Turning B2B Word-Of-Mouth Into A Backyard Barbecue

Advocamp_Logo (1)Everyone understands the benefits of word of mouth (WOM) marketing. The challenge for B2B marketers is how to scale this powerful force—especially since professional networks tend to be much smaller than personal ones. In his 2016 Advocamp AMP Talk, Joe Chernov, VP Marketing at InsightSquared, explains how brands can drive B2B WOM by building backyards for their advocates. (Don’t forget the BBQ and beers!)

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I want to talk about the relationship between word-of-mouth marketing in the consumer world and advocate marketing in the B2B world. Now, to do this topic justice, I have to go back to 2009, when I worked at a company called BuzzAgent. We were the company that catalyzed the word-of-mouth marketing movement.

The business model is pretty simple. It was a two-sided marketplace: on one side, you had brands who were eager to get consumers to try their new products and to talk about them; on the other side, you had consumers who were eager to try new products for free and talk about them. We played matchmaker.

I left BuzzAgent in 2009 and joined Eloqua. I was at Eloqua for a few months and I built their content program. One day I had a surprise visitor, a guy named Mark Organ, the founder of Influitive. I joined Eloqua after Mark had departed. He had been its founder and CEO, and I had no idea what to make of his visit.

I remember it vividly. I was sitting in my office and he said, “I like the work you’re doing for Eloqua, but I’m more interested in talking about the work you did for BuzzAgent. You see, I want to start a company that’s going to take the whole word-of-mouth concept that you’ve worked in for a while and apply it to B2B.”

Like any good entrepreneur, Mark is a great sales guy. He has a passionate story about how advocacy and referrals and references is a complete blind spot for B2B businesses. Nobody’s solving it, so he’s going to. He asked what I thought. I gave an infamous four-word answer: “It will never work.”

What I didn’t know was at that moment my future as a venture capitalist was sealed away in a drawer. I want to talk to you about why I thought it would never work and why now, several years later, I realize that I was mistaken.

Let’s start with you. Half of your time is spent as a B2B tech marketer and half of your time is spent as a regular consumer like the rest of us. When you think of the halves of your personality, the audience for your opinion on consumer products is enormous. It’s not proportionate to your real life. B2B audience versus consumer audience Joe Chernov

You have a large audience of friends and family with whom you talk about everyday products. When it comes to B2B products, that audience shrinks because you have fewer professional associates and colleagues. When it comes to B2B advocacy, companies want you to tell not just your colleagues about a product, but also people in a similar role at another company. That audience gets smaller still. When Mark told me his idea, I thought it was a density problem and I couldn’t imagine it taking off.

While Mark may have identified the solution, and I believe he has, he wasn’t the first to identify the problem. When I was at BuzzAgent, companies would come to us and say, “I get that what you do works for toothbrushes, but can it work for my B2B product?”

Hosting a B2B BBQ

Fence and Hotdog Joe ChernovEventually, we started saying no. We chalked it up to what we called the backyard barbecue test. Imagine you have a barbecue and you invite a bunch of people. Think about what they’re likely to talk about. If your product fits into a likely conversation, then it is word-of-mouth worthy. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. Nobody’s ever reached over the backyard fence and said, “Hey, Bob. Do you want to come over for a beer and a chat about CRM?” Bob’s going to hide when you go into your yard. 

People and Fence Joe ChernovWhat we were doing was essentially damning the wrong thing. It was not a product problem…it was a structural problem. I believe that is what Mark solved with Influitive. Metaphorically, what Influitive does and what B2B advocacy does is give B2B brands the ability to create little backyards. They’re called AdvocateHubs, and brands invite guests to them. They are called their advocates or potential advocates. There’s a gathering space and we have one at InsightSquared called The Square. Once you break through that structural problem, the rest is pretty easy. It’s just people.

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The five principles of word-of-mouth

There is an association that was created to help companies figure out an effective way to spread word-of-mouth: WOMMA, or the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association. WOMMA has identified five principles of ethical and effective word-of-mouth. They are:

  • Credibility (what people say has to be believable)People with Messages and Hearts Joe Chernov
  • Respectfulness (people need to participate out of their own volition)
  • Social (word has to spread)
  • Measurable (if it’s not measured, it’s not going to be invested in)
  • Repeatable (one conversation doesn’t make for a relationship)

As it turns out, these principles of word-of-mouth are the same principles as advocacy. What I’d like to do is show you how these principles apply to the hub we’ve built.

1. Credibility

In moderation, your very best review is your three-star review. Why? Because without three-star reviews, a viewer is going to discount all of your five-star reviews. One of our advocates posted a three-star review. It’s not terrible but it’s not a ringing endorsement. They’re not digging this product, and yet here they are in our community. We’ve invested in them, and they’ve raised their hand and said they want to be an advocate, and yet we get this “meh” in the middle.

We didn’t tell them, “Take it down.” We didn’t sanction them and say, “That’s not what this is all about.” We thanked them for it. In fact, there was an extensive back-channel conversation to find out all the ways we could take their experience with this free product and make it better. That’s where credibility is rooted. This three-star review makes all our five-star reviews more believable.

2. Respectfulness

I’m a marketer and I wasn’t at InsightSquared when we deployed Influitive,but I can imagine myself having a hard time resisting the temptation I’m about to characterize. You convince the management team that advocacy is a real thing, that this software is worth investing in, that these rewards are worth investing in. You spend a lot of time architecting the system, collecting advocates, and then you’re ready to go… and what do you want to do? You want to set them loose and have them promote your stuff. InsightSquared Hub Joe Chernov

That is a great way to fail. What we do instead is warm up our advocates. We want to make sure they’re in it for the right reasons and that they believe in the company and the process.

So, we give them thirty challenges that have nothing to do with our products. The goals of these challenges are to:

  • Help familiarize them with our culture
  • Help get them to know one another
  • Help them understand how Influitive works
  • Give them plenty of time to tap out

It is only after those thirty challenges that we begin to offer product-related challenges. This has the added benefit of fostering a sense of community, which is the next item: belonging.

3. Social

Remember the commercials for Dr. Pepper? “I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper. Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?” I really, really wanted to be a Pepper. Nobody had more fun than that mob of people who were singing and dancing down the street holding cans of unthinkably bad soda. I would buy Dr. Pepper, and despite it being unspeakable, I would chug it down because I wanted to belong.

The tacit goal of your hub should be to create this sense of belonging. When advocates say to us, “This form just cheered me up on a Monday morning,” we know w’re doing something right. What we’re doing is having a lateral community, not a hierarchical one. InsightSquared Comment Joe Chernov

How do we foster this sense of belonging? We give challenges where we ask people questions like, “How do you celebrate a sales success?” We ask that people post their responses publicly. What happens is fellow advocates pile on and say how they celebrate successes, applaud one another and borrow ideas from each other. It is in these ways that a community is created.

4. Measurable

That which gets measured gets built. You have to measure this, but you have to be mindful of measuring it across two vectors: how you’re solving for the business, but also how you’re solving for the advocate. Unless you’re solving for the advocate, you’ll never be able to solve for the business.

We look at references, referrals and recommendations. We’ve been able to track that our references program influenced $250,000 worth of ACV in the last four months. The only way we were able to do that is by solving for the advocate’s happiness.

5. Repeatable

What we’ve been able to figure out is the rule of three: for every three challenges, there should be a blend of the types of asks. One should be product-related, but one should also be educational, such as read this blog post, or check out this video, or see our CEO speak. The third should just be fun. For instance, “What kind of beer should we have on tap at InsightSquared?” It creates a conversation about beer—backyard barbecue conversation. InsightSquared Challenges Joe Chernov

It also gives us an opportunity to operationalize natural human moments. When people commented about their favorite beers, we were able to stock our reward store with InsightSquared beer steins and tell them, “By the way, if you’re a beer lover, we have a straight beer glass in our store.” We were also able to surprise and delight a few advocates by sending them a free InsightSquared beer stein with a handwritten note that says, “Enjoy your ninety-minute IPA in this.”

These are ways that we can keep the community active without any asks. For example, last year there was an Armageddon-like winter in Boston, with the most snowfall in history. As members of the team were complaining about how much snow there was, someone was mindful enough of our advocate community to say, “Our local advocates are struggling with what we’re struggling with.” 

She sent an email and told our Boston advocates, “Hey, we’re struggling with the snow just like you. Go to the Square and something’s waiting for you there.” That something was a Starbucks gift card, good for a cup of cocoa.Letter to Advocates Joe Chernov

Little things like that keep the community vibrant, and that makes all the difference. If I were going to distill these seven years into three takeaways, it’ll look something like the following:

  1. My first takeaway is that businesses may not be people, but they are made up of people. The same principles that lead those people to talk about beer at a backyard barbecue are the same principles that lead them to talk about your software. Once you solve the structural problem, the rest begins to fall into place.
  1. The second is that I believe in a management principle called servant leadership: the best leaders lead from behind. People will do things for you if they know you’re going to do things for them. That same philosophy applies to the way you should think about running your AdvocateHub. It’s lateral, not hierarchical. You may have created the system, but you’re just a participant in it.
  1. The last comes down to measurement. I would urge you to resist the temptation to play “collect-em-all” with your advocates. If you have lots of advocates, but little for them to do, they’re going to get bored. When I was at BuzzAgent, we called them sleeping agents. We knew we had to engage them within the first thirty days or we would lose them.

When you think about attaching a number to your advocate community, be cautious of attaching a very high number to your advocates. What you really want is a blend of the ideal number of advocates and the ideal number of asks so you can create an equilibrium. Look at it more in terms of instances of advocacy versus total number of advocates, and you’ll be on the right track.

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