Shift from Paid Customer Advocacy to Earned Customer Advocacy - Part 2 2 months ago

After posting last week about why companies need to shift from Paid Customer Advocacy to Earned Customer Advocacy, I poked some bears…a few CMOs at hyper-funded tech companies who brag about how much of their VC stockpile they spend bribing their customers to give endorsements and do references.

The response I got from one of these very smarties, who makes every Top 50, Top 100, Top Whatever CMO list, shocked me at first. He said, “Yeah, that makes sense, but who has time to do the work to earn their advocacy when you can just pay ‘em and be done with it.” When I dug deeper, I learned the reason for his thinking is that his customers are just ‘ehhhh’ at best about their experience with his company. Do you think there’s a cause-effect relationship there? Hmmm.

While this outdated thinking around paid advocacy is still firmly entrenched in the way marketers operate today, luckily there are a few folks out there who believe in the “two-way exchange of value” approach to customer engagement and this cohort is growing. A few of these people are lucky to work in companies that have embraced the idea from the top down that you have to earn the customers’ trust and loyalty every day, while others are lone wolves who recognize that advocacy is a two-way street, but are swimming against the tide in their companies.

If you want to see where you fall on the spectrum between Paid Customer Advocacy and Earned Customer Advocacy, and have a handy way to show the difference as you try to get others in your company on board, take a look at these pictures of how each model operates in terms of the interactions between a company and its customers.

With Paid Customer Advocacy, you identify the most raving, lunatic fans of your company, and give them a steady stream of requests for favors. Each time this happens, the workflow goes like this:

1) Ask the customer to do a favor, and promise him that if he does it, you’ll give him 500 points or a $200 gift card;

2) He chooses whether to do the favor or not based on how big a burden it is and whether he thinks the reward is worth the burden;

3) You give him and any other customers who performed the favor their reward.

Then rinse and repeat with the next favor.

With Earned Customer Advocacy, you proactively help ALL your customers succeed with your solution so they ride up the customer experience escalator to higher levels of loyalty. As this happens, the workflow goes like this, for example:

1) During onboarding, you give the customer guidance from your internal experts and share with her best practices from other customers;

2) When she has finished onboarding (a success event), and she feels a sense of accomplishment, you ask her for feedback on the experience;

3) She tells you her story about the experience, and you capture it in ways that you can use to attract other customers like her.

Then rinse and repeat with other success events.  

Let’s dig deeper into the differences between Paid and Earned Customer Advocacy:

Who you engage:

Paid: You engage the tip of the customer iceberg, the top 1-2% of your customers who are the raving fans, those who have been using your products for a couple years, have no support issues, and aren’t in the middle of a renewal or upsell negotiation. This leaves you with a tiny base to work with, and because your frequent requests burn them out, they churn from your program so you’re constantly recruiting new participants.

Earned: You engage your entire customer base, starting at the point they’re just signing on with you, which is a great time to ask for feedback on the buying process or advice they’d give others on how to evaluate and compare solutions like yours. Sometimes the best customer proof points come from customers who would never consider joining a customer advocacy program, but will gladly talk about their own success.

When you engage:

Paid: You engage customers when it serves you. Your marketing plan calls for getting 20 new product reviews this quarter, so you put out a request like, “The first 10 customers to write a review on G2Crowd will receive a $200 Amazon gift card.” Your sales rep needs 3 customer references to close a deal, so you put out a challenge like, “We need a few customers in the insurance industry to speak to a company evaluating our service, if you can get on the phone with them, we’ll donate $500 to your favorite charity.”

Earned: You engage customers when it serves them. As the diagram shows, you focus your interactions with customers around the milestones and success events in their lifecycle. You bring customers in for an event to showcase your new product module, use that as an opportunity to gather feedback on how attendees plan to use that module, and use those stories to encourage more customers to consider the upgrade. One of your Customer Success Reps does a quarterly review with a client, that client shares an amazing use case for your product, you ask them if you can share that story with other customers.

How you engage:

Paid: The value exchange is a one-way street, from the customer to the vendor. You exchange rewards for favors. The customer earns points that allow him to climb the leaderboard and redeem points for merch so he can further promote your brand for you. After a week or two, when the novelty of the game has worn off and there’s no more dopamine hit, he disengages.

Earned: The value exchange is a two-way street, the customer and vendor get value. You exchange guidance, feedback prompts, best practices, and other useful content, in exchange for your customer sharing her knowledge, experience, advice, and feedback. She achieves success that allows her to climb the loyalty escalator.

Whatever you do, don’t call it a Customer Advocacy Program

I’ve given this advice to several people who were in the ideation or planning stages for a new customer advocacy program, and once it sinks in, I’ve gotten universal agreement.

The advice: Don’t call it a Customer Advocacy Program. That label SCREAMS that it is a one-way exchange of value, the customer is being an advocate for the company. Instead, call it a Customer Voice Program.

That’s how we referred to Forrester Frontlines, the program I built at Forrester. When we invited customers to the program, we didn’t say, “Since you’re one of our very best clients, we’d like to have you join Forrester Frontlines, our Customer Advocacy Program, where we’ll periodically ask you to perform acts of advocacy for us and we’ll give you VIP treatment and rewards in exchange.”

Instead, the message was “We engage all our customers in our Customer Voice Program called Forrester Frontlines, where we’ll give you opportunities to share your knowledge, experience, and advice gained from being a Forrester client. By sharing with us, we get your feedback so we can continuously improve our client experience, and you get opportunities to showcase your expertise and success in a way that builds your professional profile.”

If you want to make the shift to Earned Customer Advocacy, but worry that your customers won’t engage without rewards and kickbacks, then stay tuned for an upcoming post on 8 ways to get your customers to share their voice.

Where do you fall in this essential transition? If you’re doing Paid Customer Advocacy, what would it take in your company to make the shift?

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