A few years ago, I delightfully observed as a client started a customer advocacy program. What’s that, you might ask? It’s an effort to go beyond one-off case studies and reference calls to engage with customers who are willing to serve as advocates for your products and services in a variety of ways.
The new program didn’t disappoint: My client grew named customer case studies by 50%, customer participation in speaking engagements to 164% of goal, and customer participation in media interviews by 650%.
To clarify, these are all outcomes where the happy customer went on record – publicly – to share the story about their success. Impressive.
Why Your Business Needs an Advocacy Program
If you follow this space, then you probably already know that satisfied customers – willing to talk about their experiences – are one of your greatest marketing assets. They’re way more believable than your marketing promises.
But ideally, a customer’s praise isn’t limited to a single case study. Today, savvy organizations are pursuing “customer advocacy” (what used to be called customer referencing).
Customer (or brand) advocates are five times more valuable than average customers because they spend more on your products. And they do even more: they willingly promote your products to others. And those recommendations carry a lot of weight.
Advocates are two to three times more effective than non-advocates in persuading people to make a purchase, and that’s good news for your business. A good advocacy program has a distinct effect on your company’s bottom line: a 12% increase in advocacy yields a 2x increase in revenue growth rate.*
How Advocates Engage with Your Business
Advocates might support your organization by speaking one-one-one with prospects, starring in videos, presenting at industry conferences or webinars, speaking to the media, joining an advisory board, or sharing their stories for awards programs.
If you simply ask for a single advocacy activity, you limit the relationship’s potential. I’ve seen individual contacts at customer organizations richly rewarded in their OWN organizations and industries with promotions and accolades after the exposure gained from presenting at conferences, participating in case studies and videos, speaking to the media and/or participating in industry awards – all facilitated by a vendor’s advocacy program.
Starting Your Advocacy Program
But if you’re a smaller organization, how do you begin the first steps of customer advocacy with no dedicated budget?
For answers, I turned to Barbara Thomas of Creative Tactics. Barbara has spent years working in customer advocacy and is the author of the forthcoming book, Advocate Marketing: Strategies for Building Buzz, Leveraging Customer Satisfaction and Creating Relationships.
“If you want more than the occasional one-off case study or want a list of go-to customers for references to support your sales, then you want an advocate marketing program,” she says. “With zero to little budget as a small organization, you can start a sustainable advocate marketing program that will help create extraordinary content. All you need is a surveying tool, Excel spreadsheet or CRM, and about 8 hours periodically from an organized staffer to work on the project.”
Here are Barbara’s tips to move forward on your advocate marketing effort:
1. Plan – Brainstorm with sales, product marketing/management, IT and the web site manager and other relevant team members to determine what information is already captured about customers and what processes can be automated easily.
2. Run customer surveys – Surveys can help identify customers that might be promoters and then advocates, and possibly even elicit some content, such as testimonials.
“The results of your survey should provide you with several customer testimonials ready to be shared publicly, a list of reference customers, and a list of content marketing candidates willing to engage in various valued activities for your organization,” Barbara says.
From this point, you can estimate the budget or resources to ask for to secure the new content from your pool of respondents.
3. Create communications – You’ll want a few tools and templates such as follow-up notes, thank-you and engagement emails, voice mail scripts, and FAQs for internal staff and customers about advocacy opportunities.
“Make the communication as personal as possible, but still in a cookie-cutter format,” Barbara says. “I know that concept is an oxymoron but inserting data fields helps to personalize and is easy to do.”
4. Organize it – While there are very cool tools nowadays for organizing customer advocates, you can begin with your CRM application or Excel.
5. Measure results – Lastly, if you want more resources for your program, you have to show the outcome. Your first step is likely measuring quantity. What were your goals in terms of advocacy activity? Did you generate more of it – more videos, case studies, calls, event attendance and more?
Social media and web traffic stats make it easier to measure the impressions that advocacy content generated. What traffic can you tie to advocacy-related posts?
For the more advanced, the next step would be tying activity to leads, sales and revenue, which even more sophisticated programs struggle to do.
If all this sounds overwhelming, simply start at the beginning and take it step by step. It’s what numerous organizations have done, many of which now have funded advocacy programs.
This past week, I was down with a cold. And while it was tough to work, and even harder to come up with new blog ideas, my radar for customer stories kept on working.
There are a lot of cold remedies out there, and who knows what really works? But in our house, we turn to Cold-EEZE. Not sure if the zinc lozenges actually help reduce cold symptoms, or we just think they do.
But while popping a Cold-EEZE, I discovered a little coaster-size card in the box.
It's a customer testimonial, and a good one. What makes it good? The testimonial itself - while short - still tells a story.
The customer, a teen girl, describes her problem with good detail, what the remedy was and then the positive outcome. Cold-EEZE saved her prom.
With a storytelling testimonial, we get a visual of the girl, her challenge and the happy result. Most importantly, we feel the emotion of her situation.
It just goes to show that, no matter how short or long your customer success stories, the classic story format and customer emotion drive home the message.
A small software company recently ran an experiment...
The company, which had been requiring registration to download its customer case studies, decided to unlock those stories on their website. Site visitors could read or download stories freely, without having to provide any information.
The results were pretty shocking.
In just one week, the company reported that downloads of its case studies were three times higher than the previous four months combined! Clearly, people had not viewed the stories before because they simply didn't want to take the time to register or felt frustrated with having to provide their contact information.
When you invest your time, money and your customer's time in creating these valuable customer stories, make sure you're maximizing the exposure on them.
So what content should be "curtained?"
It's a tough balance that marketers face, giving away some content freely and requiring registration to access other things. You're balancing drawing people to your content-rich website with trying to capture names as lead sources.
But do case studies really belong in the category of locked content?
Customer stories, while educational, are still promotional at heart. You're featuring a customer's success with your products and services. They fall more into the realm of content to give away, as you would product datasheets and brochures.
Meanwhile, white papers, events, webinars and demos often require more of a time investment from you and from your prospective customer. Generally, these are the items you'll offer in exchange for the prospective customer's information.
In fact, this particular company chose to turn to white papers and webinars as a better source of capturing names, which the sales team hasn't contested whatsoever. Afterall, if only a handful of people registered to access case studies then that wasn't much of a lead source anyway.
The Search Engine Effect
Written customer case studies and success stories can be a major contributor to search engine rankings for a company's website. They naturally contain many of the keywords and phrases that prospects might use to search.
If you lock your content behind required registration, you effectively give up that rich source of keyword data. Don't miss out!
The Social Media Factor
Finally, if you're not sharing your customer stories on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, you should be. Increasingly, people are mixing their business and personal into a single stream on Twitter and Facebook, and customer stories are of high interest.
What happens when your fans or followers take a case study link you shared from Twitter or Facebook and hit a closed door? It's incongruent with the way social media sharing flows.
What's your experience with requring registration for customer stories? Great lead source or a barrier to customer engagement?
"I could sell this for you."
That line, coming straight from the mouth of a happy customer, is music to a company's ears. Not only is the customer satisfied with the solution, but the customer has become a true evangelist.
I heard this just a couple of weeks ago while interviewing an IT manager at a hospital about their new help desk system. He was genuinely a fan, and in the heat of talking about what he loves about the software, added the line above. He went on to give me powerful quote after powerful quote.
If only all customer interviewees could be so pumped. That's the kind of customer you want for your stories. The interviewee's enthusiasm should reach out and grab the audience from the customer case study or success story.
So how do you find these ideal evangelists for your stories?
Here are a few tips:
1. The customer shares his excitement with your sales and/or account reps. As the front line contacts with customers, sales and account reps often hear the customer's expressions of satisfaction first hand.
Remind reps that, for customer stories, you're on the lookout for customers that are genuinely enthusiastic - beyond just satisfied.
2. Truly committed customers refer your company to peers. If customers are already telling their peers at other companies about your cool new solution, then you know you have an evangelist on your hands.
Do what you can to maximize that relationship by keeping the customer happy and engaging him/her in marketing activities.
3. Evangelists are relatively talkative on pre-qualification interviews. Spend maybe 15 minutes talking to a potential case study candidate to scope out the customer's story - and the contact's personality - before deciding whether to feature the customer in a full story.
Is the contact relatively talkative, if not effusive, about the solution? Or, does the contact answer reluctantly in as few words as possible? The former option will result in the best quotes and information for your customer stories.
Look for personalities, not just strong stories.
4. The customer says yes to more than just a case study. When discussing featuring a customer in a story, don't just ask for the story.
If the customer agrees to a story, find out what else the customer is willing and able to do: a press release, speaking at an industry event, or taking one-on-one calls from a prospective customer.
Just make sure you note the customer's preferences and don't go beyond that. Otherwise your evangelist could start to sour from overuse.
If given various customers to choose from, always go with the one that "could sell this for you" and then let that customer do the talking for you in a story. It's much more credible coming from a customer than from your own sales reps.
Every day, we encounter new stories - on TV, in books, movies and magazines, and in discussions with others.
Nearly all of them build toward an end result, which isn't clear until you arrive there.
But in marketing, leading with the outcome gets the attention of distracted audiences.
Just this past week, Richard Fouts of Gartner presented the webinar, "How to Tell Better Marketing Stories."
In it, he offered three tips for telling stories well, with "start with the end of the story" as #1.
Here's an example:
If you saw the movie "Memento," you know that it famously starts with the end (a gory scene) before taking you on a wild ride to see how that end came about.
This technique works beautifully in customer case studies and success stories, but applied slightly differently (and with no gory outcome).
Here are two ways to lead with the end result in your customer stories:
Use your top headline to reinforce the most significant and important result that the customer achieved.
Let's look at a few sample headlines that showcase the end result...
"Sprint Nextel Grows E-mail Volume 30% in 2009 - and Maintains High Performance"
"Time Warner Cable Fills Revenue-Generating Jobs in Half the Time"
"Consumer-Driven Plan Saves Employer up to $75,000 Annually"
All three headlines spill the story's end to the audience right at the start. Then, just like Memento, the case study goes into how that came about.
An Intro Summary
In longer magazine features or even the evening news, the story often kicks off with a brief summary of what's to come - usually only a few sentences.
For each of its case studies, Microsoft includes a summary just under the headline, before the body copy starts.
Keep it short and to the point. Ideally, mirror the rest of the story in that single paragraph by briefly mentioning the main challenge, how it was solved and the
biggest benefit the customer experienced.
An example of the intro summary on a case study, from Microsoft...
Jelly Belly Candy Company has experienced rapid growth over the last decade, as the company expands into new geographies and product areas. The company installed an ERP system in 2007 and began work on a project for an accompanying customer relationship management system. However, after 18 months of work, Jelly Belly decided to abandon the project and look for a more stable system that would meet its core requirements more effectively. Working with Microsoft Gold Certified Partner Webfortis, Jelly Belly implemented Microsoft Dynamics CRM in two-and-a-half months, meeting core requirements, such as integration with the ERP system and creating a single view of customer information across the company. Jelly Belly uses the solution to strengthen relationships with customers and has reduced customer churn by at least 34 percent and added U.S.$60,000 each month in sales.
Do you "start with the end" in your case studies and success stories? Any other ways besides these two examples?
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