Influencing the influencers

The following writeup was written for I.T. magazine. Here is the published link – Finding and Influencing the Influencers

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In today’s world, with over thousands of advertising messages reaching out to us and with attention spans decreasing rapidly; with the lines between PR and Marketing blur; with the entire Social Media buzz and Social Marketing coming into play. It has become very challenging for startups and new products to reach out to the initial users and influence them to create a brand recall and recognition in their minds.

For a startup, company or brand (for ease of read I will use the word startup to mean all these three entities) it is an on-going, ever evolving process to build its identity, increase recall and recognition. With increased clutter in the world around, it is very important for startups to clearly identify who they are reaching out to, what the message is and the impact of the communication.

How does one reach out?

In the current market scenario, for any business, it makes sense to look for channels that have high viral effect, has low customer acquisition cost, has the potential to build high degrees of trust and awareness.

1.       Founders as Brand Ambassadors:
It is important for founders to channelize their efforts towards constantly building an identity for their startup and themselves as ambassadors. Constant interaction and discussion about the startup and business offering, candid sharing of opinions and thoughts on varied topics, communicating the USP and key messages about the startup – all these come a long way in helping the early adopters identify with you as the founders and the brand at large. This also helps in building awareness and trust towards the startup.

Vijay Mallaya of the UB, Kingfisher group and Richard Branson of Virgin are great examples of founders as Brand Ambassadors. These two have worked their way up in building and expanding their business empire, constantly promoting their products and offerings. Appearing almost naked for a key business announcement at the New York Times Square, flying gas balloons that are Virgin branded, personally sending out messages to all their travelers on Kingfisher and living a lifestyle that reflects the brand – these guys have done it all and constantly re-invent themselves to reach out to and make an impact in the users minds.

2.       Reaching out to the initial users to build trust about the startup:

For startups, it is important to engage in constant dialogue with the early users. The initial users, called the “early adopters” are creatures that associate with your offering for varied reasons. It could be because:

a.       they try everything that is new

b.      they are curious about the offering as it’s a related domain they are working on

c.       the startup is their neighbor

d.      they love to give their opinion on various things

Just about any reason. But, interestingly the “early adopters” are those that take on to a new offering easily, are candid about their feedback, have more patience than the normal user to try & test the product or service, help fine-tune, and most of all these are the ones who talk and propagate the startup.  Therefore, it is important to reach out to these people fast, create a feedback channel, interact with them regularly and improve on the offering based on their inputs.

3.       Influencing the Influencers:

While interacting with the early adopters or the influencers, it is important to constantly communicate with them and ensure that they see constant evolution in the business offering. Keep the influencers interested and influence them by way of fine-tuning the offering, making it sticky for them to talk and promote the offering further. These early adopters have a very wide circle of influence in the society. There are a section of people who are constantly observing the early adopters to try and test something, give their verdict for them to start using the products.

While at madhouse (Madhouse Media, one of the first organized movie rental services which was acquired by Seventymm in 2007), the one important task I had at hand was to continually seek out avenues and opportunities to reach out to, and establish a feedback loop with the end users, by way of direct interactions or through other mediums of communication.  Sameer (co-founder of Madhouse Media) and I did this to establish trust among the users about the founders – the people who are executing the idea. We did this to spread the word about our business. We did this to ensure that people saw us as authority in movies, recommendations and movie rental business. As founders who knew what their business was about. As a business that ‘cared’ and did everything to make it easy for the users.

Where & how does one find these influencers?

1.       Media: This has been a vehicle for over ages to reach out to a large audience, no doubt. But what this channel does is to interact with the early adopters first, who have influenced the rest of the society! The messages sent out via these channels have successfully created brands, heroes, patrons and most of all trust in the world.  This channel includes print media, radio, online media – blogs, news sites, social media tools like Twitter, Facebook,LinkedIn, etc.

Many people recognize Basecamp of 37Signals, because of their blog signalvsnoise. The founders wrote about things that mattered to them on their blog and started sharing their experiences with a set of readers, who would later become the early adopters of their business offering. Their blog and their presence in the online world helped in creating a strong recall factor among the minds of people who were in the online world, the early adopters for Basecamp.

2.       Public Interactions: This tool is one of the oldest and is deemed successful since Aristotle’s time. Public representation of the brand and its ambassador has a long lasting impression on the end users, increasing the chances of recall, recognition and loyalty. The channel includes Demos, Presentations, Talks, Mixers, Meets, Tweet-ups, Other face to face communication

The more you interact with people face-2-face, the better it is for you to make a lasting impression.  Interact with the early adopters, the opinion leaders, the influencers. Engage with them intellectually, challenge their notions, allow your views to be challenged. Many successful personalities are people with good interpersonal skills, presentation skills, with the talent to reach out to and convince people of their thoughts – Hitler, Gandhi, Steve Jobs, Obama, to name a few…

So, how exactly does one influence the influencers?

1.       Timeliness: Repeated updates that reach out to the early adopters, via:

a.       Announcement of important progress in the business offering or startup

b.      Reiteration of what the startup stands for and what the founders, promoters vision is

c.       Constant updates on relevant business related topics

As part of madhouse, Sameer and I continuously kept in touch with many people – people in the media, people who are early adopters, people who are bloggers, people who are influencers in the society. We made it a point to interact with everyone – big and small, as we believed that there is learning from everyone. Specially, with the early adopters – we kept in constant touch, informing them of our progress. Involving them in discussions specific to madhouse and otherwise. Connecting them to others. We entered into long-term relationship – not inferior or superior, but as equals. This worked well in creating a long term relationship. And our keeping in constant touch was – informal regular mail interactions, commenting on the writers articles, blogs, placing that friendly call once in a while – with an update, question, connection or just simply “Happy New year”, meeting them up when we were visiting that part of town or city or for that Friday evening beer. Bumping into them and spending quality time during mixers, conferences, bar camps, etc.

2.       Quality: Communication that has value, creates trust and exhibits the brands and the ambassadors authority over specific areas of expertise

a.       Authoritative write-ups about the field of expertise

b.      Analysis, projections, predictions in the area of expertise

c.       Taking a ‘stance’, which the startup and the founders  will stand for and project

I love Jason Calacanis, Seth Godin, Paul Graham…. Why? Coz all these guys have a view point, are articulate about it and provide useful insights, challenge my intellect and give me more to carry away each time I read their blog,  writeup or an article about them. This is what we tried to do as part of Madhouse. Sameer particularly, as he was the external face of madhouse – practiced and still practices “Quality”. We had our view points and made sure we express them on various forums. Madhouse stood for “legal rentals” “stood for doing things the right way” “stood for organizing the rental business in India” “stood for quality home video experience” – we made sure we expressed our view point and what we stood for in our words and actions. We also wanted to share our experiences as entrepreneurs and so we did, each time we met an entrepreneur, a blogger or in our personal blogs, etc.

3.       Dialogue: Create a channel of dialogue exchange with the early adopters. Listen to them, question them, find out how things are every now and then, make sure you dig deep into what their impression is about the business offering, how they use it, what they think needs to be changed, show them your concern, show them you care!

At madhouse our goal was to never miss a movie delivery or deliver the wrong movie. We constantly kept in touch with our initial users to get feedback from them. If we missed a movie or slipped on our service for what ever reasons, we would send a small little cake with a sorry note. This came a long way for us, as these early adopters who saw us sweat it out and pay attention to detail, spread the word and helped us grow our customer base later.

4.       Innovative Methods: Find the most economical and innovative methods of reaching out, use smart techniques, but not overtly obvious ones.  Especially, these days with the social media channels, reaching out and creating a buzz is rather inexpensive, if done well. Be on the look out for venues to reach out, it could be the blogger you meet in a mixer, a journalist who is a friend’s friend or just you who’s active on the social media channels. Best marketing is the one done with no spend!

Who’s got to do it?

Of course YOU – as the founder, promoter, CEO, stakeholder – you have got to do this. It’s an ongoing task, it helps immensely and the returns are immeasurable. No outsourced firm, No internee, No management hire can do it for you. It is very important for a startup to have the main stake holders put in the efforts of spreading the word for their startup and build a social image for them. As an entrepreneur, among the many things you do, you do this too. If it does not come naturally, you lean to doing it. It is of utmost importance that the stakeholders interact with the influencers and early adopters. This established a connect with them, makes them build trust, helps you share the vision of the company with them and for all you know, you can find your potential investor, partner or employee in them!

When we started madhouse, Sameer & I did all the work ourselves, from taking orders on the phone, buying movies, packing them to delivering them to the users doorsteps, and this came a long way for us as a company. We knew exactly what it took to doing these tasks helping us build good processes and training the employees. It helped us establish a relationship with the early users; get first hand feedback from them. We were the ones who stood there in the mall and sold those initial memberships, interacted with people who did not take the membership and understood their concerns, fine tuned the sales pitch and re-sold to the apprehensive ones! We were the ones who were there in conferences, barcamps, mixers representing madhouse, talking about the concept and getting feedback. All this helped us establish madhouse as a brand among the influencers, who in turn became spokespersons for the brand!

However, above all this, it is important that as founders and stakeholders while doing all the work, we are:

1.       Humble, as humility disarms

2.       Honest, as it helps us win people over, build trust and create deep relationships

3.       Fair, as this is the best way to run a business

4.       Quick to accept mistakes, as this is another good trait that makes people like you. Everyone makes mistakes; the one who accepts it and changes is a winner!

In any society, the early adopters or influencers are the ones who have their antennas activated to receive and accept new things. As founders we must take care in building solutions that solve a problem or address a need, then it sure will get noticed by these early adopters who will give you the advantage of candid feedback and help you improve on your business. So, keeping your ears closer to the ground will help you improve and spread the word through these sneezers!

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