Turning Customers Into Social Shills

Originally posted at SocialRep
One of the core imperatives of social marketing is engaging your customers in conversation—instead of just blanketing the market with offers and collecting conversions, social marketing focuses on active market dialog to better understand and meet the needs of customers. Your customers are already talking, the theory goes, so join the conversation. There are a lot of companies that provide the tools and technologies to support engagement, from listening tools to identify the right conversations, to community tools that help cultivate and amplify voices that add value to the dialog. To some, however, this just isn’t efficient enough. If people saying good things about your company helps sales, then why not just go out and generate good conversations?

One business model I’m seeing promoted today is the opportunity to turn your best customers into free sales reps. If you have happy customers, why not give them a rooftop to sing your praises to the world? It’s simple: just poll your customers with the Net Promoter survey. Anyone who scores high on their likelihood to recommend your product to friends gets an offer to do just that: join a system where they get points for each review they write, each email offer they send to a friend. Win prizes and cash.:

On the surface, it sounds like the perfect marriage of social media and commerce. It’s social, it’s measureable and it drives leads. What could be wrong with that? Unfortunately, everything—in fact, deploying this kind of marketing program could completely undermine your efforts to build a community by turning customers motivated to recommend you because they love your product—the most valuable customers you have—into customers motivated to recommend you for financial gain. Research consistently shows that once you cross that line, you can’t go back—and once you take the rewards away, the behavior you were rewarding stops. Dan Ariely talks about this concept in Predictably Irrational, and Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards has become a classic in the literature on the unintended consequences of incentives.

When customers are willing to say great things about you because they love your product, by all means, give them every opportunity to do so. And if reward programs move your products off the shelf, that’s great. But the ability to merge those concepts into a coin-operated “community” where happy customers are turned into free shills is not a brilliant social media business model. It’s a recipe for cashing in all your brand equity for a short boost in sales revenue.

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