May 7, 2021
Whether you’re B2C or B2B, the best approach to build customer loyalty and grow brand awareness is to foster two-way conversations between your business and the people who use your products. And the fastest way to start and maintain such discussions is through an online advocate community.
I’ve worked as an advocate marketer for the last ten years and introduced the concept of customer advocacy at Cisco, watching them build one of the most successful advocate programs in the world. Here at Sage, I’m the Head of Global Customer Advocacy, and for the past three years, I’ve built and grown our Champions advocate community.
Understand the Value of Customer Relationships in the B2B Space
Customer advocacy grew its roots in the B2C space and initially took the form of loyalty cards and, more recently, proliferated through user reviews. Reviews are social proof, which is the idea that consumers will buy a product or use a service because other people are doing so. Whether it’s teenagers shopping for the jeans the cool kids are wearing, or network engineers looking for infrastructure solutions, peers influence buying decisions. They are more inclined to listen to people they trust than sales pitches from strangers.
Online advocate communities tap into that inclination and embrace customers’ need to tell their stories. Today, customers don’t just want to talk about your products. They want to build an emotional connection with your company and then share their passion for your products with the world.
Over the last decade, B2B marketers have come to embrace advocacy as a discipline in its own right, distinct from traditional marketing activities. Advocate marketing is about building enduring and meaningful relationships with your customers through engagement. When you engage them, your end users will reward you by moving the needle for your company in many ways. However, they also want to experience the benefits of promoting your brand. If your customers start to feel that you’re harvesting testimonials but giving them nothing in return, they’ll lose interest in your advocate community. If your advocacy relationship is purely transactional, your customers will feel used.
There’s great value in encouraging and recognizing your advocates’ contributions through rewards programs and gamifying advocacy with leaderboards and activities like surveys, quizzes, online scavenger hunts, and selfie challenges. I’ve used those initiatives with a lot of success. However, you also have to continually find clever new ways to delight and honor your customers for their loyalty.
Generosity Flows Both Ways
Over the last year, Sage shifted the focus of our advocacy efforts to promoting our customers. Their generosity and goodwill have fueled the growth of our advocate community and our brand, so we decided to reciprocate by putting our marketing muscle behind them.
One way we have done this is by making videos that highlight our customers using Sage products to run their businesses. Although these videos feature our branding, the spotlight is very much on our customers. They tell their stories and we thank them for their loyalty with high-quality marketing collateral they can in turn share and promote with their own customers.
Many of our advocates operate SMBs and lack the financial and creative resources to make this type of content in-house. So, we help them by providing access to production tools that are beyond their means. Advocacy works best when it is a two-way street; customers will continue to be loyal to you if you likewise demonstrate your appreciation for them.
Advocacy from the Top Down
Advocate communities cannot flourish without buy-in from every level of your organization. As such, you need to build advocacy into your company’s DNA instead of treating it as an afterthought.
To make advocacy work, your company culture must put the customer at the heart of everything you do.
Embedding the voice of the customer happens at every level of our organization, not just sales and marketing. At Sage, we make it a point for our senior leaders to engage in conversations with our advocates about their business challenges. This makes our advocates feel heard, and they appreciate that we care about their business—not just about their money.
Customers crave authenticity and consistency, and if they get one message from your advocacy team and a different one from your sales reps, they will disengage. To give an example, software engineers are typically not customer facing, and it can be scary for them to leave their world behind the scenes. But by creating a space where they can engage directly with clients, they can hear feedback firsthand, which can help them develop new features. Interactions like these can lead to “a-ha” moments that improve products and deepen customer loyalty.
You can build a customer advocacy team, but if putting your customers first isn’t baked into your company culture from the top down, your advocacy program will flounder. To make advocacy work, your company culture must put the customer at the heart of everything you do.
Find the Right Community Managers
As you start to build out your advocate community, you have to find the right people to manage it. Community Managers do more than encourage user activity. They are the public face of your company, and community members will view them as an alternative access point to your company. While they’re not a support team per se, your Community Managers are brand ambassadors, and you have to provide the support they need to take ownership of the community.
At Sage, we give our Community Managers flexibility and authority to resolve customer concerns as they arise and inject their personalities into the resolution process. They may not be able to resolve issues on their own, but they are on a first-name basis with our customers and serve as brokers between clients and our support team. By holding our advocates’ hands through the resolution process, advocates feel they have someone they know on their side.
We also encourage our Community Managers to have fun and put their personal stamp on Sage’s communities. One Community Manager created a particularly creative ask: to share a favorite recipe that featured sage as a main ingredient. We had more than 150 submissions from across North America. It was a fun and playful way to both boost engagement and build loyalty without asking people for testimonials or referrals.
Growing Advocate Communities with Influitive
Of course, building an advocate community becomes much easier with the right platform. I’ve used Influitive AdvocateHub to build three regionally based customer advocacy programs at Sage. Through my team, we’ve woven our customer-first approach into all of these communities and expanded them to include multiple languages.
Influitive is easy to use; admins can create challenges (activities that earn members points once completed) with a few keystrokes and then monitor engagement via AdvocateHub’s intuitive dashboards. I can look at the results and then tweak content to target specific regions or industries with content our customers will love.
I also appreciate Influitive’s support team. Influitive is a young, energetic company, and I count on the responsiveness of their support team whether I’m building a new hub, adjusting one of our dashboards, or brainstorming a new challenge. Influitive provides both technical and marketing support on how to use the platform. They understand my challenges and help me find the best ways to keep Sage’s customers engaged.
AdvocateHub also helped me strike the right balance between the quantity and quality of Sage’s advocates. You aren’t always going to have 100% engagement from your community members. Our engagement started at about 25% of active users and we built that up over time to a consistent 35%. People cycle in and out of the community based on their needs or schedules at different times, but that core group of highly engaged users keeps the community humming.
Influitive generates multiple reports that show user engagement levels and the percentage of activities completed. My favorite is the referral dashboard because it gives us end-to-end insight into the conversion process. Over time, you can build great insight on what advocates want to see and retarget them with things they like. As they start to see more of those activities, you’ll see an increase in engagement.
Another successful strategy is to recruit super-enthusiastic advocates who continually return to our community and bring other people in with them. They’ve become our bread and butter and have had a major impact on our community space.
Measuring Long-Term Success
One of the biggest pitfalls I see when building advocate communities is to expect sky-high engagement and increased revenue from day one. It simply doesn’t happen that way—it takes time to build trust and relationships. In essence, you are planting the seeds of a tree, and it takes a long time to grow. Your Community Managers and your customers are embarking on a long-term journey, so you need to have realistic expectations when setting your targets.
It can also be difficult to measure success. Tread carefully with return on investment (ROI) numbers. It’s advantageous to feed positive results back into the company at large, but understand that your community may not be delivering direct revenue; it’s helping to protect revenue through reducing churn and helping to close business through references. Instead, the goal is to build win-win relationships that will pay off in the long term because happy customers keep coming back.
In the end, focus on nurturing your advocate community, and play the long game. You may not have an army of champions on day one, but if you build a compelling experience that honors and delights your customers, they’ll keep moving your company’s needle for years.
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