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Inspiring your user-evangelists

In the past 30 days, did you enthusiastically recommended something--anything--to someone else? Maybe it was a new restaurant, web app, game, sport, note pad, band, indie film, car, micro-brew, lotion, operating system, environmental cause, dog food, or pillow. Chances are, you did. More than once. Our users want to recommend or (if they're passionate) evangelize things they believe in, and it's our job to give users the tools to do it. Indie bands often have "street teams" of loyal (unpaid) fans who hit the streets to post flyers, etc. Do you have an unpaid street team?

There are at least two ways to inspire evangelists: the sleazy way and the authentic way. Fortunately, the authentic, ethical way doesn't need a big budget. The sleazy, expensive, and often unethical way is to hire people to "pretend" to evangelize. There are companies that will assemble a team of faux street-teamers to spread the word, ranging from the despicable--like the sexy woman in the bar who fakes interest in a man while casually mentioning the product (without disclosing her "job") --to the less harmful but even creepier--the person who is paid to tell their friends about a product, albeit with full disclosure.

Here's the thing...

If you have to PAY people to evangelize your product or service, you probably don't have a product or service worth evangelizing.

(If it's about simply getting the word out on something too new to have customer/user evangelists, there are plenty of ways to 'seed' potential users to get the ball rolling.)

Users will want to evangelize on your behalf for two main reasons:

1) You're small--or in trouble--and they want you to succeed.
(When there's no guarantee you will) Apple was in this position at one time; I remember handing out the "50 things you can do to save the mac" handbook! This is especially true for independent bands, stores, products, restaurants, etc. but big, well-funded companies aren't immune, obviously. Non Apple-fans still marvel at why a crowd of thousands cheers so loudly when Steve Jobs shows how much money the company is making. They don't realize that all we (the faithful) see is assurance that our beloved devices will survive, new ones will be developed, and that more developers will find it worthwhile to create for this platform, etc.

2) They believe in the benefits of whatever you offer, and want others to experience that (especially their close friends and family)

How to Create Evangelists The Authentic Way

1) You have a product or service or cause that helps users learn and grow and kick ass at something.

2) You give users tools to help them evangelize.

3) You do not ever, ever, ever pay users for doing this.

Remember, even if your product has problems, you can often make up for a ton of flaws by building up the ecosystem around the product. A killer user community site. A breakthrough manual. Stunning customer support. If you're helping your users learn and grow and improve, you're inspiring them to be better and--as we know--being better at something is a lot more fun than being a frustrated newbie or mediocre just-getting-by user or participant. If you can inspire your users to learn and grow, they'll naturally want to get others to share in this experience.

Tool ideas
(most of these are dead-obvious, but all too often overlooked)

* A short, free DVD
One that isn't a sales/marketing pitch, but simply explains why the evangelizing user is so interested in getting others to see what they see. A truly passionate user would love nothing more than to be able to give someone a DVD that gets the other person to say--after watching it--"Hmmm...now I'm starting to understand why this means so much to you."

* Posters and stickers
In other words, things to spread around in public to help raise awareness. The Sticker Guy is one of many good sources for stickers. (And check out this fun Wired story about Apple stickers. I have one on my car.)

* Free tickets
The Parelli organization goes on tour across the US and gives members of their official club up to 10 free tickets so that they can bring the non-converted to experience for themselves what Parelli-folks call "the magic."

* Friends and Family nights

* Testimonials from credible people!
Is there someone trusted and respected in your domain who uses your product? Your users need to know! Our Design Patterns book had endorsements from some of the key figures in the software development world, and we've had hundreds of emails from people telling us that this was the only reason they decided to give it a try. In the Parelli world--where members of the cult (like me) are constantly battling with those who dismiss it--the endorsement by two US Olympic Equestrian medalists--Karen and David O'Connor was huge. When they made a video about it (which we have to pay for), they gave us perhaps the best possible ammunition--"Think Parelli doesn't apply to anyone except cowboys? Don't listen to me, pop this in your DVD player for a few minutes..."

* Make it REALLY obvious how users can get involved in evangelizing
For inspiration, check out:
Oxfam's What You Can Do page or Greenpeace's Get Involved page.

* Private behind-the-scenes website areas for members only
...that they can share with their friends and which highlight the real reasons your user is so passionate.

* Free tickets to learning webcasts they can give to their friends.
Not marketing webcasts... I mean actual training courses that most people have to pay for.

* Materials, support, and recognition for user group leaders.
Sun has done a lot to recognize and reward JUG (Java User Group) leaders, for example, including special meetings and receptions at conferences, and giving them special access to some key Java folks at Sun.

* Create a "Street Team", and a toolkit
Have some kind of affinity club, user group, something that users can join and become members of. And make sure that members can get an evangelism toolkit whether it's a PDF poster to download or a full-blown package in the mail with flyers, stickers, t-shirts, CDs, etc.

A great example of a very active (and apparently successful) street team are the Petal Pushers. (Click on Petal Pushers from the side menu). I encourage everyone to check it out. Another example of an indie-band-on-a-budget street team is here.

The street team is an interesting phenomenon because it is often a lot more successful for bands that aren't well known. In fact, part of the appeal to hardcore street teamer fans is that they get to be the first one in their group to have discovered the band. Being the first to tell/show something cool to a friend brings considerable social "points". I don't know much about street teams, but Skyler has been extremely active in two of them, including (a loooong time ago) the Sugarcult">Sugarcult street team. She whipped up a lot of interest in local shows, and these guys would even recognize her at events and talk to her. But once they started becoming more "known", she lost interest. But that's a whole different topic...

[Side note: There are two kinds of companies you can hire to help you (band or otherwise) create a "street team". The sleazy kind will take your money in exchange for providing you with street team "members" who may never have heard of you and don't particularly like you. The authentic kind are simply marketing/community helpers who will help you create a street team program for your existing loyal fans.

My Personal Opinion on What NOT to Do

* Do not EVER pay your members/fans/users to do this.
Limited edition t-shirts and stickers? Absolutely. Free evangelism products for friends (like the tickets and CDs) -- absolutely. But money for referrals? Never. (This is a big topic in itself that we'll save for another time)

Paying them, or even doing a "refer a friend and get YOUR next thing free..." program changes the incentive. And while it may not change the users motivation, it taints the incentive. Irrevocably, in my opinion.

If you have truly passionate users, paying them is not only not necessary, it could hurt. That doesn't mean you don't reward them, of course, there are gazillion great ways (and reasons) to reward your loyal users. But that's for their continued loyalty, support, patience, feedback, etc... not for some kind of paid referral program.

Posted by Kathy on February 6, 2007 | Permalink


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Tracked on Mar 11, 2007 1:16:52 AM


Kathy, your blog is awesome and I read every post - thanks for the work you put into it!

Now for my question. I run a web-based service and currently DO offer incentive for paying customers to get their NEXT thing free when they bring someone new to the site. I can see how you feel that "taints the incentive", but what might you suggest as an alternative?

Something like a "tell a friend" form but just no free offer for them? I'd be real interested in any additional ideas you or others might have.

Thanks again for your hard work and for helping guys like me "GET IT"!!

Posted by: Jeff | Feb 6, 2007 5:13:26 PM

Jeff: you ask a great question, and I would feel pretty compelled to do exactly what you're doing -- after all, we *want* and *should* reward our users for being our loyal users, and we should... except in this scenario, where it makes their motives questionable. Think about this... would your users *not* bring a friend if it weren't for their getting their next thing free? If the answer is no, then that's the place to work on... what would make them want to get their friends involved. But for most things -- and I suspect this is true for your users -- the important thing is to encourage and provide a mechanism for users to bring other people to the site, and the reward has almost nothing to do with it. It gives YOU a way to ask for it -- and It can feel odd asking users to bring someone without offering anything in return, but this is about users who WANT to evangelize, and you simply have to make it easy for the to do it... and do it for the right reasons (rather than to get something free).

I don't see a problem with giving them, say, schwag of some sort. Things you might give out a trade show like special t-shirts or mugs or (depending on your company) stickers. BUT and this is really important -- these things are FAR more powerful and delightful and rewarding to users if they do not KNOW they are going to get them.

The unexpected reward is so much better than the do-this-and-get-this reward. It greatly exceeds expectations, and usually doesn't even matter how small and trivial the reward might be. A handwritten note from a salesperson I bought something from 6 months earlier always amazes me.

You could even give the user that same discount/get-one-thing-free but as a special "thank-you" rather than something they were promised in exchange.

At some point, you have to trust that your users will *want* to evangelize to others, if you suggest it and offer them a reason. But the reason should be because it's GOOD for their friend (and good for them in some social way if their friend is involved).

I'm so glad you started off the comments with what is probably the most important one. I'd love to hear about it if you try new things or get any other ideas. Maybe more ideas will come out here...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 6, 2007 9:46:13 PM

One of the key ways that our industry (online games) motivates evangelists is to give them free play time. Many MMOs have some sort of program where a subscriber can give out a certain number of free trial accounts to their friends. The friends get to play for 10 days or so before they need to decide whether or not to buy the game.

We also send evangelists schwag from time to time, but it's never in response to them begging. It's just something we do out of the blue for people who are really active in the community or other places on the net where the game comes up.

Posted by: Joe Ludwig | Feb 6, 2007 10:00:57 PM

Kathy, I totally agree with your point here. I haven't consciously thought about it, but after reading this, I thought about which internet sites I recommended to friends and co-workers and which I did not recommend despite using them.
While I always recommend, e.g., del.icio.us, i have never recommended xing.com. While del.icio.us has no "rewards" for people who recommend their service, xing.com has. Thinking about it, I guess I never recommend sites that hand out (monetary) benefits although I use them because it would feel phony. I don't want people to think that I recommend something just because of some benefit for me. When I recommend something, I do it because I think it has a benefit for the person I recommend it to.

Posted by: Dominik Wei-Fieg | Feb 7, 2007 4:58:09 AM

Just like to say what a pleasure it is to see our work cited as an example on your blog. Many of us here at Greenpeace are big fans of what you talk about so it's put a smile on my face to see that we seem to be getting this stuff right.

Keep writing, we promise to keep reading :-)

Posted by: Martin Lloyd | Feb 7, 2007 5:27:13 AM

I definitely have to agree on the taint that comes with paid referrals. A good friend recently recommended a new tea company, which I checked out. Part of why I purchased from them was her recommendation, part had to do with all of the great customer reviews for each tea on the site, which I found to be really helpful. To me, it spoke of a passionate user-base and it pushed me from likely to try to actually trying.

Now, while I adore the tea I purchased, imagine my disappointment when I got my receipt that included "incentives" such as "link to us and we'll send you a goody based on your google ranking for that page" and learning that all of those "passionate customer reviews" were paid for in "50 cents off for each qualified review on your next purchase" (I'm paraphrasing, so the quotes aren't exact). It leaves me feeling very different about the company despite how good the actual product was. And I honestly don't know if I will indeed order from them again. It just felt...well, squicky! And I felt duped. That's never a good way to begin a customer relationship!

Posted by: Amie | Feb 7, 2007 7:18:31 AM

I belong to category 1. I never actually strongly voice my opinion on anything to anyone, except an audio-guided workout for interval training, Cardio Coach. I do it because it is small and the product is so god darned good, I cannot understand how it can still remain so small. I came out of cyber lurkdom to passionately promote this. With my own experience, now I have become less skeptical when others praise a product excessively. I do try to look at reviews, but I tend to be a bit easily swayed now.

And Kathy, I so want you to try Cardio Coach out because you have the power to help so many others move. I discovered endorphins for the first time with these and finally got convinced that they are not a figment of peoples imaginations. And anything that helps the geek squad get in better shape should be a part of your blog. :)

As always, an excellent post.

Posted by: thodarumm | Feb 7, 2007 7:28:06 AM

oops, I reread the entry, I belong to both categories 1 and 2.

Yes, I want a lot of people to derive benefit from Cardio Coach. I went from being a sporadic 2 mile runner to training for a half marathon now. But more importantly, this product ignited my passion for living which seems to rage like a wild fire now. Why.. running teaches me a new lesson every day.. patience, joy, happiness, reality check, courage, acceptance.. yada, yada.. yes, I have experienced every single running cliche now at the age of 40 ( couch potato till I was 37 years old)


Posted by: thodarumm | Feb 7, 2007 7:36:17 AM

Do the commercially-rooted APIs of Amazon and eBay, which made both the companies and their users countless millions of dollars, provide any positive examples of how commerce and promotion can be tied together?

Posted by: Matt | Feb 7, 2007 4:04:32 PM

I've been a big fan of your blog for a while, and to the degree that I can, I try to do similar things at my company. However, a MAJOR issue I have with this post is that you don't talk at all about ensuring that the company can handle the extra business. It's a fantastic and very effective way to spread the word, but if your company is not setup to handle the extra business, it will work against you. And all that public trust that you spent so long building will turn and it will take far longer to repair.

It may be a prejudice that I have coming from the tech side, but I have seen it happen too many times. Verify that all the structures are in place for your business to handle the increase and be prepared to turn down new business to ensure a consistently high level of service. In the long run, your clients will thank you for it and it will add to the list of things they like to rave about.


Posted by: Randy | Feb 7, 2007 5:04:23 PM

Amie: What a useful, cautionary story... I hope everyone reads your comment.

Randy: I'm so glad you said this. No, it hadn't occurred to me when writing this post but it seems like a very important warning. Thanks for bringing this up!

thodarumm: I'm going to check it out -- you got my attention, and of course I'm a fitness gadget freek...

Martin: Deal: if you keep reading, then I promise I'll keep writing : )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 7, 2007 5:14:41 PM

Kathy, thanks for some great ideas. I completely agree about the questionable motives and that makes perfect sense. Amie's disappointment upon the realization of incentive for referring her to the tea product also touches a nerve I wouldn't want my users to experience, as not only would their friend look bad but I especially would for offering such incentive.

Currently I do provide unexpected rewards and it's fun to see the reactions, but I need to find a way to integrate that with a "tell-a-friend" mechanism. Hmmm...

Your idea of some social benefit if their friend is involved is a great starting point....you've got my wheels turning now and that means I'm headed toward an improved site/service/community. Thank you again!


Posted by: Jeff | Feb 7, 2007 9:49:35 PM

Kathy, this is right on the mark. I remember a few years ago asking a marketing "professional" about WOM marketing and paying people to talk about a product. It rubbed me the wrong way. Now that social media has really burst onto the scene, there is no need to pay folks to do your word of mouth (unless you're incredibly lazy or have an incredibly bad product).

This brings to mind a podcast I was listening to this morning--the Firefly Cast, a podcast dedicated to the canceled Joss Whedon TV series Firefly. Their question of the week?

"How do you introduce non-converts to the wonders of Firefly?"

And a plethora of folks called in with answers from "I compare it to Buffy and Angel" to "Say the main character is like Han Solo and Indiana Jones rolled into one" or "I never say it's sci-fi."

Astounding, isn't it, that this product--this CANCELED product--can inspire such devotion and evangelism?

Posted by: Heidi Miller | Feb 8, 2007 10:23:36 AM

Kathy, this is exactly why I read your blog. Most marketers are too lazy to take the time to cultivate evangelists. Shortsided means only worrying about this month's numbers because you may only work at a company for a year or so. But being a party to excellent marketing, whether you last at a company or not, means you end up with a great resume AND the pride of knowing you did your absolute best to earn your paycheck.

Posted by: Robyn Tippins | Feb 8, 2007 11:59:07 AM


Another one of your brilliant posts (damn it! - can't you be happily safe and mediocre instead of constantly raising the bar for the rest of us???)

It does all come down to the real, live, human connection, doesn't it? Saying thank you (and meaning it); unexpected little appreciation tokens (as you note); doing a favor for a fellow human being and not expecting anything in return. It all works.

And, paying for WOM is rather like paying for - um -"love." An hour later, you're back on the street alone again.

Posted by: Mary Schmidt | Feb 9, 2007 12:45:13 PM

does *asking* conflict with anything behind "not-paying"?

Posted by: Mario | Feb 10, 2007 7:16:25 AM

This is a great read, I'm glad I found it. I've had many discussions with people about the difference between satisfied users(those that like you), loyal users(those that recommend you) and "affinity" users
(those that defend you) - and your post reminds me of those discussions. Much of your insights illustrate good practices for how to move enthusiasts from one end of the continuum to the other. The point about payment is fundamental - in fact most companies have "paid evangelists," they are called employees. The value of the enthusiast user is their indepedence. You have to grow trust with the enthusiasts by also allow them to demonstrated dissent/disagreement with you and your commitment to listening to that input. That doesn't mean you can always do what they say, but you can talk about it and your reasons. Lastly, I think the most critical point is being committed to a real two way relationship with your enthusiasts. A web site/portal is no substitute for a real relationship. Do you facilitate how they talk to your marketing dept? Your product development dept? Your support organization? You other users? etc. A recently started a new blog on a related topic at http://communitygrouptherapy.spaces.live.com/. I'd love your feedback.


Posted by: Sean ODriscoll | Feb 11, 2007 12:10:20 PM

TVM, its very inspire for me and our movement pro-design in Chile (http://www.chilepd.cl Chile, The Country Of Design).

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