TED and the art of loyalty

This is a guest post from Mitch Joel — President, Twist Image and author of “Six Pixels of Separation.” His new book “CTRL ALT Delete” was released in May 2013. See the original post this is adapted from and more like it on his blog.

People don’t like to admit just how addicted they are to their smartphones.

I won’t be the first to blog about how many people are quite sensual with their devices. Don’t laugh. Think about the way you caress, touch, and engage with it. What is the last thing that you touch before you go to bed at night, or the first thing that you pick up when you wake up in the morning? What, too personal?

Be honest: What’s your time to device in the am? Now compare that to your time to spouse? There is an ongoing debate about just how loyal consumers can (and should) be in such a fragmented world, but I’m here to tell you that loyalty is alive and well. Real loyalty (the stuff that transcends data sets, points accumulation and redemption strategies) is the stuff of legend.

What if a brand was able to create such a sense of loyalty, that the urgency with which the consumer responds to an email is similar to the “time to device” reality outlined above?

I’ve got a thing for TED.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. The origins of this annual get-together took hold in 1984, when Richard Saul Wurman (famed architect, book author, and renaissance man) decided to pull together an exclusive group of guests for his vision of the ideal dinner party.

Today, TED is curated by Chris Anderson through a charitable foundation, and is best known for the TED Talks that gobble up audiences by the hundreds of millions via online video channels (their own, YouTube, podcast, and more) and their 18-minute presentations on topics as diverse as creativity and education to how video games can save you and why every adult needs a LEGO collection. The event/gathering/conference now has a global event (held outside of North America) and is also associated with TEDx events (local organizers leveraging the TED brand and blueprint to create their own event around a specific geography or topic).

On March 17th of this year, I made my annual pilgrimage to the TED conference in Vancouver, British Columbia (like I have been doing since 2009).

I am loyal to all things TED. “Loyal beyond reason,” as Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Worldwide, Kevin Roberts, called it in his book, Lovemarks (TED is a lovemark).

And, the reasons why act as a truth serum to other brands. My time to respond to TED emails over the years has become more like a “drop everything and pay attention,” type of experience. Those emails are right up there with my pathetically quick time to device in the am. In a connected world, where consumers have access to anything and everything at the touch of a connected device, the brands that make us most loyal have to do a lot more to rope us in. TED does this is so many profound and powerful ways.

What is it about the TED experience that makes the TEDsters so loyal, and what can brands learn from organization?

1. You don’t buy a ticket, you join a movement.

Some think it’s elitist, but I don’t. It’s exclusive. To take part in a TED experience, you can’t just buy a ticket to the event. You apply to become a member and, if accepted, your membership fee includes a ticket to their annual event. Along with that, you get access to an online social network with other members.

Membership also includes a book club. Throughout the year, physical books are shipped or digital versions can be grabbed on your Kindle. TED is not an event, it’s a year-long build up of conversations and connections, so that the event becomes the crescendo.

2. It’s not cheap and it’s limited.

By having a hefty price tag, TED is able to create a level of scarcity. The scarcity is built not just on the fee, but in the physical limitation of the seats available for their annual event. A total of 1,500 people are accepted. This is more limited than you might think, because people (like me) keep attending year in and year out, so as the popularity increases, the scarcity increases as well.

They’ve managed to add on events to compensate (like TED Global) and to have satellite events (like TED Active, which is a live simulcast of the event in another city).

3. It’s not about the stage.

It’s about the audience. TED releases all (or most) of the presentations for free online for everyone to watch, share, and discuss. What everyone fails to realize is that the TED Talks account for only a small percentage of the TED experience. Because of the components mentioned above, the audience members are often just as (if not more) impressive as the people on the stage.

The ability to rub shoulders, engage in discourse, and have candid conversations with these types of luminaries from the technology, design, entertainment, business, and the non-profit sectors is the real show. The curation of the audiences members is just as rigid as the speaker selection process.

4. TED is gymnastics for the brain.

Because TED curates the content and experience in such a tight and military-like fashion, it is designed to keep even the most Type A of business leaders on their collective heels. It is a full week of visual and mental immersion. It’s the type of experience that is hard to express in written or verbal forms of communication.

I often tell people that talking about TED is like dancing to architecture (to spin the old Martin Mull saying that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”). It’s that type of muscle confusion-like experience that keeps everyone coming back, and attempting to explain it to anyone who will listen.

How does your brand build that type of loyalty?

Are you getting people to join a movement, instead of simply buying a product or service? Can you create a sense of scarcity and exclusivity for your customers by creating an experience that everyone will want and talk about and share? Are you building something that will have your customers begging to be more connected — not just to your brand, but to other customers that you serve? Is what you’re doing creating a sense of business muscle-confusion, (in a good way) for your customers? Is every interaction with them adding value to their experiences and making them smarter at scale?

Tough questions to answer.

It’s not as simple as getting a customer’s email address or engaging with them on Facebook. It takes more than getting them to hand over some personal information in exchange for a card and some type of points/coupon plan.

That’s not the true essence of loyalty. That’s a loyalty program. The powerful brands — the ones that really connect — are the ones who are deeply focused on creating a TED-like experience for their consumers… year in and year out.

It’s a higher calling for the brands of today.


About Mitch Joel

Mitch Joel is President of Mirum — an award-winning Digital Marketing and Communications agency. He is also a blogger, podcaster, journalist, speaker, and the author of "Six Pixels of Separation" and "CTRL ALT Delete." Mitch is frequently called upon to be a subject matter expert for BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Marketing Magazine, Profit, Strategy, Money, The Globe & Mail, and many other media outlets.

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  1. Caroline Papadatos

    Mitch, I couldn’t agree more that the ultimate expression of a brand is in the experience, with a powerful sense of connectedness that is almost inescapable….first touch in the morning stuff. Love that!

    Just not sure you need to throw loyalty programs under the bus on your rise to the pinnacle of a brand’s expression. When done right, loyalty programs play a critical role in engaging customers and enriching relationships…but they were never intended as the whole brand story and are always woven into powerful experiences.

  2. Mitch Joel

    I completely agree, Caroline. I think you know my passion for loyalty and rewards programs. I was simply trying to point out that many brands now think that a loyalty/rewards program is their brand loyalty… in its entirety… and we know that true loyalty is much more than points accumulation and redemption.

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