Between attending back-to-back Web 2.0 conferences in New York and San Francisco, I attended a considerably less high tech affair in Nashville and learned a different kind of lesson in social media and Web collaboration.
I went to the national sales conference for Juice Plus+ at the urging of my wife, who sells the stuff. She had pointed out a number of items on the program related to social media. Also, she wanted me to help with the driving.
Neither the Juice Plus+ marketing organization nor the individual sales representatives dazzled me with the technical sophistication of their approach (nothing to compare with the burger joint Kevin Casey profiled recently). But I came away impressed nonetheless. In particular, I was intrigued by the simple "Web walk" sales technique developed by the organization's independent distributors.
Marketed as "the next best thing to fruits and vegetables," Juice Plus+ is created by juicing fresh fruits, vegetables, and berries, drying the juice, and packing the resulting power into a capsule. Instead of supplementing with vitamins and nutritional supplements that are manufactured as chemical compounds, Juice Plus+ is supposed to deliver a broad spectrum of naturally occurring nutrients. Produced by NSA of Collierville, Tenn., the brand also encompasses nutritional smoothies and gummies. Next year, NSA plans to introduce a Tower Garden product, which is a sort of backyard version of the aeroponics food-growing technology tourists know from the Epcot greenhouse.
[Find out how successful social media use lets one small business compete against bigger businesses. Read Fast Food 2.0: The Burger Goes Social.]
The theory we have bought into in my household is that Americans don't eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables. Even when we try to eat better, much of the produce we buy in the store has lost nutritional value through shipping, warehousing, and having been bred for long shelf life above all else. These are the sorts of concerns articulated in Michael Pollan's writing about the industrialization of the American diet.
Please excuse the commercial, but one reason Juice Plus+ is sold through a network of moms, doctors, nurses, rehabilitation specialists, and personal trainers--rather than in stores--is that it requires a longwinded explanation. My wife originally became a distributor so we could get a discount for our own family and has since built a modest business around it. Like her, most Juice Plus+ representatives seem to be true believers, who sell largely by sharing their own stories. My wife wasn't sold the first, second, or third time someone told her about Juice Plus+, so she spends a lot of time sending people links to the medical studies and videos that convinced her.
Distributor Mary Koenig gained a reputation for doing the same sort of thing with educational DVDs, spending so much time dropping them off and retrieving them that her upstream sales director Renee O'Neill dubbed her the "Jersey Shore DVD stalker." Still, Koenig found showing the videos with their testimonials from doctors, athletes, and other experts effective--as long as people actually watched them. Each distributor also gets a personalized website that can be associated with a custom domain, but Koenig found that merely telling people to visit mary4prevention.com typically didn't work.
"If you tell people here's my website, check it out, but there's no follow up, it's just a waste," she said because most people won't click on the link or type in the URL on her business card--or if they do, that alone won't convince them.
The Web walk technique that O'Neill developed and Koenig adopted is a different way of using the website, by appointment. The tutorial Koenig gave in Nashville followed immediately after one on how to organize sales presentations and house parties, reflecting the organization's continued emphasis on selling face-to-face whenever possible. Web walks were presented as a fallback plan. But Koenig also said she values them as making efficient use of her time. "I've built this business in the stolen moments and nooks and crannies of life," she said.
Koenig, who entered the Juice Plus+ world when she was six months pregnant with her second child, squeezes in sales between kids' activities and household chores. She sells to other busy people, and often it's easier to get them on the phone while they are in front of their computers than to set an appointment to meet in person. She simply talks them through an exploration of the website, prompting them to click on the links to different videos and showing them what is available on each screen.
During her tutorial, I kept waiting for her to mention some screensharing tool like WebEx or GoToMeeting. If it was me, I'd probably try a freemium alternative such as Join.me. But Koenig doesn't use anything like that, both because she wants to keep things simple and because by talking prospects through the site, she gets to answer more of their questions and make sure they pick up on the most relevant details. People sometimes volunteer to watch the videos on their own and call her back later. She tries to keep them on the phone so that when the video ends she can ask, "So, what stood out to you? What did you like best?"
Koenig said another reason for avoiding tools like GoToMeeting is she doesn't want to be using any technology that her prospect might find unfamiliar and intimidating. Since she is seeking to recruit new distributors, as well as close sales, she wants everything she is doing to be something her prospects can imagine themselves doing, too.
"There's a fine line between building a relationship and using technology," O'Neill told me when I reached her later, by phone. "The main goal of the Web walk and what makes it so successful is you're building a relationship with the person, while still using the technology."
As a side benefit, Koenig learned her way around her own website in a way she never had before, when "it was just someplace we sent prospects," she said.
Now, when giving the grand tour, she takes people right to the page listing the scientific papers that support the product's claimed health effects. She reads off the bullet points on the high-level findings and tells prospects they can always come back and click on the links when they want more details. The path Koenig follows is different for different sorts of people, using different videos for middle aged people worried about warding off heart disease than for younger ones more likely to be convinced by material that focuses on an active lifestyle.
As for social media, "I use Facebook a lot--I actually use Facebook almost entirely for business purposes," Koenig said. "Sure, I'll look at pictures of my friends' kids and stuff, but I'm not on there wasting time." Despite that businesslike approach, she doesn't do a lot of overt marketing but instead posts links to articles on health and wellness, or questions, or comments about what she is doing to keep her family healthy that might spark a conversation. Then she listens.
"I'm looking for people posting stuff about I'm tired, I have no energy, I'm overweight, I'm sick, my kids are sick, my job stinks--things where the answer could either be JuicePlus+ or the business opportunity," she said. Once she finds them, she tries to take the conversation offline and get the person on the phone. "I want them to hear my enthusiasm," she said.
Koenig said she has not ventured onto Twitter and is only now considering setting up an account on LinkedIn. O'Neill also told me she just sticks to Facebook.
NSA has been trying to educate representatives about their social media options and provide lots of content for them to link to, and one of the other sessions at the conference provided an opportunity for other distributors to talk about connections they had made online. However, NSA marketing specialist Jackie Dye said she always has to remember that these people are at all different ages and comfort levels with technology. "Most of our representatives basically aren't on Twitter, and don't know how to use it," she said. Some of them are uneasy about venturing onto Facebook. The company as a whole was initially cautious about its approach, not wanting technology to get in the way of person-to-person selling, she said.
"It's not shoved down anyone's throat," said Rena Katz Durn, a VP with Edelman Digital who has been advising NSA about social media strategy. "We want them to use the one that's most comfortable for them."
I did find a few Twitter users at the conference by searching for #juiceplus, and met over lunch with business partners Melissa Sheridan and Wendy Rossi, whose small business the Roots Company sells Juice Plus+ and other natural products. Both are recovering from Lyme disease and have embraced nutrition as part of the cure.
"I just got on Twitter not too long ago, and right away I got an order," Sheridan enthused. Still, it's important to use the medium with a light touch, she said. "I make sure not all of my tweets or Facebook posts are about Juice Plus."
"I'm on Facebook and Twitter because I like relationships," Rossi agreed. "You have to go about it from a relationships standpoint, not from a business standpoint. We desire relationships. We don't desire a sales pitch."
Attend Enterprise 2.0 Santa Clara, Nov. 14-17, 2011, and learn how to drive business value with collaboration, with an emphasis on how real customers are using social software to enable more productive workforces and to be more responsive and engaged with customers and business partners. Register today and save 30% off conference passes, or get a free expo pass with priority code CPHCES02. Find out more and register.