That Country Feeling

Marketers usually get it wrong when they talk about the power of one-to-one e-mail and behavioral marketing. What they usually mean is one-to-many e-mail marketing and automation.

There was a wonderful old movie staring Judy Holliday called "The Solid Gold Cadillac," where Judy's character is hired by a large corrupt company to communicate with the smaller stockholders. She develops a personal relationship with all the small players who end up assigning her as their proxy. In the climax, she is able to thwart a corrupt takeover because it turns out that she now controls a majority of the stock. Cute movie and an example of real one-to-one marketing.

We've discussed in this column before the power of online e-mail communities in helping marketers reach the target audience. And while the behavioral e-mail and ad serving technologies available today are a huge boon to marketers, I believe it is a mistake to think that these types of automated processors can replace actual communications between buyer and seller.

And online communities, whether they exist only as an e-mail exchange or as an archived Web site of exchanges, can be a gold mine to the savvy marketer. (They can backfire as well, so you do need to know the rules of the community that you are addressing.)

Here is one example of the right way to market your company using community forums:

Meet Reece Anderson, founder of MSA Pedal Steel Guitars. Reece is not only the founder of one of the leading Pedal Steel manufacturing companies, but is also a well respected player and teacher of the instrument. Reece is always available to answer questions on a community site called The Steel Guitar Forum. As an entrepreneur and innovator that caters to an extremely traditional and loyal audience, Reece was able to leverage the forum to explain his cutting-edge ideas and gain support for his non-traditional approach to instrument design. A year before producing and launching a radical new guitar design, Reece posted a "What If" message on the forum. What if your guitar did this, what if your guitar didn't have this problem?

In the message, Reece laid out exactly what he was planning to build, which helped lay the groundwork for acceptance of his idea to build guitars out of carbon composite material instead of wood, and to charge a premium to boot. A year later, once the guitar was built, famous names in the industry raved about the product on the forum, and at the same time defended the guitar's design against the equally vocal critics who had trouble with this new direction.

More recently, Reece was able to launch a new line of premium "lap steel" guitars when members of the forum went to a large trade show and posted pictures of prototypes of the instrument on the forum, building demand and anticipation. As a result, Reece was able to build a market for a high-end instrument that has been dominated by low-end players in recent years.

But more importantly, Reece knows the importance of true one-to-one marketing. I know, because I just bought two instruments from Reece myself. In his personal communications, Reece goes out of his way to make the potential customer feel like he is not just buying a product, but joining a family. I was given his home number, his cell phone, his e-mail address, and encouraged to call him at any time for any type of information. After the sale happened, Reece would send me small notes of thanks and encouragement.

It was this type of marketing that was the promise of companies such as Saturn, a promise that seems lost in recent years. Behavioral marketing is great, but don't forget: Nothing replaces the personal touch. I know: I'm $5,000 poorer, but feel so much richer as a result.

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