As an Advocate Marketing Manager at Cisco, I’m always striving to make our customers happier and more successful.

We’re very lucky to have established a large, global community of Cisco certified professionals who are passionate about our products and lifelong learning since we launched our training and certifications program in 1993.

For example, our customers share their certification accomplishments on social media, memorize their Cisco or CCIE identification numbers, and some even tattoo their credentials onto their bodies. Our Expert certifications—who are considered IT rockstars—inspire many of our other certified customers to aspire to reach their level.

cisco advocate arm tattoo

We’re always looking for ways engage our IT professionals and encourage them to continue their education with us. After all, the more Cisco certified users we have, the more people there are ready to implement and optimize Cisco products and technology.

But sending email blasts about the benefits of certifications wasn’t going to cut it for this group.

That’s why, in December 2016, we opted to try a new customer engagement strategy powered by an advocacy program. Through this program, we hoped to mobilize a community of certified professionals and leverage their enthusiasm to help our business more strategically.

In this post, I’ll walk you through how the program works, our results, and tips for building your own successful customer engagement and advocacy strategy.

Why advocacy programs and customer engagement go hand-in-hand

In December of 2016, we launched the Cisco Cert Insiders advocacy program. Our goal: build stronger relationships with our certified users and encourage lifelong learning.

When advocates join the community, they can take advantage of:

  • Educational content they wouldn’t normally find or see
  • Opportunity to connect with our product managers, authors and SMEs
  • Exclusive perks, rewards and recognition for their contributions

When advocates complete activities (or “challenges”) within the program—such as taking a quiz, registering for exams, reading educational content, or sharing webinar invitations, etc.—they get points.

sample of influitive advocatehub challenges

They can then redeem these points for rewards including tickets to Cisco Live (our international conference series), training materials, and even exam vouchers.

We also offer swag that shows off their certifications status and accomplishments, such as t-shirts (which they love), coffee mugs and notebooks with their Cisco Certification embossed on the cover.

cisco cert insiders advocate hoodie

By letting them build their personal social status within the community, increase educational opportunities and earn rewards, it’s easy to entice customers to participate.

That’s when we ask them to advocate on behalf of Cisco, specifically for the training and certification division.

How advocates help us promote and improve our Cisco Certification programs

Once we increase the value proposition to being a Cisco certified professional as an “Insider,” we can ask them to help us in return.

They help us promote our programs and products to the rest of the world by amplifying our social media efforts and lead generation campaigns.

One of our efforts generated over 1,000 leads for our CCNA Routing and Switching certification, which resulted in a 20% conversion rate and increased use of our social media hashtag by 691%!

cisco cert webinar tweet

Our most popular advocacy challenges are ones where we solicit feedback from Insiders. Our advocates’ feedback is helpful not only for improving our advocacy program, but also gauging interest in new certifications. Their feedback helps us measure which exams are the most popular, and provides value to our market research and development teams so we know what to create next.

I’ve also personally met with many of our advocates to discuss their goals and what they think about our community. Some of our best challenge and reward ideas have come directly from them!

These advocacy requests have helped us get to know what makes our advocates tick. And that’s helped our business in a number of ways, including increasing user-generated content, giving us a better understanding of our customer personas, and influencing customer retention.

Why customer engagement + advocacy = real business outcomes

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Although we beta launched the Cisco Cert Insiders program in December, we didn’t send out the bulk of our invites until February.

Since then, we have achieved the following results:

  • 4,225 total advocates who have completed 36,424 acts of advocacy. We are on track to reach our goal of 6,000 advocates by August 2018.
  • A 58% advocate engagement rate. Our original goal was a 35% engagement rate in the program. Our advocacy program outperforms our similar marketing programs, which yield monthly engagement rates around 20%.
  • 185 advocates have taken an additional Associate or a Professional Level exam. We are achieving our goal of helping our Insiders reach their career goals faster and affecting certification retention overall. Of customers who took an exam, 42% said the Insiders program influenced their decision to take an exam & 79% said they were encouraged to take the exam sooner.
  • 313 advocates have volunteered to share testimonials. We have created multiple videos quoting various advocates on how our certification helped their career, documented customers’ success stories and leveraged user generated social media content to further help Insiders establish their social status and promote our programs.
  • 6,587 social media shares, resulting in 52,249 clicks to Cisco content, such as webinar registration pages, product announcements, and the Cisco Learning Network (our online community). When advocates share our content with their social circles, they help us raise awareness, extend our reach, and generate leads for our programs.
  • A Net Promoter Score (NPS) of 75 among our Insiders advocates. A score that is more than 70 is considered a world-class result.

Here’s what one Cisco Cert Insider program member had to say about the program:

“Cisco certifications have legitimized me as an individual who is a proven professional in the IT world. The amount of recognition and respect that I have received from my CCNA certification is a great feeling.”

-Edward Nunez, Lead Integration Network Engineer

5 steps to a successful advocate marketing program

Mobilizing our advocates has brought value to every area of our company.

Here are my top five tips you can use to build your own thriving advocacy community:

1. Seek internal support to help your program thrive

Advocacy Program Internal Buy-in Kit
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Some people on your team may not think you have enough happy customers to justify an advocate marketing program.

When we needed proof of how much our advocates loved us, we used our annual customer survey results to get internal buy-in. The survey results showed that our customers are proud of their certifications and that they were always willing to contribute their input even if they no longer held a certification.

The survey results helped management realize that we have an army of advocates, and we’d be silly to not capitalize on them.

The internal response has been so great that we are now considering opening the program to additional segments such as instructors and social media micro-influencers.

2. Balance your business needs with your advocates’ needs

Your customers can smell a sales pitch a mile away.

Don’t try to disguise something that will benefit your business as something that will help your advocates. For example, don’t position your advocacy program as a place where advocates can learn—and then constantly ask them to share your lead generation offers. You’ll instantly lose the trust of your customer base.

Instead, balance your business needs with your advocates’ needs. It’s okay to ask advocates to share your content, but you need to be simultaneously educating them and helping them succeed in their careers. The more you focus on empowering your advocates, the more they will help you reach your business goals.

3. Tailor your program to your audience for maximum engagement

We completed a lot of advocate persona work before we launched our program. Getting to know our Insiders allowed us to tailor our community to their needs. Every aspect of our advocacy program—from its appearance to its challenges to its rewards—is designed to engage our specific audience.

We also track who participates in our program, where they are in their career, and what they would like to achieve. Then we provide them with tailored content and challenges based on things like their certification level, past behavior, expressed interests, or products they use. This helps us provide them with the most relevant content and compelling opportunities.

4. Repurpose your existing content to create great advocacy activities quickly and easily

We have a lot of educational materials, such as webinars and videos, that are available to the general public via the Cisco Learning Network. I took many of these materials, added quizzes to them, and posted them to our advocate marketing program. The quizzes allow our Cisco Cert advocates to learn new skills and gauge their progress.

I also wanted to make sure that all of our advocates—regardless of their certification or the technology that they use—could learn something new in our advocacy program.

The beauty of these challenges is that they’re super time efficient to create, and advocates love them. I’ve received lots of positive feedback.

You probably already have educational content that you can repurpose in your advocacy program. Just ask your content, support and education teams for help. Instead of creating something new, tweak what you already have to make it unique for your advocates.

5. Shine a spotlight on your advocates

Make sure to connect with advocates outside of your program to help them build up their professional clout.

We encourage advocates to post about us on social media. This helps them build up their profiles and helps us promote relevant content to their networks. After all, their words are much more likely to influence their peers than ours are.

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For example, I posted a photo of a home study lab setup on Instagram. Then, I asked our advocates to share work space photos in return for points and the chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card. I received more than 30 photos, such as the one below.

home office set up

I gave the photos to our Social Media Manager, and she was thrilled to have so many customer images to share.

In another challenge, I asked our Insiders to respond to a tweet we posted referencing a Cisco Learning Network blog that discussed organizational tips for keeping networking equipment tidy. They replied to our tweet with some great suggestions that we turned into a video.

We posted the video a few times, but the first time it reached over 77.5K individuals and got more than 23K views on Facebook alone.

organizational tips from ccna certified professionals and social media stream

Many companies use advocate marketing for benefits such as increased referrals and social shares. However, we believe in putting our Insiders first and helping them excel in their careers. The more we help our advocates, the more likely they are to continue their Cisco education, stay certified, or gain additional certifications.

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