Tapping customers as active members of your brand isn’t entirely new – we’ve had Tupperware parties since the ‘50s. Social media helps give the idea scale; brands needn’t truly hire customers to turn them into advocates.

But many brands don’t yet recognize that there are opportunities across the organization to improve each department’s effectiveness – and strengthen consumer-brand relationships – by “hiring” customers to more actively participate in the organization. Here are a few examples of brands bringing their customers more deeply into the business.

Operations: Walmart considers crowdsourcing delivery from stores

There’s an arms race going on in retail. Amazon and other online retailers are aggressively pursuing same-day delivery – threatening to encroach on the immediate convenience of traditional retail outlets like Walmart. The superstore has adopted numerous omnichannel strategies to combat its online rival, including options to pay at the store and ship to home, pay online and pick up in store, order online and pay cash in store, etc. The retailer’s biggest advantage in same-day services is its massive network of stores – which can serve as shipping hubs. But finding a courier service to get items from local stores to customers’ homes remains a challenge.

Walmart’s newest concept for achieving their same-day goal takes crowdsourcing to new heights; the retailer is considering “hiring” in-store shoppers to deliver online orders to other customers who live on their route home. Customers could sign on as delivery agents to receive a discount on their shopping bill – effectively covering the cost of their gas to drive to and from the physical store. Whether the interesting concept is truly feasible remains to be seen. But it’s not as out-there as you think, says Joel Anderson, chief executive of US:

“I see a path to where this is crowd-sourced. This is at the brain-storming stage, but it’s possible in a year or two.”

The benefits to Walmart could likely go far beyond satisfying those customers who demand same-day delivery for online orders. Hiring customers in this way makes them part of the Walmart team – deepening their connection to the brand. The program incentivizes them to return to the retailer over other stores to save gas money. And most remarkably, it creates authentic, serendipitous connections between Walmart customers, who’ll meet and interact face-to-face, if fleetingly. The program would effectively put a face on the Walmart brand for online shoppers. And not just any face – the face of their real customer.

Research and development: 3M creates ongoing virtual focus groups with power users like teachers

Manufacturing mega-brand 3M must constantly adapt to the changing needs of consumers. Their commodity products face constant competition, so the brand must constantly improve every product to differentiate. To keep R&D at a breakneck pace, 3M has fully embraced consumer conversation and data analysis to find consumers’ newest needs and biggest pain points. Raj Rao, 3M’s VP Global for eTransformation, puts it simply:

“Every day, the 3M website functions like a focus group.”

The manufacturer has replaced many of its real-world focus groups with discussion groups of power users online. These ongoing groups “hire” consumers to chat with each other about their use cases, ideas, and complaints – often inspiring new products or changes to existing lines. A teacher, for example, explained how she’s always hanging up and moving around various classroom posters and student art, and wished she didn’t have to use up so much tape. Through these discussions, 3M developed a line of reusable tape strips that keep their stickiness while still peeling easily from the walls. Just like in the Walmart case, hiring customers in this way makes them feel part of the organization – because they are.

3M also collects thousands of product reviews and comments from its own sites, over a dozen retailer sites, mobile apps, and Facebook, and boils these conversations down to trends. In one case, the company’s Precision Ultra Edge nonstick scissors were selling below expectations. 3M changed its product copy, quoting the language consumers used online, which led to a dramatic improvement in product sales.

Marketing: Maker’s Mark goes beyond advocates by “hiring” Ambassadors

Similarly to 3M, premium whiskey brand Maker’s Mark faces the conundrum of marketing a commodity product. Says Todd Spencer, President and CEO of Doe-Anderson (Maker’s Mark’s agency),

“Anything that can be said about a good whiskey has already been said about a bad whiskey.”

To differentiate the product, Maker’s goes beyond basic efforts to encourage fan chatter. It actively cultivates superfans by “hiring” loyal fans to its Ambassador program – a self-selected group of customers who pledge to advocate the brand. Recognizing these fans’ powerful word of mouth, Maker’s Mark gives them the attention they deserve, spending about a third of all marketing budget on the Ambassador program. Maker’s prints business cards to help Ambassadors brag on the brand, tattoos their names on aging barrels of whiskey, and sends them annual Christmas gifts – like an “ugly Christmas sweater” for the bottle.

This commitment to active customers is nothing new for the brand. Their first ad campaigns were simply answers to customers’ mailed in questions. Ad agencies at the time mocked the campaign. Do you think they would today?

The benefits of customer involvement go well beyond basic advocacy, be it online or off. Hire customers throughout your organization to create a stronger bond between them and your brand.

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