marketing strategy

Can the social web play a role in customer retention?

The recession has culled the weak from the pack but it’s likely that your competition is still fierce.  Is there a way to attract and retain B2B customers without lowering your price? And is there a way to leverage the social web to keep your customers … even in the extreme case of a commodity market?

Holding onto customers in a buyer’s market is one of the most extraordinary challenges in business, especially if you’re selling a commodity (Commodity = purchasers view suppliers as identical on all factors but price, i.e. common coal, steel, or chemicals).

There is usually only one winner in a commodity market — the lowest cost supplier — except in periods of high demand when supply falls short.  But there are ways to lock-in customers even in ugly downturns.  One strategy I used throughout my career was to create a systematic plan to raise switching costs. By this I mean create obstacles — through valuable benefits — to prevent a customer from leaving you for the competition.

A process to retain customers

This process starts with getting out to your most valued customers and listening. And I mean REALLY listening. We would sometimes have half-day sessions to explore un-met and under-served customer needs that would …

  • Improve their competitive position
  • Enhance profitability or productivity
  • Eliminate waste
  • Lower risk
  • Increase speed to market

One strategy that uncovered potential points of differentiation was to ask customers what they hated about their job. This always seemed to get people to open up about an idea we could implement to make their life easier!   Some other potential approaches to this challenge:

  • Solve a customer problem (reporting, data-gathering, analysis/testing) that might add slightly to your cost, but establishes enough value to create a hurdle to switching
  • Create a specialized service that would be difficult for competitors to match (we did a specialized truck-return recycling program, for example)
  • Work actively with customers to influence specifications and terms that could advantage my company or disadvantage a competitor
  • Focus retention efforts on most profitable customer locations
  • Look at eCommerce integration options to enhance retention

Notice that all of these ideas go beyond the basics of price, quality and service. Those aren’t strategic initiatives. Those are competitive tablestakes these days.

When customers don’t play nice

This process of listening, reacting and renewal must be continual and integrated through an effective CRM system. But it doesn’t always work.

In the middle of all this great creative marketing work I just suggested is another dynamic. Purchasing may not want you to implement your ideas – even if there is an advantage – because it reduces their flexibility with suppliers.  They may even force you to hand over your innovations to competitors. I witnessed this in the automotive market in the 1990s.  This ended up hurting customers because when there is no reward for innovation, innovation ends.

Now what about the social web?

Is it possible to develop some distinct value through social media that could create a switching cost? My answer – probably not. The social web might be a tool to listen and tune-in to possible innovations and market needs but I don’t see how social networks can create sustainable switching costs in this part of the sales cycle. It’s free to everyone and easily duplicated by competitors.

However, I do think you can create PRIVATE information networks and communities that create distinct value. For example, one idea that worked really well was a private, unique market information hub for customers who remained in our top tier in revenue.

What are you doing to hold onto your best customers in tough economic conditions?  Can you think of any way to leverage the social web for DISTINCT value in a commodity market?

A 3 minute lesson in traditional versus social brand marketing

I found this little animation to be entertaining and instructive and wanted to share with you.  I have no connection with the producers of this video, Scholz & Friends.  They just did a good job and I wanted to say so. : )  Three minutes well-spent.

Apologies for the annoying Google ads on this video.  Not my idea.

Don’t you think this makes an effective point about media noise?

The NEW “Four P’s” of marketing

Place, product, price and promotion.

We all learned these basic marketing principles in college and they still stand up today. But the social web is a true shift in the way we communicate and go to market.  For the first time, mankind has access to real-time, free, instantaneous, two-way, global communication — and the good old marketing mantra needs a little updating.  Here are my thoughts on the NEW Four P’s of social media marketing — People, Presence, Pervasiveness and Publishing.


The social web is the first true PEOPLE-driven communication channel.  Everybody’s a video star, a rock star, a broadcaster, an author. Everybody creates, reviews, publishes, and bitches.  Publicly.  Permanently.  We have the opportunity to listen intimately and often. We can tune in to laugh and cry with our customers, wherever they are in the world. The consumer-driven web is the biggest marketing revolution since radio.


This is different from the old concept of “place.”  The old marketing “place” to sell, market or distribute was a tangible location like a grocery store. We knew where our consumers were … and they’ve probably been there for decades.   Where are they getting their information today?  From a video game?  From a link on a tweet?   From their phone?  From a coupon on their phone automatically sent to them by an RFID/GPS system while they are standing next to your product in the grocery store?

To make it even more complicated, a customer’s source of information may be constantly shifting.  Think of the implications if you choose incorrectly or your competitor moves into an emerging platform more rapidly. Kind of makes you want to go back to newspapers, huh? That’s why you need to develop a presence that can adapt and adjust to wherever consumer attention drags you. It will be fascinating to watch the big brands create a unified and compelling presence across so many platforms.


Let’s take a lesson from Twitter to illustrate this key concept. For years, Twitter hasn’t focused on making money. It has focused on DOMINATING  and pervading a consumer space. Why? They know that consumers will have the bandwidth for just one micro-blogging site. Once they devote their emotional equity to one platform it will be extremely difficult to get them to switch. Perhaps impossible. And that’s what Twitter is counting on.

So it might be easy to get folks to taste a new brand of cookie or soft drink, but it will be much more difficult to get them to switch to an unfamiliar communication or marketing channel.  Brand marketers jockeying for precious consumer online attention will have to develop ideas and entertainment concepts that are pervasive and with high emotional switching costs.  Not cheap. Not easy.


Five years ago, would you consider a shoe company to be a significant publisher?  Yet Zappos has more than a dozen blogs. I contend the biggest challenge to any marketer may be the publishing of consistently engaging, meaningful content. And increasingly that means cutting through the clutter with entertaining content like puzzles, games, contests and videos. The implications of sustaining an organization’s publishing presence is daunting!

So what’s your take on this?  How are you adjusting to the new P’s?  How are you integrating them with the old ones?