They told her, “It will never work.”

They said, “We’re selling office products. It’s not rocket science. Why do we need advocates?”

customer_advocacy_mary_leslie_davisBut, as Mary-Leslie Davis explained at an Advocacy Advantage roadshow event in Boston, she decided to carry on. In her role as Director of Field Marketing and Customer Engagement at Staples Business Advantage, she knew that the benefits of developing customer advocacy for Staples’ B2B business unit would outweigh the initial hesitation of the naysayers in her organization.

Staples Business Advantage provides a wide range of services to mid-to-large businesses. From furniture (they designed the Ralph Lauren office in NYC) to janitorial supplies, to managed print services (and more), this business unit represents a $7B part of the Staples empire. This unit was moving from a product-centric to a customer-centric marketing strategy.

customer_advocacy_lisbeth_hansenAs part of this shift, the team completed in-depth persona research to better understand their buyers. They discovered that every persona had one thing in common: the biggest influencing force on their purchasing decisions was word of mouth and peer references.

With no active program in place to leverage her customer’s voices, Mary-Leslie teamed up with Lisbeth Hansen, Director of Customer Advocacy at Demand Spring, to establish a customer advocacy program pilot, powered by Influitive’s AdvocateHub platform.

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Finding and engaging Staples Business Advantage advocates

The advocate program pilot at Staples Business Advantage was intended to build a space for advocates to connect with each other, learn new strategies for success and be recognized for their activity. In return for these benefits, they were given opportunities to advocate for the brand and answer questions or surveys for use throughout the business.

Mary-Leslie discovered that the discussion board, which allowed customers to foster direct connections, was one of the most valuable parts of the program. “Our customers really enjoyed the opportunity to talk to each other. Many felt alone in their organizations. They may be the only person to order supplies like ink and toner, or binder clips, or coffee.”

Advocates loved the program so much, they were eager to support Staples Business Advantage any way they could.

Advocacy benefits the entire business

Mary-Leslie found that a large number of customers were happy to provide testimonials, case studies and guest blogs. But the most valuable result was consumer insights the program easily surfaced.

“Here was a way I could talk to and hear what my customers were saying every single day,” says Mary-Leslie. “Our advocacy program became a rich source of customer insight.”

To raise awareness of the program internally, Mary-Leslie sent an email to her departments every day with something she learned about their customers. This was extremely helpful to a distributed marketing organization like Mary-Leslie’s, because it’s difficult for teams to get face time with customers.

The early pilot program proved to have impact across the business. “We’re the most popular department at Staples,” says Mary-Leslie. “We can provide value to every department.”

With the program, Mary-Leslie was able to:

  • Help the eCommerce team finding volunteers within the community to test new functionality.
  • Settle a weeks-long debate for the internal creative agency over a campaign by posing a quick poll to the advocate community. It provided them with a clear winner within a matter of hours.
  • Let the strategy team test new products and services to understand how they would resonate with customers. Value propositions and proof points could be validated quickly, sparing the organization from relying too much on gut feelings or hiring a research firm to source insights.
  • Help merchandising make faster decisions based on feedback from advocates
  • Identify potential sales opportunities for the sales team through buying signals indicated by a community member’s activity on the discussion board.

“When we sit in an ivory tower, it’s easy to forget what customers want,” says Mary-Leslie. “Our program allows us to pay attention to what they’re saying quickly and easily. Every department is leveraging the AdvocateHub, not just marketing. It has enhanced everyone’s ability to be customer-centric.”

Showing the ROI of customer advocacy

The naysayers proven wrong, Mary-Leslie’s next challenge was to prove ROI to expand the advocate program internally. She analyzed the sales stemming from highly-engaged advocates, and found that they spent significantly more than other top customers. 

She successfully got the funding to move forward.

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5 keys to advocate marketing success

With support from Demand Spring, Staples was able to successfully implement an advocate marketing strategy. Lisbeth and Mary-Leslie shared five keys for accomplishing this:

  1. Remember that the value of your advocates extends far beyond increasing sales. Advocates can do a lot for every department.
  2. Your advocate program can be the voice of your customer within the organization. Ask for their feedback frequently.
  3. Share successes early and often to gain credibility with executives.
  4. Generate results quickly by working with experts and firms who are seasoned in executing advocate marketing programs.
  5. Create a constant balance between what’s right for your advocates and what’s needed by your business. Seek to provide value both ways.