Although it may not have always been known by such buzz-worthy jargon, Brand Evangelism has been around for ages with many different names. Fanaticism, passion, zeal, devotion. People like to feel a connection to a team, celebrity or brand, and being able to preach their love to others is their way of demonstrating that they’re in the loop, part of a certain tribe, as Seth Godin puts it. This step above mere customer loyalty is a measuring stick by which a company can tell that they’ve made it, that they’ve struck a chord with the consumer, that they have a pretty special product. Brand evangelism isn’t something that can be forced or coerced. It is most powerful when it occurs naturally, from the bottom up. Notice that the title of this post is “Helping brand evangelism work for you,” not “Making brand evangelism work for you.” Although a company is able to provide certain opportunities and outlets for such devotion, there is no way to push it if the underlying passion isn’t already present. I can only speak for myself and my company because I believe we’re facilitating our customers’ evangelism the right way. However, I – and any anyone else who would make such a claim – would be lying if I were to say my marketing genius was behind this phenomenon.
Let me give you a little background on my company. We make CNC tools – ShopBots – basically robotic cutting machines that fabricate parts from wood, plastics and metal – obviously a niche product. We make industrial tools that we sell to large furniture, aerospace and sign making plants and small, garage-size tools for artists, instrument makers and do-it-yourselfers. The founder of my company created the first tool in his barn, a personal-use device to help him cut out parts for plywood sailboats. His intention was not to start a business, but to make his hobby a little bit less time consuming - a classic example of necessity being the mother of invention. The devotion to the product began there, and as he experimented with a very rudimentary tool (made from parts – including patio door rollers – that could easily be found at Home Depot) he shared his ideas with anyone who was interested. Excitement about such an affordably priced CNC machine grew within a small circle of boatbuilders and woodworkers, and ideas began to flow. Ted, our company president, welcomed the input, and this original group began to take personal interest in the development of the first ShopBots. That was 13 years ago, and the tools have come a long way from the build-it-yourself machines to the precision pieces of equipment that they are today. We sell approximately 1,000 tools a year, making us the number-one-selling producer of CNC machines on the market. We have no distributors, no outside sales team, and we make no cold calls whatsoever. Of course we have a very successful advertising and public relations plan in place, but there is absolutely nothing that can take the place of the power of word of mouth that is generated by our brand evangelists. What I’m offering here is sort of a case study of some of the best practices that we’ve been able to put into place to help our customers preach about our brand and spread the word.
This is one of the things we make
I believe we manufacture a great product. Our long-time customers believe we manufacture a great product. We have a very skilled development team, a lean business model and a knowledgeable, helpful technical support team. But what makes our machines so great is that we let our customers tell us what they want. Here’s my first piece of advice for building brand evangelism: Let your customers design your product. Now, we don’t have our customers sending us schematics and specs on what the tools should look like or telling us what components to use, but we’re always open to suggestions – and criticism. We offer a fairly comprehensive warranty on our product, but what makes us so different is that it’s nearly impossible to void that warranty. We encourage our customers to push the limits of their tools and provide us with feedback. If they want to modify something, we tell them to go for it. If they mess things up, we’ll still give them the same tech support as we provide for all our customers (tech support, by the way, is free and is good for the life of the machine, whether it was bought new or used. Try getting that customer service from any other company). Our machines are run with a windows-based control software, which is open source. When we change or upgrade that software, it’s posted in beta on our website as a free download. Take it for a test drive and let us know what you like/don’t like about it. We also give them the opportunity to beta test other programs. Our customers know they’ve helped make our product what it is, and that is a source of pride. They’re very willing to share those successes. What’s the best way to help your customers share that pride? That brings us to number two:
If your customers want to shout, give them a megaphone. OK, so you already have great customers who have a loyalty to your product and want to tell others about it. Help them out. Provide them with a forum. Since our beginnings, ShopBot has provided and online forum, www.talkshopbot.com. We’ve created categories to help our customers navigate, but other than that, we just let it go. Take a laissez faire attitude to your forum, and you’ll get the most out of it. Of course, you’ll need to monitor it for the usual forum problems – from vulgarity to personal attacks on other users – but for the most part, let the group make their own decisions about what is acceptable. If you let it run its course, a forum will provide you with tons of valuable feedback. And remember, the most outspoken members will be your biggest evangelists, and should someone come along with something negative to say, he or she will be instantly policed by other members. If a negative poster has a legitimate gripe to voice, let it happen. Let forum members address it, and if necessary, take the necessary situation-management steps to address it yourself. Allow the community to evolve, and when a potential customer visits your forum, they’ll be able to learn a lot about your company by the attitudes of your users.
Give them a stage, and let them be the star. We’ve broken our customer base down by application, what kinds of projects they’re making with their ShopBots. We’ve identified cabinet makers, sign makers and woodworkers, among others, and recruited them to share their stories on our website. We offer them space to offer their expertise on what they do with their ShopBots. As a company, we can tout the features, functions and benefits of our products all day long, but as you may have learned in Marketing 101, a testimonial is far more valuable than company-produced product collateral. You can see some examples of our customer-written Web Columns.
A forum or message board is a great way for your customers and potential customers to interact in the virtual world, but what about in the real world? Take your community offline. Every month, we sponsor what’s known as Camp ShopBot. Camp ShopBot is an informal gathering of customers and potential customers. It is hosted by a current user in his or her facility, and we provide food, product materials and a company representative. The Camps take place in shops across the country and around the world. It’s a chance for our customers – known as ShopBotters – to get together and share what they know about automated manufacturing. The agenda is never set in stone, but many times the Camps will have a certain theme – from cabinetmaking to boatbuilding to rapid prototyping to digital fabrication. They can be a half-day long or encompass a full weekend. They’re run by our customers, and we’re present to inform attendees about what’s in the works and also nip in the bud any incorrect information. These events are completely free whether you own a tool or not.
ShopBotters attend Camp ShopBot in Troy, VA
Put them on your payroll. As I mentioned earlier, all of our products are sold direct. No sales team. No distributors. Would you ever buy a car without first test driving it? Probably not. Likewise, we would never recommend dropping upwards of $50,000 for one of our machines without at least seeing it in action. It would be extremely difficult - not to mention expensive - for all of our potential customers to take a trip to out headquarters for a demonstration, so we've identified demo sites around the world. We've chosen our best customers with the most-desired machine models who are passionate about their work and passionate about ShopBot and have agreed to pay them commission on every demonstration they host that leads to a sale. We gain a new customer and they put some cash in their pockets (not to mention you'd be hard pressed to find a ShopBotter who doesn't love bragging about his or her work).
Let your customers into your home, or at least into your company. Probably the most well-known instance of this is Saturn, who was the first large company to invite customers for a day at the factory. They made a party out of it, with a barbecue, facility tours and an open house. My company has the ShopBot Jamboree. Since the beginning of the company, we’ve had a yearly event where we invite customers and non-customers to our Durham headquarters. It’s a three-day event consisting of formal training sessions, presentations by partner vendors, workshops on marketing and business operations, tours of the facility and the inside scoop from company personnel. In the past few years, attendance has gotten so high that we’ve had to move many of the activities off-site. We’ve also gotten so much interest from customers who are unable to travel to NC that we’ve since added Jamborees in California and Texas. Our customers can put faces with the names and voices they hear on the phones, and they can get a real sense of the passion our employees, from the top down, put into this company.
ShopBotters at the ShopBot Jamboree in San Mateo, CA
Reward your biggest fans with free swag, and let them advertise your products for FREE. We recently had a customer ask us if we’d pay to have his truck vehicle-wrapped with our logo and graphics. Being a small company, we couldn’t justify taking such a large chunk out of the budget for such focused publicity, but if we would have had the funds readily available, we’d certainly have done it. There are other, more affordable, ways to let your customers be your advertisers. Print your logo and website on stickers and GIVE them to your customers. Apple includes a little logo sticker with the purchase of their products, and tell me you’ve never seen those on the rear window of someone’s car. We give out T-shirts for customers who participate in the show-and-tell portions of our Camps, and we make special-edition T’s for each Jamboree. The T-shirts have become collectors’ items, and our stickers have appeared on vehicles in such far-away places as Norway and Afghanistan. Make sure your logo and photos are readily available online in case your customers want to include you in their websites.
Give ‘em some gear
Help your customers succeed. If your customers are successful, you’ll be successful, and if you help your customers become successful, they’ll tell others about it. This is especially useful to b2b companies, but can be adapted to whatever audience you’re trying to reach. Use your customers in your marketing campaigns. Put them in your ad materials, your brochures, feature them on your website. Help them share their successes. We feature a different customer each month in our print advertising materials, but we also open our website for them to share their successes. If our customers make the news, we feature them on our ShopBotters in the News page. If something exciting happens with their company, we put them on our Spotlight page. We talk about them in our newsletter and tweet about them on Twitter. We let them create our wiki. We also offer them free marketing advice and, if needed, local media lists so they can have more tools to conduct their own PR. They appreciate this and it only leads to even more loyalty and evangelism.
Customer-focused ad materials
Fix problems as soon as they happen, and if you can’t, don’t sweat it. The bottom line is, not matter how good your product, no matter how strong your brand, you’re never, no matter how hard you try, going to be able to make everyone happy. Strive to continuously improve your customer service and your crisis reaction time. Ensure that there are open lines of communication established so your disgruntled customers can voice their concerns, and make sure there’s always a knowledgeable representative available who has the proper authority to make things right. Sometimes though, even that doesn’t work. So what do you do? After you’ve done all you can, grit your teeth, take the hit and fight back the best way that you can: Continue offering a great product and great support. ShopBot is known throughout the industry for our impeccable technical support and customer service. We’d rather lose money than lose a customer, and we sincerely do everything within our power to satisfy our customers’ needs and address their concerns and gripes. Some customers, however, are destined to remain unsatisfied and unhappy no matter what you do to fix things. If you have a strong brand with a strong legion of evangelists, the customers that get away will not have much of an impact. Your zealots will defend you as they always have, and – here’s something you won’t often hear – if you can’t make him happy, sometimes it’s better to lose a customer now than to be forced to deal with him later.
These things are only a few examples of what you can do to foster evangelism for your brand. Give your customers a reason to be excited and an outlet for their enthusiasm, and they’ll be more than willing to share that excitement with anyone who’ll listen.
Dave Minella is the communications director at ShopBot Tools, Inc. He may be reached via email. Connect with him on Twitter, @DaveMinella or @ShopBot, or at his personal blog.