Whether they come in the form of anecdotal reviews on specialized sites, case studies, event presentations, infographics, or video and podcast interviews – customer success stories are one of the most powerful tools in a marketer’s toolbox. Being part of a tribe of satisfied users inspires existing customers to make the most of their purchase, become more loyal to the brand, and provide referrals.
The goal of a customer references program is to build a relationship with your brand advocates, capture their positive experience, and amplify their message to sell more products or services. Typically, that will happen either by delivering the story at conferences or networking events in-person, or through professionally crafted marketing content that both you and your customer can use in promotional activities.
At the same time, your army of advocates can motivate prospects to buy your product by adding a layer of authenticity and credibility to your marketing message. These testimonials are generally considered to be excellent marketing content pieces in terms of credibility, because the authentic customer statements outweigh other promotional tools. If your company doesn't have a customer advocacy program, or if you’re looking to revise an existing initiative, here are 10 ideas you can use to get started.
1. Set Your Goals and Determine How You Measure Success.
The primary role of the customer references program is to support your sales team. Whether you help your reps on a case-by-case basis, organize calls between current and future customers, or bring a great speaker to a global event – all efforts are targeted to selling more.
Some marketers list objectives like expanding brand awareness, increasing the loyalty of their happy customers through engagement, generating captivating content for marketing campaigns, and supporting the reputation strategy of the organization. Whatever your goal, it should come with clear metrics that you can follow from day one. There is specialized software available that can help you capture those metrics – more on that later.
2. Create a Personality for Your Program.
Having a program means nothing without buy-in from your defined stakeholders. Happy customers, prospects, sales reps, and your management need to understand what your program is about and be able to identify with some of its traits in order to participate consistently.
Giving your program an easy-to-remember, easy-to-relate-to name and personality helps encourage this participation. If your program was a person, what kind of a person would it be? Would it be a good communicator, a good team player? Would it have creative skills, or technical and analytical ones?
People relate to things they understand. And if you’re reading this, you surely know that nothing is as easy to understand as an engaging story. Does your program have one?
3. Identify Program Stakeholders.
Consider at the very minimum your happy customers, sales representatives, organizations’ business partners, and larger marketing team; they will all participate in one way or another. Some tell a story, some listen, and some reap the rewards. And everyone must realistically understand their role. They should also understand the time allocation that is expected from them and what they receive in return.
Many salespeople spend more than half of their work day filling in paperwork and supporting other lines of business – neither of which helps them reach their quota. Customers have their own work to do, and often regard giving a testimonial as a favor they do for your organization. Many customers view this activity as a “favor” because they fail to see the benefits of being an advocate. Create targeted presentations including visual explanations of the benefits for each stakeholder – it will pay off in the long run.
4. Create an Editorial Calendar that Reflects Stakeholder Expectations.
When it comes to references, the more the merrier. But keeping in mind that the goal of quality over quantity will save you a lot of budget. You must also take into consideration the desires of the stakeholders you worked so hard to bring on board.
- Check with your larger marketing team to insert customer stories into campaigns.
- Work with sales leaders to see if their teams prefer written, visual, or audio content.
- Find out what your happy customers prefer to do. They will most likely want to use any content output for their own marketing, too. It pays to be considerate of their needs.
Evaluate the internal and external deliverables your stakeholders expect and include them in your editorial calendar. Define your priority products, the measurements of that product’s success, and the must-have elements each story should contain. Sometimes, vague statements like “great product” or “love it” don’t cut it. Instead, your testimonials should describe what is valuable about your product or service and how it benefited your customers.
5. Define the Journey Your Happy Customers Must Take from Awareness to Participation.
In preparing this article, our team has looked at more than 50 companies that already have a references program in place. Most of them have a brochure explaining the assets that can be created, and the general benefits a customer would achieve by sharing his success story. Some also run specific recruitment around major events or product launches.
But among those analyzed, we have not seen customer advocate journeys defined for selling the program like selling a product—at least among the publicly available materials. And very few companies use more than three pieces of content produced for the specific purpose of recruiting advocates.
We strongly recommend using marketing automation tools to build an inbound funnel, fueled by a steady flow of educational content. Once you have onboarded a new customer, check if they are satisfied. Start a drip campaign that describes each benefit in a short article or visual. Have they attended an event or webinar? Make them see themselves in a speaker position. Are they a startup with small marketing budget? Propose brand association.
Think about your program like a new product or service. Your target audience doesn’t know it exists, doesn’t know it can solve a problem, doesn’t even realize they have a problem. Connecting those dots can sell products, services, and program participation.
6. Define the Journey Your Employees Must Take to Embrace Advocacy.
Just as important as recruiting customers is getting internal buy-in. In many organizations, the customer references program is regarded as the sole responsibility of the marketing department – typically the department who interacts less with the customers.
Sales, service, and support teams all have relationships with customers and keeping them engaged is extremely important. But in most cases, the external brochure that was created for advocates is all the content they can rely on for information. They consider pitching the references program an extra burden – mostly because they don’t truly understand how it benefits them or the customer. Creating an internal communication strategy that is paired with an incentive program will greatly increase program adoption and employee satisfaction.
Need help pitching the internal teams? Download this eBook for more info on how to position your customer advocacy program!
7. Find the Right Tools.
We speak a lot about automation. In the age of inbound marketing, customers and employees want to have access to content and be able to do their own research before they speak to you. And there are many software suites out there that can help you automate tasks and easily track program results. Things to look for are:
- Create automation work flows and campaigns.
- Score the readiness of each lead and track their recruitment status.
- Track personalized participation based on preferences and policy of each participant.
- Connect activities and content to your larger program metrics and definition of success.
8. Establish Partnerships.
A successful reference program is hard work. There are customers to be recruited, content to be created and posted, activities and events to be organized locally or globally. And your budget and resources are limited. Identify from the very beginning the individuals and the agencies that can create the deliverables to which you are committed.
Establish relationships with social media colleagues, field marketing colleagues, and high-profile business development managers that can give you a head start. It helps if you can also establish some of the templates to be used – email templates, recruitment forms, creative briefs, delivery schedules, exception handling, and so forth. The clearer your program is, the easier for everyone to understand and support it.
9. Think about Localizing Your Customer References Program.
By localizing you can adapt a product or piece of content for a specific market and go beyond simple one-to-one language translation. It helps you connect with consumers on a personal level. In other words, localization helps you build trust with your global consumers by showing them your brand speaks their language and understands their cultural norms.
Consider helping customers share their story by allocating a local language speaker to recruit them, coordinate local events, or interview them in their native language for content creation. By making them comfortable in those interactions, you will be rewarded with stories that are rich and culturally relevant.
10. Evaluate and Adjust Your Customer Advocacy Program.
Once up and running, you need an owner to manage your advocacy program; you also need support from an engaged internal team, and fuel from customers who see the value they will receive.
If you don't have the means and manpower to guarantee all these activities will stay on schedule, we recommend establishing partnerships with media and copy writing agencies as well as rewarding those employees who ensure a strong flow of leads into your customer advocacy program.
You can leverage outside competence particularly for international programs that need to be rolled out locally but consolidated at headquarter level. Evaluate often and bring in the resources you need. You’ll quickly lose any launch momentum if your program looks like it’s being managed part-time.
Remember that the customer is a volunteer. Take care of that relationship.
Make sure you thank customers for their help each time they participate. This simple gesture goes a long way. Sending branded items as a thank you is a nice touch but sometimes overuse. Consider a program management platform that offers game-like experiences, product training, or other nice perks.
It is also good to let the customer know when their reference resulted in a sale. Nobody wants to be a part of something that leads nowhere. A little feedback goes a long way! Also, keep track of how often you've contacted them. If your program is well designed and executed, every story will exist in several content formats, allowing you to reuse it without imposing on the customer too often.
Our advocacy mavens can help automate key steps of the recruitment and engagement process or even outsource it entirely. The advocacy marketing concept leverages your customers' inclination to say good things about your products and services and turns them into your organization's most valued sales enablers. Build trust with your global consumers by showing them your brand pays attention to details. We speak 30 languages and cover all North American, Latin American, African, Middle East and European countries.