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A new year calls for new beginnings. Ask yourself these three questions:

1) Are you soliciting customer feedback?

2) Are you listening to it carefully?

3) Are you incorporating the feedback into your on and offline marketing communications?

If you answered yes, yes and yes--hats off to you. Whatever your product or service, you may be creating a cult brand.

Companies with strong brands are particularly effective at creating an inviting "look, say and feel," according to Matt Ragas, co-author of The Power of Cult Branding.

I interviewed Ragas recently to find out what lessons his new book offers about effective online copy and content.

Lots, it turns out. Ragas and co-author Bolivar J. Bueno dissect nine "cult brands" (Oprah Winfrey, Volkswagen Beetle, Star Trek, World Wrestling Entertainment, Jimmy Buffett, Vans, Inc., Apple Computer, Linux and Harley Davidson) to uncover the "blueprint" behind a cult following.

The "say" of a strong brand is integral to its success. Ragas and Bueno identify Seven Golden Rules behind these powerful brands. I took a close look at Golden Rule 4--“Listen to the choir and create cult brand evangelists”--and identified seven key ingredients of successful communication with rabidly loyal customers.

1. Be Fun

"At the end of the day, business should be fun. It should put a smile on customers' faces," Ragas told me. This means it's OK to think up an offbeat name for your e-newsletter, for example.

Ragas (who was founding editor of RagingBull.com) is now co-principal of an investment advisory and financial news site called FindProfit.com. The name is deliberately "not too Wall Street. It's simple and direct," he said.

2. Consider the Content of Your Messaging (it's All About Them)

Customers have passions and dreams. Pay close attention to psychologist Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Ragas says.

Speak to your customers about how your product or service fulfills their higher-level needs of self-esteem, social interaction and self-actualization. (And if you don't know how it does, ask them.)

While the features and cool design are nice, it feels good to be a VW bug or Apple Computer owner. You feel as if you are different, unique and part of an exclusive group that is one step head of the rest of the crowd.

3. Watch the Tone of Your Messages

Your communications through the Web or email should evoke feelings of "warmth, support and uniqueness." They should tap into Maslow's highest-level needs. Everyone (well, almost everyone) wants to be different, to be cool, to be daring. Capitalize on this by creating a "voice" that is distinctly that of your company--but that also resonates with your loyal customers.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because it echoes the message in The Cluetrain Manifesto. Namely, that marketing should be a two-way conversation.

4. Be Transparent and Admit Your Mistakes

Don't talk down to your audience. Speak directly to them and admit mistakes openly. Write as if you are having a dialogue with intelligent peers. Don't set yourself up as "the expert" and position your audience as neophytes. Heck, they probably understand your brand better than you do.

5. Solicit customer feedback--both positive and negative

Republish customers' comments on your site. Ask for feedback from unhappy customers. Draw them out. Be respectful. You'll be amazed at what you learn and how you can put it to use in your communications.

6) Form a customer advisory board.

Create an organized structure that enables customers to feel recognized and special. Harley has local owners' groups. Mac has user groups. Jimmy Buffett fans have a name for themselves (Parrot Heads) and regularly congregate.

A customer advisory board will be only too happy to offer regular feedback on your product or service. Make it a club; offer some free benefits.

7. The Key Takeaway: Preach to the Choir

Whether it's your Web site, your e-newsletter or offline marketing materials, your messaging should be directed at already converted customers. (You know the axiom: It costs six times as much to acquire a new customer as it does to sell to a current one.)

Don't use an imaginary customer profile as the audience for your words. Write as if you're communicating with a loyal fan. To do this, step out of your marketing shoes and put on the hat of that customer.

"Shop, don't sell," as Ragas puts it in the book. Yes, this is hard to do.

Finally, Ragas offers this bit of advice:

Get an unbiased third party to give you feedback on your Web copy. Is the tone genuine and not too salesy? Is your offer or sales process clearly explained? Your Web readers may be hanging on confusion in your copy that you don't recognize.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Debbie Weil is an online marketing and corporate blogging consultant based in Washington, DC. She blogs at www.DebbieWeil.com and www.BlogWriteForCEOs.com. Visit her main site at www.WordBiz.com.