“You don’t always want to hear from the company that’s trying to sell you something,” Kati Quigley, senior director of marketing communications at Microsoft, told me. “You want to hear from your peers.” She then shared how the tech giant empowers the members of its enormous partner community. Composed of 64,000 companies that build or sell their own Microsoft-based solutions, community members have been given a place to interact freely with one another without the heavy hand of the corporate office telling them what to do.
In fact, the partners themselves run an online partner community and have a powerful voice in the programming of Microsoft Inspire, a worldwide partner conference attended by some 25,000 people annually. The company also sponsors—but partners lead—hundreds of local and regional events around the world. When partners interact with each other, the true human connection they build reinforces their status as Microsoft fans.
Quigley reminds us that people are going to talk no matter what; it’s the nature of the hyperconnected world we live in. We leave Yelp reviews or tweet—both positively and negatively—when we have strong emotional responses. And we pay the most attention to our peers.
While it’s tempting to try to control the message, it’s important to give partners the freedom to give both positive and negative comments. “When they do say something positive, it’s authentic. It’s something people pay attention to,” Quigley said. “(Partners) truly are the ones doing the job every day, so they have a lot of credibility and a lot of understanding of what it’s really like to be a Microsoft partner, what the challenges are, and how they overcome them to find success.”
Traditionally, marketing departments have been charged with being the voice of the customer; companies or agencies controlled the message. But if marketing professionals cling to that mindset, they will miss what matters most to their customers.
The Lonely Chaos of the Digital Age
The internet brings the promise of tremendously easy engagement with audiences around the world. Social networks like Facebook and content distribution channels like YouTube are free, simple to use, and can reach every human on the planet who has an internet connection. It’s no wonder that billions of people have gravitated to these outlets.
In the earliest days of social media, participating in these networks was like a viral cocktail party. We could meet with our friends and ask what they’d been up to. We could stay in touch after school or work. We posted, shared, liked, and upvoted, and it was an enjoyable and effective way to stay in touch or reconnect with people we hadn’t seen in a long time.
But today, it’s another story altogether. The algorithms deployed by social networks like Facebook don’t show us what we want to see because the technology favors profits for shareholders. The AI platforms that companies use to manage communications result in tidal waves of spam email and social networks that display ads instead of messages from our friends.
Too many organizations react to digital chaos by doubling down, trying to shout over or outdo each other. And the avalanche of email outreach, social posts and unwanted phone calls often increases when we become a customer. Upselling and renewals seem more important than making sure customers get what they need.
The result is a polarizing and cold digital world. Many people feel that the promise of online social connection isn’t for them anymore—the romance is over. In a digital world in which our lives are increasingly cluttered and superficial, we’re missing something tremendously powerful: genuine human connection.
The Power of Fan-Centric Business
When an organization or person honors fans and consciously fosters meaningful connections among them, this act of consciously bringing people together through a shared endeavor is called a fanocracy. Fandom is everywhere—and it’s the key ingredient for any organization to be successful because fandom brings people together. We are moving into an era that prizes people over products.
The fundamental ingredient for true fandom—meaningful and active human connection—demonstrates a shift in the way a company relates with its customers. These fanocracy-centric companies are more forthright, helpful, and transparent. They create new experiences by turning customers into like-minded, enthusiastic fans.
Get Closer than Usual to Your Customers
What is it about being around other people—like Microsoft does with its Microsoft Inspire conference and hundreds of regional-partner events—that drives connection? Why does physical proximity make a difference? Cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall suggests that the significance of each level of proximity can be precisely predicted and managed to create optimal outcomes.
The most rewarding interactions in our lives occur in our social and personal spaces. Those people sitting near one another at a baseball game or in a Starbucks or in line for lunch are all well within each other’s social space. As such, each person can feel the human connection in a positive, safe, and unconscious way. The closer you get to other people, the more powerful the shared emotions.
Mirroring and Your Fans
How can businesses that can’t possibly have a direct personal connection with every customer achieve similar success? Well, it turns out you can still use the power of connection in a virtual way. Our unconscious brain can respond to what we see as if it’s our own experience—even if we see it on social media or in a film, or through a screen of mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons are a group of cells that not only activate when we perform an action (like biting an apple, smiling, or getting near someone we enjoy) but also when we observe someone else performing the same action. When those around us are happy and smiling, our unconscious brain tells us we’re happy and we often smile, too. When we’re at a rock concert, our mirror neurons fire based on what the performer is doing on stage and what the other audience members are doing.
Mirroring helps explain both the positive and negative aspects of social media. We relate to people based on their Facebook and Instagram pictures. Our brain tells us we’re close to our friends based on the photos or videos they share. And a critical aspect of understanding mirror neurons is to remember that this is how we’re hardwired. It’s not something we can turn on or choose to ignore.
Using Brains to Build an Emotional Connection
Understanding mirror neurons is like understanding a secret neuroscientific weapon. Regardless of whether they like it, people can’t help but react in the way they do because their unconscious minds are at work. Pause to consider different ways to build an emotional connection.
A practical application of mirror neurons is the creation of a video channel to grow fans—something that many organizations have done successfully. HubSpot, a marketing, sales, customer service, and CRM software company, is one example of successfully leveraged mirror neurons. Some 35,000 people subscribe to HubSpot Academy on YouTube and look forward to videos from a variety of hosts. Kyle Jepson, an inbound sales professor at the company, hosts one video on “10 Sales Tips in 60 Seconds” that has more than 120,000 views. People who watch the video feel like they know Jepson based on this video and others he’s filmed—even though they’ve never met him in person.
Put People First
As marketing professionals, it’s up to us to create ways to bring people together. To be successful, we must become masters of seeing things from our customers’ points of view and understanding how they think differently than we do. It’s a simple—yet powerful—concept that any organization can implement.