Customer centricity, the voice of the customer and the customer experience are all ideas swirling around CRM today, and they have in common a need to find ways to more actively incorporate the customer into many customer-facing business processes. Social networking—or techniques associated with it, at least—has often been suggested as a means of achieving the goal of greater customer involvement. Several challenges arise whenever this topic comes up, though.
One of the most obvious questions on many lips is why? After all, if you ask 50 people the same question about a company and its products you are likely to get 50 different answers. Then what? Also, social networking, rightly or wrongly, has been tagged as a less than serious technology in some circles because its uses span everything from dating clubs to simple networks of business contacts. In other words, social networking is largely used to contact almost total strangers by people who want something.
Nevertheless, our research shows that a variant of social networking can be used effectively in business to help drive innovation, and we have suggested that, if used properly, it can represent an additional business process to add to the marketing arsenal. The social networking technique I refer to is simply called a “community” or a “community of interest,” and I have called the business process “Deep Marketing” to distinguish it from the everyday “Short Marketing” cycle that we have grown accustomed to for lead generation and sales.
‘I have seen an active community of men, 18 to 24 years old (a hard demographic to capture), who volunteer a great deal of information to the consumer products company, Unilever.’
Deep marketing has its intellectual roots in the books of several business gurus such as Glen Urban, author of Don’t Just Relate—Advocate (Wharton School Publishing May 2005); Eric von Hippel, in Democratizing Information (The MIT Press, April 2005); and Fred Reichheld, in The Ultimate Question (Harvard Business School Press, March 2006). These and other authors have, in one way or another, shown that customers want to volunteer ideas to their vendors to help drive better products and services: what some have called cocreation of value.
Simply put, Deep Marketing engages with customers to gather their insights and opinions, which, in turn, drive actionable knowledge. Because it operates online, Deep Marketing can be pursued much more rapidly and at significantly lower costs than traditional surveys and focus groups.
Figure 1 outlines the basic Deep Marketing process and shows its relation to traditional sales and marketing. Note how the information output of Deep Marketing influences both product development and marketing with the data that customers freely divulge.
If you think about it, customers have a vested interest in seeing their vendors succeed, and smart vendors are beginning to leverage this reality to guide innovation not only for products and services but also for marketing messages.
The best example I have seen of how Deep Marketing works is in the customer community of interest. Companies hand-select the community members from invited individuals who represent desirable demographics that companies want to target. Members agree to visit a web site for a specified amount of time each week to interact with other members and to answer questionnaires or render opinions about relevant topics.
For example, consumer products companies might ask life-style questions along with questions about products. The same might be true of a financial services company; though, as you might expect, the questions would be tailored to the circumstances.
Figure 1. The Deep Marketing Cycle in context (Source: Beagle Research Group, LLC)
I have seen an active community of men, 18 to 24 years old (a hard demographic to capture), who volunteer a great deal of information to the consumer products company, Unilever. This community provided insights into what the well-groomed young man thinks and does in his social life, insights that Unilever used to fine-tune its product—Axe Body Spray—and its marketing messages. Unilever credits its community’s input for helping to propel Axe to leadership status in its market, and the company won a 2005 Explor award from the American Marketing Association for its innovative use of technology.
Communities, and Deep Marketing, are not simply for CPG companies, either. Charles Schwab, the financial services colossus based in San Francisco, also relies on customer communities and deep marketing to capture customer insights. Recent Schwab communities have included a group of customers who are active stock traders with a minimum amount of cash invested and another group composed of high-net-worth individuals with a threshold amount invested with Schwab.
Schwab customer community participation is quite good—a finding that might surprise conventional marketers, given the relative inaccessibility of these groups to traditional marketing approaches. But because Schwab appears to these customers to be actively listening to their input, and then tangibly making use of it, these people make the effort to contribute.
Not long ago, Charles Schwab, himself, wanted up-to-date information about his clients’ investing strategies and views of the market in preparation for a press tour. Schwab worked with the community administrators to craft a questionnaire, and, according to Schwab Vice President Jonathan Craig, “clients were literally writing essays to him about what they liked and what needed improvement.”
You might expect that kind of response for the boss, but it demonstrates the power of the community and the kind of response community hosts have come to expect when dealing in this realm.
Other companies as diverse as General Motors and Nabisco have used customer communities with similar results. These companies have demonstrated that deep marketing can generate high and enthusiastic customer participation and a wealth of information that drives product and service innovation as well as helping to fine-tune marketing messages. Deep Marketing is not a panacea, and it will not cure all marketing ills, but it is an important addition to the marketing quiver at a time when many of marketing’s arrows have gone dull.