Sprint recalls an Ambassador

Summary: Lessons on how to market online, courtesy of the Sprint Ambassador program.

The e-mail from Sprint came right to the point:

From: service@ambassadormail.sprint.com
Subject: Sprint Disconnection Notice


Thank you for your participation in Phase I of the Sprint Ambassador Program. We appreciated receiving your honest and candid feedback about Sprint Power Vision and services, as well as the Samsung A920. We have been able to pass on some very specific information to the marketers, developers, and "powers that be" within Sprint for future use in making a difference in our products and services.

Please note that your six months of free service associated with Phase I of the Ambassador Program will be disconnected on: October 3, 2006.

In addition, please note that you can assign any available phone number to your phone once it has been disconnected from the Ambassador Program - thus enabling future usage of the A920 device in your local area.

Should you wish to subscribe to a Sprint voice and/or data plan, please visit us at www.Sprint.com for pricing and promotions, including Power Vision packs with Live TV, Gaming, SIRIUS Music, and more (The Weather Channel, ESPN, Comedy Time, NFL Network, NBC Mobile, etc.)

[I love that part – even when they're throwing you out of the program, they can't resist inserting an ad for their services. That's how you know you're dealing with the marketing department. –Mike]

Your access to the Sprint Ambassador Feedback Form ( http://ambassador.sprint.com ) will be disabled in correlation with your disconnection date, so now is the time to give us any additional last minute feedback you may have.

Once again, we truly appreciated your participation. Please feel free to stay in touch with us at anytime at xxxxxxxxx@Sprint.com.

Thank you,

The Sprint Ambassador Team

That's right, I'm no longer a Sprint Ambassador.

In spring, Sprint had offered me and about 400 other bloggers a free phone with six months of pre-paid 3G service. They called it the Sprint Ambassadors program. There was no obligation on my part to do anything, but Sprint was hoping we'd like the phones and write about them. Some bloggers liked the phones. Some, like me, had a few issues with them.

Okay, a lot of issues.

Ever since I posted my comments, I had been wondering what would happen next in the program. Would Sprint continue it? Would they keep me in? Now I know the answers. Looking around online, it appears that people who said nasty things about the phone were kicked out. People who said nice things (and some who said nothing at all) were given another phone and six more months of free service.

Sprint is completely within its rights to do that; they have no obligation to give free stuff to people who have criticized their products. But the Ambassadors program is interesting to me because I do a lot of work at Rubicon helping tech companies figure out how to interact with customers online. And I think Sprint has missed a great opportunity. More than that, I think what they're doing is an object lesson in how not to manage an online marketing campaign.

About the program

The Ambassador program was designed as a "word of mouth" marketing activity, according to David Dickey, Sprint's Director of Direct, Email, and SMS Marketing. Mr. Dickey has been giving speeches discussing the program. One of them is available in a podcast here. It's an interesting talk, and I encourage you to check it out for yourself. Some highlights:

--Sprint determined that the #2 driver of wireless purchases is recommendations from friends and family. The salesperson in the store is ranked #10, and TV advertisements are #19. So why not divert some of that TV money to generating better word of mouth?

--Sprint contacted 400-450 of the most influential bloggers in wireless and offered each of them a free phone. Sprint thought so highly of the phone that it believed most of the bloggers would write positively about it.

--Mr. Dickey said one risk in the program was that Sprint didn't control what the bloggers would say. He said some Sprint executives were uncomfortable with that. Most of the online commentary, he said, was very positive, but there were some negatives that were very alarming to the senior executives. That "drives a lot of activity that's not particularly positive," Mr. Dickey said. I'm picturing some pretty heated meetings or emails.

--Mr. Dickey said 65% of the bloggers accepted the phone, and 90%+ wrote positive things. He cited Buzz Machine as an example of a blog that generated good publicity, and said that the overall program generated 389,000 Google hits. "It was very successful for us."

Testing the program's effectiveness

I was curious about these statistics. In particular, the "Google hits" figure stood out to me. I'm not sure exactly what a Google hit is. The term is often used to mean the number of results returned when you search for a term on Google (you can find some examples here). But the idea that just 300 bloggers could generate 389,000 Google links seems remarkable – that's more than 1,000 references per blogger. So I did a search on Google for the term "Sprint Ambassador." That yielded 26,100 links. The same search on Yahoo produced 26,900 links.

So already Sprint seems to be off by a factor of ten. But the picture gets trickier. After the first 280 links, Google reports that the rest are all "very similar." That means some of the 26,000 results are duplicate copies of the same posts, while others will be additional posts on the same websites. Those will pull a much smaller audience than new posts on separate blogs would. So the number of truly unique mentions of "Sprint Ambassador" is probably well under 26,000. I think that's much more realistic considering that Sprint sent out about 300 phones.

But then where did the 389,000 figure come from? I can think of two possibilities:

1. If you take off the quote marks, searching for the words sprint ambassador will yield half a million hits. But that pulls up any web page containing the word "sprint" and the word "ambassador" anywhere on the page. Most of the links would be irrelevant.

Sprint wouldn't be that inept, would it? Let's assume not.

2. Another possible explanation is that traditional advertising effectiveness is measured by impressions – the number of times you run the ad multiplied by the number of people watching or reading that media. Maybe Sprint tried to calculate the number of impressions created by those weblog posts. A few thousand citations multiplied by an average readership of a couple hundred people per blog would do the trick.

Whatever the actual number, even a few thousand comments could be very useful if they're wildly enthusiastic. But were they all enthusiastic? It's impossible to say for sure without reading thousands of weblog entries (let me know if you do it). Instead, I did some spot checks, and also read the top five search results on both Google and Yahoo (excluding links back to Sprint's own website).

I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of the comments I saw were either positive or neutral. Some people definitely liked the phone. But a large amount of the discussion – maybe the majority – was about the Ambassador program itself rather than the phone. A lot of bloggers wrote something like, "Cool, I've been made a Sprint Ambassador," but then never discussed the phone. Much of the publicity Sprint generated may have been due to the novelty of the program, rather than the phone itself.

Here's how I'd classify the top five posts on Yahoo and Google:

Top five Yahoo:

1. Marketing Shift (Jason Dowdell, an Internet entrepreneur). Talks about program, positive. Later posts are positive on the phone

2. Buzz Machine (home of Jeff Jarvis, director of interactive journalism at CUNY's grad school of journalism). Positive on the program but ends with an angry rant against Sprint (more on this below). Never discussed the phone.

3. Hyaline Skies (Eston Bond, an Internet designer). Positive on the program. No followup on the phone.

4. Paul Stamitou (a Georgia Tech student with a popular tech blog – good going, Paul). OK on the program, quite negative on the phone.

5. Pearsonified (Chris Pearson, a web designer). Very positive.

Top five Google:

1. Buzz Machine.

2. Paul Stamitou.

3. Justin Everett-Church (an evangelist at Yahoo). Positive on program, no discussion of phone.

4. Patrick Fitzgerald (a web and UI designer). Positive on program, didn't blog on phone

5. Tom Markiewicz (CEO of a web apps company). Positive on program, no discussion of phone

I thought it was ironic that Mr. Dickey singled out the BuzzMachine post as a win for Sprint. The post there is indeed complimentary about the idea of the Ambassadors program, but it ends with this paragraph:

"I TAKE BACK ALL THE NICE THINGS ABOUT SPRINT I JUST SAID: I just spent three — three! — hours on the phone with Sprint people because the phone I ordered for my parents a week ago was never put through at Sprint and I dealt with no end of cluelessness and no end of hold music and lost calls and bad attitude. You can have a good idea at the top of a company but if the culture still sucks below, your own company will torpedo you. Having subjected you to consumerist rants before, I’ll spare you the details on this one. I’ll just say that it doesn’t take much to burn up goodwill."

The post is followed by a lot of reader comments, many with additional complaints about Sprint. One of them is from someone claiming to be a Sprint customer service representative, saying that the company's customer service is indeed clueless.

I would not be quoting that one as a win.

All blogs are not created equal

But there's also another factor to consider – some blogs are more popular than others. An endorsement in a single very popular blog could outweigh ten negative posts. Unfortunately for Sprint, it ran into the opposite problem. It sent a first round phone to Joel Spolsky, CEO of a software company and author of a book on user interface design. He also happens to be author of the intensely popular weblog Joel on Software. Mr. Spolsky didn't write about the first phone at all, so Sprint sent him a second one, made by LG. He tried the second one, and had such a strong reaction that he felt compelled to write. Here's a small sample:

"All the publicity in the world is not going to help them foist on us a product that is utterly pathetic. The phones they send us are so lame there is literally no area you can go into without being disappointed and shocked at just how shoddy everything is and how much it costs and what a rip off scam they’re trying to run here with the music that costs too much and the movies that you don’t want to watch on the screen that makes them unwatchable and you just KNOW that if you call to cancel the extra $7/month, their customer service department is going to give you the phone menu runaround and then put you on hold for an hour and then you’ll get some cancellation specialist with an incomprehensible accent who will spend 15 minutes trying to talk you out of canceling the useless service until you just give up and let them have the goddamned $7 a month. No amount of pampering bloggers and calling them Ambassadors is going to get around the fact that you’re sending us plastic junk phones that look like bath toys. (Hey, does it float?) All the “tipping point” theories in the world won’t protect Sprint from the basic truth that the LG Fusic user interface could basically serve as an almost complete textbook for a semester-long course in user interface design, teaching students of usability exactly what NOT to do."

It goes on and on for pages.

The Spolsky post was picked up in a lot of other places, notably the very popular weblog of Robert Scoble ("Don't send bloggers stuff for free unless it's good"), and on CNet Reviews ("When bribing bloggers doesn't pay"). All of those are extremely high traffic sites. To put it in perspective, according to Alexa.com the CNet Reviews site gets about ten times the daily traffic of Sprint.com, while Scoble + Spolsky together are about half the volume of Sprint.com. So even though they count as only three links on Mr. Dickey's list, they outweigh the mentions from hundreds of lower-traffic blogs.

[By the way, I know Alexa's site rankings skew toward technophiles, but that's the crowd Sprint was trying to influence, so I think it's an appropriate benchmark in this case.]

Lessons from the Sprint Ambassadors program

Since we don't know what Sprint's goals were, it's impossible to say if the program was a success. In particular, I don't want to run Mr. Dickey under the bus, because in a traditionally-organized company the marketing folks are supposed to assume that the engineers create good products, and to market them as vigorously as possible. That's what Sprint's marketing department did. The problem is that the traditional stovepiped approach doesn't work very well on the Web. So I think Sprint Ambassadors was a missed opportunity because it wasn't nearly as effective as it could have been. Here's my take on the lessons:

Engage before you seed. You really need to understand the people you're seeding products to. I think Sprint was very sincere when they said they thought their product was wonderful and that everyone would love it. That just proves how utterly out of touch Sprint is with the computing community. Anybody who has studied the principles of good interface design, as taught in the computing world, would immediately spot numerous flaws in Sprint's interface.

This is a recurring problem for the mobile phone companies. They tend to operate in an inward-focused world where their only reference points are other phone companies. I experienced this vividly recently in an e-mail exchange with a website that focuses on the mobile phone industry. They gave an award to the Sprint online music store, the same store that Joel Spolsky and I both criticized. I asked someone at the website why they gave an award to the Sprint store. "It's so much better than Verizon's store," was the reply.

Silly me, I compared it to iTunes.

When you engage with bloggers, you're operating on their turf, and they will judge you according to their values. You had darned well better understand those values before you send them products.

Engage two-way. Companies use a lot of different communication media to talk to their customers – television, radio, print ads, and so on. But the Web is different from almost every other medium, because it's at least potentially two-way. Instead of just shooting messages out at your "target" customers, you can actually have conversations with them. This creates all sorts of interesting opportunities for learning from your customers, and for building very tight relationships with them.

But you can do that only if you dramatically adjust the way you plan and manage your marketing. If you're going to have a conversation with the customer, you need to have other parts of your company involved in answering back – it can't just be a project of the marketing department, because the customers won't want to talk about only marketing issues. And ironically, it's often even more important to engage with your critics than it is to engage with the people who love you. If you encourage a fan to spread the word about you, that's good. But if you turn around a critic, you get a double benefit – you gain more recommendations, and you cut off a source of criticism.

People who are active online understand the two-way nature of the medium, and expect others to understand it as well. They get offended pretty quickly if a company uses the web to communicate one-way. Websites that don't encourage comments, and e-mail messages that can't be responded to, are viewed as rude and depersonalized. As a marketeer, you may think you're reaching out to people online when in fact, if you don't make your communication two-way, the message you're giving is that you don't care.

Sprint's program was almost completely one-way. Although there's a web form that Ambassadors can use to send comments, the box is sized for about four lines of text. All of the messages the program sent out were impersonal group mailings from an anonymous sender. There was no effort to establish a two-way dialog, let along a dialog among the Ambassadors, and in most cases you weren't even sure if anyone at Sprint was listening to comments.

Here's what I think Sprint should have done. First, engage with a small group of bloggers, and make the communication truly two-way. Really listen to them. Then later, when Sprint expanded the program, it would have had a much better idea of what might happen, and the original members would have served as a core to orient everyone else and bring them into the conversation.

If Sprint had engaged the ambassadors in a genuine dialog, we would probably have given our negative feedback in private first. That would have given Sprint a chance to respond, and even if we had gone ahead and posted some negative comments, they would have been softer, and we would have felt obliged to point out that Sprint was listening to us and had some reasonable employees.

For example, can you imagine that Jeff Jarvis would have posted his angry rant at Sprint if they had given him the name of a real person to contact as part of the Ambassador program?

Some companies would say that they don't have the resources to engage this deeply, but it's only 300 bloggers and Sprint is a multi-billion dollar company. They can easily afford it. And besides, by engaging halfway they did just enough to stimulate criticism but not enough to head it off.

I worry that all Sprint did was to position itself in a lot of influential peoples' minds as yet another company that doesn't understand the Web.

Understand what life is like for major bloggers. Popular bloggers are inundated with messages asking them to review products. Mobile Opportunity is extremely low-volume compared to the popular blogs, but even I get a steady stream of messages asking me to promote products or link to posts. In that context, Sprint's offer probably felt to the major bloggers like just one more in a flood of efforts to exploit their blogs. I think that's what made Joel Spolsky cautions, and it contributed to the rant he wrote.

Get real about the statistics. Web statistics are a snake pit. There's no reliable source of data (even the Alexa figures I quoted are highly suspect), and companies quote whichever number makes them look good. But we should all use a little common sense. Is there any way that sending out just 300 free phones is going to generate 400,000 separate links? I think it's not physically possible. Besides, a ten-second check on Google and Yahoo showed the number was way off.

The sad thing is that I couldn't find any article anywhere questioning Sprint's number. Even CNet's negative article repeated it without a touch of skepticism.

What do you think? Am I being too hard on Sprint? Are there other lessons I've missed? The world of online marketing is still developing. We're spending a lot of time understanding and teaching it at Rubicon, but I don't pretend we have all the answers. Please share your thoughts...


Anonymous said...

An excellent post. Totally right on.

I think any marketeer who has not read and fully grokked the Cluetrain Manifesto (www.cluetrain.org) deserves to be punted to the curb.

This isn't hard stuff. It takes minimal resources to actually engage ina a two-way conversation, and the results can be stunning.

I worked miracles at Rendition. And we did some amazing things at Palm(Source). All just by opening up a real dialog.

Microsoft has caught on to what is possible - the Microsoft MVP program is great, and so is their annual gathering of mobile influencers and enthusiasts.

Why is it that so few other big companies seem to not even have the slightest clue?


- chris

Michael Mace said...

Thanks, Chris. I agree that Microsoft does a great job on this stuff, which is very ironic considering how heavy-handed much of its marketing and PR has been over the years.

By the way, I just noticed from the trackbacks below that Eston Bond from Hyaline Skies has just written a long post on the Ambassadors program. There's a lot of interesting detail, but the most interesting revelation to me was that Eston was kicked out of the program despite not having written anything negative about the phone in public. Eston did give some mixed feedback in private, which was a very courteous way to handle things.

Whether or not it was Sprint's intent, the implicit message is: write good things about us in public and we'll keep giving you free phone service.

Anonymous said...

The key here is to know your audience...

"Thought Leaders" online need a real two way dialog - anything else and they will throw it back in your face - as Sprint is witnessing with how the Ambassador program is backfiring.

"fanboys" on the other hand will do anything for some free hardware- including rave about whatever you send them so that the gravy train will keep coming in.

Sprint's mistake with the Ambassador program has been in treating the thought leaders of the industry like a bunch of fanboys.

It is sad, and it shows just how clueless they are.


Any company out there looking for a solid whack with an enthusiast marketing clue-by-four, I am available for consulting gigs....

- chris

Rachel Luxemburg said...

I can't say I'm all that surprised. Marketing to bloggers is hard even for agile companies experienced in two-way customer communication. A large, insular mobile operator isn't likely to get it right the first time out. The real question is whether they will learn anything as they go along.

One thought about that "389,000 Google hits" number -- perhaps that was the amount of hits to their website that originated from Google searches. Tracking inbound traffic by referrer is trivial, and a major site like Sprint could easily garner that amount of traffic from Google.

Michael Mace said...

Chris wrote:

>>"fanboys" on the other hand will do anything for some free hardware....Sprint's mistake with the Ambassador program has been in treating the thought leaders of the industry like a bunch of fanboys.

And in so doing, they almost forced the thought leaders to criticize them in order to prove that they're not fanboys/girls. Anyone invited into the second round of the Ambassador program is now almost branded online as a Sprint shill. That's terribly unfair, but that's the impression a lot of people will take away.

Fiat wrote:

>>perhaps that was the amount of hits to their website that originated from Google searches.

Interesting thought. Let's add it to the list.

That would not be a great way to measure the effectiveness of the program -- the Sprint Ambassadors landing page is very bland, so if you're driving traffic to it you're not doing much to market your company.

Rachel Luxemburg said...

That would not be a great way to measure the effectiveness of the program.

Agreed. But if you're a staff member in the Sprint marketing department and are in need of an impressive-sounding number to justify your program to the higher-ups, it might fit the bill nicely.

Not that that is how it ought to be, of course.

Anonymous said...

Count me as someone not too enthused or disappointed by the whole scenario, Sprint invited me to join the original scheme too.

My being over 5000 miles from the nearest Sprint coverage was a tad farcical, and showed how little research they'd done. However I got a Stateside friend to sign up on my behalf and give the phone a workout.

This he did, and I think his feedback was pretty much the same as most of the reviews; limited phone, good data rates, interesting but potentially expensive entertainment offerings.

Have I been invited back to try another phone on their programme? No. Did I expect it? Not really. I just looked at it as a one-off bit of market research.