Vespa gains, then loses, brand traction using social media and the OTHER 1 Percenters

Hunter S. Thompson quoted a Hell’s Angel as saying “We’re the 1 percenters, man,” meaning they are on the fringes — perpetually disconnected from the rest of society. Two years ago Vespa unleashed a different gang of cyclers by launching an alternative to a staid corporate blog. Vespaway has since died a sad internet death, but even its demise can teach something about how to harness the word-of-mouth power of your customers.

The gang that Vespa enlisted, also termed The 1 Percenters by authors Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, is arguably among the most connected citizens instead of the least. In their book Citizen Marketers, McConnell and Huba talk about how:

Amateurs and professionals commingle to assume new forms of ownership in companies, brands, products … disrupting the traditions of the existing cultural filters and promoters. [The book is] also the story of how some organizations have embraced the new reality of participatory engagement, tossing aside the old model of the passive consumer.

In their book, they explain how the owner of the Vespa brand learned from research two key facts:

  • 65% of prospective motor scooter buyers visit the Vespa USA site (that’s good!)
  • 56% visit other sites to see what other people are saying about the scooters (that could be very bad!)

The company’s response was to give a few devoted fans their own blog. They were paid only in swag and passes to corporate events (both very persuasive incentives to bloggers, as you’ll read at the end of this post).

For a while the technique worked well, according to Paolo Timoni, CEO of Piggio USA, the owner of the brand. It’s hard to know for sure, since the blog site has been pulled. But it’s a sound strategy, and one I’ve seen working for other brands large and small.

Which brings up a couple of lessons on social media (the term favored by McConnell and Huba) — lessons not mentioned in the book, as far as I can tell:

  1. You’d better have a lot of recruits to replace those blogging volunteers who burn out
  2. Corporate gifts alone might not be enough to attract these writers

It’s an excellent book nonetheless, one that I am taking my time to absorb.

Which brings me to the full disclosure statement that I need to make. (Mine is inspired by David Weinberger’s — thanks, David). I’ve known Jack Covert, the CEO of 800CEOread for years. He’s a great guy who’s leading an excellent business.

Over the years I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on business books from his company. But Citizen Marketers was a gift, as was the comp I’ve received to attend their upcoming LeaveSmarter event.

This Thursday, March 22, 2007, Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba will be speaking at this latest installment of LeaveSmarter. It’s from 11:30 to 1 PM at the extraordinary Eisner American Museum of Advertising and Design — another Milwaukee, Wisconsin gem. All the details are here:

Incidentally, you may have read my review of the last book profiled in the LeaveSmarter series: Made To Stick. More full disclosure here: I paid full price for that one, from the Oakland Avenue Schwartz Bookstore, and was neither offered – nor did I seize upon — the chance to see those authors live. What was I thinking, man?

Update: Like verbing, another modern trend in the English language is the “schushification” of some words. It seems I just turned away for a minute and swag has become schwag.

2 Replies to “Vespa gains, then loses, brand traction using social media and the OTHER 1 Percenters”

  1. I thought you were going to tie this post to your previous one about brands spawning their own OL community. Looks like Vespa did just that, yet pulled it. Any idea why? As we discussed, given the emotional involvement of the people who buy those things, you would have thought Vespa would be a good candidate to spawn its own community.

  2. I agree, Ron. They’re an excellent candidate for an online community. My suspicion is it’s a story of too little tending to the fire. Remember when fireplaces were fueled by real logs instead of natural gas?

    Those “real” fire fireplaces are great. I miss them. But they are a lot of work. New fuel needs to be added, fading flames need to be nurtured, and there’s just a lot of monitoring and poking. Sometime real fires can burn unattended for quite a while, but others are just plain high maintenance.

    If volunteers are the fuel for a brand-related blog, I think the company needs to be the “tender” to that fire. Most company marketing organizations just aren’t designed for that kind of tending. Whereas social media are real fires, traditional media are the gas fires that most marketing companies are designed to manage. Turn it on and let it run.

    Okay, have I milked that metaphor until it moos in pain? 🙂

    I’ll definitely be asking McConnell and Huba when I see them on Thursday if they have any insights on what went wrong (and what is in store for the domain name), but my guess is the blog was left to its own management for too long.

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