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Imagine yourself in a helicopter over Milwaukee, USA, on the sunny morning of June 13, 1998.

You look down casually on the crisscrossing tangle of roads along Interstate 94, and then do a double take. You can't believe your eyes.

It seems like there are hundreds of moving objects on the highway below. Maybe even thousands. You watch in horror as a veritable sea of black advances like warrior ants into downtown Milwaukee.

You hastily reach for your binoculars and your heart goes thump, thump, thump. Thousands upon thousands of Harley bikers, swathed in trademark leather atop shining chrome bikes, seem to be invading the city.

What should you do? Maybe you should call the newspaper. The police, perhaps. Surely Milwaukee needs some sort of warning.

But it's too late. The bikers are already in the city.

Then You See the Fluttering Flags

The roads of Milwaukee seem to be lined with cheering people. Flags flutter in the sunshine. The roar of the crowd seems to drown out the sound of the helicopter.

Down at street level, 50,000 proud Harleys roar through the city.

You don't know it yet, but among those riders are senior executives, CEOs, employees and long-time owners of Harleys. It's a heck of a parade, and over 125,000 owners turn up for Harley's big 95th “Come Home” birthday.

Wouldn't it surprise you, even appall you, to know that in the spring of 1984, just 14 years earlier, only 28 eight bikers showed up?

28 to 365,000: What Changed in 14 Years?

It's called HOG. Short for Harley Owners Group.

Harley had dug a deep financial hole for itself in 1983. Money for advertising was more or less nonexistent. Saddled with this Catch 22, Harley Davidson set about creating the first HOG chapter.

Using newsletters and club magazines, Harley built its subscriber base one member at a time. From one solitary chapter, HOG has mushroomed to an astounding 940 chapters around the world.

Working on an Advertising Budget of 10 Cents or Less

In 1997, Harley Davidson spent just $1 million on advertising. Before you say, “Oh, I don't have a million,” look at Harley's advertising budget for 1996, 1995, 1994, 1993, 1992... all the way to 1984.

Zero.

A big fat zero.

All their money, squillions of dollars, went into creating an absolutely top-notch product. And then creating a community that would buy into the brand.

You Were Expecting Some Big Secret, Weren't You?

It's called community. Yeah, that's the big secret. Creating community among your clients. Harley does it. Sting does it. Apple does it. So why don't you do it?

It's way too much trouble, huh?

Well let's jump back to Harley Davidson's profit line. Think jackets, boots, gloves, T-shirts, bike accessories, baseball caps. Then do the math. Don't you think each HOG member is going to spend at least $10 to keep up his/her Harley image?

What's $10 profit x 350,000 members? You got it: $3.5 million.

Now let's look at actual figures. In 1996, Harley took home $100 million. Up from $20 million just 8 years before, in 1988. Mind boggling, huh?

And we're not even counting the profits from the sales of the Harley bikes!

So How Can You Do a Harley?

Let's face it. You work too damn hard in your business.

Yes, you know you've got to sell time and again to a customer. And yes, you know the real profit lies in your existing customer coming back time and again. And that customers talk to customers and it helps to build sales.

But where the heck are you going to get the time to do all of this community business?

If Katrina Can Do It, So Can You

Katrina runs a little dress store in a town that boasts of less than 15,000 residents. Business can be cutthroat, especially with the big mega-stores within small business gobbling distance.

Yet, Katrina's done a “Harley.”

Every month, Katrina heads out for coffee. And she's not alone. In the quaint little cafe down the road, there's a hubbub of excitement. Katrina's customers are having a whale of a time. They're laughing, chatting and tucking into cheesecake—while Katrina picks up the tab month after month.

Do you see the word advertising anywhere? Printing of glossy brochures? Hundreds of dollars spent on publicity?

All it costs is $2.50 for a coffee. Per customer. Per month.

That's all it takes. And Katrina's community builds one customer at a time. Customers bring friends, friends bring friends and the dresses fly out of Katrina's dress store.

Why Community Is the Most Powerful Secret of All

1. The competition doesn't have a clue

While conventional advertising and publicity are great, they cost serious moolah. And everyone, including competitors, can see exactly what you're doing. Once they get their grubby hands on your plans, they can outspend you, outsmart you and send your business into Outer Mongolia.

With community, you can see who's coming through the door. And you're the doorkeeper. It gives you the chance to create Super Glue loyalty, long before your competition wises up.

2. Communities give specific and vital feedback

They may complain good-naturedly at times. But mostly they'll be giving you valuable feedback. They'll tell you what they want and what is passé. They'll bond with you and trust you and your judgment with each meeting.

You will no longer have to guess what your customers want. They'll tell you even without your asking. What more could you ask for?

3. No man (or woman) is an island

You've heard that phrase before. No one likes to be an isolated case. Psychologically, we all like to be part of a group, a society, a country or a community of some sort. Give your clients something to cling to, and watch how leaders and volunteers form within the community dramatically lessen your workload.

Bankers Call It Compound Interest

Invest in an account now and put away a little bit every day. Suddenly, before you know it, you've got gazillions in the bank.

Building community is no different. You'll have to put the pieces together, one evangelist at a time.

Ladies and gentlemen, rev up your engines. Hit the road and start building your community.

And you'll find, as Harley has found with HOG: yes, communities do bring home the bacon!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean D'Souza uses age-old psychology, marrying it to modern technology, on his Web site, psychotactics.com. Can "psychological tactics" make a difference? Go there and find out.