Jason Falls knows where your customers are talking. He’s studied conversations for several years and, time and time again, he’s shed light on an inconvenient truth for brands: If you’re ignoring online forums, you’re probably ignoring a substantial part of the conversations happening in public – maybe even a majority of them. And it usually doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. Banking? 90%. Elderly care? 83%.
He doesn’t work in the community space, he’s not drinking the Kool-Aid. Jason is a veteran digital strategist who follows the data, and the data tells him that brands are continually missing a major opportunity to build loyalty and increase sales. And that’s one of the topics on this episode. Plus:
- Why angry brand ambassadors are actually a positive
- The obsession with vanity metrics
- Where community fits in customer journey mapping
Our Podcast is Made Possible By…
If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsor: Higher Logic.
On how forums influence search results: “If we can all go back 10, 15 years, advising brands in the social media or digital marketing space and say, ‘Here’s what I want you to do: The first thing I want you to do, when you launch your website, is add a forum to it. We’re not going to talk about your product or service, we’re going to let people ask questions about how to use it. Like a customer support board, but we’re really just going to talk more broadly about how to do things and about broad topics within your work, within your industry.’ If every brand did that 15, 20 years ago, then brands would rank number one, two and three for all these search terms that they’re spending a bazillion dollars a year trying to rank for now.” –@JasonFalls
On breaking the allure of vanity metrics: “Even the social networks are saying it’s not really about building vanity metrics anymore. We report that up the channel to our executives, our companies, our clients if we’re at an agency and still, the first question that they typically ask at a monthly meeting or on the call is, ‘How many people are following us now?’ Unfortunately, it’s going to take probably another 12 to 18 months of reinforcing the idea that vanity metrics don’t mean anything or don’t mean as much. Then, it’s going to take an aha moment for a client or an executive at your company to be able to understand what you mean by that.” –@JasonFalls
On convincing CEOs that fans online are spending money: “In 2010, I was working with an environmental products company, and the CEO would call me. I only talked to him once a week. He would call me at 9 on Friday morning, and he would ask me how many Facebook fans they had. Never mind that you could go to your own Facebook page and see the number yourself. He would call me from five hours away and ask me how many Facebook fans he had. I would tell him because, I mean, he was the CEO. … I figured out what he was doing. He called me at 9 because he had a 12 o’clock golf game with a bunch of his buddies, and so he wanted to be able to brag that his Facebook fans had increased every week, and so I said, ‘Okay, this is ridiculous.’
“The next Friday, he called me, and he said, ‘Jason, how many Facebook fans do I have?’ I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to email you the link to your Facebook page, and the number is in the upper corner. You can look at that number any time you want. I don’t really have time to go look at that number for you right now because I’m too busy trying to figure out how to get those fans to buy your product.’ He went, ‘Oh.’ He really, for the first time, thought, ‘You mean you can actually use social media to get people to buy things?’ Then, the questions were different.” –@JasonFalls
On how communities fit into customer journey mapping: “[Online communities are a part of customer journey mapping] especially on higher end purchases, where there’s a lot longer lead time. If you’re purchasing something that costs more than a couple hundred dollars, you’re going to research it for days, if not weeks or months. You’re going to ask a lot of questions. You’re going to read a lot of articles. That investigative process is probably going to take you to forums and message boards.” –@JasonFalls
About Jason Falls
Jason Falls is one of the most widely read and respected voices in the digital marketing and social media industries. His digital strategies have touched a number of the world’s most iconic brands including AT&T, Valvoline, Buffalo Trace, Humana, Rawlings, Maker’s Mark, Sealy, Fireball Whisky, Trident, GM and more. Falls leads digital and social strategy for Cornett, a full-service ad agency in Lexington, KY. He loves the state of Kentucky, sports and bourbon.
- Sponsor: Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers
- Jason’s website
- Cornett, where Jason is director of digital and social strategy
- Google is Shutting Down Google+ for Consumers Following Security Lapse
- 90% of Conversations in Social Media About Banking Occur in Online Forums
- Conversation Research Institute, Jason’s former project aimed at researching conversations online
- Independent Living to Nursing Homes: Understanding the Buyer Journey for Senior Care, a report produced by Jason about conversations online around senior care
- 5 Things You Don’t Know About Senior Living Shoppers
- Home Depot’s Online Community Isn’t Here to (Directly) Sell You Hammers
- Meredith Humphrey, global community manager at Spotify, on Community Signal
- Maker’s Mark Ambassadors
- Less Potent Maker’s Mark Not Going Down Smoothly In Kentucky
- A case study on the Fiskateers community from the agency that created it
- Jason on Instagram
- Team Valvoline, a content and community hub from Valvoline motor oil, which Jason helps advise
Announcer (00:05): You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
Patrick O’Keefe (00:28): Hello, hello, and thank you for listening to Community Signal. Jason Falls is a digital strategy veteran with a great understanding of and appreciation for the value that third party independent online communities can offer brands. On this episode, we talk about where conversations happen online, the fact that some brands are ignoring a majority of relevant conversations and how online communities should factor into your customer journey map.
Patrick O’Keefe (00:50): Thank you to Jules Standen, Katherine Mancuso, Maggie McGary and all of our wonderful Patreon supporters. If you find value in the show and would like to support its existence, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle to learn more.
Patrick O’Keefe (01:01): Jason Falls is one of the most widely-read and respected voices in the digital marketing and social media industries. His digital strategies have touched a number of the world’s most iconic brands including AT&T, Valvoline, Buffalo Trace, Humana, Rawlings, Maker’s Mark, Sealy, Fireball Whisky, Trident, GM and more. Falls leads digital and social strategy for Cornett, a full-service ad agency in Lexington, Kentucky. He loves the State of Kentucky, sports and bourbon.
Patrick O’Keefe (01:28): Jason, welcome to the show.
Jason Falls (01:29): Thanks, Patrick. Great to be talking to you again, been a while.
Patrick O’Keefe (01:31): It’s always a pleasure. You know, Jason, I’ve known you for many years, and when I think about you, I think about someone who very smartly rode what I would call the social media wave and was one of the prominent voices, and is, in social media marketing but didn’t get consumed by it, right, didn’t drink the Kool-Aid, and because of that, didn’t get pigeon-holed into being the social media person, so to speak, but a broader strategy person with social media being a means to an end. Part of that was that even when people were at their most feverish about Facebook and Twitter and Foursquare and Google+, which has just shut down now, and so many others, you were still talking about online communities and forums as an agency guy, working with big brands and helping brands use them and doing research into them. Why?
Jason Falls (02:24): Because the data told me so. I was a big proponent and a big fan of social listening tools, and the social listening tools, one of the views that you can use when you’re looking at where people are talking about your brands is the source, and so when you look at the source view, you see you have Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and YouTube and blogs and news sites – and forums and message boards is a category in and of itself. It was always an inordinately large percentage of the conversation compared to what I expected. Sometimes, I expected it to be, let’s say, 5% and it was 15, but sometimes, I expected it to be 5% and it was 50. I knew that because forums and message boards, those old threaded conversations that evolved over the years were the original, I think, type of social media where people were having conversations online. That’s what most people, I think, were accustomed to using to have conversations and was a familiar environment.
Jason Falls (03:29): I knew conversations were being had in those forums and message boards, and so I thought as a brand, if I’m doing a responsible job of advising my clients on where to pay attention to where people are talking, I can’t say, “Just pay attention to Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat,” because I would be missing a good portion of a conversation and probably the older demographic. The people who have been trying to find the online resources and conversations and communities for years are probably more apt to be in a more familiar environment like a forum. The data told me to go there, so that’s where I went.
Patrick O’Keefe (04:07): Speaking of the data, you’ve been researching online conversations for many years, and you’ve consistently come, as you’ve just mentioned, to a conclusion that I think maybe is an inconvenient truth for some brands, which is that if you’re ignoring forums, if you’re ignoring communities outside of simple buckets, right? You can throw Twitter here, Facebook here, Instagram here, if you’re ignoring those communities, you are often ignoring much of the conversation, even most if it in so many cases. In 2012, you found that 90% of public conversations online about banks and bank products occurred in online forums. It wasn’t just banking.
Patrick O’Keefe (04:44): We talked about it at the time, and across the board, you had done spot checks industry to industry, and forums and communities were always top one or top two. Then, five years later, you conducted a similar study with the Conversation Research Institute, where you had studied online conversations that were, “Focused on enrolling older relatives in independent living, assisted living, long-term and nursing home care facilities from November 2015 through October 2016.” Once again, forums led the way. In an accompanying blog post at CRI, it said, “While some consumers will turn to social media accounts of senior care providers for specific questions, the lion’s share of the conversation about senior care is happening on forums and message boards. While AgingCare.com ranks as the most fruitful place for these conversations, sites like WeightWatchers. com and BabyCenter.com rank high as well. This shows that people shopping for senior care turn to communities they already trust for advice and do not seem to seek out topic-specific resources.”
Patrick O’Keefe (05:41): I pulled up the executive summary before the show, and in fact, it was 83% of these senior care conversations. Now, while you have been conducting this research over the last six years, right, there’s one in 2012, another that you published in 2017. During that time you were researching conversations, have you noticed an increase in brands stepping into those independent online communities and participating?
Jason Falls (06:04): Not really, and that’s the disappointing thing for me, I think. Brands are still very, what I would call, mainstream social media-centric. They are focusing on Facebook. They’re focusing on Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, et cetera, Twitter still. They are looking for what they consider the biggest bang for their buck, and when you’re talking abut forums and message boards, you’re really talking about rolling up your sleeves and getting into the nitty-gritty of having one-to-one conversations or one-to-a-few conversations in multiple places. That’s the challenge. You’re having to have a lot of different small conversations rather than being on Facebook where you can have a page and have one conversation to many people. It’s the difference between television advertising and word-of-mouth advertising, right? Facebook is the big behemoth where you can have a page and potentially get your message in front of a billion people, whereas if you go to BabyCenter.com or BabyCenter.org, whichever one it was, and actively participate in conversations there, you’re going to be talking to three or four people at a time on a day-to-day basis, which is not a lot. It might be more meaningful.
Jason Falls (07:20): You might be able to glean much more relevant insights for your brand out of those conversations, but you’re not going to be able to spread your marketing message there as much. The rub is, what are you using the conversation platforms like forums and message boards for? Are you using it to broadcast a message, which is not what they’re meant for, and most communities like that will immediately run you out. That turns brands off, or are you using it for genuinely getting to build relationships and understand your community better, maybe mining those communities for research and development insights to get to understand how they interact with you, your product, your industry, your competitors better, which you have to do in a much more organic, subtle way as opposed to officially participating in a big brand way. It just looks to big brands like a lot of work, a lot of heavy-lifting, and so I don’t think I’ve seen much increase in participation in those types of communities probably for those reasons.
Patrick O’Keefe (08:22): Darn those senior living Snapchats. I was hoping you’d say yes, you’ve seen an increase, but my thought, my realistic thought was that you would say no, which is unfortunate. The sense of overwhelm, it reminds me of conversations I’ve had over the years with people about a very simple thing, which is when you reach milestones, do you thank people individually? Do you try to thank some people individually, or do you just thank the community as a whole? There is a train of thought that says that because most communities are of a certain size where you cannot thank everyone that you should not thank anyone, because you don’t want anyone to be left out. I take another approach, which is that you can thank specific people who stand out and recognize them and then also have a catch-all thank you, and the idea that thanking individual people means so much to them that it’s worth that other risk.
Patrick O’Keefe (09:12): When you think about online communities, that sense of overwhelm of there’s so many. Where do we go? Where do we start? What do we monitor? Pick two, five, ten based upon the type of research you do that highlights the biggest fish, the lowest-hanging fruit. Start with one and participate because I think a lot of this gets caught up in analytics and metrics. One thing that gets lost, I think, with online communities is that they often give data away. A lot of forum and community software, by default, has a view count enabled, right, on the individual forums. How many times a thread was viewed, or how many times even a post was viewed at the post level, and if you think about that, you’re in a community, you just mentioned that either you’re talking to one person but you’re talking to everyone who will ever read that post. Since we’re talking about public social and not dark social, we’re talking about search engine index content. The authoritative content.
Patrick O’Keefe (10:08): When people ask a question, they type the question into Google, and often, they end up on a forum. That view count only goes up. I have forum threads on KarateForums.com, which is not a massive community. It’s a loyal, dedicated, great culture community within the martial arts space, but we have threads on there that have been viewed probably 500,000 times that have to do with martial arts equipment or some ecommerce software.
Jason Falls (10:34): It’s amazing how powerful the long tail search and the evergreen content from forums, message boards can be, and you’re exactly right. I mean you can have a conversation. I will bet you that your 500,000 view threads on KarateForums are probably 10, 11, 12 years old, right?
Patrick O’Keefe (10:57): Mm-hmm.
Jason Falls (10:58): Because you had a conversation that many years ago about a specific type of equipment or a specific type of move or a specific type of lesson, and the conversation was so rich that people back then linked to it. Over the years, as people are searching for that same type of information, they find that forum thread. Then, a year after it appeared, more people linked to it. Then, a year later, more people linked to it and so on and so forth. All of those signals keep going back into the algorithm for the search engine saying, “This is the most trusted information about this topic.” It’s just reinforcing that credibility of that particular page for that particular topic, and that’s what the search engines are supposed to do. Find the most trusted information on the web for whatever you’re searching for, so it’s amazing how powerful they can be.
Jason Falls (11:51): If we can all go back 10, 15 years, advising brands in the social media digital marketing space and say, “Here’s what I want you to do. The first thing I want you to do when you launch your website is add a forum and message board, a discussion forum to it. We’re not going to talk about your product or service anymore so then we’re going to let people ask questions about how to use it,” like a customer support board, but we’re really just going to talk more broadly about how to do things and talk about broad topics within your work, within your industry.” If every brand did that 15, 20 years ago, then brands would rank number one, two and three for all these search terms that they’re spending a bazillion dollars a year trying to rank for now, but they can’t beat Amazon to it. They can’t beat Wikipedia to it. They can’t beat Glassdoor to it because they didn’t know what search was back then. They didn’t know credible content.
Patrick O’Keefe (12:44): Yeah, that’s a great point. The Home Depot community shouldn’t sell you hammers. It should teach you how to use a hammer.
Jason Falls (12:49): Absolutely.
Patrick O’Keefe (12:50): Right?
Jason Falls (12:50): Absolutely.
Patrick O’Keefe (12:51):
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Patrick O’Keefe (13:26): This is an old conversation, and I guess I hate to bring up this cyclical thing, but just the idea of vanity metrics, and it lends to the thought that this is still a thing of majority thought where it is easier to say, “Here’s a report with the number of followers, likes, clicks” than it is to go into a forum.” It’s funny because you remember a time that’s not that long ago before Twitter Analytics was a thing. I mean before, you didn’t know how many people engage with a tweet. You just tweeted it, and then you were trying to prove things around that like how many people click on the bit.ly, or what do they do after they click on the bit.ly?
Patrick O’Keefe (13:58): Then, that led to, because there was a lack of data provided by Twitter, I think anyway, my opinion, of reliance on those vanity metrics like followers, like likes. Now, it’s a little better with engagement around tweets and how Twitter shows you some of those things, but still, I guess the beauty of a simplified report is that looks pretty. This is everyone’s responsibility, right? The people who you report to or your bosses, what makes them happy, unfortunately, but the allure of that report, that pretty report that shows an uptake in followers is still so strong, I think.
Jason Falls (14:31): That is very true. That’s very true. It’s amazing how, to this day, and even though we’ve had this conversation over the course of the last two or three years about vanity metrics and how they don’t mean anything, and even Google has come out and said to executives and the people that are running digital marketing so that they can feed their executives, they say, “Hey, vanity metrics don’t count anymore.” Facebook’s even said it. The Facebook ad reps that we talked to are coming to us and saying, “Hey, it’s not about building followers anymore. It’s about targeting the right audiences with your ads,” because of course, they want you to spend money with them so it’s all about paying them, not necessarily building an audience that you can reach organically.
Jason Falls (15:14): I mean even the social networks are saying it’s not really about building these vanity metrics anymore. We report that up the channel to our executives, our companies, to our clients if we’re at an agency and still, the first question that they typically ask at a monthly reporting meeting or on the call is, “Well, what’s our follower growth? How many people are following us now?” Unfortunately, it’s going to take probably another 12 to 18 months of reinforcing the idea that vanity metrics don’t mean anything or don’t mean as much. Then, it’s going to take, I think, an aha moment for a client or an executive at your company to be able to understand what you mean by that. I’ll give you an example.
Jason Falls (15:57): I did this in 2010. I was working with an environmental products company, and the CEO would call me. I only talked to him once a week. He would call me at 9 o’clock on Friday morning, and he would ask me how many Facebook fans they had. Never mind that you could go to your own Facebook page and see the number yourself. He would call me from five hours away and ask me how many Facebook fans he had. I would tell him because, I mean, he was the CEO. I was reporting to his marketing manager, but he was the CEO. He’s paying me the checks.
Patrick O’Keefe (16:28): Right. That’s how they want to spend their time, right?
Jason Falls (16:29): Exactly, so I just answered the question. Well then, I figured out after going out and visiting with them a couple of times, I figured out what he was doing. He called me 9 o’clock every Friday because he had a 12 o’clock golf game every Friday with a bunch of his buddies, and so he wanted to be able to brag that his Facebook fans had increased X number or X percent every week, and so I said, “Okay. This is ridiculous.” The next Friday, he called me, and he said, “Jason, how many Facebook fans do I have?” I said, “You know what? I’m going to e-mail you the link to your Facebook page, and the number is in the upper corner. You can look at that number any time you want. I don’t really have time to go look at that number for you right now myself because I’m too busy trying to figure out how to get those fans to buy your product.” He went, “Oh, so you … Oh.” He really, for the first time, thought, “You mean you can actually use social media to get people to buy things?” Then, the questions were different.
Jason Falls (17:32): From that point on, it was, “Are we converting anything from Facebook?” It wasn’t, “How many fans we have,” it was, “Am I making money from that thing yet?” The questions changed once I made him realize the vanity metric doesn’t mean anything to me. It may mean something to you, but it shouldn’t. As soon as the trigger, that switch flipped in his head, the questions changed. I think we still have to have that aha moment with our bosses and our clients to say, “Oh, you mean it actually can drive some business factor, some metric that’s really important to us?” Fortunately, in 2018, I think we’ve reached a point where probably 50 to 75%, somewhere in that range of marketing VPs and CEOs and CMOs understand that social media is a part of the business community and the business life and the business strategy these days. It does push buttons and drive metrics in some important ways for your company.
Jason Falls (18:35): There’s probably anywhere from 50 to 25%, going the other way, of those executives out there who still think it’s just playing on Twitter or playing on Facebook. They don’t get it, and so we still have to keep pushing the industry and the practice forward, but I think we’re getting a lot further along than we were just a few years ago.
Patrick O’Keefe (18:55): It’s such a great point that everyone has to find their aha moment or their way to get their skin in the game, or however you want to look at it. The last guest on our show was Meredith Humphrey who is the global community manager for Spotify. She talked about how she’s looking at ROI at Spotify, and what ROI means for her and justifying her team’s efforts may not mean anything to X, Y, Z department. They’re trying to get them involved in the community, and so they need their own ROI to look at from the community that says, “Oh, this is worth it.” I think it’s really similar here. Everyone needs their aha moment. In your case, it’s clients oftentimes. In someone else’s case, a community, professional listening. Their boss needs their own aha moment. Their own thing that they can grasp onto and understand and fully see how you get from point A on the community to point Z, to whatever that aha moment is that means something to them, or you can get that buy-in. If it’s not your boss, another department.
Patrick O’Keefe (19:51): If it’s human resources and it’s about the number of leads it generates to the hiring site, or it’s support. It’s the number of messages that you can actually confirm, because you have unified data, you’re not just guessing, some level of deflection. To sales, it might be leads generated. To your business, it might be retention. Whatever it is, the ROI question, if you want people to buy into this in different departments, it has to, on some level, speak to them. In that case, you were able to connect him to conversions, which is obviously a popular one with CEOs.
Jason Falls (20:24): Yeah, and then also, the ROI question, I think I’ve always told people that the ROI question, I think, really needs to be restated more broadly. It’s not, “What’s the ROI?” It’s, “What do I get in return?” Because it may not be money. It may be you get better customer service scores. It may be that you get higher search engine rankings. It may be that you get a better reputation online. It may be that social media or community activation means that you have a built-in R&D function. You can equate that to money because you can say, “Well, we’re not having to spend money on R&D focus groups. We have an online community that we can turn to and ask those questions. We don’t have to spend that money to find those answers anymore. Let’s pull back a little further and save money,” is one thing we can get out of it.
Jason Falls (21:11): We can also get a bunch of intrinsic benefits as well or non-monetary benefits as well, because ROI is, was and will always be an accounting metric. It’s a dollars and cents and a percentage metric. That’s just a sliver of what you can get out of digital, out of social, out of community. I think you have to look at it more broadly. You also have to look at your return, what you can get in return based on what your goal is. Another story that I’d like to tell is how ridiculous would you sound if, let’s say, you had a community site?
Jason Falls (21:47): Let’s say that Patrick goes … someone came to you with the KarateForums idea years ago and said, “Patrick, I’m an enthusiast for karate. I want you to build a community forum where people can talk about it and learn.” The goal is to drive a lot of people to a website where they can join and be members and talk about karate so that people can have their karate questions answered. That’s the goal, and so in the first monthly meeting after this thing launches, the person who hired you to build that turned around and said, “Patrick, how much money did we make from KarateForums this month?” Then, you scratched your head. You turned around and said, “We didn’t make any money off of it this month because that wasn’t our goal,” or to flip it, how ridiculous would it be if they turned around and said to you, “Patrick, what’s the ROI of KarateForums?” You said, “3,700 conversations and 3,700 happy people.”
Jason Falls (22:48): It’s a ridiculous statement, right, but that’s not an ROI. That is a return. You did get something out of it, but it’s not a financial metric. We have to measure based on your goal, and so I’ve always challenged clients and executives and my bosses when we’re looking at the return on something. “Let’s make sure we’re asking the right question, laddering the question of what we got out of it back to the goal, and let’s make sure we’re asking the right question.” Is it a financial metric, or is it something different?
Patrick O’Keefe (23:20): Just listening to you, what crept to mind is just the cost of not doing it. What happens in a vacuum if you leave? You’re a big bourbon guy. You’ve talked about bourbon communities for as long as I’ve known you. What happens if you’re a bourbon maker, and you don’t participate in the community of bourbon drinkers and lovers? It’s an opening. We’re all in a war for attention. If you drill down and get past community stuff, brands are in a war for attention, so what happens if you’re not present in that category leading forum, in that industry-leading online community, in that place that people go, because I know bourbon drinkers go to Twitter just like martial artists do, just like everyone else does, but the intent, the meaning, the purpose, the depth is different. The money spent is often different. The people who are on KarateForums.com probably spend more on martial arts equipment than the average Twitter user who tweets about karate.
Patrick O’Keefe (24:14): These are people who are passionate. They buy. They are deeply involved, and so if you’re not there, if you can’t spare a person for five hours a week, who else is, right? There’s plenty of people who make martial arts gear. There’s plenty of people who make bourbon. That’s basically filled by someone else, and so that’s not to say like you could take that five hours, and it’s someone else. You can redirect it to something else, right? You can spend it in this way, spend it in that way, and you measure. Maybe that’s more valuable for you, but with any effort, it’s like, what’s also the cost of not doing it? What does that open up? What vacuum does that create? Who can step in and be the leader where we could have been but we’re not?
Jason Falls (24:49): Right. I mean just looking at the bourbon industry, and I use that, A, because you cracked open the bottle.
Patrick O’Keefe (24:54): Pandora’s box, yeah.
Jason Falls (24:56): B, I’m familiar, obviously, with the industry. The bourbon industry is in the middle of a huge boom right now, and social media has helped that boom along because you’ve got very small startup products and brands out there that have very little budget, very little ability to get their name in front of people. They’re able to use community. They’re able to use social media and informal communities on Twitter and Facebook to let people know who they are. They’re actually, in a sense, competing with huge multi-million, even billion-dollar corporations that are trying to distribute liquor around the world. When you ask the question, “What’s the cost? What’s the negative cost? What’s the vacuum cost?”
Jason Falls (25:42): If you look at a brand, if you go back about 15, 20 years and you talk about the top bourbon brands, there’s five or 10 bourbon brands that are going to come to mind for people. If you ask them back in let’s say 1995, maybe 2000, 2005 what the top bourbon brands were, you had Jim Beam. You had Maker’s Mark. You had Wild Turkey. Four Roses was around, I think, then. You certainly had Evan Williams. You had Early Times. You had a handful. You had Old Forester. You had a handful. Of those I just named, all of them are still around. All of them have marketed themselves and tried to keep up with the trends and whatnot to varying degrees. Some of them were later to the social media, digital marketing community table than others.
Jason Falls (26:29): The one that never really had a problem with marketing all along from even before what we think of as social media emerged was Maker’s Mark. It was because Maker’s Mark built a community of ambassadors in a word-of-mouth marketing program that, while they didn’t have a message board or a social network, necessarily, when they first started out, they did have the ability to subscribe to a newsletter and have a method of communication with the brand that was very exclusive to them and made them feel very important. The benefit of being a Maker’s Mark Ambassador was you got to put your name on a barrel of bourbon. Then, after that barrel became mature and got poured into a batch, you were invited to the distillery to buy a couple of bottles out of your barrel, right? It was a really crafty way to make people feel like they were part of the brand. It was a very good effort at building community before online community tools were really part of a brand’s equation.
Jason Falls (27:35): If you go back and look at those names that I listed as well, there’s one brand that was a big name 15 years ago that today, you’re wondering, “Where are they? I don’t hear about them anymore. I don’t see them anymore.” Now, I don’t personally know why their marketing online has not been keeping up with the Jones’s, but I just went over and looked at Early Times on Twitter, and they’ve got 1,500 followers. This used to be a huge bourbon brand, and they’re way down the list in terms of their competition now. There are startup brands that are funded with under half a million dollars right now that are bigger in terms of exposure online than Early Times, and Early Times is a name that most people who know bourbon have recognized for decades.
Jason Falls (28:22): Again, I don’t have any personal exposure to what’s going on with Early Times, why they haven’t marketed or haven’t spent money on digital marketing, at least not that I can find, but that’s one of those examples of what happens if you’re in a vacuum? Well, that’s an example I can point to in the bourbon industry to say, well, you disappear. Your competition runs past you. Even smaller competitors that don’t have as much money.
Patrick O’Keefe (28:44): That’s a great story. Speaking of stories, for a second, before the show, you brought up the story of what happened when Maker’s Mark announced that they were taking the proof of their bourbon from 90 down to 84 and how their community of ambassadors responded. Tell me the story.
Jason Falls (29:00): Yeah, it was a few years ago, and I guess I should disclose a couple of things here just to make sure everybody knows that this is on the up and up. Once upon a time, years ago, I worked with Maker’s Mark. This was before this happened. I have not worked for them or with them since. This was before this happened. Currently, my agency client is a competitor of theirs. I work with the Sazerac brands of bourbons now. They’re a competitor, just for a sense of disclosure.
Patrick O’Keefe (29:25): Appreciate the disclosure.
Jason Falls (29:26): I’m going to tell you the story the way anybody would who knows the story. A few years ago, Maker’s Mark reported that they had encountered an upcoming shortage. They were going to run out of enough bourbon to keep up with demand, and that’s a problem right now in the bourbon industry. You got to remember that the boom in bourbon, the demand for bourbon has exploded in the last five to ten years. Well, most good bourbons are aged somewhere between five to probably 15 years, so the master distillers would have had to have foreseen and foretold the future 15 years ago to know that they had to make three times as much bourbon to be able to keep up with supply and demand. We have a supply and demand problem. A lot of brands do in the industry right now.
Jason Falls (30:13): Maker’s Mark was encountering this a few years ago, and Rob Samuels, who is the grandson of the guy who came up with the recipe and is the chief operating officer of the company, sent a letter out, a notice out to all of the ambassadors saying, “We’ve made a decision that instead of running out and having a shortage, we’re just going to save product by lowering the proof, watering down the bourbon from 90 proof to 84 proof for a period of time. Then, we’ll bring it back up.” Well, within, I think it was seven days, they had to rescind the decision because the community of Maker’s Mark ambassadors and Maker’s Mark fans and supporters around the globe exploded with, “Oh, the hell you are. No, you will not. You will not water down that bourbon. That’s my bourbon. You don’t get to screw with my bourbon.” That’s because Maker’s Mark had done such a great job of building co-ownership in the brand with its fans and its community over the years with the Ambassador’s program and all the other things that it had done.
Jason Falls (31:19): It had really given its community co-ownership of the brand, and so when the brand said, “Hey, we’re going to do this,” the community said, “No, no, no, no, no. We don’t agree.” They were forced. The brand was forced to say, “Okay. We’re not going to do it. We’ll deal with it some other way. We’ll find a different way to deal with the supply and demand problem, but we’re not going to water down your bourbon.” It was an outstanding example of how having a passionate community of fans can certainly work against you, but it’s also, I think, a way that your fans can actually help protect your brand too because I think even though that was a little bit of a PR nightmare for Maker’s Mark in the short-term, I think it’s a really great story and a good thing for the brand that they have, the community of people so passionate about them.
Patrick O’Keefe (32:05): Right. They’re not Early Times, which I honestly, I don’t drink bourbon, so that, to be fair, “I’ll never talk to you about bourbon on any level,” but I never heard of Early Times, but I had heard of pretty much every other one you’ve mentioned. About that story, do you know at the time if Maker’s Mark had a way for their ambassadors to talk to one another, if not through an online community, behind a login? Were they connecting those people together?
Jason Falls (32:28): Likely. I wouldn’t say that they were doing it in an official behind the login, you can connect in an online community. It’s interesting. That concept certainly was something that the brand had been considering over the years. I know that when I was there, that was an idea that was on the table, but I think by this point in time, now you’re talking in the year 2013, ’14, ’15, around there, Maker’s Mark Ambassadors had started to form their own communities with Facebook Groups and other informal ways to communicate with each other and gravitate toward each other with event apps and things like that. I think the brand, I think, very wisely, frankly, sat back and said, “This is happening on its own. I don’t think we need to do this because our ambassadors are leading this charge on their own.” Of course, it’s always an option for the brand if they wanted to do it.
Jason Falls (33:25): Back when I was working with them, and again, I had stopped with Maker’s Mark in 2009. This was ages ago in the digital world. Back then, you could log into the website. You could see the picture of your plate that was on the end of the barrel where your name was. You could see the names of the other people that were on your barrel because it wasn’t your name on one barrel. It was several names on a barrel. I think that was really the only way you could really connect with another ambassador other than signing up for and in going to physical events that the brand hosted. That was the level of sophistication at that point.
Patrick O’Keefe (34:01): Do you think that the ambassadors overreacted as a bourbon drinker, or does that even matter in that case?
Jason Falls (34:08): I think they reacted the way any passionate fan of a brand would. You’re screwing with my brand.
Patrick O’Keefe (34:14): Right.
Jason Falls (34:15): You better not do that, and so I don’t think it was an overreaction. I mean I’m a Maker’s Mark fan too, and the bourbon community is a different animal. It’s not as fiercely competitive as other industries because I have a bottle of Maker’s Mark at my house right now because a lot of people who’d come over to my house like Maker’s Mark, so I like to have it on hand. I also have a bottle of Buffalo Trace, which is one of my client brands that I work with. I also have a bottle of Weller, which is one of my clients, but then, I also have a bottle of Widow Jane, which is something that is from New York that I don’t even know. I know who owns that company, but I have that as an offering of, “This is another bourbon that we’d like to try.”
Jason Falls (34:58): Aficionados in the bourbon industry like to try everybody else’s stuff, so we are fiercely loyal to our brand, but we like to drink others, but I think the reaction when you start messing with someone’s, “This is my brand, and I buy it all the time. It’s my favorite. It will always be my favorite,” I think you have to have that reaction from fans. If you don’t, then I don’t think you’ve done a great job of building that relationship with your customers that you should because you need fans that are going to tell you when you’re doing something wrong.
Patrick O’Keefe (35:29): What are your favorite brand community case studies, whether or not they involve you?
Jason Falls (35:35): My favorite case study of community ever does not involve me at all. It was one of the first word-of-mouth and online community case studies that I ever really studied very deeply, and it’s a sad story in the end, but it’s a beautiful story in the beginning and the middle.
Patrick O’Keefe (35:51): Just like life.
Jason Falls (35:53): Just like life, yeah. It died a painful death, but in the beginning and middle, it was awesome. That’s the story of the Fiskateers community, which was a community site that was built by Fiskars, which is, for those of you who don’t know, is the fairly expensive, in comparison, orange-handled scissors that you get at craft stores. It’s a scissors company, for crying out loud, but in 2006, they had some money. They wanted to spend it on social media digital marketing. They were trying to figure out a way to really connect with the online communities that were enthusiastic about scissors, which I didn’t know there was a such thing, but they went out and found that the people who talked about scissors online more than anybody else were scrapbookers. That makes sense because scrapbookers, obviously, are going to be using scissors more frequently than other people.
Jason Falls (36:42): In 2006, apparently, what they learned when they did their research was scrapbooking communities in forums and message boards back then and sites like YouTube where you could log in under any e-mail, and you didn’t have to use your name and all this stuff., they were mean. People would call each other names. “You can’t cut straight,” or whatever. I don’t know what they said to each other back then, but scrapbooking went gangster. People were being mean to each other online. The pain point that Fiskars identified was that scrapbookers did not have a safe haven online where they could be themselves and share their ideas and get positive reinforcement and feedback from a community, so they built it.
Jason Falls (37:28): They built an online community that was password-protected. You had to be invited to be a member. You had to use your real name. You had to use your real e-mail address. You had to agree to not swear. You had to agree to not complain about people and bitch about people and all that stuff. They had all these rules, and they identified a bunch of, back then, we called them mavens. Now, they would call them influencers. They identified a bunch of mavens in the scrapbooking community. People who had blogs and whatnot with lots of readers. They had them go in and be the beta testers. Then, they said, “Okay. Invite five of your friends.” Every friend that they invited in, they got to invite five of their friends.
Jason Falls (38:10): Their goal for this community site was to have, I think, 1,500 members in the first six months that it was created. They surpassed the 1,500-member goal in 24 hours. That’s how good it was. That’s how big of a pain point the scrapbooking community found that safe haven to be. It was so desperately needed among scrapbookers that, that thing exploded overnight. All of a sudden, here was a couple thousand people who were in this new place where they could actually share their ideas and collaborate and communicate with each other. They didn’t have to worry about being called names. They didn’t have to worry about trolls. They didn’t have to worry about people using profanity, et cetera, et cetera.
Jason Falls (38:54): What Fiskars used that community for over the course of several years was, when they had a new product that they would launch, they would let this community know about it ahead of time so that they could run out and be the first people to buy it, and then tell all their friends to go buy it. They used it as a sales mechanism, but more importantly, they would have their product development folks, when they had a new feature or some new product or some new spin-off, they would actually send prototypes to members of the community. They would say, “We want you to test this and tell us what you think, but also want you to videotape it and post the video to the community so other people can see it.”
Jason Falls (39:36): This did two things. Number one, it gave them free feedback from actual customers using product, which typically, you would have to pay a research company to go out and get. I’m talking tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars in R&D costs to go get this feedback from customers. They got free feedback, so they were lowering their R&D costs, but think about it. If you are prototyping and sending a prototype product out to a community of three, four, 5,000 people and they see it six months ahead of launch, and they know it’s coming, who’s going to go out and buy it when it launches? Those three, four, 5,000 people that know it’s coming. They’re going to tell all their friends about it. You’ve got a built-in launch date audience that’s going to go purchase the damn thing.
Jason Falls (40:25): It was a marketing platform. It was a sales platform. It was an R&D platform. It was a customer service community platform. They used Fiskateers for almost everything that you can use a social media strategy to accomplish for a brand. It was absolutely beautiful. It was magnificent. Then, I believe as the story was told to me, I don’t know if this is 100% accurate, but I think this is true. As things happened in the business world, a new CEO or an acquisition or something happened. A new CMO came in, looked at it and said, “Why are we spending money on that? Kill it,” and they killed it.
Patrick O’Keefe (41:04): Ouch.
Jason Falls (41:05): Yeah. That’s done.
Patrick O’Keefe (41:07): The most beautiful story cut down. I do remember that. I think there was a conference that you and I spoke at that if the Fiskateers thing wasn’t at its peak case study mode being talked about, they might actually have been there or had representatives from the Fistakeers at the event. I mean my mom had Fiskars scissors when I was a kid. I remember the orange-handled scissors and the brand on those scissors. She’s a knitter and a crafter, and it’s funny. You wouldn’t think or you would think maybe. It just depends, right, that, that community would have nasty online communities, but I think people can get nasty about pretty much anything.
Jason Falls (41:43): Well, in this day and age, yeah. I mean my goodness. The world has become a weird place online.
Patrick O’Keefe (41:51): Thanks for the story. I was reading a piece that you wrote recently about customer journey mapping, which to quote you is, “Imagining all the steps a customer takes along the path of discovering, engaging with, considering and ultimately purchasing your product or service, and that it gives you an incredible roadmap to make better websites, online media, social media content, email marketing, television commercials, outdoor boards and more.” Do you think online communities factor into that exercise?
Jason Falls (42:20): I absolutely think they do. Depending upon the brand, obviously, if you’re a brand that has an online community, and it is a place that, A, wins search results, which we talked about that earlier, which means that any random person who’s looking for information that might lead them to your product or service, if they find your forum, then you and your forum and that online community could be part of that customer journey map, because that’s going to be an entry point for them to learn more about your product or service or find people within your community. You can answer questions which may lead them further down that journey to your product or service.
Jason Falls (42:57): If you win search results and your forum is part of that factor, but also too, if you have any sales or marketing function within a forum or message board in terms of customers asking questions, people wanting to clarify information about product, any online chat which functions the same way, any customer service forum where people can ask questions about product features and whatnot before they purchase, that absolutely falls into that customers journey map because, especially on higher end purchases, where people are spending a lot of dollars, where there’s a lot longer lead time. If you’re purchasing something that costs more than a couple hundred dollars, you’re going to research it for days, if not, weeks, maybe if not months. You’re going to ask a lot of questions. You’re going to read a lot of articles. That investigative process is going to take you probably to forums and message boards of some sort.
Jason Falls (43:53): It may not be the brand’s forum or message board. It might be a KarateForums. It might be at BabyCenter.com, or it might be AR15.com, which is one of the largest online forums and communities out there and has topics galore. Yeah, it’s AR15.com. It’s a community of gun enthusiasts, but they have a thread about banking and a thread about parenting and a thread about sports and a thread about all sorts of other topics where that community of people shares information.
Jason Falls (44:23): Yeah, absolutely. Community forums and message boards can and often are a part of that customer journey map, and so if it is part of your map, then you have to think about, “Okay. When our customer’s journey lands them here, how can we account for that? Do we simply account for it by having retargeting advertisements appear on this online community or wherever they are, or if they come to our forum or message board, how do we engage prospective customers at this point to get them to the next step in the journey map, which is pushing them more positively towards a conversion point?” You’ve got to ask those questions and make sure that you’re accounting for how to handle that forum or online community in that process.
Patrick O’Keefe (45:10): Getting us closer to that holy grail of multi-channel attribution. Jason, thank you so much for taking some time with us. It’s been a pleasure to chat, and I appreciate you sharing your insights with us.
Jason Falls (45:21): Patrick, I’m always happy to talk to you, man. I love talking about community probably more than anything else in the digital space and always have loved what you do. Keep doing it, man.
Patrick O’Keefe (45:29): Thanks, Jason. We have been talking with Jason Falls, director of digital strategy at Cornett. To learn more about their work, visit teamcornett.com. Connect with Jason at jasonfalls.com and for bourbon, bourbon jokes and general silliness, follow Jason on Instagram @JasonFalls. Finally, check out teamvalvoline.com for a content and community hub for motor heads, DIY mechanics, racing fans and auto enthusiasts from Valvoline motor oil, which Jason helps advise. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad, and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Keep fighting the good fight, and I’ll see you next episode.
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