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What Builds a Superfan?

  |  June 27, 2012   |  Comments

How the social feedback cycle helps smart brands nurture superfans.

You've read their reviews. You've seen them come to the rescue of brands in crisis. You probably know a few, especially if you fly on Virgin America or JetBlue, own an iAnything, or buy shoes from Zappos. The superfan. The "Oh no you didn't just say that about my brand!" advocate ready to go mano a mano just because. In this week's column I want to dive into what builds a real superfan.

What is a superfan and why do they exist? Simply, a superfan is someone who understands and personally aligns with your fundamental value proposition. As a result of direct customer experiences, the superfan has come to believe that through this alignment her life is better. On the social web, the superfan adds to this core definition the belief that if personal testimony about your brand is shared with others seeking or potentially needing the product or service you provide, that the recipient of this information will experience a better life as well. No kidding. The superfan raison d'être is that big, and it's proof-based.

Look at the elements of the superfan definition:

1. Alignment with your value proposition
2. Proof through actual experience
3. A tangible improvement in the quality of one's life
4. The belief that sharing will improve the lives of others

In my book "Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business of Engagement" (2010, Wiley & Sons) I defined the "Ladder of Engagement," a concept developed with colleagues Gaurav Mishra and Gautam Ghosh while I was working in New Delhi, India. This "ladder" provided a structure through which casual contact with a brand - for example, watching an ad - could be elevated through specific stages to evangelical behavior. The linchpin in that escalation is positive customer experience linked to one's social graph by the ability to share that experience or the artifacts of it. (You may not be able to "share" an in-flight experience, for example, but you can videotape it and share that video along with your comments.)

A second conceptual framework is also defined in that same book. That is, successful communities are not built around ads and prize promotions (though both are effective marketing tools). Instead, successful communities are built by a principled focus on a lifestyle, passion, or cause that a durable community will form around. Dell did this with its "Take Your Own Path" and "Digital Nomads" communities. American Express did it with its Open Forum community. Put these two concepts together - the Ladder of Engagement and orientation of a community around a lifestyle, passion, or cause - and you have the basic blueprint to build your superfan engine.

Let's go back to the four points listed above. The superfan 1) feels a genuine alignment with your brand around some passion, lifestyle, or cause, which has been 2) proven through actual experience to 3) improve one's life in the context of a lifestyle, passion, or cause and 4) can be shared easily with others (the collaboration and creation stages in the Ladder of Engagement).

Consider an actual example: Boingo. If you're thinking "Yeah, sure, Apple, Virgin America, Ford (I live in Texas…), Zappos…can have superfans but not my brand," think again. Boingo, a provider of mobile Wi-Fi, is a brand that you buy based on a recommendation, and then hardly notice until some event prods you into paying attention. For me, it was the back-and-forth from Austin, TX, to New Delhi that did it. I noticed that of the hundreds of times Boingo service worked flawlessly (aka, "invisible to the customer") that every once in a while the Wi-Fi connection…didn't connect. So I'd ping Boingo via Twitter using my mobile phone. Each time, within five to 10 minutes, I'd have a response offering help! Boingo's social media and customer care champion, Baochi Nguyen, had a service standard of "immediate response" on social channels. That got my attention.

It's important to understand that I am not some super-influencer (I have no idea what my Klout score is; I assume it's pretty low) nor do I write about technology or business/mobility tools that would have put me on Boingo's radar. I was simply a Boingo customer with a need. Baochi and her team understood the fundamental connection between my lifestyle (highly mobile) and her brand promise: stay connected while on the go. The responsiveness to my requests for assistance is what hooked me. But wait, there's more.

Once hooked, I started paying more attention to Boingo. I realized there were some things that I wanted in the service that weren't there. So I wrote to the engineering team. They wrote back (!) and thanked me (!!). I was, in effect, moving up the Ladder of Engagement, and Boingo was helping me take every step. Then, "brand-customer nirvana" happened. Features I'd asked for showed up in the next release of Boingo's software. Signed, sealed, delivered. Dave Evans was from that point forward a Boingo superfan. In fact, you can go to the Boingo website and see all of the Boingo superfans, including Aaron Strout who originally recommended Boingo to me. See how all of this connects? It's that circle thing.

So how do you build superfans? Baochi has written a guide that outlines the process she uses. Porter Gale, former VP, marketing, at Virgin America, offers her process in this AdAge article. Both are well worth reading, and note in particular (again) the role that sharing plays. A challenge that no doubt faces marketers and customer care teams charged with "getting social right" is making the step from having superfans (a whole process of its own) to seeing those superfans step up to the evangelical, socially active level that is the ultimate prize. For example, I'm a Boingo superfan. That's good. Happy customers tend to renew.

But search Google for "dave evans boingo." That's the payoff. It's the Social Feedback Cycle - "Awareness→Consideration→Purchase→Sharing" - that amplifies marketing efforts and drives purchases by creating shared content that is discovered during "consideration" as potential customers take to the web in search of ratings, reviews, and recommendations. Take a look at this discussion of this process captured during the 2009 SES conference in San Jose, CA.

Porter's article speaks directly to superfan creation and offers some straightforward, practical tips on building your own superfan program. For more on the power of superfans and brand advocates, check out this study from Deloitte, written by Vice Chairman Pat Conroy and Senior Research Manager Anupam Narula. Among the key insights in this paper: brand advocates spend more with the brands they love (no real news there), that they spend more than average in the category (that's more interesting, as it means they also know more about the category), and that they are more likely to share what they know.

Snap!

Rather than obsessing over the number of followers, pay attention to customers that are 1) knowledgeable about your brand and the category you serve and can therefore speak with authority, and 2) are most likely to actually speak! This isn't rocket science. This is another manifestation of the rise of the social web and the resultant ache you feel in your marketing gut as you try to step successfully from traditional marketing (focusing on "the loudest," which is easily done) to highly targeted social media-based strategies aimed at creating and leveraging true advocates (which is much harder.)

Back to Baochi and her current work. Baochi is now with Ring Central, a provider of phone systems for businesses. As senior social strategist, Baochi is building Ring Central's superfan and customer care programs. My firm is a Ring Central customer. You know where this is going. We needed an office phone system, and I knew Baochi was at Ring Central. The service itself checked out, and I also knew that if I needed something the person on the other end of the support call was committed to 100 percent customer satisfaction.

So we signed up, and the experience has been great. I'm a new fan of Ring Central, and based on my experience with the service I am now part of the superfan program. Baochi sent out a kit to the superfans containing, among other things, Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" and "Strengths-Based Leadership" by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie. Smart move, Baochi. By "educating" her superfans, they differentiate even further the brand strengths and values that drive superfandom. Being a superfan of a truly exceptional brand - as defined in contemporary business and management reading - raises the level of commitment of the superfan to that brand. I'm not just a superfan of that company, I am a superfan of that company! When you see the brands you love in popular books, there is a certain, "See, I was right about this!" that drives the superfan ever higher.

As for Ring Central's superfan program, search Google for "dave evans ring central" and you'll see the beginnings of the same content, pics, and stories that I share with my networks about all of the brands I support. Ready to build your own superfans? Check the resources I've called out, "cuz time is a wastin."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dave Evans

Dave is the VP of social strategy at Lithium. Based in Austin, Dave is also the author of best-selling "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day," as well as "Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement." Dave is a regular columnist for ClickZ, a frequent keynoter, and leads social technology and measurement workshops with the American Marketing Association as well as Social Media Executive Seminars, a C-level business training provider.

Dave has worked in social technology consulting and development around the world: with India's Publicis|2020media and its clients including the Bengaluru International Airport, Intel, Dell, United Brands, and Pepsico and with Austin's FG SQUARED and GSD&M| IdeaCity and clients including PGi, Southwest Airlines, AARP, Wal-Mart, and the PGA TOUR. Dave serves on the advisory boards for social technology startups including Palo Alto-based Friend2Friend and Mountain View-based Netbase and iGoals.

Prior, Dave was a co-founder of social customer care technology provider Social Dynamx, a product manager with Progressive Insurance, and a systems analyst with NASA| Jet Propulsion Labs. Dave co-founded Digital Voodoo, a web technology consultancy, in 1994. Dave holds a BS in physics and mathematics from the State University of New York/ Brockport and has served on the Advisory Board for ad:tech and the Measurement and Metrics Council with WOMMA.

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