Boingo – Using the Network to aid Sales and Marketing

So how do you apply the network to a conventional business? Here is how Boingo has done this.

What would it be like if your business had a sales, marketing and support force that was 1.3 million strong that you did not have to pay for? What if you could source this leverage with a tiny central force? Sounds impossible? Do you have any idea of how this could work?

Now that everyone is using Social Media – what I am seeing mainly are people who using the new tool in the old way – trying to shout above the noise – “Look at ME!” “Aren’t I cool!” “Aren’t we good!”. I am seeing a Dilbert approach – “Let’s have a Facebook site” “Let’s get on Twitter”.

Most do what most do when a new technology arrives – they apply it in the old way and so get nothing in response.

So what then is the power and leverage that you can harness by using social media well?

Boingo are on their way to finding out how to do this. Oh yes and I am one of the people that are part of this and oh yes I am not being paid and nor do I in any way work for them. I am living the theory.

So how might this work and so how might you do this too?

Boingo have a class of people that are deeply committed to the enterprise that Baochicalls her “Super fans”. They and why they are connected to Boingo and each other is the core of the leverage potential. We will meet 4 of them in this post who agreed enthusiastically to be interviewed by me. As you will see, these Super Fans are attracted first of all to Boingo by the obvious:

  • The service – easy one stop access to Wifi in Airports and Hotels – is now no longer a nice to have for travellers but an essential
  • The support for the service is outstanding – got a problem – you get instant personal help

But a great product is not enough. Nor is good service. What is the differentiator for Boingo is the human nature of the relationship that Boingo has with its customers. Most organizations do not allow their people to be human. Service people are often ciphers working from a script. Boingo have set up an environment where their key point of contact is a real person who is allowed to be herself.

She has a name and a face and we are all in awe and a bit in love with her. We all feel her presence watching over us. It is way more than getting her help when we can’t sign on. She watches out for us. Have a problem – A quick tweet. In minutes she is there. She is like the guy who runs the old corner store who holds your keys when you go away, keeps an eye on your kids in the street, helps you find a new roommate.

As Nuno Montegro, a customer in Portugal says – It is not what she says but how she says things that is the difference.

Nuno is like me, a customer who actively refers others to the service.

Most of Social media is all about Weak Ties – They are very useful but Weak Ties don’t get people to do much – or risk much – or commit much – that is why they are Weak – they are easy.

If you want to do something – Civil Rights in the US – you need Strong Ties. (Nice new piece by Malcolm Gladwell that explores Weak and Strong Ties in depth)

The key to attracting Strong Ties is being human. It is NOT PIMPING your product. It is instead to show that you really do care about ME. It is instead to show that you can indeed be trusted.

How do you show this? Nuno makes the point that every service and product fails at times. The key is to offer the best possible response to the inevitability of a problem. The best possible response is to know from experience that if there is a problem, you can reach a real person quickly and that they will go the distance to help you get it fixed. “I felt as if I was the only customer in the entire world when she was helping me” Nuno told me. I had the same experience.

Attracting Strong Ties is all about “Giving”.

Aaron Strout is the CMO at social media agency, Powered Inc. and is also Super Fan. “Boingo is proactive and they don’t expect a direct return – they are not selling all day – so if they want an inch, I go the mile back. It’s Karmic! I know if I have a problem that they will look after me. If people are good and do good, then good comes back. Not necessarily directly but good gets attracted back. We talk about a wide range of things that affect me not just the product – which is great too – have to have that – they listen.”

What Aaron is talking about here is a very old model for an economy that was the centre of all tribal economies – the Gift Economy. In the Gift Economy, the Big Guy is not the man who has the most stuff but the person who gives the most.

This is the power in networks – this is how Open Source Works too.

Cliff Bremmer is a programmer who works for a company called Carley Corporation that bids on government contracts to develop instructional CD base/computer based training for the US military.  ”In my spare time I help companies understand and navigate the social media spectrum in a professional yet interactive way.  The company I’m currently helping is the one my father works for called the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel“.

The Gift?

Not only is he a fan but in interacting with Boingo he has learned a lot about how to use SM media well. “If there is anything I’m proud of lately it’s that I helped the Pegasus Hotel promote their brand with the help and support of @Boingo and other companies to become one of the most popular brands in Jamaica.” Boingo is  not only helping him with his travel and Wifi but is talking with him and helping him help his dad in his business with advice and Tweet Up prizes such as free access and bag tags. The Gift in action!

He can see the flaws of how most use SM – “They are stuck in self promotion versus communication. I can see through it all – it’s all about them.”

In the Gift Economy that drives Trust and so Strong Ties, the starting point is YOU. In the non network economy the starting point is ME. No small difference!

Shelby Rogers is a flight attendant, a serving soldier (in the active reserve) and the wife of a serving soldier. Travel is her life. When she is not working, she travels. Access to Wifi has made her travel better – “I now know more than the Gate Agent does about my flights!” and it has taken away much of the loneliness that travel brings with it. Who has not been alone eating room service and watching TV in our room? “I can stay in touch with my husband on Skype and every city seems to have a friend in it.”

For Shelby, Boingo is a service that truly meets her needs. But it is how Boingo is connected to her that has transformed a pleased customer into a Super fan.

How often has your service provider taken you out to dinner? “We have even had dinner recently. I am now a walking billboard for Boingo with winking bag tags!”

So what does this mean? What are the lesson for both Boingo and for you?

  • Baochi is no accident – the Boingo senior leadership have created the role and given it the space to enable someone who is naturally humane to be herself inside it. This new way of using Strong Ties to be the centre of a network is all about culture. In most cases senior leadership is too scared to let go. But if you do let go and create this safe place then the power of the network effect can be yours
  • A really powerful network has to have an inner core bound by Strong Ties. This is where the leverage is. One staff person like Baochi can without too much trouble have close ties with 34 people. That gives her an outer network of 1.3 million. If she can handle the Dunbar limit of 144 that creates an opportunity of 400 million! You can see that with the right person, you can have a vast reach – provided you realize that your goal is not to have thousands of relationships but a few Strong Ones
  • The secret is the math of social leverage. Many of you know about the “Dunbar Number”. Some of you know about “Magic numbers – the hierarchy of trust in human groups. If you don’t here is a quick primer.

So what now?

I think that the next stage would be this:

  • At the moment all the Super Fans have a strong relationship with Baochi – I think that the best next step might be to find a way to connect them to each other
  • At the  moment most of the dialogue is still about the obvious and excellent service that Boingo provides – I think that some of the work that the Super Fans could do might be to deepen the conversation – Shelby touched on this in her interview with me – What is it that being easily connected while travelling does? In her case it helped her deal with isolation and loneliness – it helped her do her job better – it kept her in touch with her husband – these are deep issues that I think connect all of us who travel a lot

As I think about networks, I think about the laws of physics. All systems have order and attractors. Some force is needed to keep systems coherent.

Think of the Sun in our own local system. It has mass that provides a gravity that holds all the planets and asteroids and stuff in a pattern. It has energy that creates life in the system. I think that any healthy human social system has to have gravity and light.

At the very centre is the “Right Space” a Trusted Space created by the leadership. In this Space, the Right Person – Right being a person who as part of her natural persona truly cares about others. Connected to her is the fuel and the mass that makes up the Sun – the Super Fans. The closer they are to the centre and the closer they are to each other – the more mass and the more energy. The more mass and energy, the larger and more healthy the network of Weak Ties that form up around the Sun.

What gets in the way is our fear about losing control.

mickey_mouse-7771

At Disney the surface of the Brand Icon never changes but inside the mask is a person who changes all the time and so is never allowed to speak.

But in the new world we have to take off the costume and let the person inside have conversations with the public – HARD to do.

So then how did Boingo organize to do this internally?

Perhaps the most powerful barrier for large organizations using social media well is the fear that if they give up control something bad will happen – someone will say or do something that brings discredit to the brand. Yesterday I commented on Kotex who have transcended this fear. Kotex did this because they could see that changing the conversation about a taboo subject was actually the liberating POV. But most organizations don’t have a secret taboo at their heart. So how can they:

  • Be personal
  • Be immediate
  • Be edgy
  • Be effective

How can they solve the paradox of the core issue of the Cluetrain Manifesto and offer a personal and human conversation – “These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.”

I called up Baochi Nguyen, who manages the Social Media Program at Boingo, to find out. I called her because as a user of Boingo, I had been so impressed by how human and personal Boingo was on Twitter. I had had a couple of issues that were picked up in minutes and I found myself talking to a real person with a name who fixed my minor problems in minutes and who as a result now gives me confidence as I travel that I have a companion that is by my side ready to help. Boingo and Baochi seemed to have found the way and I wanted to find out – first hand – what that way was.

Baochimedium

At Boingo, Social Media is not some add on, but is core to the philosophy. Customer Care is the core idea for as in any service, if there is a problem, how and how fast you fix it is actually the deal. For travellers, access to WiFi that is up and easy to get is now a critical service. After all, I am an addict, aren’t you and isn’t Wifi becoming as important as your ISP?

Most of the service issues are handled on the phone, but Boingo’s public face and voice isTwitter and Facebook. Baochi is located right next to the service folks – steps away. Here a monthly Buzz Report is  read by the senior team and the CEO and Baochi collaborate several times a week on hot topics coming out of the social media channels. This is no afterthought.

Boingo’s SM effort is not a sales and marketing effort. Nor is there an ROI demanded for the SM work – this is not a sales channel. It is where Boingo LISTENs to what is going on. “It is an invaluable channel for feedback where we are part of the conversation about us.” I asked Baochi how they staffed the role. She told me that because SM is 1) Part of the corporate goal of offering world class customer care and 2) Is a critical conduit for customer feedback and suggestions on Boingo’s service and software , the position demands, not an entry level of new person but someone intimately familiar with the technical world of the service and also was fully conversant with the strategy. The role is like being a navigator on a ship.

The position is one of high trust based on experience and interaction. So here we see the core of the solution to the Cluetrain paradox. Trust. Central is to place the work in the strategic role of “navigation”. Second as with all “navigators”  Trust has to be found in the person that you select to do this work. The person has to interact as a matter of course with the key parts of the organization – for her information and her channels are the optimal way to see through the noise and chaos of the modern market. Thirdly it is best to have a “Framework” for where she interacts with the public.

Baochi and a cross functional team that included senior management spent a great deal of time in developing the framework in which Baochi would have freedom to operate. This is not a set of guide rules abut what she says but a place in which she has room. The Boingo Framework includes:

  • Talking about Boingo
  • WiFi
  • Technology
  • Travel
  • The Community
  • The environment

These areas were chosen with care to match up the known interests of the Boingo users who tend to be travellers and tech enthuisiasts.

Boingo does not speak about anything outside this framework. They also set categories for these elements for weight. So 25% is about Boingo 25% for tech and so on.

Baochi sees her role also as providing a “Companion” for those on the road. It’s ironic because that is exactly how I felt as a customer – that I was not alone.

A key element of this feeling is that Baochi has “Super Fans”,  a group of customers who have formed a real relationship with her and Boingo. These Super Fans are the group who so enjoy their Boingo experience that they regularly evangelize Boingo’s services – without any prompting from Boingo. Baochi spends the first part of her day catching up with the fans and so deepening the friendship. I think that this is a very important insight. It is the secret to Laura Conaway’s success at Bryant Park, Planet Money and now Rachel Maddow. This inner core of relationships builds further trust and offers the enterprise an unparalleled access to deeper insight and support and to more connection.

Here is how the science works for this idea. What really matters is not the total number of “fans” you have but that you have a core of no more than 150 who really care. This is the leverage and Baochi and Boingo has intuitively played this card.

So in summary what are the lessons for you:

  • SM offers the best navigation for a turbulent world – so it is not an after thought buried in the marketing department but an adjunct of the office of the CEO
  • Trust is the key – the person who has the role has to be known to the senior team as a colleague and be given a framework where she has freedom
  • The job is Listening and interacting
  • Best helped by developing a small core of less than 150 people who are your social guides

You can do this can’t you?

Disclaimer – I have no connection to Boingo other than being a customer.

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