Starting a customer advocacy program sounds exciting and yet a little scary at the same time. It’s likely never been done before at your organization and you have a lot of questions. How do you find customer advocates, will they want to participate, how will you measure results and the impact of your efforts?

In this post, I’ll share my story and advice having launched the customer advocacy program at HubSpot, and share six tips for building a successful program that drives results across a range of key organizational objectives.

My story: who am I and why advocate marketing

My name is Victoria LaPlante and I am an advocate marketer.

Advocate Marketing origin story: Back in 2012, I landed my dream job as an inbound marketing consultant (sales rep) at HubSpot, a rapidly growing, pre-IPO, marketing automation company based in Boston. We had a big aspirational goal — to change the way the world does business through inbound marketing.

With a background in educational sales, I joined the Nonprofit and Higher Ed sales team. It was challenging to sell to this particular segment at the time. Nonprofits usually don’t have a ton of funding, and academia tends to have a lot of red-tape to get past in order to implement new software and technologies.

One month, I was one deal away from making or breaking my quota for the entire quarter (no pressure!). A potential client came to me the very last day of the month ready to buy, with one final criteria — if I could provide them with a customer reference.

Normally, we would send clients case studies and product reviews to show them what makes our customers successful. We rarely set up reference calls at the time. It just wasn’t a part of our established process.

But the client was insistent on talking to a real customer.

After practically begging my manager to help me find a customer who would do a call, we found one willing to help out. Her name was Elise Meyer, the Director of Marketing at Thunderbird Online University and she happily accepted.

The very next morning after the call — which also happened to be the last day of the quarter — I woke up to an email saying the new contract was signed.

Elise also sent me a glowing email, saying how thrilled she was to be able to help out and share her experience with our new client. She also told me never to hesitate about asking for her help in the future.

The idea came to me suddenly and I had one of the biggest light-bulb moments of my career. 💡

I BET there were many more super-fans, like Elise, in our customer base who we could use to speak with prospects and help convince them to sign up by sharing their success stories and advice. I knew then that if we just had a system for finding and engaging these hidden brand advocates, it could be a game-changer for HubSpot.

Moving from burned-out references to active brand advocates

Fast forward one year, I joined the marketing dept as a founding member of the Sales Enablement team. I was tasked with launching a customer reference program and was excited because I knew it would mean working with our brand advocates and helping out my friends in sales hit their quotas.

For a while, we had about a dozen or so VIP references that I used over and over again. Although these customers were happy to help, they eventually got tired of having the same conversations with new prospects and the burn-out was beginning.

Many of them had also purchased our product years earlier, which meant they weren’t familiar with our new onboarding processes. This was a problem because it was something prospects often wanted to discuss.

Given our aggressive growth goals as we planned our IPO, our global sales team was about to DOUBLE and I knew we needed a way to scale our reference program to match. I was then on a mission to uncover new references and make the existing ones we had feel more appreciated.

I also knew we could offer our brand advocates more opportunities to interact with us than just doing reference calls. They could engage with us even further by providing referrals, testimonials, and product feedback, too.

Instead of launching separate programs for each of these initiatives, I knew we needed technology to help scale and reach hundreds of brand advocates instead of just the 25 VIPs I engaged with on a daily basis. I brought in Influitive’s AdvocateHub platform to launch a unified brand advocacy initiative at HubSpot. It could help us engage more customers at scale and offer them a variety of advocacy activities — including our two main goals: references and referrals.

How advocacy programs lead to success

In the two years that followed the launch of the program, I had the unique opportunity to engage with thousands of brand advocates from across the globe.

Our advocate marketing program helped my team:

  • Scale customer references from 2–3 calls per month to 25–40 per month.
  • Influence millions of dollars in revenue and sales pipeline from referrals and references. My data even proved that referrals closed at 3X higher rates than regular inbound leads.
  • Increase our presence on product reviews on sites such as G2 Crowd and TrustRadius. (Thanks to our advocates, we had more reviews on G2 Crowd than our top two competitors combined and were ranked #1 in multiple key categories.)
  • Boosted our overall customer NPS score.
  • Drove hundreds of thousands in upsell and cross-sell opportunities.

How can you pull this off at your company?

Here are my top six tips for creating an engaging advocacy program that drives results.

My top 6 lessons for building a successful advocacy program

1. Get your biggest advocates to do a beta test

When starting a new advocate community, begin with a beta test. Send invites to your top 20–50 known advocates. (This group already loves you and won’t mind if you make a mistake!)

Here are a few places to find your happiest customers:

  • Identify your NPS promoters
  • Contact people who have recently acted as a reference or have done a case study
  • Ask account managers to forward emails from happy customers to your team
  • Enlist customers who have given you a positive online review

Next, ask this group for feedback on your program. I scheduled a private webinar with the beta group of advocates and presented the program, explained the activities involved and the benefits of joining. Implement their suggestions before your invite your larger group of customers so you really get your program’s value proposition right.

2. Continue to ask for advocates feedback regularly

A successful advocacy program calls for an open dialogue between your company and your customers.

Many of your best ideas will come directly from them. When they recommended a change to your program, make it happen!

I also recommend starting a monthly Ask Me Anything, where advocates can speak directly with your leadership team. This is a great tactic to get your executives involved in the program, capture feedback, and better understand the voice of your customers.

3. Get internal buy-in with quick wins first

Meet with other teams to get them on board with the program. Research what their top goals or objectives are, and then think about how your advocates could help move the needle.

For example, your product development team probably wants customer feedback on their product roadmap. Showcase a new product, tool, or feature and ask advocates for feedback to show your team how quickly you can collect feedback. Not only will they see the value you’re bringing to the whole company with your program, but it will also turn them into an internal champion for the program — which brings me to point #4…

4. Engage internal champions and get them to contribute to your program

You can’t be the sole cheerleader for advocacy within your company. Having other departments contribute ideas, content, and activities for your program will make it more robust and enjoyable for your advocates.

Here are some ways to engage internal champions on other teams to improve and grow your program:

  • Send a monthly newsletter to employees. Share success metrics and ask for advocacy ideas.
  • Set up quarterly meetings with executives to talk about how your program is supporting multiple departments and key initiatives.
  • Ask account managers to promote your program to customers and consistently nominate new advocates.

5. Find ways to track advocacy program ROI

If you want your colleagues and C-suite to commit to and support your advocacy program vision, you must continually show how it drives business value.

Every month, keep a record of your referrals, references, upsells, renewals — anything advocates do that impacts revenue. Then, compare it against the costs of running the program (e.g. rewards, admin time, software costs) to determine program ROI. (You can see the template I used below with some dummy numbers.)


Pop your own numbers into this template to instantly prove the value of advocacy programs to your team.

Download here

For a deeper level of analysis, take program costs and compare to your regular marketing funnel campaign ROI. Seeing the juxtaposition of the two figures side by side will help your execs realize that investing in advocacy programs is a no-brainer!

6. Customize your advocates’ experience

The content in your program should be presented to advocates in a way that optimizes their experience.

If you’re using an AdvocateHub, group relevant content or types of advocacy requests and activities together. This way, advocates can choose the types of activities and content that interest them the most and they can create their own custom user experience. Here is a screenshot of what our own AdvocateHub looks like:

Influitive’s AdvocateHub

Consider the following groups:

  1. Main Highlights — the best place to showcase big perks that are exclusive to your advocate community, like interacting with your team.
  2. Product Feedback — a spot for giving — you guessed it — all kinds of product feedback.
  3. Advice — an area for advocates to connect and share best practices with one another.
  4. References — where advocates can take on reference requests from your sales team.
  5. Education — a spot for advocates to focus on learning new skills and checking out all of your educational resources.
  6. Coffee break — a spot for fun stuff to break up business-related content and keep things entertaining.

If you have a global community of advocates, make sure you customize your user’s experience based on your major geographical segments. If you can, have content that is translated to the advocate’s own regional language and offer rewards specific to their location like upcoming events or country-specific giftcards.

The business impact of advocacy

In the summer of 2017, I made the big decision to start a new chapter in my career and further pursue my passion for customer advocacy by joining Influitive, the category creators of customer advocacy. While it was a little scary to leave HubSpot after 5 years and pivotal career lessons that taught me so much and helped me grow as a marketer, words of encouragement from mentors of mine such as Mike Volpe, my old boss and former HubSpot CMO, made me confident I was on the right path.

I reached out to a few customer advocates that I had developed close relationships with over the years. Their response to my big news was the ultimate reward as an advocate marketer. I received an outpouring of love from our brand advocates, who had become my own personal advocates.

One wrote,

I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for me… The doors you opened for me, the experiences you gave me, the introductions you made for me — I hope you realize the full magnitude of the impact you’ve had on my professional life, and I’m sure many others’ as well.Aaron Mandelbaum, Founder & CEO SMB Advisors

Making these kinds of meaningful connections with customers is what drives me to be an advocate marketer every day.

Reach out if you want to learn more about customer advocacy or are interested in starting to build your own advocate program for your organization — it can change the entire trajectory of your career, and I hope you’ll join me on this advocacy adventure! ❤ I can be found here on LinkedIn.

The original publication of this article can be found here.