A truth that marketing teams now have to contend with is that consumers simply don’t trust brands anymore. Companies need to adapt accordingly by making sure they’re in touch with what their customers are thinking, feeling, and saying. In light of this shift, we’ve seen new roles pop up throughout organizations that focus on bringing the voice of the customer into the boardroom.

For this reason, Influitive CEO Mark Organ views customer marketing as the most exciting area of marketing right now. “We define customer marketers as the folks who market to and through customers,” Mark said on a recent webinar with the executives of the Customer-Powered Alliance. “It’s actually the fastest-growing role in marketing today, and the one experiencing the fastest growth in compensation. And it makes sense—people are paying less attention to the emails and ads they’re seeing from vendors and instead want to hear from actual buyers,” says Mark.

An online community is a great way to build this point of contact with your customers through feedback and discussions, and nurture those relationships to promote acts of advocacy such as reviews, references, and referrals.

Despite brands knowing they need a systematic and scalable way to engage with customers, it can still be tough to get the internal buy-in needed for a customer community to build momentum and thrive.

GE Digital’s Customer Advocacy and Experience Strategist Mary-Leslie Davis definitely knows what it’s like to be faced with this challenge. Having led customer advocacy initiatives during her time working at Staples Business Advantage, GE Digital knew they needed someone like Mary-Leslie to spearhead their program—called Digital INSIDERS—when it came time for it to launch. But, according to Mary-Leslie, the process of launching an online community at GE Digital was very different from her experience with Staples.

Read on to discover what Mary-Leslie has learned about:

  • Tailoring customer communities for different audiences
  • Getting the most out of her resources as a one-woman show
  • Showing the value of the community to tricky-to-please stakeholders

If you’re hoping to get involved in customer advocacy and community management, you’ll definitely want to take notes.

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GE Digital (yes, that GE) enables industrial businesses to operate more efficiently by leveraging machine data to turn valuable insights into powerful business outcomes. GE Digital operates globally and within industries ranging from consumer packaged goods, to water and wastewater, to oil and gas.

“My objective is to make sure we keep customers engaged and that they’re benefiting from their relationship with us on an ongoing basis,” says Mary-Leslie when describing her role. “I work very closely with Customer Success, Product Marketing, and Demand Gen, and my role is to act as the voice of the customer internally by keeping everyone informed about what customers are saying.”

Mary-Leslie has over 25 years’ worth of marketing experience in an array of retail and B2B industries, with a strong focus on customer marketing and engagement. She first got involved with customer advocacy when Staples realized it needed to build a scalable program to capitalize on word of mouth.

Despite Staples having low expectations for the program, through Mary-Leslie’s efforts, she and her team were able to recruit 100 members from their first outreach. The success of the program even garnered Mary-Leslie the Staples “Innovative Award” a few months later.

In chatting with us about what she’s learned through the process of launching her second online community in her career as a customer advocacy guru, the best practices Mary-Leslie has picked up along the way can be summed up with the following five tips.

1. Know who’s in your community and speak their language

The number one thing you have to do is understand the customer. If you were in a room with them, what would you talk about? (Mary-Leslie Davis)

When building the infrastructure of your customer community, it’s important that you’re really in tune with who your audience is and what their interests are. This became very apparent to Mary-Leslie when she came to GE Digital and saw how their audience contrasted what she was used to when working with a retailer, like Staples.

“The customers I work with today are very technical,” says Mary-Leslie. “They tend to be IT specialists, developers, engineers, plant managers, and operations managers. They’re very into innovation—they want to be at the cutting edge of everything, especially with the software they use.”

To meet her customers’ interests, Mary-Leslie fills her community with opportunities for members to engage with subject matter experts, and highlights third-party articles on what’s trending in their industry. She’s even introduced them to topics on professional development (such as how to communicate your ideas for maximum impact) that they might not have sought out on their own, which so far have been well-received.

What has remained the same for Mary-Leslie in working with both Staples and GE Digital, is her process of getting to know the customer personas within the community before identifying the right content to nurture those relationships.

“The number one thing you have to do is understand the customer,” says Mary-Leslie. “One way to think about it is, if you were in the room with them, what would you talk about? It’s like being at a cocktail party and you all have something vaguely in common with the host—you ask questions and quickly start finding commonalities in order to tailor your conversation to the person you’re talking to.”

An overview of the Digital INSIDERS community
Digital INSIDERS members participate in activities where they can be delighted, learn about their industry, and provide their input

2. Save time by using the resources already at your fingertips

Mary-Leslie keeps a pulse on what content is already being created by the product marketing and demand gen teams, and selects the pieces that would be of interest to customers within Digital INSIDERS.

Another smart way that Mary-Leslie is able to ensure fresh content is always being surfaced within the online community is by asking members to share any interesting articles they’ve recently read.

As the sole admin of Digital INSIDERS, Mary-Leslie also relies on features such as Influitive’s campaign library. “Since I’m a one-woman show here at GE Digital (whereas at Staples we had a team of three),” she says, “using templated challenges and campaigns is helpful because the program is a lot to manage on your own. It also gets tough when you’re limited to your own creativity. Seeing what Influitive suggests for challenges and campaigns also helps me stir up ideas for the future.”

3. Make your program a team effort (even if you’re the only one running it)

In getting other teams’ content in front of customers, this presents an opportunity to provide those departments with feedback by asking customers what content resonates most with them. This allows teams within your organization to better plan the content they create, based on customer insights they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten exposure to.

Digital INSIDERS has also proven useful to the company’s communications team, through the creation of a pipeline of customers who have volunteered to be references, coming in handy for PR opportunities.

“There’s also the humanity of it all,” says Mary-Leslie. “Every other week I share a report with the entire organization on what’s going on in the program, with actual quotes from customers in the community. People have found this fascinating, because they get to hear from the voice of the customer in a more open ended way than your standard tech support survey.”

A collection of quotes from some of Mary-Leslie's customers, visualized through a diagram
An example of how Mary-Leslie visualizes customer quotes to share with her entire team

Aligning closely with other departments throughout your organization and positioning your online community as indispensable to the work they’re doing not only helps you find content to keep your program active, but also helps build your case when seeking executive buy-in.

4. Get buy-in by tailoring your program pitch to each stakeholder

It's hard to introduce your program in a way that everyone will understand. Tailor your presentation to each group in terms of what they can get out of the community. (Mary-Leslie Davis)

Mary-Leslie’s experience building Staples’ customer advocacy program was very much a case of “if you build it, they will come,” in which she had no issues getting customers into the community after building out the program.

“At GE Digital, it was the total opposite,” says Mary-Leslie. “Because we had more strict protocols regarding contacting customers to invite them to join, I had to go around the whole company and get other departments interested in the program so that they would reach out to their contacts and invite them into the community. I couldn’t be successful without getting other people bought into this.”

To get the support she needed, Mary-Leslie learned to perfect her program pitch. “It’s very hard to introduce the program to everyone you want to reach, and explain it in a way that they can each understand,” says Mary-Leslie. “What you need to do is tailor your presentation to each group in terms of what they can get out of the community.”

Be it the potential for customer insights, surveys, or simply engagement, you want to know which of your program’s use cases makes whoever you’re talking to tick.

But how do you adequately show the value of your online community without having it built out yet? Mary-Leslie calls it “a dance between promising and delivering.”

“When you don’t have a program yet,” says Mary-Leslie, “you are making promises based on engagement you anticipate from your customers. You can even use examples from other companies who have done the same thing you’re proposing to make your case. Once you do have a program and start seeing results and action in your community, that’s when I would take specific insights to each department and show them how helpful it is.”

5. Look to your peers to inspire and challenge you

Beyond aligning with various departments across GE Digital to ensure she’s up to date with what’s happening within the organization, Mary-Leslie is able to continuously innovate on her program by looking at what others in her position are doing.

“I reach out to my peers through the Influitive VIP community, through contacting other vendors’ customers, and by getting in touch with my old colleagues all the time,” says Mary-Leslie. “I like to connect with these people every couple of months to either brainstorm or ask questions about something I’m unsure about.”

Mary-Leslie also attends a monthly meetup called CAMP Boston, where folks who are interested in customer advocacy and experience can get together, learn, and bounce ideas off one another.

“It’s important for us to look broader and think about what other big companies like GE Digital are testing and trying,” says Mary-Leslie. “No one person can do it all, but I find comfort in relying on our collective experience.”

If you’re in the Denver or San Francisco areas and are interested in networking with industry peers and learning from exceptional leaders in customer experience, advocacy, and marketing, join our upcoming user groups! Registration for both Denver and San Francisco is now open.

Riding the first waves of industry change

Most companies have yet to figure out how to listen to and leverage the customer voice. But I think there's definitely a collective change in understanding its power. (Mary-Leslie Davis)

From Mary-Leslie’s experiences working in the field of customer advocacy, she gets the sense that companies are finally coming around to the fact that they need to embed the voice of their customers into their business.

“I think most companies have yet to figure out how to effectively listen to and leverage the customer voice,” Mary-Leslie says, “but I think there’s definitely a collective change in the understanding of its power. Companies are now starting to make the switch from product-centric to customer-centric, and some are even further along the continuum. From talking to my peers in the industry, I definitely see respect for the field of customer advocacy growing, and am excited by the way it’s evolving.”