By Fritz Nelson, independent journalist & former editor-in-chief of Tom's Hardware
- As the former editor-in-chief of PC publication Tom’s Hardware, Fritz Nelson inherited a massively loyal audience, or “customer base.”
- Nelson and his team used this loyalty to grow business in 4 main ways: They experimented with a community-driven review service, drove attendance to live events
, launched a charity fundraiser and engaged customers with staff.
- Nelson’s projects can apply to most businesses with similarly loyal followings. When implemented, they can benefit both your bottom line and customers themselves.
In mid-2016, I met with Lisa Su, the CEO of AMD, in Taipei at one of the computer industry’s largest annual gatherings. I was then editor-in-chief for Tom’s Hardware, a prominent PC gaming hardware publication.
For years, AMD’s financial performance looked like the aftermath of a <pick your favorite Tarantino movie> death scene. AMD got an annual butt-kicking from its rival, Nvidia, and the company was enduring backlash of a critical miscalculation earlier in the decade regarding the underlying architecture of its CPUs. In short, things were as uneasy as the wedding-crasher scene in “Kill Bill: Vol 2.”
At the press meeting, I asked Su what her company “could not afford to get wrong” for its future health. She responded with a single word: “Zen.” This was the codename for AMD’s forthcoming, re-engineered CPU architecture, which has since helped turn the company around.
As a tech journalist, I live for these moments. Drama makes for great storytelling, and fierce competition makes for great Web traffic. Being an influential critic amid controversy leads to an engaged audience, which is an editor’s favorite customer. My readers at Tom’s Hardware loved the story.
Loyal customers are a Holy Grail for product development. And Tom's has them.
Dr. Thomas Pabst launched Tom’s Hardware in 1996, when most folks were just discovering the Web. His tech proclivities were in rhythm with an untapped community of PC enthusiasts. His bellicose and unflinching style earned him both fans and enemies, their passion only growing when Pabst uncovered surprising problems like the infamous flaw in Intel’s early Pentium chips.
When I started running Tom’s Hardware in 2013, its community had millions of members around the world. Their strength manifested most in the Tom’s Hardware forums. There, PC novices and experts alike answered each other’s queries, which ranged from tech support to product-buying advice to tech debates.
Thousands of Tom's fans chat on the site's forums, serving as a talkative customer base for Tom's to do product research. (credit: tomshardware.com)
That engagement and loyalty is addictively helpful for product development: Imagine you’re thinking about adding or changing a product or service, in any field. Now, imagine asking for customer input and getting an immediate and voluminous response at no cost.
At Tom’s, we thought about new categories of content coverage this way. We managed site design changes this way. It’s how we implemented new features and services. Where most companies relied on standard data-gathering techniques to measure website success, we had anecdotal and contextual feedback. We didn’t just have our finger on the pulse of what our readers cared about -- we were inside their vascular system.
With this enormous customer engagement engine, Tom’s was able to carry out feats most other tech media companies only dreamed of.
Here's how to grow a customer base in four strategies, based on the Tom's Hardware story.
1. Community-driven products
We decided to create a peer-based product recommendation service. We asked our readers to rate telecommunication services, believing they’d be best evaluated via aggregated user experience. Thousands of readers rated the services on pre-defined criteria, augmented with freeform anecdotal feedback. We combined our own expert testing with a Yelp-like “customer experience score” for a powerful one-two punch that few media companies could match.
Thanks to its especially vocal customers, Tom's was able to create a by-customers, for-consumers guide to the best VPN services. Few other media companies had resources to do the same. (credit: tomshardware.com)
2. Live events
Drawing an audience is one of the costliest challenges in running company events. At Tom’s, we drew more than 50 attendees to our PC gaming event for the ridiculously low price of a few hours of email and spreadsheet management, thanks to the active customer base on our forums.
3. Charity fundraisers
The main rival of Tom’s was a publication called AnandTech, which had a similarly loyal and engaged community. Together, we challenged our communities to a weeklong Folding competition with great success. (Folding is an ongoing project that uses idle distributed computing resources on the Internet for disease research.)
The Tom’s and AnandTech communities rank among the top 20 Folding contributors in the world.
In 2016, Tom's and rival PC publication AnandTech challenged their readers to an online computing competition benefitting disease research. The project drew support from around the world. (credit: anandtech.com)
4. Staff-to-customer engagement
In August 2017, when a terrorist drove a car through the crowded Las Ramblas in Barcelona, our Italian colleague Bruno Gulotta was one of more than a dozen people killed. His partner and two young children miraculously survived. Our Tom’s colleagues in Italy set up a special PayPal account for his family, and once again, we elicited the help of our online community. Their outpouring was overwhelming, providing both emotional and financial support for Gulotta’s family.
Your company is likely not a PC gaming website like Tom’s. But the basic tenants of customer engagement – and what you can do with that engagement – apply across industries. So, if your business has a similarly loyal customer base, then consider using it in new ways for the good of both your business and the community itself.
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