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Friday Guest Column: Encouraging Customers to Spread the Word

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Kristen Plemon is an Account Executive with the public relations firm, C. Blohm & Associates Inc.

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Traditional marketing methods are losing effectiveness as increasing numbers of marketing messages bombard potential buyers on a daily basis. Meanwhile, buyers are connecting with thousands of people instantly, and potentially influencing their opinions, through the “social web.” Buyers are online, sharing their wish lists, favorite sites, and positive (or negative) experiences. Today, companies must fuel word-of-mouth to grow their customer base and increase sales, especially in the education industry.

Educators want to hear from other educators about what is working in their schools, and what isn’t. Whether talking with a prospective customer, potential investor, or journalist, you need customer references – educators who are prepared and willing to share how your products or services are helping them improve education.

Keep in mind, however, that even if you have a database of hundreds, or thousands, of customers, only about 1-10 percent could be “evangelists.” Evangelists are highly satisfied customers who actively spread the word to others. You need to identify these customers and nurture their development as "influencers."

To help you get started, here are some proven ways to identify key customers, find customer success stories, and encourage customers to share their experiences.

Solicit customer feedback continuously.
You have a number of communication channels at your fingertips: newsletters, email campaigns, trade shows, and more. Here are a few ideas:

• If you have a packaged product, include comment cards in the shipment.
• Create an area on the company or product Web site for customers to submit testimonials, suggestions and questions.
• Offer a story or video contest to have educators showcase best practices and use of your product.
• Capture customer testimonials and success stories at your exhibit booth through promotions, or during meetings.

Call on company team members to identify and nurture happy customers. Often a company’s sales team is the eyes and ears of the business. Encourage them, and other corporate staff such as customer service employees, to gather important story information when conversing with customers:

• Full contact details
• Products and services being used
• Scale of implementation
• Length of time using product(s)
• How the customer is using the product in a way that is unique, significant, or fits with current trends

Maintain a key customer information matrix that includes testimonials and contact details. Make sure you receive signed permission forms from customers to use their testimonial in any marketing or public relations materials. Indicate in the matrix if the customer is willing to speak to the press. (Some educators may submit a testimonial, but cannot speak with the press due to district policies.) These customers are your vetted sources who can share their positive product experiences with others. With the matrix, all of the information you need is in one place, so you can quickly refer to it when searching for customer stories to develop case studies or to give reporters for article ideas.

Create meaningful opportunities for key customers to share information, collaborate with other educators, and participate in special company projects or events.
Educators want their voices to be heard, and for their involvement to result in positive change. One way to promote these interactions is to form an “Education Leaders Advisory Board,” or “21st Century Learning Partners Group,” comprising key customers who provide ongoing guidance to your company on education issues, trends and product development. Another option is to develop a customer wiki, or online forum, to enable customers to share insights and advice.

By engaging in deeper conversations with customers, you strengthen customer relationships. The strategy builds brand loyalty, generates support, and adds value to your products and services.

2 Comments

The absence of user opinions -- especially public, negative comments -- about ed-tech products in particular is one of several reasons that market is completely broken.

In my observation, there are two reasons for this. If you're a purchaser, you're afraid of breaking laws connected to bidding processes. If you're not a purchaser, and you criticize a product, whomever purchased it is probably your superior, and won't be happy.

Also, the power relationship between districts and many (but by no means all) administrators and vendors (particularly in tech) seems all wrong. For example, I've often gotten the sense that people are afraid of Microsoft. That they are literally worried that criticizing Microsoft publicly or publicizing beginning a move to Linux would lead to their getting a worse deal on licensing. Whether or not this is justified, I think it is common.

Anyhow, anyone know any details about the actual limits to what purchasers involved in bid processes can say?

Hi Tom - Great question. State, district or school staff involved in the evaluation and selection process for an RFP must abide by state procurement laws, which may dictate whether or not they can talk about vendors outside of closed meetings, to keep the process fair for everyone and protect taxpayers. That said, the "social web" provides a forum for educators to voice their opinions and share their experiences with technology products with other educators. Many companies in the education industry are are engaging administrators and teachers through Web 2.0 tools to improve relations and to listen to their feedback to make product enhancements or changes that better meet educators' needs. The industry is also making efforts to develop valuable district-vendor partnerships. The Consortium for School Networking and the Software & Information Industry Association are two such industry organizations that are working to provide meaningful information that helps districts and vendors work together to improve education. ~Charlene

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  • Charlene Blohm: Hi Tom - Great question. State, district or school staff read more
  • Tom Hoffman: The absence of user opinions -- especially public, negative comments read more

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