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Moving Customer References Into Community Marketing: Chat with Forrester's Laura Ramos

Posted by Bill Lee on January 6, 2010 at 08:54 AM

Laura is at the forefront on the issue of how the rise of social media is changing, and will continue to change, B2B sales, marketing, and branding realities. Her take is that social media--far from being a threat due to increasing loss of control of the conversation--presents a great opportunity to engage customers and markets in a dynamic new way, through "community marketing." As you'll see in our interview below, a firm's customer references can--make that, must--play a key role.

Laura will be leading a panel at the 2010 Customer Reference Forum, March 2-3, Santa Clara, CA, USA. Panelists will include Jamie Grenney, Sr Director of Social Media, salesforce.com and Rhett Livengood, Director of Global Sales and Marketing, Intel. They'll talk about the practical "how to's" of moving references into a community marketing effort, with Laura providing big picture perspective on howForrester sees this dynamic trend playing out.

LEE: Thanks for joining us Laura. Forrester is showing increasing interest in community marketing, so let’s start with a definition: how do you define community marketing and how do you see the concept evolving?

RAMOS:  We see community marketing as the next frontier for B2B marketers to cross as we move from marketing practices focused mainly on broadcast messaging – a practice founded on years of outbound advertising and promotional activity -- to a blend of traditional and digital, individual and group, prospect and customer marketing approaches.  Community marketing is about using marketing to engage prospects, current customers, industry insiders, and partners in dialog that transparently and collectively improves the probability of creating effective solutions to the most pressing business problems. It’s about bringing technology and services suppliers into customers’ adoption activities in support of better business outcomes. It’s how Web 2.0 technologies enable new ways to innovate, collaborate, and partner that create more productive business operations.

LEE: What role do you see reference programs playing in Community Marketing efforts?

RAMOS: Customer references validate product claims and streamline the sales process, both vital activities in B2B marketing.  Reference programs play a vital role in Community Marketing because the community of a supplier’s current customers – not individual accounts -- becomes the focal point for revenue generation activity.  In the near future, the customer community helps to attract, engage, persuade, support, and retain future buyers of a supplier’s products and services.  As business buyers embrace the social Web, reference management can play a breakout role in the transition from collecting testimony to building community adoption.

LEE: Can reference programs add to the value that businesses must provide to attract customers into their community marketing efforts? If so, how?

RAMOS: Customer reference programs can play a vital role in executing a community-centered marketing strategy that not only attracts new customers, but also turns your best customers into advocates within the community. These programs transition from sales support to community build in 3 important ways:

1) Reference customers make community activity intimate and influential, not just interactive.  Involving references in online, social activities — like peer discussions, rating and voting on products, content contribution, and so on —helps create positive product experiences and increases the likelihood that buyers will, in turn, advocate to others.

2) Social referencing involves your best customers in community building. Tapping reference customers predisposed to sharing experiences and speaking on your firm’s behalf is the best way to attract a community following. In B2B marketing, social media value will come from using Web 2.0 tools  to deepen customer relationships after deals close and implementation challenges begin.

3) References deliver content that creates conversation — and value for — buyers. Success stories and insight are the currency needed to sustain ongoing community activity. Because they participate readily, reference customers double their value when they energize community activity and discuss best practices.

LEE: You’ve attended a couple of our conferences. What do you see customer reference programs doing that is exciting? What can or should they do to get better, and play a more important role in their businesses?

RAMOS: Today, I think the most exciting achievements happen when marketers give back real value to reference customers. The biggest benefit of advocating on behalf of a vendor should be membership in an exclusive community of like-minded participants where interacting with each other, as well as prospects and the public, is part of the draw and reward.  To play a bigger role in business, customer reference managers need to take advantage of emerging social business behavior more. They need to move beyond the physical, group setting and let references engage outside the boundaries of the formal program. Less than 30% of respondents to our earlier survey of customer reference professionals enabled their references to build profile pages, guest blog, rate community-contributed content, or author wikis, activities that permit customers to strut their stuff in the online, virtual world and create broader connections without having to trip through the legal, communications, or approval cycles that plague the production of more formal testimonial or case studies.

LEE:  Let’s broaden our scope a bit to the concept of customer engagement—the full range of ways that firms can interact and build relationships with their customers. How do you see community marketing fitting in that broader effort? How do you see reference programs fitting in to that broader effort?

RAMOS: In B2B marketing social media will have is greatest impact on building vibrant customer communities, not on branding or lead generation, which is where everyone seems focused today.  Eventually, however, firms will create successful communities in the same ways they successfully engage customers today: by offering different levels of exclusive interaction in exchange for more committed participation. Look at the range of activity – and value – customer advisory boards, councils, user conferences, loyalty programs and the like offer.  All of this activity can be extended through online, virtual means – many of which are still developing and being invented by the industry today. In the end, it’s all integrated and integral.  We will continue to meet with our customer face-to-face to learn from them, bond with them, and show our appreciation. It will become easier to extend these relationships with offline, virtual, asynchronous activities that meet both buyer and supplier goals.

LEE: A great deal is being written about the decline of traditional media, including trade publications. Can you share some thoughts on how community marketing efforts, and customer reference programs, might fill the growing void of trusted, objective information about businesses?

RAMOS: In our research, Forrester sees a similar decline in how B2B marketers view the effectiveness of some traditional mediRAMOS: However, the top source buyers consistently turn to inform and validate purchase decision making is their peers and colleagues. We see this in our research time and again, and it is a result that hasn’t changed significantly in many years – business people trust and rely on each other when deciding what to buy.  I see Web 2.0 technologies give buyers new ways to reach other like-minded individuals and communities become the focal point for these interactions. As we figure out how community enables better business outcomes, I see reference programs play a key role as these programs evolve from supporting sales to sustaining community interactions. I see them create real value for buyers who rely on the community to help them solve business problems and implement new business capability by using the advice of each other to implement products and services they buy to the fullest.

LEE: What advice would you leave customer reference managers with as they prepare for the eventuality of community marketing?

I see the social Web uping the ante for customer reference professionals, moving the function off of the sidelines and placing it squarely in the center of the community marketing evolution. Customer reference professionals must play a crucial role evolving reference programs from solicited testimonials to interactive communities — where participants gain more by joining the online conversation than by supporting the vendor’s agendRAMOS: To start this transition on the right foot, there are 3 things customer reference managers should focus on in 2010:

1)     Keep the customer reference function in house. While outsourcing may produce a short-term boost in reference participation, marketers should not abdicate the opportunity to interact directly with your firm’s most loyal and outspoken customers.

2)     Upgrade their teams’ social media acumen and look at the numbers. Start with the basics: Understand what Web 2.0 tools are and how they can create new means for customers to reference in ways that they may have been unwilling or unable to do so earlier.

3)     Make community participation part of the customer reference agendRAMOS: As you plan your 2010 customer reference program, find those enthusiasts who have a vested interest in sustaining vibrant community activity. Support their efforts by showing them how reference customers can lend expertise or firsthand experience to their community-building objectives. Leverage your customer reference assets to gain a chair at the community marketing table.

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