Help Wanted: Engaging Customer Advocates

You have a hidden reserve of valuable promotional copy that will drive customers and revenue to your Web site. It was written by your existing customers.

Many online marketers tap into their army of customer promoters to influence purchase behavior. formalized the process by allowing readers to post comments and rate books. It extended the system to enable customers to rate volunteer reviews and reviewers.

Creating promotions around customer comments significantly increases unit sales, particularly when promoting an older product with lagging sales. Seek opportunities to use customer endorsements to engage your consumers.

Customers are sincere and very believable advocates. Remember, customers have built-in bull detectors and can smell promotional hype a mile away. Customer input makes all marketing materials, including Web sites, email, and other customer communications, more believable by infusing them with the real customer voices.

Acquiring Customer Input

Gathering customer comments should go further than the need for marketing copy. You must engage customers and hear their thoughts. Some good ways to gather customer feedback on an ongoing basis:

  • Ask for customer feedback. Place a feedback text link in the footer or nav bar on all your Web pages. Collect customer input at every touch point. It’s better to hear negative comments from customers directly than have them tell their friends or, worse, report them to third-party sites or ISPs. And positive comments can be used for their promotional value. Additionally, feedback can be collected, placed in a concise format, and circulated to senior management.

  • Survey visitors and customers. Use a set of questions targeted at gathering information from customers on a regular basis. In addition to these comments, statistical input can help improve specific products and processes. Solicit customer remarks in post-purchase email, product packages, or exit pop-ups.
  • Run a contest. Involve customers in a contest targeted at gathering input. Select a prize in line with your offering, such as a $25-off coupon. A travel site could ask, “What’s your dream vacation, and why?” When setting up a contest, be careful not to have prizes that turn it into a sweepstakes. Sweepstakes have more elaborate and costly legal and compliance requirements.
  • Utilize your top-sales list. Post a list of top-selling products on your site. This gives customers an opportunity to join the crowd. Alternately, use an established list such as the New York Times Best-Seller List or Billboard’s music charts.

Using Customer Comments

Enlisting customers to help sell your offering is a win-win proposition. Customers perceive that other customers, even strangers, are less biased than ordinary marketing materials. To keep merchandising fresh, continually change promotions. Customer comments can help you accomplish this while making your marketing materials more relevant.

  • Advertising or product copy. Make customer comments the focus of product promotion in a separate ad or as part of the online catalog. Or, incorporate comments as an additional endorsement in an existing layout.

  • Newsletter or Web site content. Use customer stories about how your product or service helped improve customers’ lives.
  • Customer favorites on the home page. Promote top-selling products or those from an established list, such as a “Top 10 Bestsellers” box on your home page and other relevant Web pages. Add this list to customer email. They like seeing what items others are buying. It can help remind them of items they may want or need.
  • Customer postings. Allow customers to post their comments or reviews to your site. Monitor input to ensure comments meet your standards and don’t contain offensive material.

Before using customer input:

  • Ask permission. You don’t want customers to think you’re violating their confidentiality. When you contact customers, consider asking for photos to accompany their comments.

  • Consult the legal department. You may need a signed release form to use customer comments or names on your site or in communications. Depending on company policy, customers may need to be compensated with some type of gift.

Analyzing the Affect of Customer Comments

Some basic ideas on how to measure the affect of adding customer comments to your marketing communications mix:

  • Assess on-going promotions. Compile a list of existing offers and relevant performance metrics. Get a solid information base to measure the affect of adding customer comments. You will also want to see which old promotions are fatigued or overused.

  • Establish a sales baseline for a given product. Project status quo revenue estimates for product lines and promotional vehicles to be effected by your initiative. If applying customer comments to new products, select past sales for a similar product.
  • Project future sales using past customer comment experience. If you don’t have history from which to project, conservatively assume a 10 percent lift from customer comment use. Your experience may vary due to product, comments, context, or presentation.
  • Test different formats and presentations. For every new layout or promotional initiative incorporating customer comments, analyze results versus projections. Keep fine-tuning the implementation to get a good idea of which approaches work best. Once you have optimally implemented the new initiatives, results should start to plateau.
  • Include relevant costs. This approach assumes you already spend money promoting your firm or products with creative and copy. The cost of collecting customer input may be part of your on-going business expense. Using customer comments usually doesn’t add to your cost structure. But in cases like a contest, you may incur additional charges for prizes or an outside agency. Compare the additional costs to product margin gained.

Engaging customer advocates does more than just drive revenue and provide marketing copy at little or no cost. It allows you to engage customers by involving them in a continuous dialogue and deepens your relationship with them beyond their purchase history. This interaction should yield information about how to extend your offering while making it more relevant to your customers.

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