The hidden cost of mistaking customers for fans


Ever stood behind someone in line who could scarcely acknowledge the sales clerk while making a purchase?

Gruff, rushing, maybe on a mobile phone. It’s more obvious in real life when there’s an invitation for interaction, or not.

But online marketing professionals can be blind to what even the IRL sales clerks — who are just students on summer break — can recognize: social cues, invitations. 

Hi, I’m Patrick Pitman, and I have to talk today about the idea that customers want to be a fan. It’s a myth — most of the time…

We know there’s such a thing as Apple fan boys. Yeti is another example of how people adopt the brand as part of their identity. Some people get tattoos of the Harley Davidson logo, clearly fandom at whole ‘nother level of commitment.

And that’s just it: another level of commitment. Relationships are built one level at a time….

Developmental psychology and students of attachment theory identify several levels of attachment among people. Some of the lower levels are easily enough understood, like ‘proximity’ — to want to be near to another — or ‘likeness’ — to want to have similar tastes or appearance. And it goes up from there in the intensity of our pursuit. At some point it reaches the level of intimacy, of really being known by another.

Clearly businesses relate to their customers, and customers relate to businesses, at some of these levels of attachment. What does it look like?

With today’s Instagram world, we share our personal photos with those whom we want some level of attachment. As companies, we share our brand’s photos with a similar intent. Only a fraction of our customers even acknowledge this kind of attempt at connection, and an even smaller fraction actually value it.

Here’s where it goes wrong, and how it relates to being a fan:

In an online environment mediated by digital screens, where there’s no limit to the email automations or photos we publish, that’s when we ignore what would otherwise be obvious in an off-line context: we’re giving what’s not wanted.

We think because it’s digital there’s no cost, but there is. Some customers neither care nor want this kind of communication. They are not fans, not yet. They’ll tune you out.

In an off-line world, we’d see quickly whether there was any eye contact. When we offer a photo, do they look up and connect? Or do they look away?

We’d adjust our photo sharing accordingly. We’d also first ensure the product they’ve purchased, the reason for the whole relationship to begin, was actually satisfactory. Only then would we continue on, only then would we be assured of the invitation to connect more.

But of course, we’re mostly blind on-line where there’s less obvious cues. So we plod on with the effort at ‘content marketing’ and ‘social media’ and build automations that push, push our story to ‘fans’. This is both helpful at some higher level of attachment, and mistaken at the lower levels.

Timing matters in what we communicate, as it’s about the presence or absence of a relationship.

There is a natural progression to customer relationships. Just because you spent lots of time crafting your product and your big brand story, and all the social media posts that illustrate it — that doesn’t mean the customer wants or cares one bit about it – yet.

Sometimes they’re just searching for a quick restock or a gift and they focus on price, in-stock availability and delivery date – that and the cost of shipping. That’s it, that’s all.

And this is to be expected for some people, at a certain timing.

As your product is delivered, meets or exceeds expectations, then you have a window of opportunity to go beyond the transaction. That’s your moment when you can suggest something on-going, something that looks like being in relationship, being a fan.

Don’t mistake a matter of ‘timing’ for lack of interest. The customer is just not interested yet…

Updated: May 3, 2024Array
Published: October 10, 2018

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