Aside

Strategic Defense Moves: Get Closer to your Customer

You know the best way to build a competitive position?
By knowing your customer face-to-face, voice-to-voice. Not some abstract idea of who your customer is, but being able to interchange ideas with them.
In a career that seems a lifetime ago, I created and ran a channel program for Apple. It remains today as the Apple Specialist program. The ideas was to talk with key channel partners in a regular basis and use their insights and perspectives to shape what we as a server division would create next. Not only did we get the channel to talk directly to product management, but we had other execs at the company come and exchange ideas. As a program, the advisory element was critical in building trust and affinity between Apple and it’s partners. That program was a lynchpin in growing Apple’s server business from $2M a year to $180M a year. All while holding onto a 40% margin structure when hardware solutions in the industry were closer to 10%.
The downside of this advisory program was that it was ‘old school’. You had to set a summit date, plan a robust agenda, book a cool place, fly people in from around the country, etc. While it taught me how to choose wines and other trivia (thanks to my still-favorite boss, John Osborne), it was expensive to host and pull off.
Today, programs that accomplish the same thing are much easier to execute. With blogging, online forums, etc, it’s much easier to build a 2-way dialogue.
See this example from consumer company, Lego. They’ve formed an advisory council, labeled “Ambassadors”, who get to shape 3 major areas:
txt149x055ambassadorlogo.gif

Product Design: Ambassadors will participate in ongoing product design projects, as well as Ambassador specific task. This participation will focus not on model construction, but more into the design and concepting of new sets and product lines.

Community Development: Based on the cycle-specific “Ambassadors Agenda” that is set at the beginning of each cycle, Ambassadors will work together with the LEGO Community Team to help grow the adult fan community. The Ambassador Agenda projects are based on the overall community needs and desires, with a goal of expansion and solidification.

Communication: LEGO Ambassadors are a key resource for collecting feedback, questions, and input from the community at large and getting that information into the right area of the LEGO Group. LEGO Ambassadors are also a crucial outlet for the LEGO Group to be able to share information with the community – working the Ambassadors to share information quickly and globally.

This is a great example of how marketing can build a strategic fortress around the company and it’s customers and prevent competitors to steal them away. This one is branded and visible. Even more powerful can be the ones built more in stealth mode with key influencers. We’re doing a series of them right now with clients to help them enter new markets.

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0 Responses:

  1. Jake. August 22, 2006 at 8:32 pm  |  

    Hi there, thanks for the kind words. I’d actually also point out another good, and new example of the Ambassador concept:
    http://elfurl.com/zrt0i
    A great example too.
    Something you said above really troubles me though:
    “. Even more powerful can be the ones built more in stealth mode with key influencers. We’re doing a series of them right now with clients to help them enter new markets.”
    I’d be bold enough to say that “stealth mode” is almost always a bad idea for programs like this. In the best case, you loose the opportunity to show a large scale audience how cool you (your brand, whatever) are when it comes to working with community. Worst case, it creates a scenario where consumers are feeling used or like they’ve been played. Nvidia ran into the later when they sent product on down low to certain people and asked them not to reveal it. When it came out (like it nearly always does), the rest of the community felt like Nvidia was trying to get community members to lie for them.
    Perhaps I misunderstand what you mean, but I’d hate to see a great Ambassador program miss out on the opportunity to affect a larger audience.

    Reply
  2. Jake. August 22, 2006 at 8:32 pm  |  

    Hi there, thanks for the kind words. I’d actually also point out another good, and new example of the Ambassador concept:
    http://elfurl.com/zrt0i
    A great example too.
    Something you said above really troubles me though:
    “. Even more powerful can be the ones built more in stealth mode with key influencers. We’re doing a series of them right now with clients to help them enter new markets.”
    I’d be bold enough to say that “stealth mode” is almost always a bad idea for programs like this. In the best case, you loose the opportunity to show a large scale audience how cool you (your brand, whatever) are when it comes to working with community. Worst case, it creates a scenario where consumers are feeling used or like they’ve been played. Nvidia ran into the later when they sent product on down low to certain people and asked them not to reveal it. When it came out (like it nearly always does), the rest of the community felt like Nvidia was trying to get community members to lie for them.
    Perhaps I misunderstand what you mean, but I’d hate to see a great Ambassador program miss out on the opportunity to affect a larger audience.

    Reply
  3. Nilofer Merchant. August 23, 2006 at 7:07 am  |  

    Jake -
    Thanks for writing. And for raising a good question. It helps me to clarify.
    It is never, ever good to be deceitful. If you are doing an influencer program, then be okay with that. and let people know your goal is to learn and engage and be successful. Influencers then become the co-creators with you and they will help carry you over the line using their market expertise. It’s your willingness to be open that enables that kind of engagement. I hadn’t heard of the Nvidia story specifically but have heard of several efforts that misconstrued the truth. Not good.
    When I say “stealth”, I’m specifically saying you don’t need a logo and all that related stuff. Lego’s clearly “branded” their program and while I can appreciate that might give the influencers themselves some prestige, it’s probably a little overkill. It’s what an agency would recommend (“have a unique identity!”). The crux of a good influencer program is a having the decision makers at the company talk to the market leaders and then exchanging meaningful ideas.

    Reply
  4. Jake. August 23, 2006 at 8:26 am  |  

    I think we may largely be saying the same things. But I don’t think that “stealth” at all equates to “low key”. I’d be careful using the word “stealth” as it currently paints a negative, sneaky picture.
    Branding the LEGO Ambassadors project (which was my idea as a LEGO employee, not an agency) was important to the growth and goals of the program. We were trying to create a “funnel” affect within the fan base. See, after several years of ongoing and frequent dialogue between company and consumer, there was a need to try to make that interaction scalable. We were trying to create a situation where it was clear that participation within the community, a positive attitude, and a willingness to help each other yielded tangible benefits. Prestige was only part of the equation.
    I do agree that not every program needs to be branded. And I completely agree that companies tend to spend too much money trying to “protect and sanitize” themselves from the consumer base.
    I agree that ONE part of a successful “influencer program” is having company leaders talk to market leaders. But it’s only ONE part. Is the company culture willing to respond and communicate those responses, as well as listen? Is the overall “community/company ecosystem” in balance so that the interaction will continue long term? Is there thinking behind scalability? Are you creating a long-term relationship that will help the company become something better beyond a single program?
    If you’re thinking of an influncer program as a campaign based concept, you’ve already sold the idea short.

    Reply
  5. Jake. August 23, 2006 at 8:26 am  |  

    I think we may largely be saying the same things. But I don’t think that “stealth” at all equates to “low key”. I’d be careful using the word “stealth” as it currently paints a negative, sneaky picture.
    Branding the LEGO Ambassadors project (which was my idea as a LEGO employee, not an agency) was important to the growth and goals of the program. We were trying to create a “funnel” affect within the fan base. See, after several years of ongoing and frequent dialogue between company and consumer, there was a need to try to make that interaction scalable. We were trying to create a situation where it was clear that participation within the community, a positive attitude, and a willingness to help each other yielded tangible benefits. Prestige was only part of the equation.
    I do agree that not every program needs to be branded. And I completely agree that companies tend to spend too much money trying to “protect and sanitize” themselves from the consumer base.
    I agree that ONE part of a successful “influencer program” is having company leaders talk to market leaders. But it’s only ONE part. Is the company culture willing to respond and communicate those responses, as well as listen? Is the overall “community/company ecosystem” in balance so that the interaction will continue long term? Is there thinking behind scalability? Are you creating a long-term relationship that will help the company become something better beyond a single program?
    If you’re thinking of an influncer program as a campaign based concept, you’ve already sold the idea short.

    Reply
  6. Jake. August 23, 2006 at 8:28 am  |  

    As a related side note, the LEGO Ambassador program was one of the first formal programs I launched. I was working to form lines of communication and interaction for 4 years before launching the formal Ambassador program.

    Reply
  7. Jake. August 23, 2006 at 8:28 am  |  

    As a related side note, the LEGO Ambassador program was one of the first formal programs I launched. I was working to form lines of communication and interaction for 4 years before launching the formal Ambassador program.

    Reply

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