Cristina Melluzzi, Cisco

In the most recent installment of our customer success webinar series, I had the opportunity to chat with trailblazing advocate marketer Cristina Melluzzi, Global Head of Customer Advocacy and recipient of the 2019 BAMMIE award for Advocate Marketer of the Year. In joining Cisco four years ago, Cristina took a small reference-only program and expanded it to a highly successful global customer advocacy program, with over 16,000 engaged advocates worldwide.

The strides Cisco has made with their customer advocacy program also earned them the 2019 BAMMIE award for Most Engaged Advocate Community. Read on to discover Cristina’s advice for marketers hoping to build out successful customer advocacy programs of their own.

Q: How were you able to get executive buy-in to fund your customer advocacy program?

Cristina: I think the most important first step is to really identify champions for the program within your organization. What can be a shortcoming in some organizations is trying to convince everyone of your idea before you actually do anything. And especially within companies that are the size of Cisco, you can quite easily spend all your time doing that and never really make any progress. So I think the key is to find champions who believe in your mission very early on and partner with them in order to get them to act as an advocate for you.

The best way to garner support from stakeholders is to ask them about their goals and identify ways that a customer advocacy program can alleviate their struggles. Leading with an understanding of your peers’ goals—especially at the executive level—can help build use cases and get that commitment early on.

When you have the support of these champions, they can then tell your program’s story on your behalf within their respective departments. As a team of one when I joined Cisco, it was impossible for me to get my message across on my own. I had to work very hard to find those champions and prepare them to do the “selling” on my behalf. But, once that support had been established, my task was more about proving the value of the program by kicking off the pilots and then sharing their results and success with leadership. This enabled us to get the future investment that would allow for the expansion of the program.

Q: How do other departments in your organization view The Gateway and its capacity to support them and their goals?

Cristina: It really comes down to how companies need to evolve now. What’s been really interesting to see over time is how people from across the organization are actively approaching our team to build campaigns within The Gateway to drive a specific goal, whether that be getting product feedback for Engineering purposes or finding customers to provide quotes for PR around big launches.

The Gateway has become a core, fundamental part of our business. There is still a lot of work to be done in how we are able to support other areas of the business and the program is expanding all the time. The key difference between now and where we were four years ago is that we are not always the ones reaching out to those teams. We actually get a lot of teams reaching out to us to ask for our support, which is really exciting.

“The Gateway has become a core, fundamental part of [Cisco’s] business.”

Q: Are there any other use cases on the horizon for The Gateway?

Cristina: We’re actually in the middle of building a strategy and program for our internal sales organization. Similar to how we’ve helped our customers better connect with and support one another regarding buying decisions, we are now building the same sort of program for our sellers. If you think about an organization the size of Cisco, you’ll have salespeople in similar roles but in different geographies. They often have a lot in common like their target industry or segment. The goal for this particular program is to connect those sellers from across the globe and enable them to learn from one another best practices for engaging around a specific deal. This is a really important use case that we’re about to kick off and I’m sure there will be others in the future.

Q: What key metrics do you report on and share internally to show how the customer advocacy program is growing and succeeding?

Cristina: When we started the program, the data we focused on was around the number of advocates, the number of acts of advocacy they were doing, and the impact those actions had. Looking at things like social shares is also really interesting because we’re able to rely on our customers to help share a lot of our content, without having to promote it through paid media.

“Increasingly, we are looking at the impact advocacy has on sales opportunities and ultimately revenue.”

Increasingly, we are looking at the impact advocacy has on sales opportunities and ultimately revenue. When you surround a specific account with advocates, what impact does that have on the deal or on the account? How do acts of advocacy nurture an account in terms of creating upsell and cross-sell opportunities? Other KPIs that are obviously important are cost reduction and ROI.

In terms of measuring customers’ success, we look primarily at engagement. Our key priority when we built this program was always the customers themselves. We want to make sure that all the work that we do has a positive impact on our customers and helps them make buying decisions. So measuring customer engagement over time and looking at how customers are experiencing growth through the program—whether that be through professional promotions or getting thought leadership opportunities—is a great way to gauge how your program is succeeding.

Q: How do you recruit new members into The Gateway?

Cristina: We often recruit new members at our flagship event, Cisco Live. We also do recruitment through digital campaigns and personalized email campaigns, which have been very effective for us. Another way to think about recruitment is actually leveraging your advocates. There’s nothing more powerful than when an existing customer becomes a vehicle for you to recruit in a specific area.

When we were first starting with the program, our approach was to determine where in the business pockets customer advocacy was already happening. Customers who have perhaps already participated in a case study or mentioned you favorably in a blog or on social media are the low-hanging fruit that you want to partner with. They’re the people who naturally speak on behalf of your brand. I definitely recommend working with those “early adopters” to bring them into the program first and then expanding the network through them.

Q: If you could travel back in time to when you first got started as an advocate marketer, what advice would you give yourself?

Cristina: Something I’ve learned over time is you can’t convince everyone, even with all the will in the world. In most companies, a program like this is transformational. You’re basically flipping marketing, customer experience, and customer success on its head. The natural human condition is to be fearful of change. People are fearful of risk and of making a mistake. As soon as you propose something new and innovative, you will face doubts in any organization.

If I was to go back to four years ago, I would really focus on connecting with the stakeholders who have the ability to drive transformational change within the organization and partnering with them from the get-go.

Check out the full webinar recording to hear the rest of Cristina’s insights.