Monday, March 27, 2006

The Rise of the Citizen Marketer

This a.m., I left a comment at Buzzmachine that, at first glance, looks something like a non-sequitir...

However, the comment is in response to an idea that's been buzzing around the blogosphere for quite awhile now, forwarded by the Cluetrain Manifesto, and buzzed about in various blogs and wikis: that markets are conversations and that marketers need to build relationships with customers thru conversation.

As I said in the Buzzmachine comment, when I attended BlogOn, and listend to all the marketers hand-wringing over the idea that they might actually have to begin to talk with customers, I laughed and wanted to pat them all on the back and tell them that all they really need to do is go work retail at a high-end or very small retailer, because it is in both those environments that conversation and friendship with the customer is what keeps customers coming back.

Recently, in the print version Marie Claire Magazine, in the 101 How-Tos column, they passed along a similar piece of information from the customer side, which, in reality, is piece of shopping advice that grandmothers have passed along for generations:
"Cultivate Relationships: Treat your favoirte boutique's salesperson like a friend, and visit her often. Evien if it costs a little bit more to pick up a last-minute item there, do it: The store that knows you is the store that will alert you when they have a trunk show coming up or when the new collection arrives."

Even if the customer is chatting up the sales person just to get the good deal or the inside scoop, the customer isn't necessarily being phony if she also enjoys chatting with people. That's transparency.

On the sales side, people who work with people are used to chatting up the customer and being chatted up by the customer. They learn to do this in a genuine and transparent manner, with concern for the customer's needs and without the need for stilted corporate-speak. They know that the person chatting with them wants something and they aren't offended by this. If there is a click, the reciprocity helps both retailer and customer. Chatting and building friendships are the best way to create repeat customers.

This can be done face to face and it can now be done on-line--if marketers and retailers learn how to communicate in online environments.

The best way for a company to achieve relationships is to create sales staff and employees who enjoy working for the company and like the products--let employees try new products, give feedback, have contests/bonuses that reward brand loyalty. When the sales staff believes in the product, they don't need pre-packaged chitchat to sell it. The selling will come from the heart because they really, really like the product. And if you reward top sellers, they will keep selling.

If companies want to do this online, they need to engage employees who know online space as well as like the product.

If a company doesn't have employees that understand how to communicate online, then, perhaps there isn't a reason for the company to communicate online just yet. Or the companies might need to woo sales staff that knows exactly how to communicate in online environments.

Yet I wonder how all that seems so common sense to me, who only recently left retail, appears to be revolutionary rocket science to so many other people. Maybe I'm not getting some hidden subtleties of the whole deal--I haven't studied marketing or been in a marketing job. But, perhaps, like citizen journalism, it will be people who know how to sell and create relationships that will help marketing more than those with high powered marketing pedigrees.

Just a thought.

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miss rogue said...

And it's a good thought, Tish.

...the reality is that, although it should be common-sense, it isn't. Marketing spent many years wandering away from the customer and into some strange domain of 'branding' and 'messaging' etc.

Yes, you are right, this is the root of it. Not new in a historical perspective - but consider this...many companies don't have retail outlets. Plus, scaleability is an issue. No pedigree required to figure out that, once a company has hundreds of thousands of customers, it's nearly impossible to carry on real conversations. We start to get form letters and really impersonal sounding corporate voices.

The Cluetrain talked about those voices. Pinko Marketing talks about enabling community voices - the voices of your customers. Look at Apple/iPod superfans. I dare you to post on your blog that Apple sux. Ask Jeff about that one. ;) Apple won't respond. Apple owners - the people who love their Macs and iPods will. Strongly, too.

It's definitely not new to wander around and talk with customers, but it is new to do it in a larger context (and definitely an online context) and it is even newer to let go of control over 'brand messages' to allow your community to speak for you.

I'd be happy to discuss this more. Feel free to drop me a line or add to the wiki. You have great ideas.

Tish Grier said...

Good to hear from you, Tara...

the influence of marketing over the years has indeed poisioned the milieu of customer conversation. I bet if it were traced, we'd see a direct line from the "efficiency experts" of the 1950's to marketers.

Why this has happened?....well, that's probably a thesis in itself..

While not every company has a retail outlet, sales is sales, regardless of the type of company. the disconnect from conversation, while definitely scalable, is also an us-them adversarial attitude developed toward customers.

In the race for money and growing profits, companies systematically began to neglect customer service as much as they neglected quality product development.

As for Apple, it's fascinating how its customers do its work for them! And it makes me wonder if Jobs used to hang around with "car guys" whose fierce brand loyalty did just as much, if not more, for car sales as the guys on the showroom floors...beleive me, in the time of "hemi-powered drones" that screamed down the boulevard, one dared not shout out "mopar sucks!" unless he had a deathwish.

Letting go of control over what is said about one's brand is probably the biggest fear. A lot of money goes into building a brand, and to think that it could be shot down by somene's ill will is frightening. But my sense is that strong brand loyalty, built from producing quality products, is, if not the primary key, at least one that companies have to give the most attention.

Will be glad to email :-)