The Gospel on Apostle Marketing

    August 12, 2003

It’s the art of identifying your highest-potential customers… nurturing that potential… motivating and empowering this “Golden 5%” to preach positive about your company… and capitalizing on their work.

APOSTLES are more than merely Advocates… they’re Advocates with a Mission and with Passion.

Who are these “Golden 5%”? For one thing, size doesn’t matter. Apostles are not necessarily the biggest customers in revenue or profit, but highest-share customers. They are those Jill Griffin in Customer Loyalty: How to Earn It, How to Keep It called the most leveragable of the four types of loyalty. It’s high repeat purchase and high level of attachment.

Length of relationship may not matter either. You don’t always have to wait until the final stage on the Evolution of A Customer chart to employ Apostles. My dentist, for whom patient referrals were critical, said that relatively new patients (within a 1-3 year span) were the ones who provided the most referrals.

Apostle Marketing is a subset of loyalty marketing/relationship marketing (but loyalty programs don’t automatically beget Apostles). A frequent flyer program, for example, does a fair job at retaining customers, but a terrible job at making Apostles. More frequently than not, program members complain to others about the airline’s service, warning them to stay with their present carrier.

Many loyalty programs include the goods and services of other firms trying to reach the same market. This too could be counter-productive to begetting Apostles. On the other hand, creative loyalty marketing programs – those which add unduplicated value (as defined by the customer) to the company’s product or service – can make Apostles out of even the most inner-directed customers. Loyalty programs that offer recognition as well as reward and that promote participation are usually the ones that produce the most Apostles.

Why is Apostle Marketing important?

There are a number of reasons —

  1. Branding is becoming more critical. But the cost of achieving branding through traditional means – primarily image advertising – is prohibitive for most direct marketers. In Apostle Marketing, effective branding is done at virtually no cost on a one-to-one basis.

  2. To combat overwhelming clutter. There are 30,000 products on grocery shelves. Every medium carries advertising messages. The average person gets 600 pieces of promotional direct mail a year. And that’s the average person. Upscale targets are asked to wade through even more clutter. Email in boxes may be 10-12 times more cluttered than their snail mail counterparts.
  3. To overcome suspicion and cynicism. Even if you break through clutter, consumers are more and more suspicious of advertisers’ claims. As Kirshenbaum & Bond put it, the hype-detecting radar consumers have developed is now highly sophisticated. Almost no advertising can get through it.
  4. FOCUS. Frederick F. Reichheld, author of the seminal The Loyalty Effect: The Hidden Force Behind Growth, Profits and Lasting Value, says “Building a highly-loyal customer base cannot be done as an add-on. It must be integral to a company’s basic business strategy.” Another way to say this is: “Giving your customers something to brag about” is an objective that can carry your company a long way.

    … and, above all,

  5. PROFITS. Reichheld also says “The companies with the best retention rates also earn the best profits.” It generally costs 4-6 times more to attract a new customer than to keep an existing one. Apostles can outspend average customers 4:1. Multiply that out and you come to the conclusion that begetting Apostles can engender 16-24 times the profit of acquiring new customers.

Those direct marketers whose responsibility is essentially acquisition need not worry — every business needs new customers. Apostle Marketing lets you –

  • Cut acquisition costs. Even if the Apostles don’t generate customers directly at no cost, you’re now targeting people who are just like your best customers and your response percentages will increase. This lets you eliminate less effective sources for acquisition.

  • Upgrade new customer quality. In most cases these new customers will have mirror profiles of your Apostles. If the Apostle Marketing is executed right, they will not have been acquired through discount pricing or unaffordable premiums.

How do you make apostles?

First, you have to FIND THEM.

You can’t find them with traditional modeling… or can you? Again, Apostles aren’t necessarily your biggest or oldest customers. In business marketing, the smaller customer may have as much motivation to become an Apostle. In consumer marketing, consider testing some “objective correlative” that indicates inner-directed vs. outer-directed people. It is the latter category that is more likely to turn out Apostle candidates. As an example, on several mass files there is a “wrote to a public official or publication” indicator.

Most often, Apostles volunteer, for these reasons –

  1. Continued service from the marketer. Apostles think you’re the best. They want to keep you going so you’ll always be there to serve them.

  2. The Equity Theory: People constantly assess the relative equity of their involvement. Those customers who feel they are receiving more than they deserve from a transaction or relationship also experience a psychological need to restore balance.
  3. “You owe me one”. When you perform well for referred customers, you make the Apostle look good. In some ways the referred customer “owes one” to the Apostle. There’s definitely an ego trip in it for the Apostle. He or she becomes the authority, the discoverer.
  4. Compensation from the marketer. There’s another word for these people beside Apostles. But if the compensation is held to a reasonable level, it’s still worthwhile considering.

You can also fish for Apostles. Keep these strategies in mind —

  • Encourage testimonials. This can be done through Customer Service with any customers who have had something special done for them. Or in customer research with a question like: “If you had to describe the chief benefit of the Widget to a friend, what would you say?”

  • Launch an “MGM” program. Be careful because this can backfire in a number of ways. Music Clubs, for example, found that customers were just using other or fictitious names to get free music. When Intuit tried a formal program to solicit customer referrals, the results were disastrous. Customers said “You don’t need to pay us or give us anything to recommend your product. You just need to keep building a great product. Why don’t you put this money into delivering better customer support, better product, lower prices?”
  • Stage events. Is there a particular life style associated with users of your product or service? Consider staging your own event or hooking onto someone else’s. The people who show up will generally be good Apostle candidates.
  • Form User Groups and Advisory Panels. Some who volunteer will already be Apostles. Others may have specific changes in mind for your product or service. If these changes make sense – and you make them – these Users or Advisors will become even more fervent Apostles.

The next step is CONVERTING Apostle candidates.

It starts with the very first transaction. In fact, it may even start with the way you handle an initial request for information. The most critical stage is immediately after the initial purchase of your product or service. Proactivity here is key. Incorporate these tactics into your program —

  • Learn to say “Thank you” every time. In most cases, you can do it in an automated way without it costing you a penny. But throw in a surprise “Thank You” for customers who appear to have Apostle-potential.

  • Get feedback early and act on it quickly. Whether the feedback is positive or negative may not matter IF you fix the negative feedback immediately. The theory espoused by Peppers and Rogers is that customers want the opportunity to teach marketers what they want. If the company learns quickly, that’s the climate in which Apostles grow.
  • Understand the attributes of your product or service that Apostles might want to share with others (it may be company character). Character is definitely part of the hook that catches Apostles. Companies like Ben & Jerry’s, L.L.Bean, Lexus all have character that stands out from competitors.
  • Earn word of mouth. You do this when you continually exceed customer expectations. This means continuous planning to add more value to the product or service… AND spontaneous acts of kindness that surprise your customers. Inviting involvement also earns word of mouth – whether you earn it as a partner, member of community, or advisor. Again, this could be an event or participation in a user group.

    You’ll learn that recognition can be as important as tangible rewards. Think about this – you frequent a highly-rated restaurant. You decide to bring friends from out of town one night. You’ve talked about how good the food is. What more wonderful thing than walking in and having the Maitre D and/or waiter greet you like a lost brother and ask how your recent trip to Europe was. The same kind of recognition can be accomplished in every mailing to your customer database.

      The ideal Apostle says: “I’m glad to buy from you because you let me know you know who I am. You recognize in dozens of ways the fact that I do business with you. That makes me feel appreciated. I want my friends and family to have the same experience so I’m going to tell them all about you.”

What you can do to empower Apostles

Often, “Nothing” is best. As in the Intuit case, sometimes Apostles have all the empowerment and incentive they need. They so understand the benefits of your product or service that they make a whole presentation without needing support. They refer their friends/family/colleagues to your 800#s and to your web site, and make buying easy.

Sometimes your Apostles will need company literature or promotional items. Just providing an extra brochure may be enough. When you buy a time-share unit at a resort, for instance, you tend to keep the brochure so you can show friends what you’ve purchased. Shy Apostles need people to ask them about a product or service to inspire the preaching. Now what might you use to help shy Apostles along? T-shirts, water bottles, calendars – they all work.

In some cases, potential Apostles may be reluctant to sell one-to-one for you. But they will give you testimonials. Here are some tips for capitalizing on them —

  • Don’t confine the testimonials to customers’ letters. Consider audiotape, videotape, and e-mail formats. Get photos of your Apostles whenever you can.

  • Suggest structure when you can. The testimonials should cover why the customer originally became a buyer… how long the product/service has been used… how it compares with others… and what the tangible results were.
  • Think about using customer testimonials as warm-up letters or emails to precede your own more promotional efforts.

    Some situations will call for formal “M-G-M” Programs. There are two basic types —

    1. Apostle-fulfilled
      How it works. You simply give your customer literature with order forms for them to give to the people they think would benefit from your product or service. Normally, the order forms are coded with the customer’s account number or name so they are credited with referrals that convert.
      Advantages. It’s quick and relatively inexpensive. The Apostle makes the pitch directly so you get true benefit from his/her relationship with the prospect.
      Problems. There’s no guarantee the apostle won’t collude with referrals just to get the reward offered. Unless you solicit participation, there’s no guarantee your literature won’t be tossed. There’s less control as to how your product is positioned.

    2. Marketer-fulfilled
      How it works. You mail to your customer base asking for names of people who might profit from your product or service. When you get the names, you contact those people.
      Advantages. There is less chance of collusion. Your customers don’t have to do personal selling.
      Problems. In most cases, you’ve removed the Apostle from the picture and just have a qualified prospect database. There’s a danger of abusing the referral list, as AT&T once accused MCI of doing.

    Capitalizing on your Apostles’ efforts

    Here are guidelines for getting everything possible from your Apostle Marketing program —

    1. Get to referrals immediately and treat them as Apostles-in-training. One major auto insurance company asked for referrals by mail, then let 6 months go by before soliciting these referrals. It’s not only that the company blew the potential of the referrals. If you ask someone for a referral and then don’t act on it, that severely damages your relationship with the customer.

      If you’ve launched a marketer-fulfilled MGM program, you should send a personalized letter to the referral with the name of the Apostle in it – “Dear Mr. Smith, Our valued customer Ms. Jennifer Jones thought you too might benefit from owning our Widget.”

    2. Don’t oversell. Again, Apostle Marketing works because there’s no advertiser hype. Be very low key about your approach. If the referral doesn’t convert easily, you may not want him or her.
    3. Analyze the source of the referrals
      – Apostles by type of customer, length and nature of business relationship
      – Separate converted referrals from non-converts
      – Where no source is indicated, survey new customers to see why they bought

    How different types of direct marketers can apply Apostle Marketing to their businesses

  • Publishing
    – Magazines. Provide benefits beyond magazine to keep subscribers loyal. e.g., Conde Nast’s experiment with Travel Magazine. Gatherings in real space or cyberspace.
    – Books. Recruit more Oprahs. Form a database of influencers and get them free books in exchange for their touting the ones they really like.
  • Collectibles
    Example: British Royal Mint. Nothing was done for high-volume buyers. In a pitch for that account, we suggested forming an inner circle. These 500 people would be invited (but would have to pay for) a trip to the Mint for the striking of a new coin. This would give them something to talk about.
  • Insurance and Financial Services
    – Insurance — Thank you gifts/notes to good customers; providing help for victims.
    – Banking or Brokerage – Cultural events with both Apostles and new customers; custom-published magazine.
  • Catalogs
    Think about Member Clubs as one major cataloguer has. Keep adding services that provide speed, convenience or exclusivity for your best customers (as well as new product). In b-t-b, think about doing a promotional profile of your best customers in the catalog.
  • Travel/destination marketers
    – Cruise lines give rewards for returning people bringing friends.
    – Hotels offer a package of privileges to frequent guests and let their colleagues participate on trial basis.
      To summarize, Apostle Marketing is an increasingly valid way to increase your revenue and your profits. It’s not a gimmick but a philosophy that says my customers are my best sales people and I always want to give them something to brag about.

    Lee Marc Stein heads his own direct marketing strategy and creative services firm. The consultancy contributes to its clients’ profitable growth through sound marketing and test plans, creative development and execution, database and media maximization, and customer nurturing programs. Lee works with all size companies in both consumer and business markets. Contact Lee at 631 724-3765,, or through

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