The Marketer’s Guide to Cult Addiction: How Loyal Are Your Customers?

The perfect example of ultra loyal customers; The ever addicted “Apple Cult” Fanboys & Fangirls. (image source)

The Research: Creating Loyalty

What makes people commit “extraordinary” acts of hatred?

While most of us would like to believe that these abnormal acts are coming from abnormal minds and personalities, groundbreaking research by Henri Tajfel would assert that this is not the case.

In the renowned study Social categorization and intergroup behaviour, Tajfel sought the answer to a question that has plagued mankind throughout history: Just what does it take to make seemingly normal people support acts of genocide?

His findings are startling to say the least.

What he found was that given the most trivial of distinctions, he could artificially create loyalties to a particular group, a group that would then discriminate against those not in the group, for seemingly no justifiable reason.

The tests organized in this study by Tajfel were purposefully constructed to be meaningless: in one test he had subjects choose between one of two painters (no information was given about either).

After these selections, he assigned each subject to a group based on their choices.

Here’s where things get interesting: When the groups were asked to distribute REAL rewards to other test subjects, they became highly loyal to their own group and were stingy in handing out rewards to those on “the other team”, despite the choices being nonsensical.

Multiple variations of the experiment have since be conducted and they all have shown that seemingly “normal” people can easily develop group loyalty extraordinarily quickly, even in the absence of any real differences.

What does this have to do with customer loyalty and the effect content can have on it?

So, maybe the above served as an interesting “Today I Learned” for some of you, but let’s get to the point here: this and other related research has some serious implications in how you should be creating your content (which in turn will affect your conversions).

In another revealing look at humanity, we find Joseph Nunes and Xavier Dreze’s research on customer loyalty programs showcasing a similarly dark side of group dynamics: customers who knew that they were apart of a “gold” or premium loyalty program became more loyal to the brand, substantially more so than if there were no groups of people below them.

The implication is that people become more loyal to brands if they view themselves as part of a “superior” group. Combine this from what we know about about the Stanford prison experiment:

The results favor situational attribution of behavior rather than dispositional attribution.

In other words, it seemed that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants’ behavior.

…it becomes obvious that people are creatures that are highly susceptible to external influences of group inclusion, authority, and social proof.

What does that mean to you?

You Need an Enemy

Remember the old “1984” commercials that Apple put out for the Macintosh? The one that lambasted PC users as a bunch of mindless drones who were set free by that free-spirited rebel?

If not, here it is:

Apple’s longstanding rivalry with Windows goes far beyond this potshot from history.

The fairly recent “Mac vs. PC” advertisements seem to make the same argument in an updated fashion: PC’s and their users are boring, uncool, and out of date (I’m a PC user, so don’t kill the messenger here).

What you may not know is that these incredibly successful “group division” efforts have gone a long way into creating an incredibly loyal Apple customer base: recent neuroscience findings have shown that the brains of Apple “fanboys” light up in the same areas as religion, giving some credence to the ‘Cult of Apple’.

So, what should my company do?

Is it time to pick a competitor and start taking potshots? No, on the web, ostracizing other companies (that haven’t done anything wrong) just for the sake of creating division is not going to work; you can’t expect to create “high level” controversy and not burn some important bridges.

It’s not about creating a concrete “enemy”, it’s about defining what your business is and isn’t about, as well as why your customers are special.

That’s how you create this “Us vs. Them” attitude with your customers without specifically skewering other businesses and destroying potentially profitable (and meaningful) connections.

Fact is, people like being labeled (even if most of them say the opposite), and your content is going to be at the forefront of defining what your brand is about and why it’s a fit for your ideal customers over those “other guys”.

You’ll also notice that many of the big brands, in their clever attempts to create this same division, tend to place most of the emphasis on the customer, with product emphasis coming second. (After all, do any of us really believe that Miller Lite is a manlier drink than the competition?)

In order to do the same, you need to define your ideal customer and just what sets them apart from “the rest”, then you need create the kind of content that affirms their acceptance into your select group.

A Case Study

All of this would be pointless to discuss if I wasn’t actually doing this myself, so here’s a quick case study of how I do things on Help Scout.

The ideal Help Scout customer is a small-business owner who:

  • Views customer service as one of the most important marketing “channels” for their business
  • Prides themselves in being a small to mid-sized operation because it allows them to place an emphasis on personalization
  • Feels that customer goodwill comes from creating a memorable experience, not from churning out responses as fast as possible

Those “other guys” are then defined by what our ideal customers are not looking for: placing an emphasis on bloated features over personal interactions, viewing customer service as an “obligation” rather than a opportunity, etc.

To this end, I’ve created content that emphasizes these differences:

More importantly than how I do things is how you can do the same.

Know Thy Enemy

The only real secret to putting this into practice is to define your enemy with very specific terms, relating this back to the problems your own offering solves while using your content to back your positioning.

Here’s how 3 of my favorite marketing-based blogs do things (they should know, right?):

  • Copyblogger: The Copyblogger team is no-holds barred against anyone who would consider being dependent on a 3rd party platform to build their brand or who might claim that the web doesn’t revolve around well-written content. Both of these recurring messages are intrinsically tied to the kind of software that Copyblogger Media sells. Either embrace a self-hosted, content-focused site or get your kicks elsewhere.
  • KISSmetrics: The crew at KISS isn’t afraid to create the kind of data-driven content that dives deeply into complex tactics revolving around analytics information, consumer psychology research, and even taking a look at the “human side” of pageviews. If you’re not into intricate customer data and obsessing over the important metrics in your analytics software, KISS isn’t right for you.
  • Unbounce: Unbounce aren’t scared to shake things up either. I hope you don’t mind getting told that your landing page sucks! It’s all good though, they’ll teach you how to be a conversion badass and turn your fluffy landing page content into something that actually sells. If you’re too timid to pick your landing pages apart in order to improve their effectiveness, saddle on up and head elsewhere.

Still scared to get started?

Remember: You aren’t picking a fight with a brand, you’re going after an idea.

Although Apple was targeting Microsoft in many of their advertisements, what they were really attacking was this perception of “boring” PC users and their uncool computers.

This allowed Apple to then position themselves as the “cool kids” computer. Their entire lineup then changed to suit this image, putting a ton of emphasis on appearance, streamlined designs and cutting edge technology that allowed them to change the hardware and software landscape in the past decade.

So what are you waiting for? Fire the first shot! :)

Over To You..

It’s your turn now. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the following:

  • In your offering’s unique selling proposition, do you define who’s unsuitable for your product as well as identifying your ideal customer? (Editor: smart!)
  • What do you think about the research above and it’s implications? Is division really that important?

Thanks for reading, and I’ll be sure to see you in the comments! :)

— Gregory Ciotti

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About Gregory Ciotti
Gregory Ciotti is the content strategist at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software that turns email support into a fast, personal, and pleasant experience for your customers. Get more research backed content on our blog.
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