Helping brands earn fans
Customer Marketing | Employee Engagement
These days customer marketing -- including customer engagement and advocacy -- often collaborate with customer success department efforts. In fact, customer marketing may sit within the customer success department. This is not uncommon, especially in business-to-business (B2B) software organizations.
Having these disciplines' separated as different, though related, functions is often how mid-market and/or enterprise level B2B software organizations operate. This makes some sense, as these sized organizations likely have more resources (financial and human) to operate and scale these functions within their organization, and at various customer interaction levels (i.e. tech touch, low touch, and high touch).
But I think many smaller B2B companies are seeing the effects of the pandemic on their own business economy and understand that building a repeatable process to accelerate customers' success using their products/services while engaging and cultivating those customers into trusted partners and brand advocates, can help weather similar storms in the future.
In other words, I think even smaller businesses are realizing they need some level of customer marketing and customer success to compete in the latest, and forthcoming post-COVID, version of the customer economy.
But how does a small B2B organization employ customer marketing and/or customer success functions with little headcount and even less budget?
Well, I think smaller B2B organizations will start to develop a hybrid version of tech touch customer marketing and customer success that will help engage and cultivate customers into brand advocates, but also drive customer community collaboration (i.e. peer-to-peer help from customer to customer towards success with the product).
We already see this in larger mid-market and enterprise organizations, but it's usually a combination of tech touch, low touch, and high touch customer interactions across the customer marketing and customer success functions. The effect of their impact ripples through the support department, product development, and of course sales and marketing.
Building successful relationships with your customers who want to advocate on behalf of your brand becomes a force multiplier in an organization's marketplace credibility, growth, and revenue. However, such efforts are not a quick win. Just like any relationship it takes time to build appropriate trust to then leverage that trust for mutual benefit, gain, and success.
Like inbound marketing in the recent past allowing smaller organizations to compete with larger, better resourced companies via content and SEO, customer marketing and customer success practices can help smaller organizations survive otherwise devastating economic blows from unforeseen forces.
This is because, if you have a community of customers who love your brand, that advocacy helps insulate you from customer churn while helping accelerate customers' success with your products/services and expanding/extending their lifetime value to your organization. This also supplies your brand with more marketplace credibility, which makes sales and marketing growth goals easier to achieve.
The trickiest part for small B2B companies leveraging some form of customer marketing and customer success is getting creative with limited resources to define and successfully execute an effective strategy. When headcount, finances, and tools (tech stack) are limited it takes the right kind of marketer to put even a simple solution, using ubiquitous, often disparate, tools together.
However, it is possible, and I believe you'll end up seeing more technology tools become available in the next several years designed specifically for the SMB space to scale and automate more of their customer marketing and customer success functions.
Recently I was on LinkedIn and a newly minted connection asked about my professional pursuits. I described that I'm a customer marketer among other things, and she asked what I meant by "customer marketer."
This isn't the first time I've been asked this question, and it makes sense that it's coming up more now (as the COVID-19 pandemic is still going) and companies are looking to double down on their current customer base to retain them and their associated revenue.
Customer Marketing is a specific discipline within marketing. It really grew out of B2B software organizations. Think of subscription software (SaaS offerings) where customers subscribe to use a software application, but because it's subscription based, and the fact that there are competing software products providing similar services/outcomes, customers can leave at any time fairly easily, and with less financial repercussions than in the past.
In the past, it was harder for customers of a software product to move on after making a hefty upfront investment in the software solution, and they owned it, and needed to maintain it - a very expensive arrangement for the customer.
Now the software organization owns the burden of the software solution's backend infrastructure and maintenance, which is why it's less expensive to "own" for a customer, or rather rent for a monthly subscription fee.
Today, the customer isn't so heavily invested, at least not financially, in the software product like they were in the past when they had to buy and own it outright. This is helpful news for customers, but it means that the burden to retain customers using the software falls to the solution provider because the choice to switch software solution providers is no longer purely financial.
In other words, the customer can more cheaply leave one software subscription for another and potentially still have spent less money than what it would have cost to buy and implement the software like in past models. The customer is no longer bound to keep using an outdated solution simply because it's not cost-effective to switch and buy another.
This caused a problem for Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) providers. Enter: churn.
Churn is when a customer leaves and their subscription revenue is lost by the software provider because of their departure. A SaaS based solution provider thrives on predictable recurring revenue, which means it needs to know how many subscribers they have, what they're currently paying per month, and, if the organization is successful in keeping those customers next month, the software company's month-over-month revenue should be X.
That little bit, "if the organization is successful in keeping those customers next month," is where both the Customer Success and Customer Marketing disciplines in software organizations came from.
Software companies are full of innovative, smart people, so they decided to solve for this issue. Enter: Customer Success.
Customer Success Managers (CSMs) became this post-sale hybrid of customer service reps, product coaches, marketers, and inside sales reps for a small group of customers in a CSM's book of business. The idea is that the CSM would build a trusting relationship with the software customer and help that customer become successful adopting and using the software as intended for their organization.
That bit, "help that customer become successful," is where Customer Marketing launched forth.
Customer Marketing as a whole benefits an entire software organization from Customer Success, Support, and Product departments, to Marketing and Sales.
To keep customers from churning Customer Success is trying to help their customers accelerate their adoption of and success with their software solution - reduce time to value. The faster customers realize value and validate their reason for purchasing this software the more trust is built between the customer and the software solution provider, and the likelier it is that the customer won't churn.
Customer Marketing takes this a step further by building processes and practices to provide air-cover (constant engagement and touchpoints for the customer to aid their individual growth and acceleration with the products and with their peers and counterparts who are also using the product).
This creates consistent valuable engagement between customers and software providers aiding the acceleration of trust between the two parties. This is also where communities form around a software brand/product and its customers - the software and the outcomes it provides is a shared purpose/pursuit for customers (and the software provider for that matter). Customer Marketing works to cultivate that trust with customers over time by providing added value related to and around the software through ongoing engaging activities and interactive communications.
Those ongoing engaging activities and interactive communications provide customers with:
All those elements of ongoing engagement and interactive communications over time lead to successful customers who trust in their software provider because they're engaged as humans, individuals bound by a shared software solution, and that trust eventually turns into advocacy - customers' advocacy for a software solution and brand.
A customer's advocacy at that level is invaluable because now the Customer Marketer can present opportunities for that customer advocate to further their own thought leadership on a topic they're now already passionate about so they want to share their success story with others to evangelize the software and the brand.
At this point, the software company has not only helped to solve its churn issue, it's now fostered an avenue to capture voice-of-the-customer progress and success stories via its advocates. Customer Marketing can leverage those advocates to co-create customer story video assets, case studies, user groups, product councils, mentoring programs, provide reference customers to prospects considering purchasing the software, etc...
All things that not only put customers center stage to recognize their hard work and successes with the software product, but also to have a positive network effect across the software organization's whole operation with a focus on the customer. Such a focus will help to increase customer retention, growth, and revenue.
Here are some examples of that network effect across a software company's operations:
Customer Marketing is a simple concept, but it is complex to implement and execute well so that a real and transparent, trusted partnership between a brand and its customers can form.
The idea of Customer Marketing is to build trust in a customer-centric way. It's a deliberate focus on partnering with one's customers to co-create value with, and for, one another. This builds longer term relationships with customers, which accelerates customers' adoption and success with the product, which increases renewal rates (reducing churn), provides peer-to-peer customer networking and support, leads to easier up-sells/cross-sells and overall an extended/increased life-time value of customers...
Ultimately, it's cultivating the desire for a customer and their software partner to want to support each other's success.
However, a software organization cannot reach the kind of Customer Marketing state described above without getting their own house in order. To do that they need to partner with their employees to create a positive, trusting, and humane environment that cannot help but engage its employees to want to band together and create a brand-differentiating company culture.
When that's in place, executing Customer Marketing is way easier because employees truly want the company to be successful and partner meaningfully with customers. But that's a post for another time.
A quarterly list of 3 books to read to help improve your B2B customer marketing knowledge and skills.
Here are last quarter's recommended books, in case you missed them.
Here's how it works:
Happy reading! Tune in next time for another set of book recommendations!
B2B brands want to build deeper relationships with their customers. The kind of relationships that go beyond transactions...a trusted partnership. A mutual respect and caring for the benefit of one another.
This is a nice sentiment, and it is achievable, but the proof is in the putting, or rather actions speak louder than words.
Unfortunately, many brands say they want to be customer-centric, but what they really want are the rewards of customer-centricity while only paying lip service to what it takes to actually grow a mutually beneficial partnership with customers.
It's easier now, more than ever, for customers to call bull shiitake on such rues and take their share of wallet elsewhere.
So how do you build an infrastructure to start scaling this customer relationship building process?
First, it all starts with people. You have to ensure your own house is in order before you worry about building deep reciprocal relationships with your customers. If you take care of your own employees, those employees will take care of your customers, and profits will take care of themselves.
That being said, once you find yourself in a position ready to wrap some tools and processes around your efforts to cultivate better customer relationships and ultimately customer advocacy at scale, you'll want to understand exactly what those tools and processes will help you (or rather, your customers) achieve.
What actual incentives do your customers enjoy (physical rewards, swag, etc.), but for the long haul, what intrinsic value are your customers seeking by building a partnership with you, your organization and brand? Also, how/where do your customers participate in this relationship-building realm.
So essentially, having some sort of scaleable online platform is a likely ideal tool to reach many customers and/or have them interact with one another (peer-to-peer, which is vitally important - you're not the only one, or in some cases, even the best, at answering questions about your company's products/services/use cases).
At the least, do you have an online platform that allows your customers...
To answer yes to all the questions above may be as simple as connecting with your customers via an email newsletter, or a LinkedIn customer group. You might be able to advance the group and its collective benefits with more specific tools like, a community platform or a gamified advocacy platform.
Regardless, if you can answer the above questions and make the customer experience to participate in it straight-forward and simple, you and your customers will start to reap the benefits of building a meaningful partnership together, at scale.
And to drive the point of such a platform (whatever you choose to use, and where ever you decide to start, or graduate to), the delight and initial value of participating is the doorway to your customers doing much more, sticking around longer, and eventually becoming your brand's advocates.
The following is photo of a section of George Howard's book, Everything in its Right Place, which is about blockchain technology in the music industry. Howard references how the Internet of Things (IoT) will lead its adoption by way of Amazon's Echo (voice activated) device as a music player.
I point it out because it illustrates how a customer platform needs to be "dead-simple" in solving a very basic yet needed/wanted challenge for your customer (to learn about your industry/product/services and/or connect to peers in the same boat) to be able to draw them in, and then likely, if initially delighted enough, they will stick around and explore other things leading to more intrinsic value, trust, and a deeper partnership over time.
Post by Nick Venturella
While the concept of customer marketing is not new the dedicated discipline of it in a B2B setting is still relatively new.
As a result, if you're trying to learn and apply all the lessons you can grasp related to customer marketing you may be falling shorter than you'd like if you lack access to the few good mentors that exists in this discipline.
There is another way to gain mentorship from talented customer marketers, though...
Books can serve as a great alternative to connecting with mentors when you don't have direct access to such experienced professionals.
With that said, I'm introducing to you a quarterly customer marketing recommended reading list.
Tune in next time for another three recommended books!
Posted by Nick Venturella
What’s the quickest way for you to have affinity to a brand you use?
By having a positive experience with that brand, it’s products or services.
What’s involved with having a good experience?
Getting your problem solved? Sure.
Getting value for the price you paid? Sure.
More importantly, it’s having an experience that evokes a positive emotion, one that evokes trust -- meaning your experience met or exceeded your expectations so you trust the brand that provided the experience, and you felt more closely connected to that brand as a result of your positive experience.
As a customer, this kind of brand affinity is further extended when you can share your experience with others, especially others who have also engaged with that same brand, and who have had a similar experience. When that happens, you’re immediately connected to another individual by association with the brand. This is how the network effect in a community surrounding a brand can start, and advocates are born.
Smart companies set up opportunities to help their customers not only accelerate their successes with their products/services but to capitalize on meeting and exceeding their customers’ expectations with the added value of inviting them to meet, network, and educate their peers (other customers) who have shared a similar experience with the brand.
This is how social media groups around a topic, or product thrive. It's how musicians build dedicated fan bases, and it's how your company can also build a loyal following.
This advocacy effect can be leveraged to the mutual benefit of both the customer and the company. However that only takes place if you why and how advocacy happens. Then reverse engineer that journey that advocating customers take to make sure your organization is appealing to the kinds of experiences your customers are consciously, or subconsciously, looking for that will lead to their affinity of your brand and them becoming advocates in time.
So what are some of those customer journey milestones that lead a current customer to become an advocate?
(Side note: Read David Meerman Scott and Reiko Scott's book, Fanocracy for some additional in-depth thoughts and case studies around these ideas)
When you create a string of positive experiences that have an emotional appeal to your customers, you continue to build trust with them over time, and you continue to partner with them -- partnering with your customers goes well beyond a monetary transaction.
That partnership leads to your customers' affinity for you, your products or services, and your brand overall. That's how customer advocates are cultivated over time. The result is successful, happy customers that will defend your brand and help you sell to new customers, as well as extend the mutual lifetime value of their own relationship with you.
And it's just good business.
Posted by Nick Venturella
Yes, there is this world-wide pandemic called COVID-19, or the coronavirus, as of this writing.
It’s not good.
It’s affecting everyone.
People are doing what they can to stay and work from home for public health and safety reasons.
However, businesses, that are employers and their individual employees, still need to keep working to the best of their ability because all parties need to continue earning income for basic living and operations expenses.
From an organizational business standpoint, Customer Marketing, Customer Success, Customer Experience and Advocacy are all about partnering with your customers to build a human relationship that thrives together vs. simply being transactional.
Now, more than ever, a human first approach is needed.
By no means am I trying to minimize what’s currently going on, the hardships many are facing as a result of COVID-19, and/or the impact this will all have mentally and financially once this thing is over…
…However, that being said…
Those organizations that can keep their heads, stay transparent with their customer-partners, and work together with those customers to build bridge solutions that extend each other’s solvency will emerge stronger on the back end of this, and be in a better position for a more expedient recovery.
Here’s what’s key in Customer Marketing Crisis Communications
Those people and organizations who are there in clutch situations are remembered with deeper regard and loyalty when the dust settles.
posted by: Nick Venturella
While social media and digital marketing disciplines will still be needed in 2020, there is a fatigue that is occurring among the audiences of those marketing tactics.
More specifically, so much messaging is scheduled or AI or something automated that it can often keep the human connections of the people involved in B2B organizations (marketers/sellers and buyers) at arm’s length from one another.
Given this state of automated, often-non-human message bombardment, how do B2B marketers cut through the clutter to be heard and generate positive results?
In a word: balance.
In my opinion there’s really one umbrella concept that you need to focus on to determine the right balance of all the other key areas underneath that concept...
What I mean by this is, your organization needs to build partnerships internally and externally that are mutually beneficial to create a self-sustaining and scalable ecosystem of market potential.
In regular speak: start with your own network of employees, partners, and customers to create genuine win-win situations that brings value to what each party cares about. This is not a new concept, but it’s needed now more than ever.
That means, starting to invest where you are vs. only being heavy handed towards demand generation. If you currently invest 80% of marketing budget in demand gen. and 20% elsewhere to build relationships and partnerships across your organization’s current network (employees, partners, customers), consider changing that to 70% / 30%, or even 60% / 40%.
Your organization’s current network is where you can begin to gain depth and eventually more scalable reach due to the network effect of cultivating advocates over time. To cultivate advocates over time is simple: build mutually beneficial relationships with those humans in your organization’s network over time – always be trying to give great unexpected value, and it will come back to you in spades. This practice will help drive forward and upward the success of all involved.
How this drives everyone’s success forward and upward is by caring about the success of the people involved in each area as much, if not more, than the wealth of your own organization. (If you take care of the people involved, wealth will come. Here’s a Harvard Business Review article that highlights this effect.)
The basic idea is that your organization’s brand stands for something, and your products/services help your target audience achieve something, so then the question is, how can you bring additional value to others beyond “I have a problem and you have a solution,” with a real human relationship?
The idea is to elevate the connections your organization’s network has far beyond the capabilities of the product or service you sell to build meaningful and fruitful relationships.
Also, and this is crucial, you have to actually and authentically care about these partnerships (and if you care about the success of your business you will care about these partnerships on a human-to-human level – people run businesses, and people buy from people, period).
Because more and more people in this digitally chaotic world are craving trusted human interactions – and they can still be online interactions, just more human-to-human vs. bots – the power in driving market growth is in building relationships that build community where that community trusts one another to give their attention to one another learning and improving because of one another around a common purpose, brand or product, but it’s less about the entity that’s bringing them together and more so about the collective outcome of expanding one’s trusted network and ecosystem of human connections.
This is where concepts of Employee Engagement, Partner Marketing, Customer Experience, Customer Success, Customer Marketing and Advocacy come into play. They all exist to leverage and scale an organization’s current network, which can’t even begin to provide dividends for anyone involved until trust is built and real human relationships are cultivated.
Whether you are a musician cultivating true fans or a SaaS based tech enterprise cultivating customer advocates, to scale your word-of-mouth marketing and sales efforts the key is to first provide value to your customers to engage them and, over time, cultivate them into advocates.
You can’t have advocates without engagement, and you can’t have engagement without providing some level of consistent value to your customers.
Now, this was part of the inbound marketing concept, and still is, but instead of just providing a free valuable download for some level of customer data, the back and forth communication is now in real-time and it’s an ongoing conversation – not just 1:1 (you and your customer). It’s now also peer-to-peer between your customers and those in your customers’ networks – they’re talking with each other to share experiences and best practices about you, your product or service, online for all to see and review.
That may seem a bit overwhelming to manage, but that is the point: it is not something you can completely control. You have to build a strategy to participate in partnership with your customers to join the conversation. Doing so provides you the best opportunity to help guide the narrative in a truly mutually beneficial way that is win-win for your customer and you (notice the order of those words “your customer” is first, then “you”).
In that process if you make a point to always first bring value to your customers when you communicate with them, customers will more often than not rise to the occasion to advocate on your behalf. That’s the simplicity of the win-win relationship that starts with engagement – not only your customers’ engagement, but yours as well. You have to authentically want your customers to succeed with or without your product/service...and certainly far beyond your product.
Why is this sort of engagement important?
Your engaging with your customers in a provide-value-and-connect-authentically-because-you care-about-your-customers’-success sort of way not only endears you to your customers, but when word gets out about how you operate in this way you will begin to attract others to you. That means more brand exposure, new business, and more advocates.
So how can you begin to foster that kind of engagement?
There are plenty of voice-of-customer software platforms that help you more easily cultivate your customers into advocates at scale, and fairly quickly, however, if you’re small or operating on little to no budget there are simple tools available to help. In fact, I would argue that it’s more about your strategy, approach, and starting where you are currently at than the specific tools you use.
However, if you can clearly define how you’ll measure your customer advocacy success and even attribute ROI dollars to it, you’ll be able to more easily justify the cost of specific platforms and tools that will help you scale your efforts to drive even more value for your customers and your organization. Things like, calculating the cost-savings of deflecting support tickets with peer-to-peer networking and best practices sharing, or the amount of new, closed/won business that was brought over the finish line by a customer reference.
When there is a will there is a way…
If nothing else, start with communicating to your customers via an email list. Ask your customers in an email how you can help provide more value to them beyond your products and services. Specifically, let them know you would like to create a partnership with them for your mutual benefit.
Ask your customers:
Then invite those customers who respond to invite their coworkers and colleagues to participate in a partnership whereby you communicate regularly with your customers (again tools matter less than strategy here) via email, social media, online groups, whatever you have to use, and consistently present your customers with opportunities to do all the things you asked them about in those questions above, and if you use the suggestions they provided you, you’ll get more participation.
It may be slow going at first, but anything new typically doesn’t start out as a huge success, but if you keep at it and are able to track and identify the impact such efforts are having for your organization, you’ll be in a far better position to justify better tools that make this effort more efficient to scale with great ROI. However, that can't happen without a good strategy first.
Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) may help your business succeed now and in the future, but Customer Intelligence (C.I.) will always win.
Here’s what I love about the business discipline of customer experience, customer engagement, customer success and advocacy it’s all about using communication to build relationships at scale, but not just any type of relationship, we’re talking about trusted, human relationships.
How do you appeal to an individual human when you are trying to build such relationships at scale?
The answer is that you speak to, and connect with, the individual. Companies are not people. People run companies.
Even if you don’t have the resources to buy fancy technology that helps you easily scale the presentation of personalized communication or information tracks to your fans and customers, you can be personal in your content by writing it as if you are writing to an individual — your target audience. This is the kind of individual with whom you know your message will resonate to help advance the relationship while bringing value to them.
A key is ensuring you’re messages bring value to the recipient without expectation of anything in return…
Or, if you do expect something in the return, that return needs to have less perceived weight in its value, take less energy, or time on the part of the recipient than the value you are providing to them.
Oh, and frame it as an opportunity, not a favor. Favors are not advocacy, they burn people out. Favors make advocates avoid you. Did I mention, don’t ask for favors?
Why is all this important if you’re a solo-practitioner, creative entrepreneur, or even a publicly traded enterprise SaaS business?
Ever since the internet came along — the second marketing rebellion, according to Mark Schaefer — the power of information transferred from companies to customers.
Customers are in control of the purchasing and buying cycles like never before. They research information and ask peers for recommendations rapidly, and in far reaching ways across the internet.
This leads to the lack of control companies have in their marketing — what Schaefer refers to as the third marketing rebellion.
Now, customers are not only in control of buying cycles, but in many ways, the marketing messages themselves because that’s what they trust — hearing from peers and others like them, not the companies producing the solutions.
So, what does this mean for you and/or your company’s marketing efforts?
It means, you have to determine how best to operationalize and facilitate your customers’ to be your marketers and sales people, and product development idea generators and support reps and partner program facilitators, and more.
The only way you’re in business is if you have customers, and in this day and age you’ll need to partner with your customers as part of your company’s extended team (perhaps the most important team members) to create great and engaging experiences that customers help shape and get to own.
Not only does this help customers have the kind of experience they want as they interact with your business, but it makes your job easier by taking the guesswork out of deciding how to provide what your customers need.
The only real way to create such a partnership is to have authentic, real communication with customers that builds trusted relationships.