Everyone knows that word-of-mouth marketing is the most effective and efficient way to attract new customers to a brand or a store. Yet before the widespread adoption of social media, word-of-mouth happened by accident and was not something easily managed.
Then along came Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram and brands discovered new ways to manage word-of-mouth marketing and make it work. A multi-billion-dollar industry – influencer marketing – was born.
A recent Association of National Advertisers study found some 75% of marketers are using it to raise brand awareness and drive traffic to websites and stores.
But consumers caught on pretty quickly that influencers’ social media posts weren’t necessarily authentic endorsements. They get paid to do them.
The mercenary nature of influencer marketing dramatically reduces its influence. Some 57% of consumers say there is an authenticity gap.
What influences people most are recommendations, or what marketers call user-generated-content (UGC), that come from real people they know and trust.
While brands aren’t about to give up influencer marketing, they still have a basic problem: how to get real people to spread the word about their brand.
Brands are now experimenting with ways to put real customers to work to bridge the influencer authenticity gap. Here are three companies that take customer engagement to the next level to supercharge sales and enhance customer service.
Outer turns customers’ patios into showrooms
By all accounts the outdoor living market is going gangbusters, as staycations became the norm this year. But you can’t recreate the luxury of your favorite five-star resort in a shopping trip to Lowe’s or Home Depot.
Outer, the digitally-native outdoor furniture brand that got its start on “Shark Tank” in 2019, can fill the bill with modular furniture designs from $2,300 for a set of two chairs to an eight-piece sectional for $8,895.
Outer prides itself on its innovative weather-resistant, super-comfortable design, thanks to the experience co-founder Terry Lin had as vice president of product management for Casper Sleep and designing products for Pottery Barn.
But what is most innovative from a retailing perspective is its sales strategy, called Neighborhood Showrooms. Its customers are its sales representatives and their backyards its showrooms.
Co-founder Jiake Liu describes it as a crowdsourced showroom model that is perfectly suited to the outdoor living category because the backyard is a public/private space. This business model is designed to scale, since the company doesn’t have to invest in retail showrooms across the country.
“I don’t want to build a company that just serves the two coasts,” Lui said in an interview with Curbed. “My ambition is to scale this in a way that we can sell to people in towns of 500 people.”
Neighborhood Showroom hosts are carefully vetted, using the same services as AirBnb and Uber, and hosts can earn discounts and dollars through scheduled in-person visits, hosting Outer-sponsored events, and answering customer questions by text, email, phone or video chat. And they are coached but not scripted as to what to say to potential customers.
This past June, Outer received $4.5 million in seed funding that will be used to broaden its product line, which is manufactured in Lui’s family-owned factory in China, and expand to 200 Neighborhood Showrooms across the country in the next six months.
Good luck trying to reach that scale on a budget so small with a traditional retail business model.
Shapermint customers lend an authentic voice of body positivity
In this age of body positivity, digital-startup Shapermint faced a critical challenge: convincing women that shapewear could give her an extra level of body confidence and do it comfortably. The later was an even bigger hurdle for a company without a physical retail presence.
Just like modern women wear makeup to enhance their beauty not to hide their flaws, shapewear does the same and can do it comfortably. That was the message that Shapermint needed to communicate to the roughly 50% of women who don’t wear it.
“Two years ago when we started, we wanted to change the conversation about shapewear and do it in a different way,” explains Massimiliano Tirocchi, co-founder and CMO. “That’s when we came up with recruiting regular people to join Shapermint Crew as our brand ambassadors.”
Incentivized with a commission for sales brought to the brand, with commissions rising from 7% to 10% as the number of sales increases, crew members are asked to post on social media at least three times per month.
That simple program worked alright at first, but Shapermint found its crew’s interest started to lag, so they began creating crew member challenges around particular themes, like posting about body positivity and female empowerment. That added an extra level of excitement for members and lifted engagements.
Shapermint carefully vets its crew, keeping it to manageable numbers because of the onboarding commitment and need to support each member as they learn the ropes and master the challenges.
They also aren’t selected based solely on reach and followers, as in typical influencer programs. What Shapermint desires among its crew members is authenticity, or what Tirocchi calls “social proof.”
“We provide guidelines to our members, so they deliver the right messages. Sometimes it’s not perfect, but its real,” he continues. “If you try to force them to say something, you may lose credibility. We want the conversations they have to be real conversations, not just some influencer posting about a product.”
The Shapermint Crew program has been critical to the company reaching $200 million in revenue and 4 million customers since its launch in 2018.
“Our core strength as a company is having profitable customer acquisition through digital channels,” Tirocchi says, which more and more brands are discovering isn’t easy to accomplish with traditional social media and programmatic digital advertising.
Chatdesk manages customer support for brands through highly-engaged people
Unlike Outer and Shapermint which recruit their own brand loyalists to spread their message, Chatdesk organizes and manages teams of everyday people working remotely for more than 100 retail companies, many in the beauty and fashion categories, like Everbrand, Sole Society and Mented Cosmetics.
Co-founder Aneto Okonkwo worked for seven years at Google specializing in chatbots and AI and decided in 2016 to apply these technologies to help retailers scale their customer support efficiently to drive service to sales.
Chatdesk tackles thorny customer service challenges for retailers and brands, like an overwhelming number of questions and comments that can come in depending upon the time of day and the brands’ advertising activity. If those questions get answered promptly, Chatdesk has found 10% to 15% of people will convert and make a purchase.
Its Teams’ offering helps companies recruit regular people and brand loyalists to stand watch and respond to questions and comments that are regularly generated by the brands’ social media ads or come in via chat or email.
“We provide an on-demand team of folks who are interested in helping out and supporting the brand,” Okonkwo says, explaining that these team members don’t necessarily have to be brand loyalist, but knowledge of the brand is essential.
They have discretion to respond to incoming messages based upon their personal interests and personal experience. So for a brand like BarkBox, its pet-parent team members are likely to pick up and answer those questions.
Chatdesk carefully recruits people interested in particular product categories or the brands represented among its clients by scouring Facebook and Reddit communities, job sites and meetup groups.
If interested, they are onboarded by being introduced to the Chatdesk platform and given practice time and a reference guide with cues and suggestions about how to handle different types of messages.
To ensure that team members don’t go rogue, Chatdesk gives its team member a selection of prewritten answers to many of the most common questions to select from, though they can edit those comments to personalize messages further.
On the backend Chatdesk monitors all outgoing messages and provides on-going guidance to help team members respond more effectively.
Team members may work for only one brand depending upon the volume and their availability, but many work for two or three because they may have interests and experience that span many categories, like food, pets, fashion and beauty.
Brands can tap into the Chatdesk team with programs starting as low as $100 per month depending upon volume. Team members can supplement their income working from home based upon the number and complexity of their answers.
“Some people make this their fulltime job, earning thousand of dollars a month,” Okonkwo says. “That’s timely now since so many people in retail have been furloughed or are not working at all. They come to us with a lot of clienteling and selling experience and brands can put them to work.”
More ways to influence
While traditional influencer marketing is going to remain important, it is valuable to learn about how companies, like Outer, Shapermint and Chatdesk, put a new spin on it to engage real people to represent brands in an authentic, personalized and more meaningful way.
And that is what brands need most today, an authentic voice that breaks through marketing-speak and delivers real information that customers need to make purchase decisions.