How Small Businesses Can Hack Their Marketing by Turning Customers Into Influencers

By Aubre Andrus December 15th, 2014

As we learned in a recent post, brands are buying audiences instead of advertising—and it’s paying off. Here’s how it works: Brands partner with industry influencers who already have engaged audiences. Then, the influencer endorses the brand by sharing branded content with followers. As a result, the followers listen and the brands gain a new audience because they respect the influencer. But how can a small business use the same influencer marketing strategy? Don’t think big—think small. Thanks to the Internet, your reach is endless. But there is a very specific group you should be targeting.

Here’s the secret: Instead of partnering with big names, form personal relationships with your biggest influencers… customers. According to Jay Heinrichs, an author and content consultant, that’s the secret to success for small businesses—not traditional mass marketing campaigns like flyers and radio advertisements, which often don’t have much of an impact.

“Your best customers are your greatest influencers,” Heinrichs says. “If you’re a small business, you don’t have to be scalable. Your personal relationships are going to get you more customers.”

According to the Pew Research Internet Project, 71 percent of adults online use Facebook. According to Pew’s Social Networking Fact Sheet, 46 percent of adult Internet users post original content online, and those who are active online have almost 700 connections in their personal networks.

What it comes down to is this: Everyone is an influencer to someone. Whether a customer mentions your business to one person or one thousand, the word is getting around.

The key is getting them to mention you and say all the right things.

Take inventory of your best customers

Small business owners should already know who their best customers are—they’re the people who buy the most frequently and spend the most money. To find them, dig through your email list, social media following, and point-of-sale systems to discover who they are.

Author Perry Marshall says this small group, or the top 20 percent of your customer base, generates 80 percent of your yearly sales. These “superconsumers” can offer great insights, which can reinvigorate your marketing efforts and help you reach a new audience, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Once you’ve gathered the data on your best customers, Heinrichs suggests business owners ask themselves these questions:

— How do your best customers feel about you?

— Are you treating them better than any other customer?

— Are you reaching out to them consistently, in a helpful manner?

— How can they help you find those customers that ought to be buying from you but haven’t yet?

— Are they spreading the word, and are you rewarding them for doing it?

It’s important to not only identify but also to understand your best customers. Dig deeper than age, location, and purchasing behavior. Learn about their wants and needs and problems. How can you become their solution?

Activate your best customers

There’s a difference between identifying your best customers and activating them. Put simply, brand loyalty is a two-way street. You need to interact with customers and give them special treatment, and they’ll give you brand loyalty in return.

Once they’ve been activated, they’ll become the best kind of customer there is: brand activists. Brand activists are happy to be featured on your blog. Brand activists will agree to a video testimonial. Brand activists will let you use their quotes on your homepage. They’ll review your products or services before they come out. They’ll give you a peek into the mindset of your customer. And all you have to do is ask.

But activating a customer takes time. If someone writes a positive review or sends an affirming Tweet or consistently purchases new products, that person is not yet activated. You need to reward those people first. Heinrichs suggests following up with a thank-you note and an offer for VIP service. The thank-you is “the greatest marketing technique that’s ever been invented,” Heinrichs says. Sometimes that’s all it takes to activate a customer, and a “thank-you note mentality” should never be underestimated.

Once you’ve given the note, it’s time for the big ask: Will you help me out? This could happen in person or via email—just make sure your outreach is personal and meaningful. Share your goals, whether it’s getting more foot traffic or email subscribers or Facebook followers. Ask the customer to generate content on your behalf: write a testimonial on Yelp, use a certain hashtag on Twitter, or share an image on Instagram. It not only has the potential to generate more business, but also shows customers you value their opinions.

Once you’ve shared that give-and-take experience, you’ve got a customer for life. That’s the kind of brand loyalty larger companies would kill for.

“If you do someone a favor, it makes you feel closer to them,” Heinrichs says.

He points to TripAdvisor as an exemplary phenomenon. Some hotel managers respond to each and every comment—good or bad. They offer a discount on a return trip. They request honeymooning customers to return on their first anniversary. They ask if they can share the photos or language customers posted to the review site. Not only does this fulfill the needs of past customers, it makes potential customers more likely to book because they know someone on the other side of the screen cares.

“That’s what people want more than anything else,” he says, “that personal content that’s so scarce these days.”

Be your best

Engaging with customers is hard work, and the results are hard to measure. But really, a successful influencer marketing strategy comes down to a habit that any company can start practicing: make friends. Focus on making quality connections just as much as making quality products or services, and you might discover that the biggest influencer is looking right back at you in the mirror—it’s yourself.

“This has always been true. if you have a lot of friends, you’re more likely to win,” Heinrichs says. “If you’re an influential person yourself, then you’ll be successful. That’s the total win.”

Image by Dragon Images
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