Build a Tribe of Followers, not just Customers: Ten Proven Practices

Why do some companies build loyal followings that stick with them for years while others can’t seem to get customers to stick around? Why do some companies seem to have an avid fan-base that evangelize the brand via word-of-mouth while others never get mentioned by their users?

We all know the best companies have tribes of followers, not simply happy customers. But how?

Our Velocity coaches have spent the last few months talking to some of the best founders and CEOs in the business about this and other strategies, tactics and tools for success. We’re releasing the results of our research throughout the year in a series of events in collaboration with Wildcat Ventures and the Traction Gap Institute.

When we asked Silicon Valley’s top CEOs about how to build a base of avid followers, here’s what we’ve learned:

1) Nail the User Experience — Everyone talks about this, but few deliver. Loyalty begins when you’ve delighted someone. Apathy begins when you’ve made someone feel unimportant. But how? Get the product in front of customers early. Ask the really hard questions like “Would you pay for this? How much?”

Great product designers get their ego out of the way so they can hear the real feedback. They live in their customers shoes and become obsessed with learning from them. In our preliminary research with the Traction Gap Institute, Founders of successful companies talked about the need to identify a customer’s “pain points” and help them solve their problems in a tangible way.

2) Become Data-Driven: MEASURE, MEASURE and MEASURE more. The way you build followers is to deliver and develop metrics that provide data that show that you solved a customer problem. Successful early stage companies are not over reliant on generic surveys to measure success. These “happy sheets” often mask real customer feedback. It is best to develop your own metrics based on the specific needs and problems the product is solving for the customer. This more customized approach to measurement is a common strategy of successful startups.

3) Communicate a Vision People Can Buy Into and Articulate the “WHY.” The most effective Founders and leaders are clearly able to articulate the “why” of what they do and the purpose of their company and its vision. Simon Sinek articulates this in a powerful Ted Talk that is a must view for all founders. Followers are inspired by a company that links its products to a larger vision.

In his best-selling book The Advantage Patrick Lencioni talks about the need for organizations to answer the question, “Why Do We Exist?” Customers like being connected to companies that are clear in communicating their vision and “why” this vision is important in helping customers meet a specific need. For example, Southwest Airlines believes that flying on airplanes should be cost effective for those customers less able to afford higher fares. Their commitment to lower fares and quality service articulates a clear message as to WHY customers should choose Southwest.

4) Let Users Talk to Each Other — At Marketo, Founding CEO Phil Fernandez created the Marketo Marketing Nation community to allow users to support each other and share tips and tricks. Once this nation was established, people wanted to get on the bandwagon and be part of a winning proposition making the acquisition of new customers easier. The Marketing Nation Community has grown into an online school and support network serving tens of thousands of marketers everyday.

5) Stay “stealth” in the way you share information. When companies become more successful, there is a tendency to want to tell the world — post on blogs, share with investors etc. The successful companies will stay quiet and continue to gather data, get repeat customers and document success through concrete metrics — letting word get out in more informal ways. This allows the core tribe of customers to feel special, and they become the critical stakeholders to spread the word.

According to one of the Founders in our Traction Gap research study:

“Building a company in the early stages is like a bike race — you want to hide in the corners and not make your moves known to all until you are ready — what startups do poorly is they educate their market, their competitors and VCs without educating customers.”

Once you have a strong understanding of your user base and achieve minimum viable repeatability for your product, more creative marketing strategies can be implemented with support from your customer base.

6) Make Users Feel Special — Until late 2008, Yelp didn’t have enough reviews. Most users were using the review site to complain about negative experiences rather than send praise for positive experiences. That’s when they decided to create the “Yelp Elite” program. By giving their power users a special name, throwing them special parties, and generally showering them with praise, Yelp was able to increase their engagement even more and create an elite class of super-users.

7) Learn from Unhappy Customers — According to research done by Lee Resources, for every 1 customer that complains there are 26 unhappy customers who have remained silent, and 23 of them will simply leave and never come back.

Customers that squawk are a gift. They are speaking for a silent legion of other unhappy customers. Successful companies incorporate a “learning culture” where there are clear processes in place to learn from unhappy customers. The do “post mortems” around every aspect of their processes in the early stages demonstrating an obsessive appetite for knowledge and learning.

8) Resolve Customer Service Issues Quickly — Customers who get a customer service issue resolved quickly tell on average 4 to 6 people about their experience, according to the White House Council on Consumer Affairs. The word gets out and service and quick responsiveness begins to build customer loyalty.

9) Make a Difference in People’s Lives — AirBNB was founded when a couple guys wanted to make a few extra bucks selling space on an air mattress in their living room during a spike in hotel demand in San Francisco. It exploded with legions of loyal customers around the world when it became a reliable way to both make money and travel inexpensively for millions. Townsquared, a San Francisco start-up, has developed a business model whose purpose is ultimately to make a specific “community” a better place to live. Customers align with the values that such a higher purpose communicates.

10) Develop A Plan — The commitment to building a tribe of followers is critical to overall company success, but it doesn’t happen by accident. Every founder we’ve spoken with has been very purposeful and curious about how to convert customers and users into fans and followers. Founders and leaders who have a clear plan for how they will do this have a much higher probability of reaching minimum product traction, the last stage of the Traction Gap.

In our coaching work at Velocity, we help Founders develop a concrete plan to build legions of followers with timelines and tactics to ensure success. Contact us at for more information on how we can help your company build a tribe of followers.

Edward Sullivan