How to Acquire Customers by Marketing “Heroes”

Posted on Jul 26, 2010 | 20 comments

How to Acquire Customers by Marketing “Heroes”

Social Proof in Action …

Yesterday I wrote about the benefits of using social proof and authority in raising venture capital.  If you didn’t read that yet it might be worth having a quick skim as a primer.

Social proof is defined as “looking for others to guide our decisions” and is also one of the most important techniques in acquiring customers in your company.  Many of you have read or at least know the primary thesis of “Crossing the Chasm” the seminal book on marketing your products to mainstream consumers by Geoffrey Moore.  It influenced a generation of tech marketers.

The book popularized the technology adoption lifecycle curve that originally came out of Iowa State University shown below.  We all intuitively know this curve now but we don’t all market effectively to it.  Chris Dixon alluded heavily to it in his brilliant post on “Techies and Normals.”  People who are “innovators” or “early adopters” like to be at the cutting edge.  We like to use new product and gain benefits before our peers.  We are evangelists.  We check-in when we go to restaurants when everybody else is wondering when we’re going to put away our F***ing iPhones or Blackberries.  We have to be first (this image is worth a click, I promise).

In short, innovators and early adopters have faith that there will be benefits to using products that are unproven and even if they don’t they enjoy the process of using new stuff.  This applies to business users as much as to consumers.  Sometimes these markets never appeal to “normals” (Chris Dixon’s definition) and other times it needs to be more effectively marketed to normals.

So the early part of a technology company is about finding your hard core group of early adopters and making them passionate about your products.  You need to give them “back stage” passes to your company.  You need to give them advance notice of your product development or better yet let them help influence your direction.  Sure, they need a little social proof.  If they hear that Robert Scoble, Michael Arrington or Jason Calacanis loves your product they’re more likely to give it a try.

This is what drove early adoption at Twitter, FourSquare, Quora and is now driving people obsessively at FlipBoard.  I must be an early adopter rather than an innovator because I DO NOT have my knickers in a twist to get on FlipBoard.  It looks cool, but I can wait.

But here’s the thing – the early & late majority will never come without social proof.  These are the people who want to see ROI studies (business), read NY Times reviews by David Pogue or WSJ reviews by Walt Mossberg (consumer).  And the key to understand how to market to these people is to understand the point made in the book “Yes” by Robert Cialdini.  Regarding “social proof” he says,

“Earlier we described the importance of testimonials in trying to sway others’ opinions in your direction.  The results of this experiment [the one on hotels listed in my previous post] suggest that the more similar the person giving the testimonial is to the new target audience, the more persuasive the message becomes … You should begin not with the testimonial you’re most proud of, but with the one whose circumstances are most comparable to your audiences.”

This is where heroes come in.  Heroes are those every day users of your product who are not overly senior in ranks but are in charge of implementing your solution within their company.  If they’re consumers they’re just everyday people like you and me.

Salesforce.come is brilliant at marketing heroes and I think Marc learned it in turn from Oracle.  We would take every day users from our customer base and make them heroes.  Here are some examples of heroes in action:

  • A testimonial / quote from a hero on the banner on the home page of your website with their image and a link to a case study on how they used the product
  • Speaking at a “city tour” in which sales reps and executive management were present.  Heroes told our success stories, not us.
  • Leading breakout sessions at our annual conference – DreamForce
  • Speaking to industry analysts at Gartner Group, Aberdeen, IDC, Yankee Group, etc.
  • Taking reference calls from prospects considering using our products

Marketing heroes is brilliant and you should find ways to implement in your organization.  On the one hand the early & late majority are more apt to listen to the benefits of your products from their peers through social proof than from any corporate bumpf you can produce to convince them of the benefits of your product.

On the other hand, what better way to build strong relationships with your company’s strongest supporters.  How often do every day employees get to appear on the home page of a major website, speak at a conference or get to talk with market analysts?  You’re elevating them in ways their own organizations probably do not.  And in turn you get not only strong endorsements but even more loyal future supporters.

Think about this – what is more powerful – a VC who tells you how great he/she is or when you read your peers reviews on The Funded?

And heroes work on the consumer side, too.  Ever notice all those iPad billboards are just ordinary users like you and me sitting on a couch using a product that they know you’re going to love?  OK, I know Apples has an unfair advantage – but the emotion their going after is social proof.  People like you use this product.  It’s easy.  It’s what they do when their sitting on their couch watching TV.  Everybody is doing it.

How are you going to cultivate and gain the support of your company’s heroes?  How will you work with your heroes to gain more early adopters or to market the early majority more effectively?  We already know from Cialdini that this is even more important than your putting a link to a press articles yet how much time do you spend trying to market these to everybody?

  • Willis F Jackson III

    Not too shabby. What about in a market creation product. Use ebay as an example. Do you need to offer heroes to both sides of the product (no pun intended) or just one side? Thanks hombre.

  • giffc

    It is so important to figure out how to highlight and enable your enthusiasts. What I realized halfway through the last decade is how money / compensation can ruin it all and actually turn people off (interesting book on this is dan pink's Drive)

    I do think some people confuse “early adopter” with the techcrunch and “social media shiny!” set. That's only true for certain products. The key, I think, is finding early adopters within your general segment.

  • JT Keller

    Awesome post and a great job transitioning from yesterday's topic. Although product development is a huge focus for my team and I at the moment, leveraging social proof from day one has been on my priority list. If you can craft effective social proofing strategies early and understand how bridging takes place between the different sets of adopters you not only increase initial traction but gain exponential momentum down the chain of adoption.

  • adamwexler

    i read a good bit of mark beinoff's 'behind the cloud' book…very informative & pretty entertaining throughout

    i love the concept of acquiring testimonials from the userbase. in our case, i think it's an entirely separate page from press, but just as worthy.

    on a related note, we're starting a VIP listserv for our own 'Heroes' @ Rank 'em. we're planning to offer them the sneak peaks of our latest projects and create lively discussion around our space.
    ^ i also think it's a great way to create a potential talent pool. why wouldn't you want to “call up” a community member who has showed how much he cares about the success of the community?

  • msuster

    Both sides – you need both sides of a market to make a market-making platform work.

  • msuster

    Also, the biggest difference is that early-adopters for your product must continue to use and be enthusiast for your product. The “TechCrunch” boom is typically trialists, not enthusiasts.

  • Michael Mikikian

    The technology adoption lifecycle curve is also known as the Bass diffusion model ( It's a great, simple model for forecasting sales and surprisingly a good predictor. The toughest variable to plug in is the coefficient of imitation but there is lots of research and studies done for good comps. This model is much better than the traditional hockey stick projections. Here it is on google docs (…).

  • Michael_RightSite

    Great post. Unforunately, I now feel compelled to go create a new marketing campaign — why do good ideas always mean more work? 😉

  • Mark Essel

    How do we earn the interest and respect of everyday Heroes?

    Agree with JT Keller, great transition from yesterday's funding specific post.

  • Jacksparrow111

    Great post!

  • jim

    It's like if OPPO digital read this before designing their Blu-Ray player!

  • Senith @ MBA tutor

    Great stuff. I run a tutoring service mostly for MBA students. Most of them dont want to share their positive experience with other fellow students. So getting them to give us a video testimony or use their photographs is a big challenge. But one that we are always trying to overcome!

  • Derek

    As PT Barnum once said, “Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.” I read the book The Influentials by Jon Berry and Ed Keller, which attempts to identify who makes the decisions that others in their community follow (the “heroes”, per se). The authors didn't do a great job. I enjoyed the Cialdini quote. Influence is on my list of books to read.

  • Sailthru

    Excellent points. Promoting heroes as a means of pushing the adoption curve is good advice at pretty much any stage along the curve. We always advise our customers to look for and take care of these heroes or brand ambassadors, and there are lots of ways to do this. Their testimonials are valuable as social proof, but more important, people who love your brand often relish the opportunity to sing your praises. Finding clever ways of giving back to them–whether through discounts and incentives or through clever marketing ideas (like sending a camera so they can tape a “commercial” that talks about your service) can add a multiplier effect to that social proof effect.

  • Neil Capel

    Excellent points. Promoting heroes as a means of pushing the adoption curve is good advice at pretty much any stage along the curve. We always advise our customers to look for and take care of these heroes or brand ambassadors, and there are lots of ways to do this. Their testimonials are valuable as social proof, but more important, people who love your brand often relish the opportunity to sing your praises. Finding clever ways of giving back to them–whether through discounts and incentives or through clever marketing ideas (like sending a camera so they can tape a “commercial” that talks about your service) can add a multiplier effect to that social proof effect.

  • Alex Fair

    yup, definitely a Chicken AND the Egg problem rather than a Chicken OR the Egg.

  • Brian C

    Excellent post. One of the best I've read in a while. This actually neatly sums up many of the sales successes and failures my company has gone through in the past few years. With the innovative early adopters, we succeed fabulously. With the people looking for the “standard” (or cheapest quoted price), we don't do as well. It is fun to watch our early adopters becoming more mainstream though.

  • Williamberville

    I liked very much this article. Testimonials could be of much more help than one has ever imagined. When we want to buy a new product and can't decide between two or three brands that seem to offer almost the same thing, at almost the same price, we check for opinions, usually on forums. They're the opinions of ordinary people, people like us, that have tried the product and love it. Having testimonials on the main page of our website is even better, people say what exactly they appreciated about the product or service and we try to find common features that would satisfy us as well. For example, if you are looking for capital and you have heard there are some investor lists on the internet, software you can download but you're supposed to buy it first, how do you make the final decision? You check the free trial download of some sites, you may like two or more…then you check the testimonials and if people say the database helps you move fast, save time and expenses, has all the contact details of the business investors, has helped them find capital, so they've become “business heroes” and you want to become one as well… What matters most, testimonials coming from VIPs -with pics and everything or those from common people, with small local businesses?

  • Emily Merkle Snook

    To optimize your heroes, I've found this to be helpful:
    1) identify your potential heroes by culling data from your CRM – number of contacts with clients with which you have had success, subjective data from client-facing individuals who have developed real relationships with the successful clients
    2) investigate your heroes and rank-order them in terms of how “influential” or how much “reach” they have – look at the companies they work with, LinkedIn profiles and contacts, social networks, etc.
    3) focus the love and cultivation on influential, successful, loyal clients who have wide reach
    4) don't be afraid to ask for their support; engage them and make them feel like a special part of your marketing effort (they are)
    5) turn about is fair play – ask your heroes what you can do for them – introductions, elite care, recommendations to their superiors, etc.
    6) always reward your heroes' efforts and elicit their feedback & suggestions on how you can help them more to reach mutual success together
    7) point your heroes in the direction they can be most effective
    8) always be on the lookout for more heroes!

  • Dave Pinsen

    When customers have raved via email, I’ve asked for and, on occasion, received their permission to use excerpts as testimonials. I never thought to ask them for an image though, and I’m not sure how well that would go down.

    I’m guessing that would be easier to do in person at a trade show. That seems to be the tack VectorVest has taken (except with video).