Twenty million. That’s how many people use Schoology’s learning management software to advance what’s possible in education through forums, events, and digital networking. With those kinds of numbers, you’d be crazy not to incorporate word-of-mouth marketing into your marketing mix.

Bridget Heaton, Schoology’s Social and Advocacy Manager, knew a good opportunity when she saw one. Her advocacy program started small—it relied on manual processes and had a limited budget for growth. But Bridget had ambitious goals, and she eventually mobilized almost a thousand vocal fans to spread the Schoology message. During our Customer and Advocate Marketing Virtual Summit, she gave us a behind-the-scenes look at exactly how she managed to pull it off.

So, class is in session! Get out your pen and paper because you’re going to want to take notes on the top lessons Bridget learned growing her programs.

1. Do your research, but trust your instincts

Bridget’s team initially had the goal of “curating a group of people who loved us,” but a more complete strategic vision for the ambassador program was lacking. Bridget made sure to do her homework and she collected inspiration from eclectic sources, while staying true to the Schoology vision and brand.

“I started by researching what other companies did for inspiration, whether it was B2B or B2C. I tried to apply different pieces of programs that I liked to an educational context,” she says. This audit of other shining customer advocacy examples gave her an excellent starting point to build out her own program.

Even though it differed from what her team originally had in mind, Bridget used her advocacy program to source user-generated content. This really paid off when it led to quality content produced for less cost and less effort.

“I took a risk and it ended up giving us the data—and the street cred, if you will—to get us the budget for growth later on,” says Bridget.

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2. Quality over quantity matters in initial recruitment

When Bridget was initially testing out her program ideas, she invited a small group of highly engaged advocates to beta test the program before rolling it out to a wider audience.

This piece is crucial, says Bridget. “It makes them stakeholders in the process. They’re your partners in the success of the program, and the more you tell them that, the more buy-in that they have.”

Picking the right initial pool of advocates can be as simple as identifying high NPS scorers, or zeroing in on your social media power followers. This little bit of extra work at the outset will pay off moving forward.

Bridget knew that to enlist new advocates, you must “find out where your influencers live online, and then create buzz there.” But the single voice of a marketer infiltrating a community would hardly be authentic or effective.

“So, I’d kind of enlist the advocates to not only advocate for the product, but to advocate for the program itself. They’re kind of like your mini-marketers, an extension of yourself.” By getting her advocates to spread the word about her program for her, she was able to do so authentically and with much greater reach.

3. Data is key. If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist

If you’re a marketer, you already know that hope isn’t a strategy and impressions aren’t measurement.

Bridget was proactive about setting customer advocacy goals and collecting data even though “there was no directive, or desire, to set goals and measure. I did it anyway because I knew it would help me understand what was working, and what wasn’t…and that someday I’d be able to clearly articulate our growth.”

Bridget explains that different key pieces of data will help secure buy-in from different departments. For example, sales may want to know about the number of referrals collected, while product may want to know the number of product feedback surveys submitted.

“Data’s power will come in handy when you’re further down the road. It shows not only the value of the activities, but when you’re making that argument to leadership to invest, from a budget standpoint, you’re going to need that data.”

4. Reciprocal relationships are essential to a successful program

The success of a customer advocacy program hinges on the quality of the relationships it fosters. This includes both relationships within your organization and relationships with your advocates. Bridget insists that nurturing reciprocal relationships that benefit everyone involved will take you far.

For example, Bridget’s coworker Bradley was organizing a webinar for enterprise clients, and he asked her if she knew of any advocates who could speak about gamification. She happened to have two ambassadors who were gamification experts. “So, I was able to deliver for internal support, and then I was able to put these two advocates on a platform that made them feel like the thought-leaders that they are,” she says.

She also recommends making sure the experience for advocates is “as special as possible” to offset the time they put in when you make an “ask.” For Bridget, that means offering exclusive opportunities, premium support, or event access. Knowing what excites your customer advocates makes it much easier to tap into that excitement and grow the program.

Nurturing these relationships can sometimes pay off in unexpected ways. “We have an extremely popular Twitter chat called #SchoologyChat, and it was the idea of the Ambassadors,” says Bridget.

“They run it. I’m just there to support it.” The buzz is organic, and helped the customer advocacy program to reach further and have even more impact.

5. Get out your suit of armor; you’ve got to protect your advocates

“Once the program starts producing an impact, it’s your job to protect your community,” Bridget warns. That includes controlling the flow of requests, not “over-using” your customer advocates, and generally being cognizant of who’s doing what and how often.

“If you can be the one controlling the flow of requests, you can kind of keep an eye on who’s doing what.” From there, you can decide what works well and which advocates’ skills are most suited for which tasks. “In your company, you are seen as the expert on the community, so it’s your responsibility to protect them.”

One caveat though is to make sure you also “advocate for yourself,” Bridget says. “Once these asks start to come in from departments around your company, bandwidth is a tough piece.”

She emphasizes the importance of balance and setting realistic expectations to prevent burnout. It’s important not to sacrifice the program’s health because you’re too focused on fulfilling every request that comes across your desk.

6. As you grow, automation is essential for your sanity and for program health

Creating a variety of engagement activities and growing the program around all sorts of expectations can be overwhelming. “It’s difficult to fulfill both internal and community requests without killing yourself,” Bridget explains. Keeping it manual is nearly impossible if you’re doing it right, so consider technology to keep it under control!

In the early days, Bridget relied on “an ace marketing ops guy who helped automate all the pieces of the puzzle–things like program applications, nominations and emails. That allowed me to automatically tabulate the points, which triggered an email to let people know we received their submission.” But this was tough to scale as the program grew, and it still left many manual tasks.

When her team went through some changes, Bridget saw a window of opportunity and pitched customer advocacy software to her new EVP. She shared that the program was getting “very hacky” and she wanted to find new ways to automate. Her early successes helped grease the wheels for executive support. This led to implementing AdvocateHub, which significantly reduced the administrative burden on Bridget while revving up the ROI of her program.

Even if an investment in advocacy software doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards for you, Bridget still recommends that you “review a bunch of technologies anyways, even if you don’t have the budget.”

“That way, when somebody does come along, you’re ready, and you know which customer advocacy software you want. I believe I was in touch with Influitive for nearly two-and-a-half years before I [had the funding] to afford it,” she says.

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7. Find an ally on the leadership team

Bridget recommends finding support from the leadership team. But how do you do that when they’re often inundated with other requests from across the organization? Data.

Appeal to managers and leaders with metrics and KPIs that make it crystal clear that your customer advocates are driving value for the entire company. “When you show success you can make much more of a case for budget in the future,” Bridget points out.

Bridget was tasked with internal communications for the company, so she provided a summary of “weekly wins” in a chatroom and during company meetings. Many of those stories involved ambassadors’ blog posts, speaking engagements, or press wins. Providing these wins allows the company visibility into the program’s successes.

“When I pitched this program to our new EVP of marketing, he checked out some of the anecdotes from a monthly ambassador discussion—nearly 80 posts, I believe. He was blown away with the amount of thought put into it. He couldn’t argue with that.”

If you do win your executive team over, don’t let them down. “It could make or break the future of the program,” Bridget says. “Appeal to them and their projects. Use Influitive to serve your [internal] champions.”

8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Scaling your advocacy program is a big win, but it doesn’t come without a ton of work. Reaching out to your team for support can help ease that burden.

“In pulling off the implementation of Influitive I think I touched like every member of our team asking for help. Whether it was our field marketing team, or advice on the swag and reward point structure to make sure I stay to budget, it takes a village to truly scale.

Bridget continues to look for opportunities to involve her team with her advocacy program. Now that her colleagues are used to requesting challenges or contact with advocates, she’s trying to systematize her approach. She has created a Google Form to field advocacy requests from within her company.

“Processes will be your best friend,” says Bridget. Team members can use her form to recommend potential challenges, ask for advocate content, or request face time with advocates. Asking people to write down and think through their requests helps reduce the time and effort she needs to put in on her end.

Running a customer advocacy program is hard work, but it certainly pays off

Bridget doesn’t underplay the amount of hard work it takes to successfully implement an advocate marketing program. But ultimately, she finds it to be one of the most fulfilling pursuits.

“Working with educators is really an incredible experience; they’re some of the most undervalued people in the world and I’m very lucky to build them up, give them a platform to tell their story, and make them feel like the rock stars they are,” she says.

Bridget feels a massive sense of accomplishment when she looks at the thriving community she has created, from the ground up. And that’s a feeling that makes all the hard work seem worthwhile.

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