Viral communities

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on June 6, 2007

Should be part of your marketing strategy

Most of the presentations and much of the discussion at the recent PR Academy annual brand conference in Singapore centered on non-traditional communication channels. Callum Laing, CEO of MobyElite in Thailand, spoke about his work helping clients develop customer and prospect communities as strategic, interactive marketing communication strategies.

The logic of communities is that they link individuals with similar interests, and research has shown that people generally trust the judgment of other people with similar interests. So when a company’s customers are active in a community that is populated with prospective customers they can serve as positive influencers on prospects, encouraging them to purchase the company’s products. Customers also influence each other, reinforcing confidence in the company’s products or services with the result that they become loyal customers, or better yet, increase the level of their purchases.

When we think of communities in the age of electronic media, we typically think of sites such as YouTube, craigslist, and Friendster. But communities don’t have to be solely electronic, Laing said. MobyElite organizes a regular series of in-person events that are designed to attract like-minded individuals that fit a specific demographic profile provided by clients.

One of the events currently posted on the MobyElite website is a breakfast meeting with Roger Hamilton, a serial entrepreneur and motivational speaker. Although the event is sponsored by clients, Laing charges members to attend events. And to become a full member of MobyElite, an individual must visit one of the company’s partners, such as a restaurant or retail outlet, where the applicant can obtain a membership card, presumably in return for making a purchase. MobyElite does not issue membership cards directly to support its corporate sponsors.

Because members must pay to attend breakfast meetings, clients are assured that those attending are interested enough in the topic to make an investment. And because the meeting is by invitation only, members invited are already prequalified demographically. When they pay, that’s a firm indication of interest. Companies selling products and services to entrepreneurs are therefore assured that their communications budgets are on target and not being wasted talking to people outside their market.

Ian McKee, CEO of Vocanic, a Singapore-based below-the-line agency, said in his presentation that, “research has shown that in most industries, there is a strong correlation between a company’s growth rate and the percentage of its customers who are ‘net promoters’ – that is, those who say they are extremely likely to recommend the company to a friend of colleague.” He attributes that statement to Frederick Reichheld, author of The Loyalty Effect.

Vocanic develops word-of-mouth campaigns designed to increase the amount of personal recommendations about a product from one friend to another. To illustrate the impact of word-of-mouth campaigns, McKee told conference delegates that if 1,000 people each tell three others about a product or service, that in three “generations,” 2.9 million individuals would have heard the message.

Of course, that’s the theory. In practice McKee helps assure that world-of-mouth works the way it is supposed to by relying on influential individuals to get the process started. They are distinguished by their personality and communication style, the size of their social network, and of course the affinity for the corporate, product, or service brand they are meant to promote.

To identify and “activate” influential teens, Procter & Gamble (P&G) developed the Tremor website, which it calls a VIP community of teens. It offers “insider access” and the opportunity to “make an impact” to teens who qualify for membership. Qualification is based on a short, painless online survey meant to identify young people who influence their personal networks.

According to McKee, the site has approximately 300,000 teens signed up. When they were sent a sample of a new Cover Girl product, the Tremor influencers enabled P&G to reach target penetration for the product twice as fast as a similar launch that didn’t involve the VIP teens. When a TV serial was floundering, the producers leased the list and mailed scripts to the Tremor influencers and asked for comments. As a result, the program nearly tripled its ratings.

As these examples show, channels that speak directly to communities of customers and qualified prospects are extremely efficient and effective. And they should be part of your marketing strategy.

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