Post-Product Marketing and Engagement

reflectionLast week I had a call with a stellar product-focused company that was interested in using social networking to increase engagement. I introduced the idea of evolving the conversation past the product because I observe that most product- and service-focused companies will face the fact that very few customers love their products or services as much as they do (see Market Advisory on Consumer Empowerment). Customers want to accomplish something by using said product or service. When it comes to encouraging persistent conversations, most companies will have better success by engaging at the experience level, not only at the product level. Here I’ll present some examples of companies that are doing this right and insights into why the programs are working.

Definition: “Post-Product Marketing”

Web 1.0 (the Internet) dramatically boosted the transition from the Industrial Economy (product-focused) to the Knowledge Economy (information- and experience-focused), and most companies don’t realize the importance yet. Web 2.0 continues to accelerate the trend since it enables people to find each other and collaborate in low-cost communications. The Industrial Economy coincided with a period of broad material scarcity, so products sold themselves, with increasing marketing and sales support in the latter twentieth century to mitigate the problems of overproduction and commoditization. In “wealthy” economies, many consumers have had little material scarcity for several generations. They are jaded.

People talk about things that are meaningful or notable. Most products or services have little meaning for customers, it is the effect that the products or services have, how easily they enable customers to accomplish something meaningful, that is more noteworthy in most cases.

Social sites enable customers to self-aggregate and talk about their experience, and what companies need do is to learn how to add value to those conversations. The conversations are focused on what’s important for customers (how the product adds value), so companies can get ideas for ways to make products more relevant, and they can help large groups of customers to use products better, thereby creating more economic utility.

Examples of Experience-Focused Companies

Whole Foods Market—everybody needs groceries, right? It’s an obligatory trip once a week that everybody does as quickly as possible. Wrong! Whole Foods has successfully created an experience in which being in the store is both meaningful (these foods are good for you and your family; often eco-friendly practices used to benefit the Earth) and enjoyable in itself (design, lighting, sampling). In most stores, the policies of management and attitudes of employees more closely resemble upper scale retail than a grocery store. And the company reaches ever broader demographics each year. The contrast is striking when you shop in Whole Foods and legacy grocers. Whole Foods is not only focused on wholesome groceries, but on the experience of selecting and sharing food. In addition, the price discrepancies are narrowing in many categories. Notably, the company has leveraged this experience in social networks.

Starbucks—Starbucks has brought a facsimile of the European “café” experience to the American market, so it sells the experience of enjoying coffee, not just the consumption of caffeine. Key associations are energy, intellect, friends, environment. Its wifi deal with AT&T reinforces the experience since people can experience Starbucks while connecting with friends in social networks as easily as face to face. Previously, coffee was a commodity market. The company is currently experiencing a difficult transition with the economic crisis in the U.S. (still its largest market), and time will tell whether it can extend the coffee drinking experience (and more profitability with minimal cannibalization) with the Via experiment. The company’s MyStarbucksIdea is another social network success story.

Apple—You’ve been wondering whether I was going to include Apple, as it’s such an obvious one. What I want to point out is that Apple doesn’t sell computers or iPods, it sells “iLife,” which means friends, music, films, creativity, sharing and ease of use. The devices and software are mere enablers to achieving iLife, with high design value and minimal hassle. Computers are a commodity, but sharing photos and videos and music with friends is another S-curve. Did you know that Apple has 91% market share of machines that cost $1000+ USD? Another company in this category is Harley-Davidson, which doesn’t sell motorcycles. It sells freedom and friendship.

Intel—I met Michael Brito when we were both speakers at the Los Angeles Social Networking Conference this summer (write-up of his remarks). Michael is the consumer evangelist for consumer markets, and he’s focused on conversations with customers who have high demands for chips (gamers and video editors, for example). He is focused on the experience of having a more robust machine, but the conversation is gaming and video. Yes, the chip and the machine have peripheral roles in that conversation, but they aren’t the focus.

Mayo Clinic—Mayo Clinic is a healthcare pioneer in using social applications to enable people to share their experiences. Its Facebook Page enables prospective and existing patients and their families to share their remarks and videos. Ditto for employees, nurses, doctors, administrative personnel. Customer and employee voices have become an important part of Mayo’s overall conversation with its prospective clientele. And they are immensely credible.

Chicago Transit Authority—I include this one for variety and a twist. The chief architect of this strategy is a friend of mine. At the CTA, their goal is, in a way, the absence of experience. “Remarkable” commuting “experiences” are usually negative, so the goal at the CTA is that commuters don’t remember how they got to work, the experience was so seamless and unremarkable. The other notable initiative here is the CTA’s relatively new Bus Tracker system, which uses real-time data to reveal where all its buses are (get info on your iPhone or Blackberry, soon via SMS). This mitigates customers’ frustration with the lack of predictability of arrival and transit times. It makes the service more practical for more riders.

Parting Shots

  • Each of these examples represents a commodity product or service (okay, healthcare maybe not so much). However, the companies shown have successfully focused on their customers’ experience of using their products/services, and on the meaning that entails.
  • By no means am I suggesting that companies stop talking about their products and services! This information is very relevant and helpful to customers and prospects. However, realize that product information will probably have a limited ability to drive persistent conversations in the longer term. You need both.
  • “Experience” is not confined to “buying experience” but on the utility the customer seeks by the use of that product or service. The use of that product or service must create value within certain usage contexts.
  • By engaging customers around the meaning of the use of the product/service, the companies tap into a higher value proposition, which can significantly increase brand value and potential for innovation.
  • In social networking, companies try to be an authentic part of conversations in which their offerings are relevant to high-value customers. These conversations revolve around meaning and experience because people talk about what’s important to them (again, it’s not the product in most cases).
  • If you want to drive word of mouth, you need to nurture conversations that are relevant or entertaining or surprising or all three.

What are your favorite examples of companies that do this well?

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