When I ventured out into the world of B2B customer engagement and advocate marketing, I felt adventurous. Eight or nine years ago, very few B2B organizations, outside tech giants such as Microsoft, had successful customer engagement programs that were delivering measurable influence on company growth.
We early pioneers in the newly formed "advocate marketing" field were building programs that brought us closer than ever before to our customers and delivering a variety of positive marketing outcomes, such as customer proof points, pipeline from customer referrals, social amplification and increased brand awareness. It was a whole new way of interacting with and leveraging the power of our engaged customer base. Heck, I even won multiple awards for it! This was indeed an exciting time to be in B2B customer engagement.
Spoiler alert. It still is! Several years down the road now, we now see many B2B organizations running customer programs that not only bring measurable impact but go as far as to differentiate their organization, such as the Cisco Gateway or Adobe Marketo's Marketing Nation.
And yet, many, if not the majority, of B2B organizations have yet to adopt customer programs as a true business strategy. Sure, they may have a customer community to help support their users but the visions remain small and the interactions, mundane.
Why is that? For many organizations, these programs become resource-heavy and deliver murky results, and are generally still labeled as "nice-to-have" initiatives rather than being wielded as a true growth strategy and market differentiator. Still others did venture boldly into this frontier but found they were unable to deliver the experience and results they were hoping...or sustain them.
One of the most prominent barricades to the growth of B2B customer programs is the high level of member attrition many communities experience. The truth is, while B2B customer engagement and advocacy best practices and programs have come a long way over the last five year, this field is still in a formative maturation stage.
So, how do we as customer engagement practitioners take our customer programs to the next level?
One resource for innovation can be found in our cousin, B2C loyalty programs. Tracing their modern roots back to the 1980s (with predecessors hundreds of years before that) when airline miles from American Airlines came on the scene, we've since seen a boom in B2C loyalty programs, resulting in most of us being knowingly or unknowingly subscribed to a large and growing amount of loyalty programs. You can hardly purchase any consumer product and not land on some sort of incentive to keep you coming back, and we often willingly partake!
While there are and always will be distinct differences between B2C and B2B customer programs around purchasing cycles and frequency, legal restrictions, depth of vendor/buyer relationship and more, there are characteristics of loyalty programs that we can integrate into the distinct world of B2B customer engagement.
What are those characteristics? My colleague, Deena Zenyk, and I recently hosted a discussion on this topic during the Influitive Live virtual conference. We asked attendees to list what they liked about their favorite loyalty programs. While we gathered quite the list, there are three that I want to focus on in this short post: Immediate value, Personalization and Ease.
Immediate Value - B2C loyalty programs almost always offer immediate, tangible value, whether that's logging points from your current purchase to put toward free product, a welcome gift, or baseline perks, you don't have to wait long to feel rewarded for your membership.
Since launching in 2009, Starbucks Rewards has become a popular example of B2C loyalty success. Starbucks uses basic gamification, such as earning stars toward your next drink, and more sophisticated tactics, such as mobile games and compounded points, to incentivize their fans to consume more Starbucks products.
But they also offer immediate membership value through use of their app. Members can order ahead and pay through the their mobile device. This makes the decision to join simple: Join and immediately receive access to a better, streamlined experience. That immediate value acts as a forcing function for organic and ongoing membership, with app sales accounting for upwards of 40% of revenue in the US.
Food for Thought: Is there immediate value to your members upon joining your customer program? Do they receive a better customer experience as a program member?
Personalization - A guiding principle for keeping engagement in any sphere is relevancy to the individual. The more personalized the experience to one's preferences, goals or persona, the more value it brings, ensuring a higher and hopefully sustained level of engagement. This applies to customer programs as well. While many B2B and B2C programs lack true personalization, when it's done well, it takes the membership experience to a whole new level of member value.
The NikePlus program is a standout example of personalization and meaningful motivation. Unlike many customer programs built around the goals of the business itself (get members to spend X amount of dollars to move to the next tier or complete X acts of advocacy to accrue status), the entire membership experience in NikePlus is built around the personal goals of the member himself/herself.
Upon joining, members are asked to share their goals (for example, around fitness). Activities that align with the member’s personal goals (such as working out), lead to increased rewards in the program (reach your goals, get rewarded). In turn, the rewards presented are personalized to the goals and likes of the member.
The beauty of this? As members reach their own personal goals, not simply status levels laid out in the program, they psychologically and publicly attribute their success in reaching those goals back to the Nike brand. Talk about meaningful customer engagement!
Food for Thought: How can you orchestrate your program for maximum relevance and motivation for each member as related to their professional or even personal goals? What success could members at least in part attribute back to your brand?
Ease - One of the most insightful characteristics of loyalty programs unearthed in our live discussion was ease. Ease can mean many things, such as the low level of effort to join in a program or even reach a milestone within the program. However, more interesting were comments such as "Loyalty programs don't make me feel pressured" or "Loyalty programs are fun and don't take themselves too seriously."
This is a very important nugget of insight. Truth be told, many B2B advocacy programs are built on the expectation of a high level of sustained individual engagement and take themselves quite seriously. Often, we fixate these programs on overt and demanding acts of advocacy - reviews, referrals, references, testimonials, case studies, etc - all amazing outcomes of customer engagement and advocate marketing done well.
However, to some extent, we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater by focusing so wholly on high-level advocacy that we have forgotten to celebrate and reward customers just for being...well...customers - in itself, a true act of advocacy. We are quick to celebrate someone who wrote us a glowing review and forget to celebrate someone who just renewed for the third year running. We build customer programs that give status to members who fulfill a reference call but forget to build in status for those who have invested a large amount of money into our products or services, in essence decoupling the advocacy journey from the customer journey (a whole other blog post topic I'm itching to write about!).
In short, we focus on rewarding individual acts rather than rewarding continuation through the customer journey - insisting that you must be a labeled "advocate" to be elevated and rewarded rather than just a "loyal" customer. We don't make it easy to be a member of the club. While there is definitely a place for nurturing and elevating your most active advocates, there is ample room to spend as much strategy around nurturing and celebrating your most faithful and invested customers.
Food for Thought: Is status within your customer engagement or advocacy program based wholly on individual acts of advocacy decoupled from the customer journey? What customer milestones could you infuse into your community to celebrate customer success and the customer journey?
There are other characteristics of the more mature B2C loyalty practice that we can learn from and infuse into our still new B2B thinking (Deena wrote a great foundational piece on the fusion of advocacy and loyalty) to create more successful and strategic customer engagement programs. We should never cease pioneering forward in pursuit of building mutually beneficial relationships with our customers!
I'd love to hear from others in the field. What opportunities for B2B advocacy and B2C loyalty fusion do you see?