At the Big Ten basketball championship final at New York’s Madison Square Garden earlier this month, four rows of seats and dedicated space at Delta’s Sky360° VIP lounge were reserved for event sponsor SoFi. Most people using these facilities were not SoFi employees, but its customers, who occupied the front two rows and enjoyed complimentary cocktails and food at the lounge.
It’s all part of a VIP approach to keeping customers and adding new ones — a strategy the company said is worth the investment.
“Even for someone who has a great job and makes a nice living, it’s hard to imagine [customers] spending discretionary income on that — we want to treat our members,” said Libby Leffler, vice president of membership at SoFi. “The best way to build trust is through these community events; we’re seeing these members referring people from their networks like their workplace or where they went to school.”
SoFi is known to go to great lengths to promote itself to customers and prospects. The company wouldn’t say how much it spends on customer events, but last year, it reportedly spent $170 million in marketing and acquired customers for $756 apiece. Once prospects become customers, the company turns to ‘money can’t buy’ experiences to foster a lifetime relationship, create brand evangelists and ultimately generate more customer acquisitions. SoFi isn’t alone among financial brands turning to experiential marketing: American Express and Mastercard are two big players in that space. But unlike tiered rewards programs, all of SoFi’s 463,000 customers are considered top-tier members who receive personalized benefits. When these experiences are shared on social media, they become powerful marketing tools to hook prospects.
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
“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.
— Rachelle Martins (@racmarti) March 10, 2018
Beyond 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.”