Community is king at Giffgaff. Since launching in 2009 the mobile network has rejected the idea of locking customers into lengthy 18-month contracts, preferring instead to create a community powered by “members” hungry for a different kind of mobile model.
“At the time there was a new audience emerging that was underserved by established players,” explains marketing and experience chief Ash Schofield, who joined Giffgaff in 2013 from his role as head of marketing at Tesco Mobile.
“[Consumers were] definitely more comfortable online, so felt less reassured by having retail stores and call centres. We felt like the natural go-to place for this emerging audience and online was where we could deliver a real difference.”
This shift to online coincided with a changing consumer preference for self-service and using “hacks” to do things for yourself, combined with a move away from premium brands in favour of disruptive alternatives.
This is where Giffgaff came in, transitioning rapidly from disruptor to a major telecoms player over the space of eight years. The mobile network works on a proposition that members are free to stay or go at anytime. They simply buy a SIM card and select their deal, which is contract free.
Having come from a traditional telecoms background at O2 and Tesco Mobile, Schofield admits that the concept of having a customer base who were free to leave whenever they chose was initially a scary prospect.
The best thing is to get real brand loyalty and people who care, because then we can do something with it. It’s a much smarter way to do business.
Ash Schofield, Giffgaff
“Everything we decide to do is also public, so there really is no hiding place. But we wouldn’t want it any other way. The best thing is to get real brand loyalty and people who care, because then we can do something with it. It’s a much smarter way to do business,” he states.
Fundamentally the company takes its “mobile network powered by you” position seriously, nurturing a highly engaged community of members who are rewarded for their level of interaction. This includes submitting ideas to improve the service via the Giffgaff Labs platform, which to date has delivered over 660 new development ideas – equivalent to one every four days since the business launched.
At any given moment there are 5,000-6,000 people active on Giffgaff’s communities, sharing advice, content and new ideas. Any member who asks the community a question will usually receive a response within 90 seconds. This sharing reflex is crucial for an online- only company like Giffgaff, which has deliberately chosen not the have a customer service arm operating inside retail stores or call centres.
“If you had a call centre customers could well still be on a call after two minutes, so the model is so much more effective and quite frankly it has saved us a fortune in not having to invest in the traditional way of delivering service,” says Schofield.
As it doesn’t have stores the best way for Giffgaff to remain front-of-mind is through word-of-mouth marketing via its passionate brand advocates. In return these hyper-engaged micro-influencers are given the chance to “earn payback” by helping the Giffgaff community, recommending the service or sharing ideas.
One of the challenges is that we’re just not famous enough. To know us is to love us, but we just need to push that.
Ash Schofield, Giffgaff
Every interaction earns points, which are converted into cash, top-up credit or a donation to charity twice a year. Giffgaff has paid out more than £10m since the payback scheme started.
Schofield describes this model as an “alternative take on loyalty”, based on being honest and fair with its members.
“We think it’s wrong when other companies bolt on a loyalty programme to cover up the cracks and some of the other flaws in the proposition,” he explains. “We believe in payback, because essentially it is a thank you for taking part. If someone recommends you it’s only right to say thank you.”
It’s a policy that is paying off given Giffgaff has the second highest index score (6.5) on YouGov’s BrandIndex, which is a combination of consumer brand perceptions around quality, value, satisfaction and reputation. It is second only to O2 among mobile operators, which has a score of 11.2. When looking at buzz alone it is the highest ranking mobile operator with a score of 5.2.
When it started out in 2009 Giffgaff turned to its early members to tell the brand story, encouraging them to create short, shareable films about the mobile network for use on social media. Since then the marketing mix has shifted to take into account the growing scale of the business.
“We’re not a niche business anymore. We’ve got mass appeal, so we need to reach out in different ways and that means TV has become has become part of the mix,” says Schofield.
“The fact that we do TV doesn’t mean that we’re leaving our core beliefs behind, far from it. The way we approach TV advertising will often be inspired by an idea from our members and they often star as part of the cast.”
An example of this strategy is when Giffgaff took over sponsorship of entertainment on Channel 4’s E4 channel, a partnership dating back to 2012. The marketing team rejected the concept of a classic brand badging exercise, choosing instead to integrate tweets from its members into the TV campaign.
Giffgaff members will also star in the mobile network’s annual Halloween short film, which is written and directed by brand director Tom Rainsford.
Three years ago Giffgaff decided to bring all its creativity in-house as the traditional agency model “just didn’t feel right”, a decision Schofield believes has been key to helping the team get even closer to its community.
“Bottom line, no-one understands the personality of our brand better than our members and the Giffgaff marketing team. That decision, while at the time it felt pretty risky, was a game-changer and one of the best choices that we’ve made,” he adds.
Moving creative in-house has enabled the internal team get closer to the brand, hone the message and develop their creative skills, working with external partners as and when they are needed.
The roadmap for marketing next year will see the team devote more time to optimising the site’s mobile functionality and exploring the potential for AI to make the experience slicker and richer for members. Finding innovative ways to hone the brand story and reach out to people who are yet to discover Giffgaff is another key area of focus.
“One of the challenges is that we’re just not famous enough. To know us is to love us and we’ve got fantastic market leading NPS scores, but we just need to push that,” Schofield adds.
“Our ambition is not just to lead the charge in telecoms, we want to be one of the nation’s favourite brands. That’s the size of our vision.”