"It's like an American Express platinum or gold card experience," said April Rudin, chief executive and founder of wealth management marketing strategy firm The Rudin Group. "American Express offers all sorts of experiences for clients who have enough money to buy those experiences, but millennials with the largest mountain of college debt don't have these opportunities." SoFi hosted 323 events across the U.S. last year, ranging from sponsored sports events like the Big Ten in New York and the X Games in Aspen, Colorado, to career workshops and happy hours. Customers can access career counseling services, either with a live person or through software -- services that are worth around $800 per year, according to the company. Occasionally, it flies in customers from different locations to attend parties; for example, at last fall's loan payoff party in New York, the company flew in customers and guests from as far away as Hawaii and London. The guest list is hardly random, however. For each event, Leffler said the company considers carefully which customers would be a fit, which includes where they live and if they're part of a network the company wants to reach. For example, for the Big Ten, SoFi invited customers who graduated from the schools represented at the event -- brand ambassadors who could refer others. "It's a force multiplier; they have a continuous source of referrals," said Rudin, who added that millennials are likely to share memorable experiences on social media, which act almost like sponsored ads to attract family and friends. The company encourages customers to share their stories on social media through the #WhyISoFi hashtag, posts that sometimes act as contest entries for prizes.
Why do we offer VIP experiences to SoFi members? We know our members work hard and can’t always splurge on a night out because of their debt. That’s where we come in. Does your bank do that? #NBD #WhyISoFi #B1GatMSG #BigTenTourney pic.twitter.com/80Fw0H9eLr— SoFi (@SoFi) March 1, 2018
#whyisofi ? Because I’m hanging out at their box in MSG watching the Big East Conference! pic.twitter.com/Mz2IkDy7Gv — Rachelle Martins (@racmarti) March 10, 2018Beyond word-of-mouth brand mentions, customers who attend events are four times as likely to sign up for an additional product with SoFi, and those who use SoFi's career services are nearly three times as likely to pick up another product compared to those who don't, according to the company. The buzz created by brand affinity is no surprise to Rina Plapler, partner at branding consultancy MBLM, who said SoFi is creating an emotive, community feel among customers and would-be customers. "The company is building brand intimacy by creating a shared sense of purpose," she said. "They focus on deepening their relationships through value added offerings and a sense of belonging.” But despite the potential for referrals, a VIP customer approach has its risks. Brand evangelists have expectations, and if the company isn't meeting them, its reputation could suffer. As the company grows and attracts more customers, it's important to ensure it can continue to deliver the same level of benefits to all customers, and that they're backed up with a product that continually gets better. "The biggest risk is that costs spiral out of control, and you don't only want people using the product just because they're interested in the perks," said Jon Schubin, vice president of financial services marketing agency Cognito. "The most important thing is to continue to use the retention tools you have, like checking in on customers and continuing to improve the underlying product."