Thinker in Residence: Q&A with Jackie Huba

May 02, 2013


If companies are just trying to “become more talked about” for its own sake, it’s not going to take off. They need to make sure there’s substance to what they’re communicating and that it really is a conversation. ~Jackie Huba

If companies are just trying to "become more talked about" for its own sake, it's not going to take off. They need to make sure there's substance to what they're communicating and that it really is a conversation.

~Jackie Huba

Q: Some people might recognize Lady Gaga merely for her shock factor (outfits, videos, etc.) How has she used these triggers to attract and build an audience, and what can brands learn from that? JH: Lady Gaga is a pro at generating word of mouth and getting people buzzing. But her real genius lies in what's behind all that shock value. Her over-the-top ideas are rooted in meaningful messages with their own symbolism. Remember the meat dress she wore to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards? That meat dress—love it or hate it—got everyone, from vegetarians to Cher, talking. Gaga has been a longtime supporter of gay rights, and she was using the dress to draw attention to the possible repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy of the U.S. military. The idea behind the dress was to illustrate that underneath our skin colors, religions, and beliefs, we are all made of "flesh and bone." It was a meaningful gesture for her current fans, and it drew enormous amounts of attention from the mainstream media (Time magazine deemed it the "Top Fashion Statement of 2010"), getting her noticed and turning gawkers into fans. Her shock value has two purposes: It strengthens the bonds of her existing fan community when they interpret her latest, outrageous outfit, video, or song, and it also keeps the outsiders talking and wondering about what she'll pull next. Anyone trying to attract an audience, whether it's brands or bands, should think about all aspects of their business and consider whether they are "word-of-mouth-worthy." That is, are the things you are doing worthy of a word-of-mouth comment or referral from a customer to someone else? If so, go for it. If not, ask yourself, "WWLGD?" Q: Beyond the shock factors, Lady Gaga is extremely focused on caring for, and helping her fans have better lives. What are some examples of this that struck you? JH: I think it would have to be Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation that she established with Harvard University, the California Endowment, and the MacArthur Foundation. In November 2011, Gaga announced that she was starting the nonprofit with the mission of empowering youth by offering mentoring and career development, and focusing on issues like self-confidence, wellbeing, and anti-bullying. I suspect she founded it in honor of her late fan Jamey Rodemeyer, who took his own life in 2011 after years of relentless bullying. She's focused less on changing laws and more on changing the culture where bullying flourishes. This is an issue that she has admitted facing in her own youth, and she knows it's a cause very near and dear to her fans. Q: What can companies learn from Lady Gaga's focus on long-term business strategy? JH: I use the term One Percenters to describe the tiny but oh-so-mighty subsection of a business' customer base that evangelizes for that business. They're your biggest fans. You can recognize them by a few distinct behaviors: They passionately recommend your company to friends, neighbors, and colleagues. They believe in the company and its people. They purchase your products and services as gifts. They forgive occasional subpar seasons or dips in customer service. They feel part of something bigger than themselves, seeking to connect with other like-minded customers around your products or services. Lady Gaga, and her manager, Troy Carter, understand a secret to long-term business success is focusing on their One Percenters. They've built an entire online community for their die-hard fans, and it's not just to sell more albums or perfume or concert tickets. Gaga and Carter are willing to invest now in the customer base that they want years from now. This is quite different from many current artists in the music industry. Think of Gaga's pop contemporaries: Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Katy Perry. All very popular now, but will they be popular ten or twenty years from now? All sing catchy pop tunes. All wear crazy outfits that get people talking. But none of them seem to have much depth behind their personas. Don't get me wrong; they have rabid fans. However, they aren't doing anything to cater to their most loyal fans the way Gaga is. Q: There are some great business examples in the book that mirror some of Gaga's principles. How did a company like Fiskars use something as basic as scissors to create a passionate community? JH: Fiskars, a 360-year-old Finnish housewares company best known for those orange-handled scissors, set about to create a relationship between the company and its crafting customers that went beyond tools. Working with branding agency Brains on Fire, Fiskars conducted in-depth research of crafters around the country to hear what customers were saying to each other. Through interviews, meeting with crafting groups, and conversations on message boards and online communities, Fiskars found a social and robust crafting community, especially among scrapbookers. After they identified their most loyal community, their One Percenters, they asked them what to name the group and the customers came up with the name, Fiskateers. They created a program for connecting passionate scrapbookers, including a members-only online community for sharing their designs, in-person demonstrations taught by Fiskars-certified customers, and an army of ambitious ambassadors to recruit new members. Fiskars saw a tremendous return on investment. There are now more than 7,000 members of the Fiskateers community, branded mentions of Fiskars products online are up more than 600 percent, sales have doubled in cities with Fiskateers compared to non-Fiskateer cities, and the company receives 13 new ideas for products per month. Most important of all: Fiskars understood that it's important to become a member of the customer community instead of building an online community and hoping people will join. They sought to understand customers' passions and how customers talk to one another, and then they built the community around that–not just scissors. And if you can make that personal, emotional connection happen between people, that's something a product alone can't do. Q: Overall, Lady Gaga creates an interesting conversation. How might companies learn from her to become more talked about? JH: As I mentioned before, she does a great job of giving her fans, and anyone, really, something exciting and meaningful to talk about. Isn't that what all of our most interesting conversations are based on? People always have energy to find meaning, create personal relationships, and talk to one another about what's important. Without meaning, generating buzz is a flash in the pan. Generating something to talk about that is meaningful and important ensures that your fans and customers will continue to look to you for inspiration and ideas. What can brands learn? Don't just do something for the sake of getting attention. There has to be substance to fuel meaningful connection with your audience. Another thing: Her fans feel better off for banding together and they identify deeply with what she stands for. They feel like she cares about what they care about. She also listens to her fans just as much as she shares with them. She's checking in on social media, responding to fan videos, meeting with them at concerts, and she even set up her own social media fan site called It's a two-way conversation. She's really the whole package, and all of these different components need to be there for it all to work in the short-term and long-term. If companies are just trying to "become more talked about" for its own sake, it's not going to take off. They need to make sure there's substance to what they're communicating and that it really is a conversation.
Jackie Huba is the co-author of two books on customer loyalty. Citizen Marketers: When People are the Message documents the emerging world of social media and how brands should begin to embrace a participatory culture. Jackie's first book, Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force, explains how companies convert customers into evangelists who spread the word about products, benefits or value propositions. Huba's work has frequently been featured in the media, such as the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Businessweek, and Advertising Age. She was a founding Board Member of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Her new book, Monster Loyalty: How Lady Gaga Turns Followers into Fanatics, will be released May 2, 2013. Named as one of the 10 most influential online marketers, Jackie co-authors the award-winning Church of the Customer blog. With more than 105,000 daily readers, it's ranked as one of the most popular business blogs in the world.
Revisit yesterday's introduction to Jackie Huba and our take on her new book, Monster Loyalty. Check in with us tomorrow as we continue our Thinker in Residence series on Jackie Huba with her insight "On Business and Books."

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