Most of us have attended a few expos, trade shows, or conventions in our life. I’ve certainly been to my fair share. Usually, these types of events showcase fledgling companies who are really just trying to build awareness and let people know that they exist.
Up until a few months ago, I had always thought the idea of “hitting the road” and setting up booths at conventions and expos was the type of bootstrapping that was only practical for small “mom and pops” or other up-and-coming businesses. Afterall, what tangible value could a large company like Google, Apple, Facebook, or (dare I say) Zoho possibly be able to extract?
On a good day, you might interact with a hundred people. But, if a company were to instead direct the money spent at an expo towards something like online advertising, they could reach thousands of people. Seems pretty simple, right? Why connect with a hundred when you can connect with THOUSANDS?
Well the key word here is “connect.” While mass marketing certainly has its place when it comes to building large scale awareness, it severely lacks in building strong connections.
On a day-to-day basis, how many internet advertisements, radio pieces, or television commercials do you actually connect with? How many do you interact with?
I can’t remember any of the commercials I saw yesterday, but I can remember the extra friendly barista at Starbucks the other day. We connected.
That’s not to say that there is no place for mass advertising, because obviously shouting the company message from the rooftops can lead to booming business and high growth potential. However, connections are the way to build deep rooted customer loyalty.
If we think about it geometrically, mass advertising is the way we build area, but “hitting the road” and connecting with customers is how we create depth and plant roots.
I first noticed the effect of “hitting the road” when I was in college. I worked at a place called Tennis Warehouse that was/is the largest online distributor of tennis equipment in the world. Yet, every year they would spend tens of thousands of dollars to set up a massive tent at a tennis tournament in Palm Springs, California to sell merchandise. Additionally, they would send nearly half the staff along to run the operation.
Obviously, this was a major cost.
Although they made a lot of sales, the real added value was the enthusiasm people felt when they saw a familiar brand and the customer connection that inevitably resulted in brand loyalty.
Several people would come into the tent solely to meet the staff and some of our online personalities. At the time, I was too preoccupied with enjoying my status as a q-list celebrity to realize the “connection effect” that our presence was having on our customers.
To this day, if any customer ever posts a complaint about the company on their online forums, hoards of Tennis Warehouse “fans” step in to the companies’ defense before a Tennis Warehouse admin can even address the complaint.
Now THAT is customer loyalty.
Apple and Microsoft too have become a much more local presence. I have no idea how profitable their retail stores are, but I would imagine a major reason for opening was to develop a deeper connection with customers and potential customers. I know I have personally walked into the Apple store several times just to play with the technology, and I’m more apt to buy their products knowing that I can personally connect with an Apple employee if I have any questions.
With Zoho, I’ve been fortunate to see this kind of connection in action at the annual Zoholics event as well as at a recent business expo I attended. Zoho users would see our booth and absolutely illuminate with delight.
As much as I wish their enthusiastic approach was because of my handsome face, it was more likely because of the colorful Zoho logo on my shirt.
For example, one of my jobs is to interview enthusiastic customers we meet at such events. Not only does that help us create interesting media, but the customer now feels like a brand ambassador of the company. In psychology, they refer to this behavior as “commitment and consistency” – once someone identifies themselves as a Zoho fan, they will strive to behave consistent with that belief. Essentially, these customers become walking, talking billboards for Zoho.
And then there’s the company giveaways.
Most companies at expos go with the old standard candy bowl to lure in traffic. To their credit, anyone who has a Twix candy bar for the taking has a 100% chance of me stopping by to chat. But candy bar satisfaction to an attendee is fleeting, and the company is quickly forgotten.
At the Zoho booth however, we had something special. Ultra small flash drives that were Zoho branded. Customers were dumbfounded at the small size of the flash drive combined with its 4GB capacity and were eager to put them on their key chain. Now, for the foreseeable future, they will see the Zoho logo EVERY TIME they use the flash drive.
Let’s try another analogy, shall we?
Think of an expo as a crowded bar on a Saturday night and I, the attendee as an attractive single woman (this may be a stretch, I know).
The booths are like the single guys trying to lure me in with a free drink (or Twix bar). I may stop by to say hello and enjoy my free treat, but after five minutes of fluff talk, I’m finished with my drink and ready to move on to the next guy.
Then I spot Zoho with it’s colorful logo and well-dressed yet magically charming team. I stop by and chat, and they give me the coolest flash drive I’ve ever seen. Instead of walking away with an empty glass, I’m walking away with an engagement ring hooked to my key-chain that will remind me of Zoho every time I use it.
I think you get the picture (however feel free to erase the mental image of me as a woman).
The bottom line is, you’re never too big to hit the road. Sure, let’s share our brand with as many people as we can so they know we exist and offer something valuable, but the depth of customer connection is magnitudes greater when you take the time to give them a face and personality as well.
They will become connected and “engaged” to you, and THESE customers are the roots that make sure you never fall on the way to the top.