One of our clients, let us call it AgriCo, recently came to us with a problem: It had created an online platform for sourcing farming supplies to remote farms. The platform meant that it was easier, more convenient, and faster for farmers to get what they needed, whether it was a part for their tractor, cattle feed, or fencing. There was no need to make a telephone call to a distant operator; all the farmer needed to do was log in and order.
AgriCo’s online platform failed dramatically. Bemused, AgriCo asked us to discover what had gone wrong.
On the surface, what the company had done made perfect sense. The platform was well-funded, and AgriCo had used a snazzy design agency, so it looked fantastic and was easy to use. We visited and interviewed farmers in Italy, Germany, and the UK to find out why the platform had bombed. Surprisingly, the interviews did not reveal any unequivocal reasons for why farmers shunned the platform. Indeed, the farmers seemed to have only positive things to say about it.
Next, we observed the farmers at work. It was then that an unexpected answer emerged: loneliness. We noticed that their phone calls to order supplies were not limited to the purely transactional reason for the calls. They didn’t order what they needed and then put the phone down. Farmers, alone for hours on end in the fields driving their tractors, looked forward to calling the operator to place their orders. They enjoyed the company. The phone calls, on average, lasted over half an hour, even though the orders could be placed in a matter of minutes. In fact, the bulk of the calls was the farmers’ inquiring about the operator’s family, personal interests, and other life events. Over time, many farmers had built close relationships with the call center operators; the calls were something of a ritual that they looked forward to.
What happened to AgriCo is a common pitfall for companies trying to engage with their customers: a laser focus on what we call the transactional layer. The close relationship developed through the farmers’ calls simply would not have been possible using the online platform, with its exclusive focus on the transaction.
The transactional layer can be found in most products and services. But, as AgriCo discovered, transactions alone don’t create sustainable engagement. What is critical is the emotional layer, the features of a product or service that tap into the fundamental, and under-the-surface, motivations and emotions of customers.Beyond Transactional
Consider a familiar situation on an online forum: A user, Claudia, comes onto the forum, scrolls through the first few pages, is confused and overwhelmed by the amount of posts and the cryptic acronyms, feels too embarrassed to post herself, and leaves. Another user, Simon, has a question and posts it just to see what happens next. He never finds out, as he forgets to check back. A third user, Miguel, takes a chance and starts answering posts. He does so once, twice, three times over the next week, and then loses interest, never to return.
What Claudia, Simon, and Miguel have in common is that they probably bought into the forum’s transactional layer. While this first layer is vital, it is not enough. It attracts users to make their first visit, but fails to make them come back.
Connecting with users at an emotional level can translate into concrete monetary gains. As Scott Magids, Alan Zorfas, and Daniel Leemon illustrated in their HBR article “The New Science of Customer Emotions,” fully connected customers are 52% more valuable, on average, than those who are merely highly satisfied. Their relative value is remarkable across a variety of metrics, such as purchases and frequency of use.How to Identify and Create the Emotional Layer
The question is how to identify this fundamental emotional layer that creates ever-more-valuable customers.
The emotional layer is built through a deep understanding of what your core users want. To gain it, you need a group of users who love your product. We call this the “100 lovers strategy.” The concept: As a starting point, get 100 people to love your product. Airbnb started with this strategy. “It’s better to have 100 people that love you than a million people that just sort of like you. Find 100 people that love you,” advised Paul Graham of Y Combinator, one of the lodging platform’s first investors. Airbnb’s 100 lovers strategy worked.
Your 100 lovers must feel that they are contributing to the creation of a community. The lovers should be able to actively shape the community through feedback loops, which generate key insights about their true emotional needs. Because the community is small, beta testing features is easier and cheaper.
In addition, lovers tend to generate high-quality content, which garners momentum and starts a virtuous cycle, attracting more and more users who want to be involved. The lovers will spread the word through their online and offline social channels, creating buzz and spreading the love.How Strava Did It
Take Strava, the website and mobile app to track athletic activity. It successfully went beyond the transactional layer and implemented a 100 lovers–style strategy for its nationwide launch.
When Strava began life in 2009, it targeted avid cyclists who cycled more than 50 times per year and were somewhere between occasional amateurs and hardened pros. While cycling as a sport is growing globally, the avid cyclist subcategory is growing even faster. At the same time, GPS devices are becoming ubiquitous, creating large amounts of GPS data related to athletic activities. However, in most cases, the GPS data was not being used to deliver insights on performance. Strava recognized this need, which became its core transactional layer.
Strava’s founders, Michael Horvath and Mark Gainey, identified the emotional layer early on, when they were in a college rowing team:
You first compete with your teammates to try to get in the best boat, and then you compete alongside them to try and beat the other team. That camaraderie, the friendly competition, accelerates the performance. It becomes so much stronger because you have this feeling of competing with your friends. It was really born out of this feeling that we missed the ability to have the motivation that comes from friendly competition.
Horvath and Gainey wanted to translate the feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie and add it to the transactional layer, to give it an added edge. They realized that these feelings were missing for the cyclists who worked out alone. Cyclists who would wake up at 6 AM and climb a seemingly impossible route after months of training wanted the feeling of being able to race against others, or themselves, and of improving their performance.
In other words, Strava’s emotional layer is the motivation to perform better through friendly competition within the community. Strava engineered social motivation for athletes.
To deepen the insights and validate this need, Strava created a rough prototype and tested it on half a dozen cyclists on the East Coast and half a dozen on the West Coast. The users loved it.
Then, to implement this emotional layer in its nationwide launch, Strava targeted formal and informal cycling groups, teams and clubs. It followed a three-pronged approach to launch Strava across U.S. metropolitan areas. First, it used local ambassadors who were motivated to spread the word. Second, it offered marketing tools and discounts to the ecosystems of avid cyclists — retailers, clubs, and teams. Third, it developed targeted marketing campaigns for local cycling blogs, local event sponsorships, and similar things.
These initial core Strava users — described by the company as “mobs” — were key. They were its 100 lovers. Their involvement generated momentum. They vouched for Strava’s authenticity to other avid cyclists who, in turn, could be recruited into the mob. This initial core group not only spread the word about Strava and drew in the “non-mob” masses but also generated high-quality content for the community and kept it active.
Thanks to the emotional layer, Strava differentiated itself from other players in the GPS space like Garmin and Nike. Strava used GPS data to allow users to log, track, and compare their performance metrics and find new routes, groups, and workouts through the Strava community. As one mob member puts it: “The possibility to stack myself up against all the users that have done a particular segment or climb is amazing. I have found a whole new level of motivation, and I find myself singing the praises of the company.” The mob members were very vocal, constantly voicing what they liked and didn’t like — ultimately creating an effective feedback loop.Building Love at AgriCo
Returning to AgriCo, we explained to the company that its online platform had failed because it was dedicated to the transactional layer while neglecting the emotional one. At the same time, the strength of its relationship with its customers allowed AgriCo to quickly implement the 100 lovers strategy and find its emotional layer.
Building on the crucial insight about the farmers’ loneliness, AgriCo redesigned its call center and made it an integral part of both the customer support function and the online platform. Its customer support agents were renamed customer engagement agents. Farmers now have a dedicated AgriCo customer engagement agent who advises them on relevant AgriCo products and tools. They can connect online with their dedicated agent or call them using the app on their smartphone. The new sales leads enjoyed a higher success rate because the farmers trusted AgriCo’s customer engagement agent. AgriCo transformed itself from just another transactional supplier to a true partner.
Building love is never easy — and maintaining it still harder. But, as Airbnb and Strava show, 100 lovers can quickly allow a company to conquer the world. Focusing solely on the transactional layer of a company’s offering can hamper its chances of finding success and attracting a passionate, enduring customer base. In our experience, the addition of an emotional layer can make all the difference. An emotional layer allows the company to rediscover who its customers are, what they really want, and what they are prepared to pay for.