Of course, we live in a time of tremendous excitement and creativity when it comes to using social media to get customers, and particularly, customer advocates together with other customers, buyers and prospects. We'll certainly be covering that at the 2012 Summit in February.
But let's not forget: getting them together live and in person is far more powerful. Social media can help keep the conversations going. Live interaction deepens the relationships. We need to get creative in fostering live interactions as surely as we do the virtual kind. Following are four ideas to stimulate your thinking.
If you or your executive team would like more information on how to conduct such events, feel free to drop me a note.
1. Host intimate executive breakfasts
For those of you selling--or wanting to sell--to more senior level buyers, consider hosting an executive breakfast. Get a small group, 12 to 14 executives or so together, including a couple of your current customers, and an executive from your firm who's skilled at facilitating discussion.
It's not hard to attract people to these if you a) develop a theme for the discussion that addresses a compelling issue that they're all addressing, and b) you start by getting two or three attractive, high profile executives from leading firms to commit to attend (they will bring in the rest). Allow 90 minutes, including a pre-breakfast mixer, have your executive briefly open the meeting by framing the issue you'll all be discussing, and then get out of the way and let attendees talk while your executive clarifies and frames the points being made from time to time. Provide time afterwards for people to continue mingling. A great place to do these is at industry events.
Your goals: let prospects establish personal relationships with your advocates who attend, and with you, as you subtly demonstrate that your firm is a thought leader that can provide important value. I've hosted two executives breakfasts this year, one at the 2011 Summit on Customer Engagement and the other at the 2011 Business Marketing Association meeting in Chicago, that drew marketing executives from Siemens, 3M, SAP, Xerox, Salesforce.com, Deutsche Telekom and others--many of whom I didn't know beforehand.
2. Host panel discussions
The executive breakfast is for an intimate audience. To attract a larger audience, try a hosted panel that includes one or two of your customer advocates along with other high profile panelists (some of whom may be prospects for you) who will draw an audience. Invite several of your customer advocates to attend and participate as audience members, along with people of interest like local media types.
Consider partnering with a bank, law firm, analyst or other non-competing vendor as appropriate, who have customers that need your product or service. Get one of your executives to moderate, provided he's he's superb at this. He'll need to do two things: a) let the panelists talk and interact with the audience. while b) subtly demonstrating your firm's expertise and thought leadership regarding the subject under discussion. The primary goal? Creating buzz, showing the value you can provide, and above all, getting your customer advocates to engage with prospects in the audience both during the event and afterwards.
3. Host a Reception With Advocates and Prospects
CEO Marc Benioff built Salesforce.com using what he called "City Tour" events, similar to the panel discussion described above, except that he would open with presentations by himself or other SFDC executives. But he discovered that prospects who attended weren't interested in hearing from SFDC executives. They were interested in talking to SFDC customers, and with such passionate customer evangelists, those conversations would ultimately lead to sales at an 80% close rate.
Over time, Benioff began cutting back on SFDC presentations, and in smaller cities, they would dispense with any presentations at all, simply hosting a reception for customers, prospects, and other people of interest such as analysts, journalists, local philanthropists and the like. The cost of the receptions is nominal, of course, and to their astonishment the receptions achieved the same close rates for prospects who attended as did the more formal City Tour events.