My name is Erica Anderson, and I'm a Senior Practice Director at Influitive (Now, VP of Practice Management). In this article, I’ll show you how to build customer and advocacy programs that achieve the coveted win-win of furthering your business goals and creating value for your customers.

By the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll have a better understanding of the key pillars of a successful customer advocacy program, and some practical advice for kick-starting your program even if you don't have the budget for technology.

Before we dive in, I'll give you a quick snapshot of my background. I started my career in reference management. I loved working with customers and stakeholders from across the business but felt like it was pretty reactionary, and that we only really talked to customers when we needed something from them.

I was really excited to move into a more proactive role where I was focused on starting and growing our online community. From there, we expanded our events programs with regional user groups, customer conferences, and customer advisory boards (CABs). We also launched educational programs like webinars, and workshops and ask the experts.

While I was setting up and running these different programs, I noticed that many of the same customers would pop up again and again with so much energy, interest, and passion for our brand. This led me to start a new advocacy program, which is where I ran into Influitive.

I liked the product, team, and vision so much that in January of 2021, I joined Influitive, and I now serve their practice team. So you could argue I am an example of the highest form of advocacy.

Why is advocacy so important right now?

I'm not going to get super in-depth about why there's such a growth in advocacy and why your organization should be considering it today, but I want to touch on just a few main drivers for why advocacy is on the rise and why you're likely seeing more community customer marketing and advocacy roles in your LinkedIn feed.

The first reason, which you've probably heard, is that buyers don't trust traditional marketing and sales anymore. They're not even engaging sales until later in their sales cycle. As a result, companies are investing in advocacy programs to work with their customers to generate social proof that they can include in all of their marketing and sales efforts and help reach their target audience and establish trust through the voice of their peers.

The second reason is that there's a huge increase in subscription-based businesses. With a subscription-based business, there’s greater urgency to have customers see value in their initial trial or purchase so they upgrade and buy more.

Companies are heavily investing in improving their customer experience and helping customers be successful with their investment as soon as possible, as well as supporting them through expanding their usage. And as these Forrester stats testify, advocacy – the art and science of listening, collaborating, and partnering with your customers to improve your business – is good for the bottom line.

How to build an advocacy program

So you can set up your own advocacy program, there’s a three-phase process I want to take you through. A lot of companies come to us wanting all things advocacy, but we need to break it down and follow this process to get started. By following this process, you're going to develop a clear proposal for why you need a program, what type of program you should invest in, and what type of investment is required.

Keep in mind that you’re planning a customer program, not a one-off campaign. Your efforts here will lay the tracks for a train of engagement and value for both your organization and your customers for years to come.

Phase one: Define

Identify your goals, objectives, program type, and metrics

Phase one is all about definition. It's a critical stage because you're looking to identify and prioritize the type of advocacy your organization needs and why. As with any initiative, you want to start with the end in mind, ask what your organization is trying to achieve this year, and then figure out how your department is going to support that goal.

You need to understand what’s being done today in relation to that goal. What problems are you facing? This is so important for two reasons. The first is that all Design Thinking starts with a problem. To design a customer program, you need a clear picture of what customer problem you're solving for.

The second reason is that it's very easy to set a pie-in-the-sky goal that sounds like an industry-leading approach or mirrors what your competitor is doing, but you need a clear starting place and a realistic plan that’s anchored in your organization's current reality.

You'll likely have several goals, that's okay, just be sure to prioritize them. If everything is a top priority then nothing is, and it's very hard to define an effective and successful strategy that will help you get more resources to expand.

Member objectives: What will customers do to support your goal?

That leads us to the second portion, where we want to think through our objectives. Objectives are typically the specific projects that you want to complete to support an overarching goal. In a customer program, you need to shift your objectives to what you want your members to do in order to meet your goal.

For the sake of example, let's say that you're in marketing and your goal is to generate new revenue. There are so many possible member objectives that could help you towards this goal. You might want members to submit reviews or take reference calls, submit testimonials, participate in success stories, submit referrals, or share content or referral links on social media.

There are lots of different ways that customers can help meet your goal, so get specific and prioritize them beyond the broad advocacy umbrella. What are the specific behaviors you need members to do to meet your goal?

Who and what is available to help you?

From here, you want to find out who and what is available to help you achieve your goals. You can do this by meeting with other departments to understand their goals, challenges, KPIs, and how they currently engage customers. You might have a crystal clear focus on your goals and feel ready to move on, but it's critical to take time to meet with other teams.

The first reason this is so important is that if there's alignment between goals, it will be much easier to get other teams to support your program. That’s going to make your job easier and make your program's value proposition more compelling for your customers.

The second reason is part of the secret sauce. Your customers interact with your brand as a whole, so you need to see your program through your customers’ eyes. This will help you identify what the customers are and aren't getting from your organization and where your program could provide unique value to them. Throughout these conversations, you're also going to find existing processes and programs that you can leverage.

What program fits your goals and objectives?

At this point, you'll have a sense of what type of advocacy program you need to start with. For example, you might be thinking you need a CAB to gather feedback and inform company and product strategy, or maybe you need an executive sponsorship program to deepen relationships that support retention and expansion.

You could need an advocacy program to generate different forms of social proof, or a beta program to systematically improve your products and get early advocates before rolling them out more broadly. You could even create a community to deflect your support costs and gather product enhancements.

How will you measure this program?

From there, you'll select KPIs based on your program's objectives and your company goals. To continue with our example of generating revenue, if you decide to prioritize reviews, you might measure the number of reviews gathered as well as another metric tied to how you use reviews.

You might want to base your metrics on Customer Choice Awards, Magic Quadrant rankings, or leads from a campaign promoting the Magic Quadrant results. You could also look at A/B testing a campaign landing page to see how it performs when excerpts from reviews are included.

Whatever your KPIs are, you want to establish baselines so you can illustrate your program's impact and lay the foundation for growth, whether that growth means investing in headcount or scaling with technology.

Finally, make sure you have a system in place to measure your impact, even if it's just a spreadsheet.

Phase two: Design

Select your target market and structure your program

Phase two is all about design. This is where we're going to be selecting our target market and planning our program’s structure.

Which members will do those behaviors?

Now that you know your goals and what you need your members to do, you’ll want to intentionally select customers to target with your program.

For some simple examples, if you're looking to have high-level conversations about the direction of the market and where your solution fits in, you're probably going to want to talk with a higher-level person, like a VP or above. If you're looking for product feedback, you need people who are regularly using the product, likely even the champion or the administrator for an organization or a power user.

If you're looking for social proof, you want to focus on your happy, successful customers. If your goals are more around product adoption and retention, then you're likely looking at a program for all customers.

I’d strongly recommend talking with some real-life customers who fit your target market criteria in order to understand more about their role, their goals, and their pain points. You can't design a program for someone if you don't know what is meaningful to them. As much as possible, start with a narrow target, so you can tailor your program to resonate with a segment of your customer base, and not try to be all things to all people.

How will members complete these behaviors?

From here, we want to look at what needs to be in place in order for customers to participate in the desired behaviors we discussed earlier.

For each of your specific member objectives, map out their processes, including things like where the process starts and who does what throughout the process. You may also want to note additional criteria for specific opportunities. For example, maybe any customer can participate in your online community, but you have limited resources for case studies, so you're prioritizing target industries for those.

Now that you've outlined how customers are going to do the desired actions, you can identify opportunities to develop resources or define handoffs to help reduce the friction. You want to make it as easy as possible for customers to do the behaviors you want them to do.

What value will members receive by completing behaviors?

Now it’s time to think about how we can make it valuable for members to participate in these behaviors. What's in it for your target members? How is participating in these behaviors going to help reduce their pain and increase their gain? Understanding what's meaningful to them is going to help you here.

To do this, take each of your desired behaviors and make a couple of notes about the value of participating for customers. This is a good exercise that forces you to articulate the intrinsic value of the activities you're asking members to do. It also helps you check how compelling your program is. What are you asking from and giving to members? What is your program offering that they can't get anywhere else?

You'll probably need to invest in programming that will create value for your customers. Often, this comes in the form of helping them grow and meet their goals. By doing this, you'll be building relationships with your organization.

Let’s look at a few examples. If you're looking to set up a CAB and you know that networking and problem-solving are important to them, you'll likely want to dedicate a portion of your CAB agenda to customer roundtables and customer showcase presentations.

If you're running an advocacy program and pushing for a lot of reviews, that could get kind of repetitive over time. You might want to look at offering points for their efforts, which they can put towards swag, a conference pass, free training, or gift cards.

If you're setting up regular events, like new product overviews, ask me any things, or expert interviews, you're going to make your community a much more compelling place to go to than if it's just forums where they can ask questions – you're providing a lot more material for them to learn from and spark conversations.

Some behaviors are going to have a lot of intrinsic value. If a customer asks a question on your community platform and gets a quick response, that's incredibly helpful. But how are you going to make it valuable for the person who's answering the question? That’s something you need to think about.

Program value proposition

By engaging in this process, you’ll have the makings of your program's value proposition, which is core to your internal and external program communications. It should include why your program exists, who your program is for, what members do, what value they get, and a guide for new members on how to get started.

Phase three: Develop

Put the core pillars in place for your advocacy program

By phase three, you’ve defined and designed your program, and you're ready to move into the final step of outlining what’s going to be required to support the program.

Every program requires a combination of people, processes, and technology to come together to achieve its goals. As we look at each of these, remember that your organization already has some of what you need. Look at existing resources you can leverage, what you can build on, and what is missing and needs to be developed.

People: Common resourcing

From a people standpoint, it's very common to start with one person. This is typically someone in a management role or higher who starts the program. They need to be very strategic, with strong communication and relationship-building skills. They also need to be creative and organized.

It's vital that they're thinking bigger than just the initial program. They need to develop a plan, roadmap, or vision, and then execute it and prove the success so they can get more resources and start building out a bigger vision with more specialized roles.

Developing processes and harnessing tech

From a process and technology standpoint, here are some processes that are common in advocacy programs:

  • Internal communications, e.g. program overviews, sharing wins, and forms to request customers for advocacy opportunities
  • Recruiting and/or selecting members, e.g. invitations with triggers, application forms, approved/denied criteria, and terms and conditions
  • Member onboarding, e.g. NDAs and welcome calls
  • Facilitating desired member behaviors, e.g. public usage approval forms, forum guidelines, and feedback
  • Thanking and rewarding members, e.g. points towards reward and branded gear
  • Tracking and measuring KPIs, e.g. spreadsheets and custom CRM fields

Of course, the specifics will vary depending on what type of program you're starting, but between the work that you did earlier and this list, you can easily identify what is needed.

Here are some common technology requirements to support those processes:

  • Communication channels, e.g. email, newsletter, Slack, and Calendly
  • A list of members, including their names, titles, company, product usage, and advocacy interests
  • Reporting tools, e.g. spreadsheets or custom CRM fields
  • Program-specific requirements, e.g. internal forms for employees to request customer advocacy, online community forums, surveys, and rewards

If you don't have a budget, you can start a program with existing in-house tools and grow from there. However, requirements do tend to mature as people get weary of living in spreadsheets and emails and struggle to leverage existing data or share the data they're gathering.

Teams might also feel like they're overusing advocates and not systematically giving back. Or, they may feel that the program is going well, but they need to do more to scale and automate it above and beyond what their in-house tools can support. In these cases, they often look to invest in an advocacy and community platform like Influitive that can help take their program to the next level.

Your customer program portfolio

By engaging with the process I’ve described, you can plan the different types of customer programs that your organization might need. You might have one platform powering your customer programs, but you shouldn't have just one uber-customer program. You should have a holistic approach to your customer programs and develop different programs addressing distinct customer segments and their unique needs.

Let's look at some real-life examples and get a bit more tangible on how these programs come to life for each customer segment.

All-customer programs

Let’s start with the programs at the bottom of our pyramid, the ones that are open to all customers. You can build a kind of one-stop shop for the activities that all users can participate in.

These activities could include user forums, an area for customers to submit their product ideas and enhancement requests, and an events calendar highlighting upcoming virtual and physical events. You can also offer onboarding, training and certification programs, product announcements, and content that you would like them to read, such as customer stories to help them understand core use cases and best practices.

You may also want to use this platform to highlight industry news. You could have a job board for your customer base to use too. You could also offer regular feedback opportunities about how they're using the product. What’s more, this is a great place to gather feedback for a voice of the customer program or to track your NPS.

With a platform like Influitive, you can target your members with different opportunities based on their product usage, location, industry, or even something as simple as their NPS score. If they're a detractor, you might ask them for more feedback or notify their CSM. If they're a promoter, you could start sharing advocacy opportunities for them.

That brings us to our next customer segment: advocates.

Advocate customer programs

Let’s look at some opportunities and programs geared towards advocates. Reviews and references are great initial asks to help advocates get warmed up. Success stories in case studies, videos, and event sessions are also great ways to capture your advocates’ stories.

But there's so much more that your customers can do for you. They can provide testimonials for you to sprinkle into your website and email campaigns. There's beta or UX testing. They could also share content on social media or submit referrals for you.

It doesn't stop there. You can tap them for user-generated content, like use cases, templates, blog posts, or ROI studies. You can also do annual awards, which are a great way to recognize top customers and learn more about new customer stories.

You can be gathering first-party data about your customers for deeper insights, which will allow you to do more personalization and moments of delight with them. You might also want to offer mentor buddy programs so your most successful customers can take others along the same journey and give them the benefit of their expertise.

Elite customer programs

At the top level of our pyramid, we're focused on the elite customer programs. Elite customer programs are reserved for your most strategic customers, who you might select by current or potential revenue, because they're using priority products, or because they’re in a target industry.

You might also choose to make certain programs exclusive if they’re tied to a certain segment of the customer base, like your most strategic advocates or super users who answer tons of questions in your community and are really active in the broader ecosystem for your product. In those scenarios, there are usually certain criteria that have to be met.

For your elite customers, you could have exclusive channels to support your CABs and industry councils. You might also want to run campaigns to support executive events.

With our advocacy platform, you can leverage gamification with points, badges, levels, and leaderboards across all your different programs. You can also reward your customers for their participation by letting them redeem their points for rewards like company swag, free training, vouchers, charitable donations, free consulting sessions, golf with the CEO, and more.

Your rewards portfolio can be a delightful part of creating a unique and differentiated brand experience for your customers.

The low down...

Here's a low down of what was covered in this article. Erica identified that these three things are vital for building an advocacy program:

  1. Identify your goals
  2. Select your target market
  3. Get core pillars in place

And, oh look! Here's a nifty infographic to take with you.