I went to a good number of panels and presentations at South by Southwest 2012 this year (more than 3, which seemed to be the average for most attendants). And while I certainly think there was a lot of value provided by UserVoice’s SXSW panels, the hands-down best talk I saw was called “Startup Marketing: Big Results with a Small Budget” with Saul Colt of Freshbooks.

Why am I writing about marketing on a blog about customers? Because Saul argues that your customers are your best marketing.

Saul, as well as several other presenters across SXSW, said that his PR attempts either generated no discernible bump in traffic, or drove unqualified visitors who didn’t convert to paying customers. That's our experience as well.

Instead of reaching for press and influencers, Saul argues, let your customers spread your message. Help them become the influencers.

lost cat sign from freshbooksHow does he recommend doing this? Get ready for something marketers rarely say: delight your customers. Saul is the king of doing silly, fun things…after all, his title is Head of Magic and he was accompanied by a mime at SXSW 2011.

Saul’s done Twitter contests where he sends everyone who entered a box of cereal with his card in it. He invites customers out to dinner in every city he visits. He’s put up “Lost Cat” signs that advertised “Lost 5 hours a month invoicing” (he thought this would just be Twitter fodder, but they ended up getting customers from it). He’s sent kits to fans so they can host “FreshBooks parties” in their homes (think tupperware parties).

These don’t sound like typical marketing efforts. But that’s because typical marketing efforts tend to cost a lot and be focused at hard-to-reach “strangers”. It’s much easier to delight and empower “true fans”, as Seth Godin says. And the proof that this works is in the pudding. Saul has grown Freshbooks to 1.6 million users total and over $1 billion in billings passing through their system in a year.

And their fans are fanatical:

Companies of all sizes need to understand this. Customer service is not a disaster-prevention exercise that should be carefully optimized to cost as little as possible. It’s a genuine marketing effort, and one that can pay off much bigger than a billboard or a trade show booth.