Customer Reference Programs: Time To Embrace Social Media/Web 2.0

Customer reference management has moved from the sidelines to the mainstream of corporate marketing activity. This is good news for the dozens of customer reference management professionals who attended the February Customer Reference Forum in Berkeley, CA and participated in the 2009 survey. Why? Because authentic customer references help sales close business and marketing persuade analysts, press, and investors that corporate positioning and product claims are legitimate.

Yet, with dedicated budgets, headcount, and ties to business goals, now is not the time for customer reference managers to rest on their laurels. Customer reference management can play a vital, new role in executing a community-centered, socially-savvy communication strategy — one based on emerging Web 2.0 tools that blends online/offline experiences. This was the theme of the keynote presentation I  gave at the conference, revisited again in research published today on Forrester’s site, which you can access.

In the survey of customer reference professionals, jointly conducted by Forrester, the Customer Reference Forum, and Point of Reference, we found that — while meeting expectations and goals today — customer reference professionals need to tune up their Web 2.0 skills and take a more active role in setting social strategy because technology customers are a socially active group. Unfortunately, as you can see in the figure, B2B customer reference managers aren’t thinking along social lines today.

Less than 1/2 of respondents use social approaches in programs

Less than 1/2 of respondents use social approaches in programs

Customers want to engage in peer communities that help them successfully implement technology, produce new business capabilities, and gain competitive advantage. Getting customers to reference out of goodwill gets difficult without something to offer them in return. Combine the two, and watch private, gated business communities grow.

To get started on this path, I suggest customer reference managers take three key steps to socially-enable their programs:

  • Step 1: Create more opportunity for customers to engage socially. B2B marketers must encourage reference customers to interact with prospects and each other, share stories, and talk about the facts — like problem details, numbers, and specific steps they took to solve their issues. Social applications like wikis, ratings, and widgets give customers more ways to share ideas, content, and information in a structured, controlled manner without the overhead of formal publication and approval processes.
  • Step 2: Help references testify in virtual venues. To take advantage of emerging social business behavior, customer reference professionals and marketers need to move beyond the group setting and let references engage outside the boundaries of the formal program. Less than 30% of respondents let references build profile pages, guest blog, rate community-contributed content, or author wikis, activities that permit customers to strut their stuff in the online, virtual world and create broader connections.
  • Step 3: Use metrics that focus on engagement, not just activity. For creating new leads or enlisting participants, social tools earned accolades from less than 10% of respondents and make the social media effort seem hardly worth the effort. To capture the real value of social media in customer reference programs, customer reference managers should focus on how social touchpoints increase the quality (not quantity) of customer-to-prospect interactions, bump up participation intensity, and amplify topic discussions by prospects and references alike.

Check out the report and let me know what you think of my analysis and advice.  Are you engaged in customer reference management? Is social a part of your plans? Is this an area of research I should continue to pursue in 2009? Looking forward to the dialogue.

6 Responses to “Customer Reference Programs: Time To Embrace Social Media/Web 2.0”

  1. Ardath Albee Says:

    Thanks, Laura! I agree.

    The challenge then, for many, is how to create content that stimulates dialogue instead of just reading silently. It’s often tough to get B2B marketers to give up the feeds and speeds talk about their products. But it’s extremely fun when they do and see what’s possible in return.

    I’ve really enjoyed our discussion!
    Ardath

  2. Laura Ramos Says:

    Hi Ardath,
    Yes there are different techniques B2B marketers should use to reach out to prospects/customers depending on their social profile. But social profile – creators, critics, etc. — is only part of the picture. You have to also answer the question “what do you want to accomplish by engaging socially?” That’s where the “O” in the POST methodology comes in. Objectives determine how you attempt to change the nature of your relationship with customers as a result of engaging with them socially.

    Creator is an easy behavior for which to set strategy because people with this profile are so active. You can listen to Creators, talk with them, energize them, and embrace them. In fact, you can achieve any of the six social objectives we outline with Creators.

    The challenges come with Spectators and Inactives — where you can’t listen because they are not “speaking” for example. So knowing you have a lot of Spectators means you have to focus on Talking as an objective — or think of creative ways to get them to move from being Spectators to Collectors or Critics. So you can’t determine your “S” strategy — techniques, using your term — until you understand P and O.

    I think the conversation in social media always has to be a dialogue — the content and activity needs to focus on what matters to the buyers, not to the firm. Social Technographics is only one tool for figuring out how to engage potential buyers in conversation — personas and profiling buyer purchase behavior are two others.

    My point is this: I think too many B2B marketers are using social media as yet another outbound channel for broadcasting messages. Few care about what you have to say about your products and services. What they care about is this: can you help them solve their problems and are you committed to becoming a long term partner. Social media is about showing that commitment long before customers sign the purchase order. And you are so right, it takes patience, time, and dedication to create that kind of relationship. Especially online where signals like eye contact and a firm handshake are harder to read.

  3. Ardath Albee Says:

    Thanks, Laura!

    Patience is also a factor. I see a lot of B2B companies looking for the fast payoff. In a social context, the equivalent of thinking about what you want to say next while someone is talking. Instead of being present in the conversation. But conversations and relationships take time, attention and dedication.

    So here’s my next question, since you asked :-)

    Would you say there are different techniques B2B marketers should use if they determine the customers they’re reaching out to for references are creators and critics vs. joiners and spectators?

    Based on the Groundswell profile tool, it appears – for IT buyers anyway – that most of them are spectators. So how do you recommend the conversation should shift if marketers are trying to engage spectators in dialogue?

    I think this may be where pass along value from influencers who may be higher up the social “ladder” can be encouraged. Are you seeing that type of effort occurring or having impact?

    Thanks for letting me put you on the spot. I find this fascinating.
    Ardath

  4. Laura Ramos Says:

    Hi Ardath, good to hear from you and thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think it is less that companies are overtly trying to control the conversation and more that the customer reference function is operating from an old model. They are still measured on how well they sign up customers to act as references, not on how they build relationships. They are just waking up to the opportunities that social channels provide, many that you mention in your post.

    I see B2B marketers struggle with how to embrace social activity among customers. They are used to being in charge, but the groundswell puts customers in charge. So how do you gracefully join the conversation without looking like you are trying to take over it? With any new trend, there are some that are ahead of the curve but most are still trying to decide what to do about customers talking to each other. They think the solution is to start with the technology — put up a social community site and see who shows up — rather than taking a more purposeful approach, one where they ask “who do I want to engage socially?”, “what is the best way to do that?”, and “what should I expect in return.”

    Great question. Keep them coming.

  5. Ardath Albee Says:

    Hi Laura,

    I find it interesting that companies are still trying to control their customer’s ability to, as you say, “testify in virtual venues.” They’re going to do it anyway, so companies can enable that in partnership, or spend their time responding to it, if they have the right listening in place.

    There are a lot of opportunities to engage customers “socially.” They can invite them to write guest posts on their blogs, interview them and reach out and comment on those customers’ own blogs or via Twitter or even via discussions on LinkedIn.

    Quality is definitely more important than quantity. Great point often overlooked. And, empowering customers to speak freely in their own voice – sans control by vendors – is part an parcel of increasing engagement.

    All that said, are you seeing B2B companies move more toward loosening control and facilitating conversations or trying to control them and having to find and then insert themselves (sometimes not so successfully) into those dialogues?

    Great insights, thanks!
    Ardath

  6. As Social Technologies Become Pervasive, Prepare Your Company « Web Strategy by Jeremiah Owyang | Social Media, Web Marketing Says:

    [...] reference programs recognize that unfiltered customer opinions are happening beyond their [...]


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