The summer of 2004 features crows-feet rock stars everywhere.

Prince, David Bowie, Van Halen and Devo are touring the country, and their loyal, long-term fans are responding by filling up the concert venues.

While some of these more mature musical acts, relatively speaking, are still producing relevant, vibrant new works, they cannot rely on today's homogenized radio industry to play their work. (We say “relatively” mature, because Van Halen is forever a band of teenagers, even if its members approaching 50.) Artists tour because they love to play music, support themselves and connect with fans. For many groups, old and new, touring is grassroots marketing.

An artist's emotional and riveting live performance has tremendous influence on word of mouth and future CD sales. Watching a performance in person with other fans can be a powerful communal experience.

Going on tour is what business can learn from Van Halen.

Business ‘Rock Stars'

And it so happens that grassroots tours of business “rock stars” are a hot ticket this year. Here are some of the business acts on the road this year:

Kerstin and Spencer Block, Founders of Tucson-Based Buffalo Exchange

The funky duo is celebrating the 30th anniversary of their eclectic fashion resale chain with a 30-store tour. They're traveling in a retro-style trailer and giving away tour T-shirts and discount keycards to throngs of loyal customers. They're bringing photo boards chronicling three decades of company history and narrating slide shows for employees and customers. Almost like business performance art.

Why a tour?

“The tour is to pay homage to the company, the customers, and the employees for 30 great years,” says Spencer Block.

While Tucson-based Buffalo Exchange is a $29-million company, the Blocks' decidedly low-cost tour trailer and Internet tour journal are in keeping with the chain's celebrated cause for modesty.

“I'd like to keep a good Internet presence, but most trailer courts don't have Internet access; and on a pilgrimage, one doesn't stay at fancy hotels,” he says.

A Quartet of Developer Evangelists from Red Hat

This spring, four representatives of software firm Red Hat traveled to seven cities on four continents, meeting 1,500 enterprise customers and prospects. It was the company's second effort following a 2002 worldwide jaunt.

“Both tours were an effort to break down barriers to communication—closing the gap on the usual one-way flow of information out from a company—and to make Red Hat real,” said Jeremy Hogan, the company's senior community relations manager.

Hogan says the “hidden agenda” of the tours was to solicit feedback on products and take barometer readings of the company's standing region by region.

They delivered how-to sessions to clients and prospects and conducted user-group meetings. Some events were standing room only, thanks to strong word of mouth. A blog tracked the tour with commentary and photos. Hogan estimates that at least 60% of attendees were prospects.

“One of the recurring criticisms before the tour was lack of insight into our decision making, and lack of awareness of our presence in certain markets,” Hogan says.

By making himself and three of his colleagues easily accessible to customers, prospects and the merely curious, Hogan says, the input he and his tour colleagues gathered have as “affected product marketing and program strategy.”

Are the tours worth it?

“I would trade a dozen trade shows for one road tour,” he says. “The pulpit is yours alone.”

Hewlett-Packard's Giant Tour Trailer

HP is traveling to 45 consumer and sporting events in the United States and Canada this summer, including the Boston Marathon and the Kentucky Derby.

With 8,000 square feet of “modular, fully enclosed structures,” HP band members will let customers play with digital cameras, printers and other digital wares. HP hopes this interactive “try before you buy” program will reach 900,000 customers in 12 months.

Reggie the Voter Registration Rig

Even a cause can go on tour. The Republican Party's newest act is Reggie, an 18-wheel touring trailer that's Newt Gingrich-like in girth.

Christened in March 2004, Reggie will travel to over 500 events across the country and try to fulfill the party's goal of registering three million new voters by Election Day in November. Reggie is equipped with interactive multimedia capabilities, Xbox systems, a sound stage and, naturally, voter registration forms.

“We're a big party, and we need a big rig,” says GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie.

Ticket to Ride?

Think a tour might be the ticket to connect with your fans and create new ones? Here are some guidelines:

  1. Think loyalty, not acquisition. Plan your tour around customer clusters. Map the cities with the greatest concentrations of existing customers using your CRM system or customer database.

  2. Give plenty of notice, at least two months' worth. Feed customers plenty of stories about previous tour stops so word of mouth builds and your date on their calendar becomes increasingly important. With plenty of notice, your customers will have time to invite colleagues, too.

  3. Document your tour. Create a special Web site with a schedule, descriptions of events, and extremely easy sign up. Update a tour blog every day with commentary, photos, videos or sound files from the events, especially customer testimonials.

  4. Be generous with SWAG (souvenirs, wearables and gifts). Unlike the typical rock star, don't charge $25 for a T-shirt.

  5. Leave the suits at home. Serve beer. Be slightly outrageous. Have fun. A tour is for customers, not bankers. Even business-to-business (B2B) customers want to connect with real people with charisma, not overly starched fuddy-duddies.

  6. If you're small, a “tour” may be simply visiting customers in their homes or businesses. Like Red Hat's Hogan says, the hidden agenda can be to gather feedback and check your status with customers. Even a small tour is destined to generate word of mouth.

Musicians tour to keep their careers alive or, in some cases, support themselves. Fans don't necessarily know this, and many of them don't care. They just want to connect with their favorite music and artists.

The same could be said for your business. Many of your biggest evangelists may think of you as a rock-star leader. Or a rock-star company. Fanatics crave connection. Influential and connected customers love to meet the people behind businesses and feel like they're members of a community with others just like them. Chances are, your fans will tell most of their networks about their rock-star meeting with you and become more passionate evangelists.

There's nothing like shaking a customer's hand, looking them in the eye, and saying, “Thanks for your support. Now let's party.”

Related Links

Buffalo Exchange 30th Anniversary Tour

Red Hat World Tour Blog

HP's “You + HP” Experience Tour

Reggie the Voter Registration Rig

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Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba are the authors of Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force.