A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory

Turning Customers into Brand Advocates

Building a great company isn’t just about making great products. It is about working to make every interaction with a customer a positive experience. From  marketing emails to the in-store experience to websites to 1-800 numbers to Facebook, there are more ways than ever for customers to connect with companies. All these touch points define what customers think of a brand.  For companies, they  are opportunities  to turn customers into brand advocates that actively spread the word about the company and its products. 

One brand that is doing a great job of using online interactions to build a cadre of brand advocates is the online clothing retailer Bonobos.  Beyond simply having a great website, Bonobos is using a myriad of tactics to recruit new customers and to deepen its relationship with existing ones.

  • Any new customer can get  $50 off their first order of $100 or more by simply sharing their email address and zip code.  Further, Bonobos allows for all products to be returned at any time and pays for shipping on returns.  These steps make it easy for customers to try the company’s product.  It also shows that Bonobos is confident in the quality of its products.  
  • Bonobos runs a unique referral program that encourages customers to spread the word about the company via word of mouth.  Existing customers can send their friends and family $50 off coupons through the site.  If your friend buys more than $100 in stuff, you get a $50 store credit.   The site includes tools you can use to email friends the discounts and post links about the discounts to Facebook and Twitter.  
  • Bonobos customer service representatives (called “ninjas”) are extremely responsive and encouraged to show actual personality.  I had an order get screwed up one time, and in addition to correcting the problem right away they sent a free shirt for my trouble.  Mistakes happen, and dealing with them proactively and transparently is a great way to build brand loyalty.
  • The company utilizes social media very well.  They have an active Facebook community and encourage employees to interact with customers through their Twitter accounts.  The company frequently posts Twitter or Facebook-specific discounts as a way of incentivizing customers to follow them.   They also write a blog that is much better than what you typically see from clothing companies.
  • Bonobos continually runs games and contests aimed at engaging with brand advocates.  Promotions have ranged from photo caption contests to product naming contests to an NCAA tournament bracket where customers compete against employees. 
  • The company does a great job with their email marketing.  In addition to simply sending out compelling emails (see example email below), they also segment their email list based on the customers engagement with the brand.  Bonobos sends out a weekly email to casual customers, while hard core brand advocates receive daily emails.  This kind of list segmentation is a smart way to satisfy loyalists while not turning off casual fans with too many emails. 

What Bonobos is doing is clearly working.  The company reports that sales tripled in the last six months of 2010.  Obviously having a good product is the most important part of Bonobos success.  But Bonobos proactive efforts to identify and reward brand advocates has also been a critical contributor to the company’s exponential growth.


March Madness: Hey ESPN, Your Facebook's Broken

ESPN Tournament Bracket

I'm a big fan of sports – I'm also a big fan of fantasy sports – kind of a nerd/jock hybrid and I'm completely fine with it. That being said, March is a big month for all fantasy sports nerds due to the NCAA tournament. Fans spend all season watching their favorite team in hopes that they will make the tournament and it all comes down to one day: Selection Sunday. Of course as soon as the teams were chosen, I, like many, rushed to my computer to start filling out my first of countless brackets that I would no doubt end up creating.

I must say, brackets have come a long way since the pen and paper versions of not so long ago. Both ESPN and Yahoo use what looks like a combo of HTML, CSS and JQuery (no doubt staying away from flash for mobile and tablet users) to create a pretty slick user experience. There are even some nice little Facebook sharing features and the option to email your friends. And these things are all great – if they work.

In my love for competition I thought it would be a great idea to invite some of my family and friends to join a group. I logged into ESPN, quickly setup the group and visited the invite screen. The first tab that shows up is a nice little email invite that appears to work fine- but who has the time to look up all those email addresses? I was much more intrigued by the Facebook tab.

At first glance I thought ESPN had created an awesome little tool. You could easily search all your friends, select multiple people and send them a private message including the group name and password. Simple, straightforward and effective – seemed great. Sadly, after I attempted to send my incredibly witty message filled with trash talk and sarcasm, I was brought to another screen with the same tool – only not in the ESPN site wrapper. Frustrated, I again typed my brilliant message, selected the same set of friends and tried to send again only to be greeted the same screen again. Now if my messages were actually sent I would be OK – not how I would redirect the user but hey, if it works it works. But it didn't.

Now its not the end of the world that I can't send my friends a Facebook message, in fact, I used the email tool and got the same desired effect. What bothers me is that its still up as an option. At this point ESPN obviously knows it doesn't work, if you attempt to use the Facebook tool you just get a link to a "#" so they are most likely working on it. But why is the tab still there? Shouldn't the kinks have been worked out beforehand? March Madness rolls around but once a year – shouldn't the platform be tested thoroughly beforehand?

And don't get me started on how the I couldn't post this awesome picture of my nephew as my family's ESPN group pic.

Here at Bivings, one quickly acquires the knowledge that websites must be tested. Tested over and over, and then tested again. We have some very detail oriented members of our staff who enjoy testing forms and pages until they break. These things are bound to happen, to quote one of our programmers: “The internet doesn’t run on magic and unicorns” – but  maybe ESPN could use a few more of the Steve Petersens and Todd Zieglers of the world to test their products so it seems like it.

*Since this post was written, ESPN has fixed the issue with their Facebook tool. Nice job ESPN.

Another Awesome 404 Error Page

A 404 error page is that annoying page you get when you try to access a web page that has moved or been deleted.  A couple of months back I wrote a dorky blog post about how web developers should use  404 pages as branding opportunities instead of just throwing the page away and spitting out an error.  You can read the post here if you are interested.

We recently launched a new website for the Orianne Society, and our Bivings design team put together another stellar 404 page (screengrab below).


Update (3/7/2011): Here is another example from another TBG client, the Entomological Society of America.

ESA 404 Page

Smashing Magazine has other great examples.

Infographic Overload

I love a good infographic as much as the next guy.  I really do.  An infographic done right can make a point much more effectively than straight text.  See this example.  Or this one or this one.

But the last few months things have gotten out of hand.  In an effort to create viral, easily-digestible content, many publishers seem to have abandoned writing altogether and gone to an all-infographic, all-the-time format. 

Sometimes the resulting infographics are simply window dressing that don’t add anything to the data presented (via @dostrower).  In other cases they are so complicated that they actually get in the way of understanding the information that is being conveyed.  And sometimes they are so badly done they are misleading or incomprehensible.

I think we all need to take a step back, and think through if value is being added before we decorate our content with stick figure men, maps, and concentric circle graphs.  Not everything needs to be an infographic.

Check out the great Think Brilliant parody of infographics below.


Yobongo and Viral Nature of Beta Invites

As part of the launch process, new tech startups typically run a closed beta testing phase where a limited group of users can kick the tires of their new site.   This period allows for startups to get discreet feedback from impartial users, while also testing how the product scales without launching to the whole world.   As someone who likes to try out the latest shiny new thing, the last few years I’ve become pretty familiar with the methods tech startups use to dole out these beta invites, which many of us treasure. 

Typically start ups will launch a one page placeholder homepage where users can enter an email address to get on the beta tester waiting list.  Over time, the site owners will slowly start sending invites to the beta testers they have recuited.  Typically, in addition to access themselves the initial beta testers are also given a limited number of invites (usually 5) that they can give to their friends.  This process causes the test group to grow in an organic and manageable manner. This is the method sites like Gmail and Rockmelt have used to roll out their beta test phases. 

Beyond making sure the site is functional and stable, these beta periods are also critical opportunities for start ups to build buzz about their new product.  By severely limiting the number of people who have access to their product during this closed beta period, start ups create a false shortage as a way of increasing demand.  The initial people with access feel special, and people without access want in.  People want  things they can’t have.  

The invites that a beta tester receives along with access to the site are equally cherished.  Again, this is basic psychology at work.  Beta testers not only have the keys to the kingdom themselves, but they have the ability to give keys to the kingdom to others.  For many, the invites are actually more important than getting access to the site itself.  I myself am guilty of getting access to beta sites and quickly giving away my invites without actually testing the site myself in any depth. 

Over the last few days, I’ve noticed a number of people post about a new startup called Yobonga on Twitter and Facebook.  After seeing multiple posts, I clicked through and checked out the site to see what all the fuss was about.  I learned that Yobonga appears to be some sort of mobile, location-based chat service with an exceedingly clever way to dispensing beta invites. 

Yobongo’s homepage is pretty typical – featuring a few sentences about the product, a video and a form you fill out to get on the invite list.  After signing up for the beta list I understood what the fuss was about.  Yobongo is giving early access to their product to people who not only sign up themselves, but get three other additional people to sign up as well.   It is basically a giant, and sustainable, pyramid scheme, designed to build buzz about the product.  Below is a screenshot of the invite page.


So the buzz I was seeing on Twitter and Facebook wasn’t from people who tried and loved Yobongo, but instead from folks trying to recruit others to join the email list so they could get early access to the product.  While I must admit to being a little annoyed by all the buzz I saw online, I have to acknowledge the cleverness of what Yobongo is doing.  I hope the product is as good as the marketing behind it.