My First Word of Mouth Whoa Moment

Lindy has asked me to contribute a story about the impact of word-of-mouth marketing. So, here goes.

Back in the dark ages of the Web I was working for the Employee Relocation Council in the research department. ERC launched one of the earliest association web sites and I was listed as the contact for research information, including international relocation.

The day the site went up (probably in 1995, maybe 1994), I started receiving e-mail from people all around the world with questions about how to get a visa to come to the United States. This was way before e-mail scams were that common, they were genuine people looking for help. I was blown away and knew this was something new and special. I have no idea how people found this page on the web with my e-mail but they did. Search was next to useless or non-existent then, if you can imagine. ASAE used to maintain a single page that listed all the association web sites online, to give you an idea of how sparse the web world was back then.

All of these folks found me somehow through links and clicking and sharing information with others back when you had to get through some pretty significant hoops to be online.

That’s word of mouth powered by strong needs and desire.

How's that value proposition?

Kevin Holland point to an article recently that ended with the following quote about a publishing trade association membership:

Henry Donahue, CEO-publisher of Discover Magazine, said his magazine is still a member of the MPA. “We are,” he confirmed via e-mail, “though it’s an ongoing source of discussion given the expense.”

A quote sure to strike fear into the heart of any association executive.

Be sure you are proactively communicating and delivering the value of your association. You almost can’t do it enough. Ideally it’s self-evident but even the highest of value services need to do some self promotion.

Consumers and Association Web Sites

I’ve dealt with the question of how to address consumers online with association web sites for much of my career. In this context consumers typically means the customers/clients/patients of the association’s members.

I’m going to provide a few thoughts below on how to approach it but there is an important question to be answered first.

Your senior leadership and Board must define what your association hopes to achieve overall with the consumers in your members’ market. Buy more products or services? Support legislative changes? Appreciate your members’ contribution to society? (That last one is a tough one if they don’t on their own!)

If that high level strategy isn’t clear than you are going to spin your wheels online until it is. I often recommend not to bother with anything significant if you don’t have a solid organizational strategy for that audience.

Some other key questions to consider:

What outcomes do you want to achieve with consumer visitors?
What specific actions can consumers take on your web site that will support your overall goals for them? This can include everything from learning via content to taking a specific next action such as contacting one of your members.

How will you know that you have achieved them?
Identify specific measures for success in these efforts. What will let you know you are achieving your goals? Demand creation and branding efforts are notoriously hard to measure but many outcomes can have hard numbers to back them up. The example above of helping consumers to contact one of your members is easily measurable via their path through your site.

What is the value of achieving those outcomes?
The value of the outcomes should determine the budget for your online efforts. Assessing the value will help to avoid over or under investing. A simple concept but rarely done, in my experience.

Should we have one site for members and consumers or two?
This is the last thing to consider although it is often the first question people start with. My patented consultant answer is: it depends.

A key question is which brand you want the consumers to pick up on, the association’s or the members’? If the effort should be closely associated with the organization’s identity, then going with a single site for all with the consumer content wrapped in the association’s look and feel. If the brand of the organization is irrelevant or harmful to the effort, then a separate site and design may best support your goals. The ‘Got Milk’ campaign is a great example of the latter.

Answering these key questions can be a challenging task for even highly focused organizations. A large part of the value I provide to my clients is helping (and forcing, sometimes!) them to answer these and then plan an approach aligned with those strategic goals. Drop me a note if you would like to discuss your specific situation.

Ralph Lauren Flipping Online Advertising Strategy on Its Head

According to this post by Dylan Stableford, Ralph Lauren is building such a powerful media presence online that he questions their future need for traditional print advertising:

His presentation, though, should give publishers pause, too. If an advertiser is so ahead of the game online, and as print fades, why should they care about your Web site?

Very good question. If a retailer develops their own audience online with content, why would they need to advertise to the extent they had in the past?

Implications of Ecommerce Sales Slowing Down

The New York Times has had a couple of stories recently about ecommerce sales slowing down along with everything else. Here is a blog post from the Times on this. They are still growing but at a much slower pace.

There are some implications here for anyone who makes direct sales via their web site. The primary one is that the usability of your online store is more important now than ever. When times are good, it’s easy to ignore some loss of sales due to challenging interfaces. When numbers are no longer growing or even contracting, however, you can’t afford to lose anyone who wants to give you money.

Here are a few things to look for:

  • Review your web traffic reports and conversion rates. Identify any steps in your processes that tend to lose people.
  • Personally observe several people completing transactions on your site and note any areas where they get confused or slow down.
  • Have an expert mystery shop your store and identify where you can improve. (I can help you with this, by the way!)
  • Talk to your call center staff and see what issues they hear about from customers who call them.

Once you have identified some improvements, drop everything until they are done. Otherwise they are less likely to be implemented. I’ve seen instances where a single small change had a 6-figure impact on revenue.

Now is the best time to acquire new members

If you don’t take my word on it, listen to Tony Rossell:

First of all, any change prompts people to look at new opportunities and solutions. We are clearly in the midst of great change as a society.

Secondly, during times of economic uncertainly, people look for an anchor. Professionally associations can be that anchor. Think for a second, if you knew your job was in jeopardy, isn’t one of the first places you would go for help your professional association or network. That is the place to make contacts, go to job boards, attend meetings, and interact on a listserv.

News without the Paper

The Christian Science Monitor has announced that they are going web-only for daily news and will print a Sunday magazine: The Monitor Ends Daily Print Edition.

If you read the story, you’ll note they did this in order to cut costs while still retaining their foreign bureaus and reporters. This makes all sorts of sense to me. When I hear about newspapers slashing their reporting staff, I always shake my head. The asset that they leverage for revenue is news reporting. They need to find new ways to leverage that asset effectively rather than cutting it to the bone to preserve an old, declining, business model.

Peter Drucker wrote that the most innovative companies are those who are ruthless about killing off programs, products and services that are no longer producitve. Kudos to the CSM for going boldly to the forefront of their industry.

If you’ve never read it, CSM provides some of the best international coverage out there. I discovered it in college while pulling long graveyard shifts at the periodicals desk as a student employee of the library.

International Audiences

The few bright spots in the earning reports for American companies these days are those who are making gains in international markets. The up swing in profits from abroad is offsetting declines in their domestic markets.

This underlines the growing importance of international audiences for web sites. You need to identify the specific business outcomes you hope to achieve with them and then create sites that focus on that in a way that works for those people from abroad.

In communicating across borders with a web site, there are three criteria you can use to evaluate each audience.

1. Language. If your site communicates with business people and/or professionals, do they speak the native lanaguage of your web site in day-to-day business? If so, you may be able to get away without translating. If not, look at what language will work best for each audience.

2. Transactions. If you collect data or conduct ecommerce transactions via your site, what impact will different international audiences have on the fields you use? Are there privacy laws and regulations you will need to comply with? Again, look at similarlities and differences across all of your international audiences.

3. Culture. This is the tough one. Look for cultural similarities and differences among your international audiences. Do they respond the same way to the same imagery? Is your humorous ad campaign in the home country highly offensive in others? Cross-cultural analysis and testing will help to reveal issues such as this.

Assessing these three characteristics among your international audience and against your home-country web presence will help you to identify which audiences can get by with your existing presence and which may need highly tailored efforts to support them and your desired outcomes.

Trading Value for Money Leads to Profits. Amazing!

Poking fun at the airlines is too easy these days but I think Southwest shows how you can actually make profits by giving value to your customers in exchange for money (crazy concept, I know!) in an otherwise troubled market.

According to the New York Times today, Southwest just posted a profit for their 69th straight quarter. A very big part of this has been do to their savvy fuel hedges limiting their exposure to the run up in oil. However, they have also revamped their pricing structure by not only raising fares, but offering a new class that gives advanced boarding, a free drink and an extra frequent flyer credit. The new class, Business Select, could generated about $100 million in new revenue.

Compare this to the other airlines who have not protected their fuel prices and are charging for previously ‘free’ services, such as baggage, without adding any additional value, terminally angering their customers.

Southwest, meanwhile, is advertising that ‘bags fly for free’ on their home page. I imagine that their executives must have to suppress giggles quite often as they dance around the rest of this sclerotic industry.

Are you offering value to your customers, visitors, clients or members? Taking captive markets for granted is risky in the long run: they have a habit of breaking out eventually.

Three Reasons Branded Online Communities Fail

A Deloitte consultant just released result of a study of 100 businesses with online communities. From the WSJ:

One of the hot investments for businesses these days is online communities that help customers feel connected to a brand. But most of these efforts produce fancy Web sites that few people ever visit. The problem: Businesses are focusing on the value an online community can provide to themselves, not the community.

The three main reasons for failure were not surprising:

  • Focusing on the technology over the value of the community to its members;
  • Failure to assign experienced staff to develop the community;
  • Poor or no metrics for measuring success.

Let’s tackle those one at a time:

Bells & Whistles
It is so very tempting to focus on the gee whiz things you can do with technology, especially with the very hot social media arena. However, you have to center all of these efforts on the value you will provide to your anticipated community members, making sure that is aligned to deliver some value for your company or organization when it takes off. Constantly ask yourself “So what?” as you develop your plans. Once you have the value identified you can make rational choices about the technology you choose to deploy.

Leadership and Management
Would you launch a new product or service line without an experienced person to develop and manage it? Not usually, no. The same goes for online communities. They require care and feeding and interaction to do successfully. This requires dedicated staff who can interact with others online effectively and keep your online space focused on the value it should provide to participants and the company. It boggles the mind to read the story linked above and realize many of these companies spent over a $1 million on their site and then put half a staff person in place to run it.

Measuring Success
This goes back to value: your measures for success must tell you if you are creating the value you planned to achieve. Are your community members getting value? Is this participation generating value for the sponsoring company? Simply pages views and site registration won’t do. If you goal is to convert community members into customers, be sure you have processes and tools in place to measure that conversion rather than simply hope for the best.

(Story spotted via the most excellent CMSWatch.)