"When I joined NCR's ecommerce group in early 1999, this was a small-sized business unit. Not many people in the marketplace knew NCR was involved in it," says Strategic Marketing Director Sundeep Kapur.
Back then, everything about ecommerce was new. Kapur himself wanted to learn more, and he bet that prospects and customers were just as eager for information. But, if you're in a field so new that no one knows best practices yet, how can you create white papers and presentations to impress people with your glorious thought leadership?
That February, Kapur decided to hold a teleconference. His radical idea: instead of a presentation, it would be a conversation.
"Presentation formats are very restrictive. Instead, I invited two marketers who worked for NCR and five clients, and we just chatted for an hour."
"Just chatting" turned out to be far more valuable than Kapur even had hoped. Everyone on the call eagerly volunteered to meet again on the line the first Friday of every month to continue the conversation.
Realizing he'd hit a live wire, Kapur wanted to test broadening the circle. Why not invite hundreds of prospects to join in to the March discussion? "My goal was to build a network of people who could sit down and share ideas." CAMPAIGN
"I wanted to mail out coffee cups with an invitation. Management laughed at me and said no. I said, 'OK, how much promotional budget do I have?' They said 'Nothing.' "
Slightly downcast but not discouraged, Kapur spotted a big pile of remaindered Far Side 1999 wall calendars in a local bookstore the next weekend. By then it was mid-February, so Kapur knew the store's chances of selling them were slim.
He ran in to make a deal -- grabbing 600 calendars for next to nothing. Next, using NCR office supplies he created a sticker for the next teleconference and pasted it into the calendar on the right date. Then, he put every calendar along with a typed letter into a 9x12 NCR envelope and sent the pile down to the mailroom to go out First Class.
A minute later, Kapur sat down at his desk and began making personal phone calls to everyone on the list. "Hello, I'm from NCR. I want you to know to look for the Far Side calendar in your mailbox. … Let me know if you get it."
He kept track of whom he spoke to personally, who called back in response to a voicemail and who didn't. Then he followed up a few days later with those who hadn't responded. "Hey, I hope you got your calendar."
Lastly, three days before the scheduled teleconference, Kapur emailed each name on the list a brief, text-only note, saying, "I hope you got your calendar. Our subject for the call this month is …"
The high response rate to this guerilla campaign was strong enough that Kapur had a hit on his hands. Now he had to put systems and processes in place to keep the program going for the long run:
Rule #1. It's a conversation, not a sales pitch
"I don't want to use this as a forum to advertise in at all," says Kapur. Still, for the first big call, he asked an NCR sales rep to join in and pitch him questions just in case no one else in the group knew what to say.
However, after a few good ones, his rep's line of questioning began to feel slightly salesy. "I said, 'Tom, that's a great question, but after I answer it can you please not ask any more? That's not what this call is about.' You could hear a lot of people on the line heave a sigh of relief."
In later calls, the group decided to invite vendors occasionally for short presentations. However, Kapur always previewed suggested slides (calls can be accompanied with slide views on a matching microsite) and cut out any that were promotional. "This is sacred ground."
Plus, to keep the tone of the event focused on the community, he invented a brand name, 'Service in Action' and a microsite domain separate from NCR's.
Rule #2. Prompt, but don't over-control content
"The goal is to facilitate a conversation and step away from it. Let people go back and forth."
Kapur chose a topic for each month's call, such as '25 Must Do Holiday Campaign Ideas' and often posted a few relevant campaigns or Web site samples online for folks to view on the microsite "as an icebreaker."
Beyond that, he prepared no material but rather let the audience develop the conversation live. "I like to know a few names of who's on the call. I may say, 'Irina, what are your thoughts on this sample?' It's a very focused event, but conducted as a casual conversation. I have no control over how the ideas will flow. "
"We don't want to use webinar or chat technology. We want to make this more like a bunch of us have missed our flight and we're stuck at an airport. We're all managers in the same line of business so let's just grab a cup of coffee and talk together."
Rule #3. Send email reminders
Every month, Kapur sends out a formal HTML invitation to the list featuring the upcoming topic, and then a more personal text-only message from his own email account. (See link to samples of both below.) Plus, he keeps the microsite updated with the latest topic if members want to go directly there to check in.
In any case, there's not a lot of copy (much less salesy writing.) Members get the topic, plus their dial-in time and number and a reminder not to put their phones on hold with music during the conversation. (The few who've forgotten have been teased by everyone afterward for quite some time.)
Kapur also sends out an occasional postal mailing. In fact, one year it was coffee mugs!
Rule #4. Expansion is good, huge groups are not
When you have too many people on a teleconference, you have too many background noises, too many competing voices, and soon you're forced into the "everybody mute while the presenter talks" mode. Kapur refused to let popularity ruin his format.
Instead, as the group grew he broke them into smaller groups of fewer than 200 members, each with their own monthly call. Kapur picked which regular group each member would join.
Although the topic of the month was the same for all groups, Kapur didn't allow members to float from group to group about picking which call they would attend. Instead, he asked that everyone stick with their assigned seating -- in part to manage group size and also in part to foster better group dynamics as members developed personal relationships through hearing each other month after month.
"People are friendly about that. I say, 'I'd like your help, can I move you to this call at this time?' They don't mind."
Rule #5. Create wrap-up reports
At first, Kapur thought he'd record the calls so that folks who missed out could listen in afterward. However the initial group quickly disabused him of that notion. People did not want to be taped! Executives felt more free to discuss what was truly on their minds when it wasn't going onto a permanent record or archives somewhere.
Therefore, Kapur began to take notes longhand. Then, at the end of the month's calls, he typed up a two- to four-page bulleted list of the most useful facts and ideas that had come up during conversations. Naturally, he was exquisitely careful never to reveal anything 'on record' that an executive might not want public.
He also was careful to give the entire group as well as conversational ringleaders credit for the ideas presented. This wasn't an NCR white paper but rather notes collected for the group (see link to sample below).
"It's hard to talk into the black box and not see people's faces. The first three to five calls were terrifying for me. I didn't know what people were thinking," Kapur admits.
Happily, he quickly discovered people were delighted with the calls. NCR's list of regular call attendees rose to nearly 5,000 executives across a wide range of industries from banks to cataloguers to retail chains. With the help of a full-time assistant now dedicated to 'Service in Action,' Kapur conducts eight calls per month.
"We average 140-160 people calling in for each, and about 25 people actively carry on the conversation, and ask questions. A lot of people listen."
The groups have grown such strong interpersonal relationships, that when Kapur can't be in on calls he simply drops a line to two or three other group members and asks if they'll take over kicking off the actual call for that month. Yes, most execs gladly pitch in to help -- and, no, few of them work for NCR.
(Can you imagine having a first-name relationship with major prospects so they'll take your call and consider you a friend, much less pitch in to help you out like this?)
Although Kapur doesn't promote NCR in the conversations at all, the tactic has clearly helped NCR grow. Conversations have led directly to new NCR products and services (if you know precisely what your prospects want, why not offer it?) Plus, many group members are now NCR customers.
And, after more than 150 conversations with top execs in the field, Kapur now has a huge stockpile of reality-based insights to share with others. So, he's now able to pepper his event presentations with real-life anecdotes about group members, further establishing NCR's leadership. Useful links related to this article:
Creative samples from NCR's teleconference series:
Service in Action