A New Standard for Marketing as Service

an interview with

“It’s marketing that isn’t marketing,” said John Bernier, the social media maven at Best Buy whose dev team brought the stunningly effective Twelpforce to market in July of 2009. Since then Twelpforce has responded to near 28,000 customer inquiries via Twitter, enlisted 2600 employees to share their knowledge, and paid for itself many times over via extensive PR coverage, enhanced brand perceptions, and potential savings to the call center.

Setting a new standard for Marketing as Service, Twelpforce is worth studying, both for its lightning quick development process and for the surprise benefits of this highly innovative program. While this article is based on two extensive interviews with Mr. Bernier, one at the New York 140 Characters Conference and the other by phone last week, he is quick to note that this was “clearly a team effort” that went well beyond the marketing department. In fact, it is the cross-disciplined nature of this effort that makes the following 7 insights all the more instructive.

1. Recognize the Need

Most marketers know to look for an unmet needs but few find them, especially in the chaos that was Twitter in 2008. “We saw widespread use of Twitter among employees,” noted Bernier, “and our customers were talking about us on Twitter.” Putting two and two together, the Best Buy development project team created spy.appspot.com to monitor the conversation online and to formulate an engagement plan. This was a critical first step on the road to meeting “a need in a time and place when customers were asking for it,” as Mr. Bernier so aptly put it.

2. Follow the Leader

At about this time, Barry Judge, CMO of BestBuy was emerging as a major voice on Twitter. “Our leadership started to get very visible with customers, and that set the tone for the rest of the department,” noted Bernier. “Barry was the catalyst, giving us the green light to go experiment, so we had the luxury of leadership buy-in,” Bernier gratefully added. All that said, Barry Judge alone couldn’t answer all the customer questions himself, and it quickly became clear that they needed to find a way to tap into the tech expertise across the organization.

3. Build it Fast

Around April 2009, Bernier’s team was told that Twelpforce was a go and would even be featured in a TV spot in July. They essentially had two months to build a system that could monitor customer inquiries on Twitter and allow multiple employees to respond from one account. The risks were huge and “not a day went by that I didn’t think this might not work,” sighed Bernier. Nonetheless, using open source software and “the cloud,” they were ready for a “soft launch” in June by which time 600 eager employees had already volunteered to test the system.

4. Unleash your Employees

Unlike traditional customer support services, employee access to Twelpforce was not restricted to a select group of highly trained agents. In fact, the genius of Twelpforce is that it tapped into an existing talent pool that welcomed the chance to share their knowledge in their spare time! “A geek squad guy might have a break between sessions or it could be a ‘Blue Shirt’ in-store at a slow moment, either way,” noted Bernier, “this talent was ready, willing and able to help out. Because the system was designed to tie each response to an individual employee, each Twelpforce rep could feel a personal sense of pride in their participation.”

5. Expect the Unexpected

After the initial 600 Twelpforce testers, an additional 2000 signed on, and while not all are active, those that are have found some extraordinary side benefits. First, it helped create a new internal network, “broadening their relationship with other employees who shared a common interest,” beamed Bernier. Second, it served as on-going training program as Twelpforce reps researched questions and read the range of answers. Because it became clear that some questions couldn’t be answered in 140 characters, the development project team also went to work on a tool that enabled longer, more sophisticated answers.

6. Support the Big Picture

Though it could have been a big risk to feature Twelpforce before its merits were established, BestBuy took the chance with good reason. Seeking the well wishes of early adopters and tech influencers, you can’t simply talk the talk. You have to walk the walk, demonstrating your passion for technology and leading edge know-how by applying innovations like Twitter, innovations favored by the technorati. Being able to translate this passion into better, faster service as BestBuy did with Twelpforce is an even bigger coup since this is clearly a weak spot for discount-driven competitors like Wal-Mart, who are far less in tune with the latest innovations.

7. Reap the Rewards

While on the surface, Twelpforce could be perceived as a short-term marketing ploy, it is in truth more like a vein of gold that has just barely been tapped. Twelpforce offers “real time pulse measurement” noted Bernier, “so we could use the feed to adjust banner ad copy”, to reflect trending topics like iPad accessories, new game releases or localized out-of-stocks. In order to help Best Buy “Examine the past to predict the future,” Bernier and the dev team are currently creating an even more robust monitoring system, once again in a highly transparent manner and which you can see in its infancy at bbyfeed.com. As Bernier puts it, “The evolution of Twelpforce involves the story of data.”

Final note: Customer satisfaction among users of Twelpforce is actually higher than c-sat ratings of Best Buy among the general population. These higher ratings translate into increased purchase intent as well as the likelihood to spend more per purchase. Not bad for a program that was built in two months under the premise that “If we were going to fail, we wanted to fail fast.”

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