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

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.

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