Inside Cisco Insider: An Exceptional Advocacy Practice In Action

There are only a handful of organizations with advocacy programs that have achieved broad-scale brand recognition outside of their own customer base or industry. Cisco is one of them.

Understanding there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building customer nurture and engagement programming that leads to advocacy, Cisco developed a thriving, but somewhat disconnected collection of customer engagement programs across product lines and audiences. 

Perhaps most notably, in 2016 the enterprise added to this collection of programs a highly-scaled, end-user advocacy offering with a new, flagship program: The Gateway. Designed to elevate and celebrate the stories of those on the frontlines of using Cisco inside their organizations, the Gateway struck a chord. Program membership - and the team leading it - grew quickly and exponentially worldwide. 

Several awards and tens of thousands of acts of advocacy later, in 2021 Cisco's Global Advocacy leadership team instigated a bold move: rebrand advocacy at Cisco to connect all of the increasingly disparate programs managed across multiple departments and teams under one, easy-to-navigate umbrella. They knew this would be a massive and at times painful undertaking, but were committed to moving forward with what was best for their program members, not what would be the easiest to accomplish internally. 

The result? The Cisco Insider portfolio of customer engagement programs, and a name change for The Gateway to Cisco Insider Advocates

By honing in deeper on the individuals who make up their customer and partner base and focusing on relevance at scale, Cisco went all-in on a holistic customer engagement portfolio, housing multiple programs all aligned by the Cisco Insider brand.

In a recent conversation with two long-time Cisco advocacy professionals - Jessica Highsmith, Head of Global Advocacy Communications & Amplification, and Ann Kelly, Global Advocacy Communications Manager - about their status as a CAP Award finalist for Exceptional Advocacy Practice, we took a closer look at the transformation from Gateway to Insider, and explored what it takes to be a gold standard advocacy program. 

What is it like for your team being held up on this kind of pedestal when it comes to B2B advocacy practice?

Jessica: Goodness, I would say no pressure. 😉 Really, the success of Cisco’s Global Advocacy practice is just a huge testament to our team. It all started from a vision that maybe one or two people had, but it really has taken a dynamic team with different strengths and talents to really pull together the robust Global Advocacy practice that Cisco has today. Everyone feels an immense sense of pride in what we’ve been able to accomplish and how the program has evolved over the past six years. It's an  honor to be leading the way in the Enterprise Technology space when there are so many other amazing advocacy programs out there, too. 

Ann: We’re all familiar with the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, it takes an extended team of passionate advocacy marketing professionals to build and grow an award-winning program like ours. Each colleague brings unique skills that helps us deliver exceptional experiences and opportunities to Cisco’s customer and partner advocates. I remember hearing Cristina Melluzzi, our Director of Global Customer and Partner Advocacy, talk about how Cisco’s advocacy practice started with just two people. Today, about seven years later, we’re a team of 18 from around the world!

What are you most proud of when it comes to the Cisco Insiders program, as it is now called?

Jessica: There's a lot of things we're proud of. But for me personally, getting the unified Cisco Insider rebrand across the finish line is one of the most gratifying achievements from this past year. This is something that we had talked about doing since I started at Cisco over six years ago. We all met in a little conference room at the San Francisco Cisco office and spent hours trying to figure out how to show up in a much more consistent and unified way for our customers and partners. Fast forward six years, and we have finally turned that dream into a reality. And, it has taken probably hundreds of people to get us to this point. I think we've come to a place where we're all very proud of the end result. We still have a long, long way to go. We're just scratching the surface now that we've unified nine plus programs at Cisco. But, now there's a lot of other work that needs to be done to continue this momentum and get all of our IT ducks in a row on the back end.

Ann: Building on what Jess said, we – and many teams across Cisco – were hearing from our customers that navigating Cisco’s membership programs was, at times, confusing due to their siloed nature. The Cisco Insider unification and rebranding addresses that, bringing together, for the first time in Cisco history, programs that cross global advocacy, influencer, loyalty, and research.

With those nine programs you have brought together, did you internally, formally come under one type of umbrella? Or, do you still sit in different departments?

Jessica: We do still sit in different organizations, but what we've done is get these nine different programs across different organizations at Cisco to essentially go underneath the Cisco insider umbrella. We have Cisco Insider Advocates, for example, which was formerly known as The Gateway program. User Group was the Customer Connection program, which is now Cisco Insider User Group, and so on. We've consolidated in a way, but we're still maintaining our unique program identities and what makes each program offering special. We wanted to maintain some of that brand equity and all that customers really loved about each of the programs, but make it a lot more seamless and fluid of an experience for customers and partners that wanted to get involved in different ways. For example, maybe they didn't know they could take part in research at Cisco and impact the future of the products and solutions that they are using. The hope is that we’ve made our customer and partners Cisco engagement journey much more intuitive and easy to navigate. 

What did you learn in the rebrand process?

Jessica: From a holistic Cisco Insider perspective, we realized that a lot of these programs were more similar than we probably thought, but also not similar. There is an overlap of customers that are in more than one program and they're happy to have that option. It was really eye opening for everybody in general knowing this is what Cisco has to offer. And, we realized we're actually a lot stronger if we do this together at Cisco rather than if we try to work in our silos. We can do a lot more for our customers and partners if we work together. 

Ann: The goal for Cisco’s advocacy practice was always to build an active community of customers, while delivering timely, meaningful references to help drive Cisco’s business results. Most importantly, we wanted to build a community that would serve our customers. One they could call their own, built around their interests, driven by their expertise, and capable of helping them grow professionally and personally. Our customer advocacy community goes by a different name now, but at its core it provides the same inclusive, educational, and rewarding advocacy experience our members have come to expect from us. So, mission accomplished.

What's your advice to other organizations who have multiple programs? 

Jessica: If you have multiple customer engagement programs at your company, then it’s always a good idea to take a step back and ensure that the digital experience is still working for your customers and partners. It might be time to reassess what you are doing, and decide what you are really trying to achieve from a digital perspective. What is the mission behind your company’s digital strategy? Do you have an array of separate programs that basically have competing brands, or logos, and external identities that are possibly diluting your brand at the highest level? Is that a concern? If it is, then I think it's important that you determine how to unify these programs from a branding and digital perspective and identify who the internal champions are that will help you rally support from leadership and move this effort forward. It’s extremely important to identify the internal advocates who can help champion that new direction because you can't do it alone. In the end, a unified customer engagement experience will be beneficial for everyone involved. It's going to make the customers’ and partners' lives easier, and ultimately, that’s what’s most important. 

Ann: Keep it simple and pull out the benefits for customers and partners. When you’ve got all these different brands it can be hard to articulate the value that crosses them. Keeping the messaging straightforward will help customers and partners understand what program unification means for them moving forward. 

November 21, 2022
Deena Zenyk