Work To Convert Customers Into Evangelists

December 15, 2005


I’ve never been evangelical. I’m not what you call a marketing missionary. I’m more in the do-your-own-thing-live-and-let-live-peace-and-love category when it comes to marketing theology. If it sells your product successfully and keeps management happy, it’s OK by me. Whatever turns customers on is cool. Don’t break the laws of good taste.

As a marketer I was raised to believe it was my job to create awareness, knowledge and likeability and to encourage consideration and trial of my product. I was taught my purpose was to assure product selection and retention. The zenith of my efforts, the ultimate holy grail of marketing, was to achieve customer loyalty.

There was no higher calling in my marketing handbook--the sixth edition of Prof. Philip Kotler’s Marketing Management: Analysis, Planning, Implementation and Control--than creating loyal customers.

It never dawned on me that I was practicing a form of marketing paganism. Then I met Ben McConnell, co-author of Creating Customer Evangelists.

Listening to McConnell was a marketing epiphany. The fog in my brain cleared and I realized I’d been practicing the marketing rituals impiously.

Marketing is not a do-it-to-the-customer, one-way process. The highest aim of marketing is to create products and stories about them that empower customers to sell for you. Don’t simply create loyal customers. Create customers who are enraptured with your product and sell for you. Turn customers on so they will turn others into customers.

Think of eBay conclaves where loyal users tell eBay CEO Meg Whitman how to run the company and what acquisitions to make. Hark back to 1984 and the launch of Apple’s Macintosh computer. Think of all those Mac users who tried to convert you to their form of technology.

My conversion to marketing evangelism occurred recently. I was moderating a panel for alumni of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism based in Evanston, Ill. We were at Riva’s restaurant on the banks of the Chicago River. The discussion was supposed to be about the future of newspapers, the importance of blogs and RSS feeds. But there on the panel looming like an apostle of marketing evangelism stood McConnell. In the audience sat his co-author, Jackie Huba.

We fell into a conversation about the essential truths of marketing. I talked about the catechism I’d been raised on of mass advertising, promotional coupons and direct mail distributions. McConnell and Huba listened patiently to my entreaties, my pleas to protect the old ways. They simply smiled and nodded.

Then I read McConnell’s and Huba’s book, which describes how Macintosh, Krispy Kreme, the Dallas Mavericks, Build-A-Bear Workshops, Southwest Airlines, Linux and other brands were created and advanced by customer evangelists.

I showed up one night at McConnell’s and Huba’s “Church of the Customer” blog site I studied their six tips to creating customer evangelists:

  • Customer plus-delta: Continuously gather customer feedback.
  • Napsterize knowledge: Make it a point to share knowledge freely.
  • Build the buzz: Expertly build word-of-mouth networks.
  • Create community: Encourage communities of customers to meet and share.
  • Make bite-size chunks: Devise specialized, smaller offerings to get customers to bite.
  • Create a cause: Focus on making the world, or your industry, better.

Suddenly I was hooked. I didn’t realize that marketing evangelism was catching on. Now I’ve become a zealot. Marketing evangelism is where it’s at. I want to spread the word about what McConnell and Huba are doing. It simply makes a lot of sense.

Marketing evangelism isn’t about religion. It’s all about creating customers who adore your product or service. They become disciples of your brand. They tell others to buy your services. They sell your product for you.

That’s the new seventh heaven of marketing we all should strive for--not just loyal customers, customer evangelists.

Who are these evangelists and how do you create them? Look around. They’re in our midst. Starbucks’ customers are evangelists. Google users are evangelists. BlackBerry buyers are evangelists. McConnell tells a story in his book about a woman who sent a check to Southwest Airlines after 9/11 because the airline needed the money more than her--she’s an evangelist.

How do you transform your routine, everyday customers into evangelists? That’s no easy task. It’s not a question of faith. You’ve got to start by analytically asking yourself if your customers are atheists, agnostics or believers. Don’t be surprised if you have lots of atheists. People who simply don’t believe in your products but use them out of habit.

There may be some who are agnostics. They’d believe if you could give them a reason to believe. You’re likely to have lots of these.

But then, if you study carefully, you’ll find a core group of righteous product users who deeply believe. Their numbers may be small, but find them and study them. Deconstruct them and see what they are all about. Once you understand why they evangelize your brand, turn them loose. Empower and enable them. Create additional products and programs that recruit and attract more just like them.

To really understand how to grow customer evangelists, my advice is to read McConnell’s and Huba’s book. It’s a good one. Visit their blog. Look around for examples of companies who have transformed their customers into their sales force. Richard Branson, CEO of U.K.-based Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., is a master at creating customer evangelists.

Creating marketing programs that include tactics to convert customers to evangelism isn’t beyond belief, but it’s not obvious. It’s not formulaic. It requires creative design. It takes a spirit of adventure. Anyone can mix together millions of dollars in an advertising, PR and direct marketing budget and build awareness and trial, but evangelism is harder to come by.

The task isn’t easy, but if you can crack the code, it’s the most efficient and effective marketing effort you’ll ever implement.

Michael Krauss is a partner with Marion Consulting Partners based in Highland Park, Ill., and can be reached at or


 ©2005 Marion Consulting Partners