There is no question that customer reference programs do work. Long employed to support sales and marketing (you cannot talk to an analyst without having customer references) efforts in the B2B space, they tap into one of the age-old Human 1.0 characteristics – the drive to mimic the behavior of others, especially of those who are perceived to be successful within our tribes.
The problem with many traditional customer reference programs is that they are based on the old marketing principles – designed for interrupt-driven company-to-prospect communications, product-centric, and non-reciprocal. It’s no surprise that in a Hyper-Social world they no longer deliver the expected results.
So what are marketers to do? As is usual in the Hyper-Social world, the answer is pretty straightforward. Here are 5 things that marketers should consider when developing Hyper-Socially enabled customer reference programs.
- Let go of control and empower customers to tell their own stories
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s important to understand that the most important conversations are no longer the ones that happen between your company and its customers/prospects, but instead the conversations that happen among them. They’ve come to distrust the information that comes from your company, and with the advent of social media and communities they have much more opportunities to get information from unbiased sources (e.g., colleagues & acquaintances) that carry much more credibility. A majority of the customer stories that lead to buying decisions no longer come from your company but are instead originating within your customer tribes (online communities, industry associations, etc.). When I explained this to a marketing agency owner who also owned a print shop, he was originally skeptical, but then remembered how he had made a multimillion dollar press purchase decision not based on any information that came from the press manufacturer, but rather based on a trusted fellow print shop owner within his industry association. So if you want a successful customer reference program, you need to find ways to help your customers tell their own stories within their own networks. You don’t want to control or help them shape their story, you want to provide them with information that will help them strengthen their story and improve their status as opinion leaders within their network.
- Make sure all your customer stories are customer-centric to a fault
Most customer references are product- and company-centric. They are focused on confirming the features and benefits of certain product attributes more so than the customer pains and tribulations associated with successful product deployment and adoption. For the minority of customer references that will originate from your company, you need to ensure that they are customer-centric to a fault. Not only will they carry more credibility, they will also travel better as “retellable” stories among your customer and prospect networks.
- Think tribes, not market-segments
It is true that in a majority of cases people will only accept customer reference stories from withing their own industry – thinking that anyone outside of their industry does not understand the issues specific to their environment. That does not mean that you should develop customer stories only around market segments. See if you can also develop them around tribes – groups of people within your industries that tend to hang together based on common behavioral characteristics. So instead of documenting a customer story for pharmaceutical CIOs, see if you can develop one for CIOs who are passionate about sustainability.
- Don’t pay for your customer references
On more than one occasion have I written about the cons and cons of paying people for any kind of feedback. The same is true for customer stories. If you have to pay someone for a story, it’s probably not a very strong story – definitely not one that your customer would be willing to tell his friends without being compensated for it first. So don’t put it out there. Of course, that does not mean that you should not base your customer reference program on reciprocity – you should. Allow the customer who recommends your product to give a gift to those he is recommending the product to – a small discount, or a special free feature – or make everyone feel warm and fuzzy by having reference program metrics trigger donations to worthwhile charities.
- Forget information channels and think knowledge networks
Most customer reference stories are written like brochures – they have the facts, the benefits (including amazing ROIs), and information about the company and its products. They are information rich and lack real knowledge. They are built to be distributed through information channels like email newsletters, traditional media outlets, and customer story aggregation web sites. The problem is that when your customers talk to colleagues, friends, and acquaintances, they do not transfer information, they transfer knowledge and stories. If you reference stories don’t have those, they will not travel along the knowledge networks where buying decisions are increasingly being made.
Customer reference programs should not be set up as standalone programs – they need to be part of your overall Hyper-Social efforts, including your word of mouth activities.
What do you think? I would appreciate your feedback on this as I will be leading a conversation on the topic at the upcoming customer reference forum.