According to Gartner, 75% of B2B buyers consult three or more pieces of customer advocacy content before making a purchasing decision. 

To most marketers, those three pieces of content may as well be three Olympic gold medals: the hard-won, highly-celebrated outcome of a years-long pursuit.

I’m not exaggerating (much). B2B customer stories are hard to secure in tech marketing. Encouraging even the happiest of customers to spend the time (and their own internal credits) approving case studies, shooting videos or speaking to the media is no mean feat. And the people who hold the customer relationships are rightly protective of their contacts’ time, so reluctant to ask a favor.

But therein lies the problem: when B2B customer advocacy is approached as a ‘favor’ to be asked, you’re already on the back foot. You’ve failed to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and answer the question: what’s in it for them? 

David Olsen, head of customer advocacy at Yubico (a Firebrand client) puts it like this: 

“You have to be interested in people and genuinely care about them. I try to understand where the customer is coming from, to tap into their motivations. Then I match opportunities against their interests. For example, if they’re trying to get credit for their team’s work internally, telling the story of that work is valuable. If they’re trying to build their own company’s brand, a speaking opportunity that we source and help them prep for can really help them out.”  

In short, a good B2B customer advocacy program is all about being customer-first and having empathy. 

Yubico is a provider of hardware security keys for phishing-resistant multi-factor authentication. Customer advocacy marketing is particularly tricky in the cybersecurity industry, since brands are understandably reluctant to share details of their security strategy. So there has to be a true advantage to the customer participating in advocacy. The customer has to trust that you will treat their story with utmost care. But even outside of cybersecurity, vendors in software, cloud, AI, fintech and other B2B tech sectors, must still focus on mutual benefit if they want to break through with their customer advocacy programs.

So how does this work in practice? It’s about building a relationship with the customer over time, rather than focusing on transactions such as a case study here, a media request there.

B2B Customer Advocacy Best Practices

The B2B customer advocacy process usually begins with the sales team. Sales people may be nervous about bringing marketing into the relationship (or want to preserve customer references for sales purposes only), but once they see that you have done your research, genuinely care about the customer and that the customer is responding positively, they will be more amenable to other entrants into the relationship. Trust is key.

Olsen says: “Start by understanding what the relationship between the account executive or customer service manager and the customer is like. You can even be a bridge builder and help them develop a relationship if they haven’t had an opportunity to.” 

But, even if sales trusts you to run with the customer advocacy program entirely, always keep them in the loop, Olsen warns. Lack of coordination sends all the wrong messages to the customer – and will slam the door shut on future opportunities from your sales colleagues.

Once you are in front of the customer, allow time for the relationship to develop before rushing in with your requests. There may be a tendency to think that, because customers are busy, you have to take as little of their time as possible – get in, make a specific ask, get out. But the truth is, taking the time to really understand the customer’s motivations, aspirations and needs – and showing how you’ll serve them – means they will value the time you do spend with them more.

To highlight the value, treat the customer advocacy program as a value-add service you are providing to customers. In exchange for their time, you will help them promote their achievements, build their profile, or educate their stakeholders. You’ll provide the resources, including monetary investment, and expertise to position their story in the most flattering light. Yubico’s Olsen even packages up the services he’s offering customers into a formal brochure. Customers can pick the level of involvement based on their own personal goals.

One of the most successful B2B advocacy examples was Salesforce’s customer program in the early 2000s. The company, at the time a little-known startup, funded advertisements featuring its customers. But, here’s the thing: the customers were portrayed as heroes, with top-notch photography and prominent placements. Even large enterprise customers were willing to participate because it made them look like rockstars. Then Salesforce extended the same approach to Dreamforce where CIOs got to be on the same stage as the FooFighters and share their story with a crowd of thousands.

Of course, now the tech-conference-meets-rock-concert hybrid is a well-known formula. But the core tenet applies in any B2B customer advocacy strategy, whether you’re asking a customer to speak at a conference or simply writing a case study. Your goal is to make them feel like a hero. You can achieve this with small gestures, Olsen says, for example by bringing high quality equipment and a makeup artist to the video shoot, or handling all the logistics for their speaking opp. Such attention to detail conveys respect and builds trust. 

Another way to show you care? Make sure the customer has all the requisite approvals lined up. It may be tempting to think that securing approval is the customers’ problem, but you’re the expert and if their career suffers because you haven’t advised them to go all the way to legal or PR for approval, ultimately that will undermine the entire advocacy program. So don’t take shortcuts, do right by the customer and make sure they’ve got their approvals locked down ahead of time.

All of this assumes that the main reason a customer advocates for a brand is self-serving – to achieve a personal or corporate goal. But there are other reasons why a customer will endorse you. Trustpilot, the reviews site, conducted research into the reasons customers leave reviews and the findings are instructive. An obvious one is that if companies have an emotional connection with a vendor, they are more likely to be motivated to advocate. I’ve heard this myself when interviewing clients’ customers: “I trust you so I’m happy to do this for you”. There’s that word again: “trust”. It’s not just that the customer had a positive experience, it’s that they felt emotionally connected to that company to an extent that they are motivated to give back.

Customers also want to be recognized for their expertise. It’s the same psychology behind why people share on social media. For these customers, a traditional case study may not be the best path, but offering them as an expert source for media can be a win-win-win for them, you and the reporter who, let’s face it, would rather hear from a customer than a vendor.

And then there are those customers that advocate because they want to feel part of a community. Customer Advisory Boards are an obvious way to tap into this motivation. So are speaking opportunities, podcasts or Q&A blog posts.

The key is to appeal to each of these emotional motivations as you present your ‘service’ offerings to customers.

B2B Customer Advocacy Platforms

Given the value and complexity in B2B customer advocacy, it’s no surprise that numerous customer advocacy software platforms have emerged as a way to help vendors scale their programs. Tools such as Influitive and inSided leverage the same psychological motivators identified in Trustpilot’s study: community features allow customers to connect with peers, gamification allows them to earn kudos for their knowhow, and rewards ensure customers derive value from their efforts. 

Meanwhile, B2B peer review sites like G2 and Trustradius have become a staple in the typical buying process. While they rely on organically-generated customer reviews, there’s no doubt that a thoughtful advocacy program that builds trust and reminds customers of the value of sharing their experience will ensure the foundations are in place to spark proactive reviews.

B2B Customer Advocacy in an Economic Downturn

As we stand on the cusp of a recession – and B2B buyers grow more cautious about their spending – customer advocacy will become an increasingly vital part of any marketing program. And it’s not just cyclical – a recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that the trend is generational. Millennial buyers, who are now holding the purse strings across corporate America, are more likely to consult customer reviews before they accept a meeting with a vendor.

Customer advocacy is an increasingly vital part of any marketing program so any B2B vendor must master it. Ultimately, it is a deeply human process. If you want to build a successful program that will meet the demands of tomorrow’s buyer, you need to understand and genuinely care about the customer and take time to bring all stakeholders along on the journey. No, you don’t need to have a PhD in psychology – or be an Olympic gold medalist – but a healthy dose of EQ is essential.   

    About the Author

    Lucy Allen is a Principal at Firebrand with two decades of technology communications experience. Lucy leads client operations, from executing programs that help clients grow their business, to developing Firebrand’s team and services. Prior to joining, Lucy held leadership roles in global agencies including US tech sector chair and Bay Area GM at Edelman and chief strategy officer at LEWIS.