to industry “influencers” to get the word out but in my opinion, it is the sheer numbers of raving fans that your brand distinction creates that will result in the greatest effect on ROI.  In conclusion, IMO it would be wise to focus energy on creating products with true distinction and communicating that distinction at every touch point.

In other words, take Seth Godin‘s advice and seek to “Be Remarkable“.

Then, work with those fans you’ve created, listen to what they suggest, and together, go out and spread the world. Marketing used to be about leading everyone to find the promised land of customer revenue.

Now, your job is to provide the strategic and tactical support that your evangelists require so that they can help find the new sources of customer revenue for you.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog and signature Explore events. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • GeorgeGSmithJr

    Here's an anecdotal tidbit from my work. I initially targeted fans because it seemed like the simplest thing to do. Working for a well known brand, I knew I was going to find a community of evangelists pretty easily. And I did. Some of them turned out to be smaller influencers in my demographic but many weren't names that would be instantly recognized.

    Then a funny thing happened. I started to notice conversations happening on influencers' blogs and/or community sites. Those fans that I targeted made up the readership base of many influencers I would have targeted if I took the other approach. Suddenly, those influential bloggers started to contact me because their audiences were asking their opinion on what they thought about our products. I was able to create relationships with those people in an organic fashion – which made those relationships stronger than a pitch email. The base of fans that were created gave us legitimacy in the social realm. It showed that we wanted organic and real conversation. And it showed that we have a passionate fan base that influencers need to pay attention to.

    Obviously, not all brands will have that luck but I stand fully behind the concept of seeking out your evangelists far before you attempt to develop relationships with influencers. I think you'll often find that those influencers are influenced by the very fans that you end up courting…

    • http://www.smallbiztwit.info StevenMoore

      George,
      your dead on.. I am in the Smallbiz community and the same thing happen to me with some software vendors that came to me. I was getting asked questions that led me to follow back with them and get to know their products. Social goes all directions and that is what makes it so darn interesting.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks for stopping by George. (He's the Crocs guy for those who don't recognize the name.)

      Excellent story of how targeting the raving fans can pay off. I would certainly expect smaller and newer brands would have a bit more difficulty cashing in on that approach, but there's something to be said for passionate people carrying your message forward for you. Thanks for the example. Keep on kicking ass, dude.

      • GeorgeGSmithJr

        I'm always here lurking in the shadows Jason. I mean – you are #1 on the Ad Age 150. (congrats on that).

        • http://www.ignitingtherevolution.com jer979

          That's a great story. I have often said that an “activated” fan can get you to those “influencers” more cost-effectively anyway. Glad to hear that you have the evidence to support it.

    • jgoldsborough

      In other words, raving fans really are influencers, though they may not fit everyone's definition. George, I couldn't agree with you more.

      If you're looking for a true “influencer,” I'd assume most brands would have much more success engaging raving fans than pitching so-called “industry people” or people with connections. Sure, you might not get the major media or blog hit. But research shows (Edelman Trust Barometer and others) that what people really respond to is the recommendations and passions of customers and employees.

      A raving fan is going to display genuine passion, the type of passion that's authentic and contagious. Doesn't that description fit the definition of an influencer much better than someone who you have to pitch or “work on” so they'll promote your brand?

  • http://www.smallbiztwit.info StevenMoore

    Great post.. The power of social goes in all directions and sometimes from areas or communities that you are not even aware of. Because of this I have learned more about my areas of interest and how they relate to my customer base.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Azam-Khan/3623416 Azam Khan

      yeh but it goes back to your resources and how much time you have.

  • http://www.myercommunications.com/ Laurie Myer

    I really liked this post — I totally see the logic of focusing scarce resources on developing fans vs. trying to reach the wide universe of influencers. That said – when you DO get to exactly the right influencer, it can be a powerful and credible referral for your brand. Maybe the approach could be to be more discriminating in the influencers you target, while spending some good time on fan development…?

    • http://www.ignitingtherevolution.com jer979

      No doubt that influencers can help. If you take Watts' argument at face value, however, he says that getting to exactly the right influencer is kind of random. It may or may not be.

      Nevertheless, it need not be All or Nothing, just that the bulk of your resources are allocated to fans.

  • http://wellontop.com/ Sean Weigold Ferguson

    We need a new communications model to describe the behaviors and interactions of influencers, evangelists, fans, competitors, etc. I'm sure some smart people somewhere are working on it ;-)

  • gianandreafacchini

    Three years ago, a then unknown guy started a campaign against an additional cost imposed by the mobile phone corporations, here in Italy. 11 months later, the unknown guy had caused the cancellation of the cost, through a law, and an estimated loss of revenue of 1 billion 700 millions euro.

    He did almost all by himself and only we he had already collected a significant numbers of followers, the big guys of influent blogs got into the game.

    I strongly believe that one huge fan as well as one huge detractor worth hundreds of so called influent guys.

    • http://www.ignitingtherevolution.com jer979

      another great example…one motivated person can really make things happen. The question for business, of course,…how do you measure that? ;-)

      • gianandreafacchini

        I believe that this goes ahead usual metrics. When a company monitor the web, at least the advice I gave when involved with my company by a client, is to take care of any single voice, to follow it and if it did not explode in 6 months, put it in a drawer. Indeed, you may decide to interact with the author since the very beginning to understand the reason of his frustration, if any. It's a matter of sensibility.

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  • http://www.SocialMediaCommando.com JoeMescher

    Crowdsourcing as a form of Social Media Targeting

    So many folks pursue increases in traffic, tweets, and top rankings by searching for new followers that they forget the most important recommendation sources:

    Their own raving fans

    I found myself nodding in agreement as I read that people should listen to their audience and adjust the message — in part — according to the preferences of these raving fans. That's just smart market research.

    Small businesses and corporate tweeters, bloggers, and facebookers take heed:

    More (Fans/Followers) is Not Better…BETTER (Responsive Raving Fans) is Better

    • http://www.ignitingtherevolution.com jer979

      The idea of “adjusting” is key…if Jason lets me (hint, hint) perhaps my next post will be on something I am working on…building marketing plans in a billion channel universe…it's a different skill set than previously required.

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