Irving Fain is the CEO and co-founder of CrowdTwist, a company that helps brands create customer loyalty with a platform that allows users to earn points for any activity they do online, both on corporate websites and other online properties, including Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. Users compete against themselves and others to prove dedication to the brands they love and to earn unique rewards, prize packages and discounts, all the while driving significantly more engagement, brand interaction and revenue.

Before founding CrowdTwist, Irving ran digital marketing & social platforms for Clear Channel Radio Digital, developing and implementing an online marketing and social strategy for 1,000+ radio stations. Prior to that, he led the Music Content Team, creating fresh content and experiences for artists and advertisers to get noticed among online programming. Before his life as a media entrepreneur, Irving wore a suit everyday in the world of finance. He spent time both as a venture investor in New York and as an investment banker, specializing in raising capital for early stage companies. He holds a B.A. from Brown University.

To listen to an audio version of this interview scroll down to bottom of the page.

NTT: In a nutshell, what is CrowdTwist all about?

Fain: CrowdTwist is a rewards platform that engages and activates a brand audience wherever the brand is. We’re built on the premise that today’s consumer engages with brands a lot more broadly than ever before. Twenty years ago, whether you were a manufacturer or a retailer, you were waking up to a world where customers were engaging with your product on this thing called the Web. Fast forward to today, and we live in a much more fractured environment, where you have a Facebook page, your Twitter feed, your email newsletter, Foursquare checkins, and Youtube, and on and on. Brands are asking themselves, “How do I engage and keep my audience active across all these different platforms, let alone really understand who my true advocates and supporters are in the broader ecosystem?”

CrowdTwist is able to solve that problem. We can track, incentivize and reward any engagement that occurs across all of these different platforms. Consumers earn points that can be used for status, access and rewards. A brand gets a significant lift in sales and engagement, and also a much more sophisticated understanding of their audience.

NTT: What specifically does CrowdTwist do to help engage those consumers who are promoting a brand or are fans of a brand?

Fain: We provide a White Label solution. Brands will take our platform and integrate it into their existing experience. It acts as a hub where people come, they join a program and there is a small bit of information that we collect. Then users are incentivized to share more based on a point system. What our software is capable of doing is by sharing information, connecting to social networks and various other means, we’re able to incentivize further behavior around the brand and also measure behavior. The way we look at it, these behaviors could be anything that can actually be verified and tracked. So it could be consuming content on a site. It could be sharing content on your social networks. It could be creating content. It could be making purchases, either in the real world in physical stores or online. Engagement with email campaigns … all these different actions can be measured, tracked and rewarded.

NTT: Can a consumer’s activity on their personal blog be incorporated into this rewards program?

Fain: It’s very difficult to reward and incentivize the millions of bloggers or the different journalists or hobbyists that are out there across the Web. But to the extent that a brand can say, “these are our 10, 20, 30 preferred blogs that we want you to visit,” they can include those sites in their overall incentive programs. From a Twitter standpoint, we leverage Twitter’s APIs and Facebook’s APIs to understand what you as a user are doing relative to the brand. There are a lot of services out there today that look at this in a more singular fashion; they look at what everybody is saying in general. What we’re looking at is more about what you are saying relative to the brands. So, who are you relative to our client? Or understanding your actual engagement and activity around a specific client.

NTT: Do consumers have to sign up to participate in the program?

Fain: One very important quality is that everything we do is opt-in. We don’t collect any data that you aren’t voluntarily willing to offer up. And you don’t have to offer up data that you don’t want to. But again, offering more and doing more enables you to earn more points.

Our programs right now are client specific. We sell our platform to different clients and they then implement our program that goes to their end consumers. So you, as a consumer of a brand, would come in and sign up for a program, but to you, it takes on the look and feel of that specific brand. It’s really not as much about the CrowdTwist brand as it is about the brand the consumer cares about.

NTT: It seems like this allows consumers to play a game with their favorite brands.

Fain: There’s an element that makes being a supporter of a brand more fun. We have elements of game mechanics that we integrate into what we do. There is a leader board, you’re earning points, you have a rank, and you have a level. There are elements that make it more fun and some elements of competition.

But there’s a movement out there right now that says you can turn any website, any brand, into a game. I don’t think we necessarily believe that. When you look at social games, Zynga and all these things that are succeeding in that space, they’re building very specific, very sophisticated game-based ecosystems. This is why you see the kind of engagement in terms of time. It’s very difficult to replicate that on a website or for a brand that ultimately isn’t a game.

So, yes, we leverage game mechanics, but in and of itself, I wouldn’t say it’s just a game. Really what we do is a much newer, more sophisticated way to think about loyalty. Loyalty itself is a concept and marketing tactic that’s been around for decades. And it’s been very effective. The problem is, loyalty itself has not evolved while the way people engage with a brand has definitely evolved. So what we’re trying to do is evolve the loyalty model.

NTT: You’ve mentioned in the past that physical, real-world prizes are important to this program. Can you talk about why?

Fain: This ties into what we were just talking about, in that badges make a lot of sense when they fit into a broader, more sophisticated gaming ecosystem—earning badges within a game. The problem is that when you remove that gaming ecosystem, and you’re left with brand engagement, the power of and the importance of those badges is significantly reduced. What we’ve found is that badging and these virtual rewards don’t really sustain long-term engagement. Recognition and status are definitely valuable, but it’s also much more valuable when it’s tied to real world experiences. So, giving someone early access to a sale—that’s status, that’s access, but also it translates into something that’s real world. Giving somebody access to content based on their level or points that they’ve earned. Again, that’s an example of access, but it translates to something in the real world.

We did a very successful program with LiveNation in the spring. They offered some fantastic rewards, things like watching shows from the stage, having pizza with a band, an autographed skateboard or an autographed t-shirt, even a chance to get a drum lesson from one of the band’s drummers. It’s those kinds of experiences that get people incredibly excited. Just giving somebody something on a computer screen, a virtual badge, it doesn’t have the gravitas and it doesn’t have the excitement value that handing somebody something with some tangible value does.

NTT: Does CrowdTwist work with clients to design rewards programs that will work for them or is it essentially up to the client?

Fain: Every client, every brand, is different and we would never know as much about a brand as they do, so we certainly encourage them to make this their own program. But we absolutely offer expertise and best practices to help them make sure that they’re building a successful program.

NTT: What kind of information does a brand collect by using this system and how does it inform their marketing and business decisions moving forward?

Fain: We help people understand where their audience is engaging. We help them understand who the most valuable members of their ecosystem are. Today, you have companies spending a lot of time and energy, and ultimately money, on all of these different platforms. You have Facebook and Twitter, the website and their email campaign. They look at completely different sets of data for each one, and they have no understanding of how that data overlaps. So you may be a follower on Twitter, a fan on Facebook and a visitor to the site, but to that brand, you look like three different people. Simply allowing a brand to understand that that is, in fact, one person, and not just one person, but a person who is heavily engaged with that brand, is by itself immensely valuable. So we’re helping clients understand commerce trends, influence trends, the social reach. We’re allowing, by virtue of the viral nature of our product, you to reach even more people than brands have been able to reach before.

And then, data for the sake of data is really only so valuable. There are lot of people out there just talking about data and all these analytics. But we take it a step further. One thing we do that’s unique is that we now tie these analytics into a campaign tool so that you can now target people based on the information that we’re collecting. So a brand can now say, “I want to reach out to my platinum level members in a particular city because we are running an event and we want our best supporters to be there.” That builds brand loyalty among those supporters. We not only allow the brand to identify those supporters, but also to reach out to them.

NTT: Do you have any information about how customers who participate in CrowdTwist programs compare with a brand’s other customers? Are they bigger fans of the brand than other people? Does their loyalty to the brand grow as they participate in the game?

Fain: Absolutely. The data that we see supports that the members of this program are more likely to come back and spend more time with the brand. They’re more likely to engage socially, but also through many other channels, with the brand. They spend more money than the folks that are outside of the program. Generally, you’re getting a more engaged, more valuable customer by virtue of this program. And, on top of it, you’re driving new audience, so new members that hadn’t discovered a brand before.

NTT: Is each community brand specific? How does this compare with a community like FourSquare, where the community is built around the application, not the brand?

Fain: We’re very different than FourSquare. FourSquare is an element of our application right now. You can check into JCPenny stores and earn pennies in our JCPenny campaign. One way to think about CrowdTwist is we’re a layer that sits above online and social. Different applications, different platforms plug in to what we do. FourSquare is an application itself. We are looking to tie together the platforms like FourSquare around a brand.

NTT: How well do brands understand the power of conversations customers are having about them online?

Fain: One trend that we’re seeing clearly is that social is certainly not a fad. Two things are definitely becoming ingrained in brand marketers’ heads today. First, that social is here to stay. But social doesn’t just mean Facebook; social is a various number of platforms, FourSquare being a good example, Google+ being another great example. And there are a lot of people working away in garages and basements in San Francisco and New York and places like Chicago and Boston, to try to create that next social platform. I think marketers understand that the conversations about their brand are getting spread more thinly across a lot of different places. What we do is tie together all these different conversations into one place.

Irving Fain by NTTCom.TV

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