February 22, 2023
Every business strives to attract new customers, but many falter in their efforts to retain them. Nurturing customer loyalty is not just a matter of offering products that stand above the competition. Customers want to be heard, understood, and valued, and only then will they become lifelong brand advocates and ambassadors.
This strategy around advocate marketing has transformed the way companies operate and maintain customer relationships. Instead of relying on spec sheets, webinars, demos, and tutorials, industry leaders introduce prospective and existing clients to others who use their products and love their brand. These peer-to-peer encounters allow satisfied customers to share personal insights and real-world use cases with other customers and decision-makers. One way to multiply the impact of advocate activity is through an advocate community.
The Use Of Communities to Reach Customers
This community-focused approach is no small undertaking at a place like VMware. We are a global cloud computing and virtualization company that offers virtual desktop and server solutions, cloud and application management software, storage and availability products, and networking and security tools. Our user base is enormous, and our platforms power Fortune 500 companies, SMBs, and everything in between.
VMware has a lot of different product lines, departments, and customers who may or may not use more than one product. Because of the varied customer personas, many different dedicated communities have evolved over time.
About five years ago, the reference community wanted to ramp up gamification, and to do that, they turned to Influitive. Rather than simply asking customers to raise their hands for advocacy activities, we wanted to make participation fun and engaging, more than a transactional experience. This was the beginning of our Champions community for advocates across all our business units.
The reference community was only one of many communities focused on product feedback, support, and more. Managing these communities became cumbersome over time. Every business unit had a team that wanted to connect to its customer base, resulting in many siloed communities. Many customers who used multiple VMware products were racking up points in different communities and couldn’t redeem them in a central location. It was frustrating for our community managers and especially for our advocates.
Scaling Our Loyalty Program and Turning Our Champions Into VIPs
Two years ago, we took a hard look at our communities from our respective perspectives—Tiffany as Senior Customer Loyalty Manager, and Audrey as Marketing Manager, Customer Loyalty. We mapped all our customer groups to build an inventory of our 100+ communities, and even examined the best practices of other companies’ communities. After that, we surveyed our customers to understand what they wanted to see.
The results of our questionnaire surprised us: VMware’s advocates felt they were giving a lot to the company, but we weren’t giving back to them in a meaningful way. The various rewards programs were confusing, and they asked for a dedicated, centralized loyalty program.
Armed with this information, we made a case to our executive team and received the go-ahead to consolidate and revamp our customer communities. The biggest change was our new loyalty program, VMware Rewards, which you don’t typically see in the B2B space. On top of the usual swag—the hats, mugs, and t-shirts everyone loves—we added VMware experiences, including educational opportunities. In exchange for their continued support, we now offer advocates VMware training and certification they would have otherwise paid for. It’s our way of saying, “You invested in us, so we’re investing in you.”
We launched the new loyalty program as a way to scale the gamification to more customers, while maintaining the exclusivity and high-touch special experiences within the Champions community. We wanted the most engaged advocates to have more of a two-way conversation and facilitate introductions and knowledge sharing between users. Using VMware Rewards as a foundation, we added a VIP tier with big-ticket rewards like tickets to VMware Explore, including keynotes and networking opportunities. To put everyone on level ground, we rebooted Champions, and everyone started earning points from scratch.
Just like a frequent flier program, VMware Rewards program is open to all customers, and the most engaged customers within the program work their way up through various levels and earn the opportunity to join VIP Champions. In less than two years, 11 advocates collected enough points through challenges (targeted asks) and other activities to earn all-expenses-paid trips to the 2022 VMware Explore conference in San Francisco.
Getting Internal Buy-In Through Workshops
It took some convincing to make this shift internally. A few community managers were ecstatic that we took over running the rewards element of their communities and distributing swag. Others were concerned that combining our upgraded Champions community and VMware Rewards would lure advocates away from their respective communities. We had to clarify our intentions and let them know we were partnering with them to drive overall engagement and boost their registrations, too. We also asked them, “What are your challenges, and how can we help?”
Influitive proved invaluable during the process. Their team facilitated workshops that brought together community leaders to determine what type of content our customers wanted to see and what rewards they desired. During these meetings, they also explored community drop-off rates and the issues attracting new members.
These sessions provided valuable insight that drove internal buy-in and built momentum leading up to the launch of our consolidated rewards program. We formed close working relationships with our community managers and product teams, and began serving as liaisons between the two.
Partnering with a Content Team to Build Engaging Material
We now meet monthly with our content teams and key product people to ensure we are building content that reflects our business needs and priorities. This content closely aligns with VMware’s comms calendar—including product launches and industry events—and we strive to find ways to integrate customer voices from our communities, adding value to these teams’ marketing efforts.
Although we have someone dedicated to content at VMware, we also work closely with the content team at Influitive. Influitive’s support helps us extend how much content we can create and publish for more personalized journeys.
As our Champions program evolved and we consolidated our customer communities, we refined our onboarding, targeting, and personalization mechanisms to better segregate individual customers and understand their needs. These elements are complex, but produce informed and creative experiences for our community members. Influitive’s content tools allow us to drill down and target these users without losing our focus on the big picture.
The Influitive content team helped us take a potential friction point and transform it into a positive customer experience
We were worried that we would lose key advocates during the launch of our new loyalty program, VMware Rewards, but Influitive helped us set up a fantastic process, and they did it in a customer-centric, fun way. Throughout the planning period, Srishty Khullar’s content team came to us with such unique ideas. Our migration campaign had a moving theme, where the advocates’ new home had a secret room that housed the new, exclusive Champions program.
The feedback was amazing. We migrated over 90% of active customers to the new program. The Influitive content team helped us take a potential friction point and transform it into a positive customer experience.
Fast-Tracking VIP Registrations Through Our In-Person Event
We launched the new VMware Rewards loyalty program and with that, our revamped VIP Champions community a few months before our VMware Explore event in August 2022. Our flagship conference had gone entirely virtual during the pandemic, and our customers were thrilled to have it back in person. That was a huge recruitment opportunity for us because we know the customers who are attending are already really engaged. They’re flying out to an event and spending four days with us, and we wanted to build on that energy to drive registrations.
We’d previously recruited Champions members at Explore and other events, but had realized people only signed up for the swag, not because they wanted to engage in the community year-round. This time, we took a different approach.
We set up a fast track within our new loyalty program where people can raise their hand and get fast-tracked to the upgraded Champions community. We used the same fast-tracking idea at the live event. In addition to registering advocates to our new loyalty program at our Rewards booth, we asked customers to get their passports “stamped” by visiting community booths and attending events. Those customers who wanted to engage further and fill out their passports were rewarded by earning enrollment in the new and improved Champions VIP community, where they could earn far greater rewards.
Influitive became a part of our team . . . They did a phenomenal job representing VMware [onsite at VMware Explore], and it was so great for the customers to meet them in person and make that connection.
We brought a couple of Influitive team members to the event to help recruit and onboard new members. That’s huge—to take somebody who is traditionally just a vendor and seamlessly incorporate them into our work, trusting that they can represent our brand. Influitive became a part of our team. They did a phenomenal job representing VMware, and it was so great for the customers to meet them in person and make that connection. Our Influitive CSM Claire Murphy shared more details on her onsite experience here.
We set an ambitious recruitment target of 1,000 new Rewards members and 300 new Champions members. We exceeded both targets by 75%!
Integrations Make Our Work Easier
Before we rolled out our consolidated loyalty program, Audrey used a spreadsheet to manually look at each customer in the Champions program to ensure that the rewards offered adhered to our ethics and compliance guidelines. We automate that process by setting permissible rewards in BrandVia, a corporate gifting and engagement tool. We also use BrandVia to manage and redeem points and fulfill rewards across all our communities.
We also leverage the Influtive Khoros integration to connect 18 technical and networking customer communities to our loyalty program. These communities are independently operated by their respective business units but feed into our primary customer recognition.
Going forward, we expect to use Alida CX metrics to determine strategic focus areas and dig into member engagement in the VIP Champions program and all our other communities. We hope to use Alida to determine the ROI and direct business outcomes of our customer advocacy efforts and in-person hospitality experiences.
The Successful Combination of Loyalty and Advocacy Tripled Our Customer Engagement
Both loyalty and advocacy require supporting customers and ensuring their voices are heard and are essential when considering the entire customer journey. In the past, VMware separated customer advocacy and customer loyalty. Thanks to Influitive and organizational changes to our teams, we have brought the two together. Advocacy is focused on a moment in time—speaking at an event, taking part in a case study, participating in a peer-to-peer reference call—but loyalty is about a customer’s relationship with our brand over time.
Both loyalty and advocacy require supporting customers and ensuring their voices are heard, and are essential when considering the entire customer journey. In the past, VMware separated customer advocacy and customer loyalty. Thanks to Influitive, we have brought the two together.
This project helped us continue nurturing our most engaged advocates in Champions and combine that with specific rewards that demonstrate how much we value them and their ongoing support for VMware. Since launching our new loyalty and Champions programs, customer engagement has tripled. We continue to build new relationships with community managers, product and marketing teams, and other internal stakeholders to drive our advocacy and loyalty efforts and set priority areas for our content.
Our advocacy programs are an excellent way to quickly validate marketing collateral and collect customer feedback in a company the size of VMware. Formal marketing studies can take a long time and involve jumping through hoops, so surveying our advocates leads to faster insights. This is a big win for our customers and internal teams because we can target specific customer segments to accelerate the feedback loop, leading to better products and content, and further cementing the bond between VMware and our users.
Thanks to Influitive, VMware has opened our ears to customer voices, are providing venues for meaningful conversations, and are rewarding customer advocacy and loyalty with meaningful experiences.
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