David vs. Goliath: Advocacy & Authenticity As A Competitive Advantage

Unable to match your competitors’ marketing budget? Defeat them with honest customer love instead. In his 2016 Advocamp AMP talk, Rahul Raj, Vice President of Marketing & E-commerce at Ecobee, explains how his small company harnessed the power of their advocates to carve out market share against a much larger competitor.

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My name is Rahul, and I work for Ecobee. Before jumping into a more formal presentation, I’ll spend a minute telling you what Ecobee is.

We created the world’s first Wi-Fi smart thermostat. We started in 2007 and shipped our first product in 2009. Why? Because there’s a ton of wasted energy. 50 to 70% of your home’s energy use has to do with heating and cooling. The vast majority of North Americans keep their thermostat on hold, which means they’re heating and cooling their home even when they’re not there to enjoy it.

We’ve created an automated system that doesn’t require you to do anything. It allows you to save, on average, 23% on your heating and cooling bills. If everyone in North America had an Ecobee, we’d all deliver, collectively, 20% of the Kyoto goals. It’s a really substantive effort.

We were a B2B company for a long time. We sold to contractors. It was only eighteen months ago that we launched a consumer-facing thermostat.                                     

The first person that I hired to join our team was to lead up advocacy. The mandate of this individual was: “Do right by the customer.” As a little Canadian company in Toronto going against the world’s largest company, we needed to do things differently. Advocacy and authenticity were core to that story.

This is our story. This is the story of David, us, versus the world’s largest company, Goliath, and how we went about using advocacy and authenticity as a competitive advantage.

How Ecobee started focusing on advocacy

As I stated at the beginning, we have a strong environmental motive. We get that people are looking for improved comfort in their homes. That means the current technology isn’t really working for them. We think we can rid them of the complexity of a connected home in a way that delivers environmentally and for their family.

Our product is called the Ecobee3, and it’s the first thermostat in the world that ships with room sensors. These room sensors measure both motion and temperature so we know which room you’re in and can curate the comfort for that room. We also know when you’re not home, which means we can go into conservation mode more effectively.

It can be controlled from anywhere. It allows a payback period of 12-18 months. It’s a huge energy saver. What we realized in launching this product was that, as I said, we’re going up against a behemoth organization that has a massive budget. They have the ability to spend on Superbowl ads, and we don’t.

How can we really win? How can we take this to market? When we looked at the marketplace, we realized that there were a considerable number of early technology adopters who were huge fans of ours. They were talking on our behalf in the most earnest and authentic way.

We could either take a marketing budget and have a contrived message. Or, we could identify all the people that were already talking about us, deepen that relationship, and figure out how to amplify their story, instead of amplifying our story.

Another way to frame it is that, in our story, the protagonist is the customer. The customer is really the hero. The more we can share their story and their experience about our product, the better off we are.

We are small, but we are mighty. Our advocate community has grown substantially—I think we’re at 5,500 or 6,000 advocates. This is increasing on a weekly basis. We’re trying to understand how to manage such a massive cohort of individuals.

What we’ve essentially realized is that they are our strength. They are our base. We spend a disproportionate amount of energy trying to understand:

  • Who are they?
  • What’s their story?
  • How do they use our products?
  • What pain points do they have?
  • What knowledge do they have?
  • How do we put them in a position to share their insights?

Instead of continually building our team, we’re mobilizing our advocates to act as online customer support, to advocate on our behalf with retailers, and to show the world what an exceptional product we have.

Keeping our values front and center

One of our first tenets is really leaning into who we are and what we stand for, and then allowing our advocates to follow. We’ve looked in the mirror and said, “You know what? We have an environmental motive and that’s an exceptional thing. Still, it’s okay if you want to focus on comfort. If the only reason you want our product is so that you have remote connectivity, so that when you go on vacation, you can come home to a perfect home environment, that’s fine too.”

At the end of the day, we believe we can have a huge impact on how the world thinks about the quantity and the quality of the energy they use. You’ll find that in our commentary online this value component is hugely important.

Not only do we have someone on our team whose mandate is: “How do we do right by the world?”, we have an advocacy team whose mandate is: “How do we do right by the customer?” Leaning into who we are is a core tenant of our value proposition and of our strategy.

Helping our advocates become product experts

Our second tenet is: how do we help advocates become masters—not just lovers—of our product?

One of the ways that we’ve done this is called Feature Friday. Every Friday, we write a blog post about a different element of our product. Soon, we’ll get into video. These blog posts aren’t just from us, they’re actually from our advocates.

They’re telling amazing stories about different features, because our product is pretty complex. We attempt to make it simple, but it’s very sophisticated. It’s not dissimilar to computers or phones, where users usually go back to a certain core set of features. The reason iPhones have the “Tips” feature is because they realize that there’s still so much to discover.

We call it “growing to wow”. You start out with a core set of functions, but every week we want to tell you about something new. Helping our advocates learn about these things enables them to share how to make this work with their communities.

When going out to make a new technology purchase, people generally have a go-to tech friend. It’s the same within our customer base. All of them have a go-to tech friend, who usually falls within our advocate base. If we can make our advocates feel better and stronger about their comfort level with the product, they end up helping out our entire community.

Inviting our advocates behind the curtain

When we launch a new product, we launch it to our advocates first. We let them know what the product is. We let them know about the features before anyone else. When we’re considering new feature launches and we want to beta test them, we go to our customers and ask them to beta test the features and the product before anyone else. There’s a level of trust and camaraderie that’s established that benefits us in the long term.

We also get really candid feedback. As much as we have wonderful aims about how to develop home-run products, sometimes we mess up. Sometimes we think we have something nailed, but it’s only through engagement with our advocates that they call us on it. They say, “Actually, this one’s not working for me,” or “This crashed.”

We’re able to go through field tests with them and it helps us strengthen our product. They also have a direct line to our CEO. If you call or email our CEO, he’ll respond. He’s a very accessible guy. If our advocates have new feature suggestions, they just email him directly, which is really cool.

What are your customers saying?

Another component of being “David” is figuring out where your customers are talking and what they’re saying. We’ve just hired another individual on the team to figure out where the conversation’s occurring and to be there.

We have a dialogue within our own community, but what about the dialogue that’s happening on other forums? People have questions in a variety of places online. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to go where they are, instead of asking them to come where we are.              

We’ve found that there’s a bunch of people having conversations who aren’t part of our hub. There are advocates who are formally part of our advocate group, and then there are advocates who aren’t. We need to figure out who those individuals are and provide them with the same level of support that the advocates in our advocate marketing program (powered by Influitive’s AdvocateHub) have. It takes a bit more energy, because now we’re monitoring the social conversations in a variety of places.

Advocacy as a long-term strategy

When we started out with advocacy, it was one individual. We’re now a team of four thinking about community orchestration, thinking about online technical support, and thinking about social media and content and influencers. It’s a long-term play.

Fortunately, we’ve established trust amongst our leadership. They get that this investment will yield dividends, and not only in the short-term. It’s a long-term play around trying to do right by people.

As much as we invest in strengthening those relationships, what we’ve found is that when you do research on our product versus our competitor’s, our competitor has a massive marketing budget. They generally come up first, whether it’s through SEO, or perhaps on TV.

However, when you look at the core product recommendations, I think you’ll find that ours are not only more robust, but stronger, because we’ve addressed that fundamental human pain point around having microclimates within your home. The messages that you hear are all from our advocates.

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Advocacy saves the day

Cutting to the chase, who won? We started out, as I said, about eighteen months ago, with a non-existent brand in the consumer marketplace. Within our first year after launch, we overtook Honeywell to become the #2 brand in the North American marketplace. We’re listed in Apple, Home Depot, Best Buy, Walmart, Lowe’s, Amazon…a massive amount of retailers.

Our product secured that #2 spot, and it wouldn’t have happened were it not for our advocates. They gave us exceptional reviews that reflect the earnest and authentic point of view, talking about their joys and their struggles with our product.

As I said, we’re not perfect by any stretch, but we’re earnest and keen to do right by people. You see that reflected in the commentary. It’s not only in the volume of reviews that we’ve received, but also in the content. People can sniff out BS from authenticity and you can really see that in our reviews. Our massive advocate community of 5,500+ individuals is the reason we’re driving such great results and success.                         

Three crucial lessons we learned

The first lesson I want to pass along is that, as much conversation is happening online, offline is absolutely critical. Every time someone on our leadership team goes on a business trip, we reach out to our advocates and meet up with them for drinks.

We’re getting real-time feedback. We get to meet them in person and we get to establish a relationship with them face-to-face. That’s exceptional because, on a normal basis, when you sell a product through a store to a consumer, they’re faceless. You know their name and you know where they live, but that doesn’t tell you much about them as an individual. You’ll see more of us engaging with our advocates offline and trying to meet up.

A second lesson we’re trying to resolve is the notion of many communities versus one community. Let’s think about the analog of the Bay Area. Even though the all the people living in the Bay Area probably feel some level of kinship and some level of commonality, Oakland is mighty different from Menlo Park. Using a Toronto analog, where I’m from, Rexdale, is really different from Riverdale.

What we’re trying to figure out is how to segment that community into communities of interest. Not to have guard rails and locked doors around it, but to curate the conservation so that if you’re more lifestyle-oriented versus more technically-oriented, you get the content and the support that’s relevant to your interests.

Even though our community has a lot in common, they also have a lot of differences. It’s up to us to understand our customer base intimately so that we can curate the right content and experience for them.

The final lesson is really about building one-to-one relationships in addition to one-to-everyone. When we publish challenges, they’re typically to everyone in our community. That’s helpful because it’s efficient, but we also need that one-to-one relationship.

That’s the reason we’ve had to scale up our team. It’s really challenging for us to maintain one-to-one relationships when it’s one advocate manager compared to 5,500 people in our program. It’s those one-to-one relationships that really create a deep sense of meaning. The more we invest in those relationships, the more they’re willing to invest in us.

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