XTC—Examining the Change: Customers Are the New Influencers

L-R: Myself, Altimeter Group’s Charlene Li, and LinkedIn’s Mike Weir take a break before rocking a customer Q&A. Continuing in our 2014 Tech Marketers Playbook series, this week we look at treating customers as influencers.

It’s no secret word of mouth among customers influences consumer and B2B tech sales. A Fall 2012 survey of 813 B2B tech purchase decision-makers revealed that word of mouth from peers is the top driver of vendor short lists and deal closure. Industry analysts came in only a few points higher for influence. And the impact of word of mouth has only grown with the expansion of mobile and social platforms.

But what does this mean for tech PR? Where’s the customer influence playbook?

Fortunately, there’s a model from which we can borrow for how to activate customers as influencers: analyst relations. Here are five essential AR techniques that work just as well to turn customers into sales drivers:

  1. Ask viral questions. Our Fall 2012 study, revealed what motivates customers to contribute opinions online. The top answer—pose a thought-provoking question around a timely topic. The number two answer—focus on an interesting challenge they’re facing. Help your customers look smart by inviting them to answer provocative, open-ended questions, much as you would with analysts.
  2. Lean into criticism. When an analyst critiques a tech vendor, it’s a sign of affection (sort of). The analyst is trying to help the vendor by illuminating a blind spot and finding something to improve. Customer complaints hold the same potential. Tech companies who engage customer complaints with an earnest attempt to understand them—and act on them—often end up with a strong advocate in their corner.
  3. Ask for comparisons. Like analysts, customers have a broader field of vision than vendors. Even the most thorough competitive intelligence program can’t kick the tires on competitive offerings like customers can—and customers know exactly what they’re looking for. There are even online platforms to help them. Ask customers to tell you how you stack up, capture their feedback, and find ways to reward them for their critique.
  4. Keep them updated.  Nothing irks an analyst more than being caught off guard by a vendor announcing they’ve upgraded, discontinued or launched an offering. It makes them feel left out. The same is true of customers. If you value the relationship, make sure you’re giving them not only information about changes in your solutions portfolio, but rationales, as well. And then ask them those viral questions around how they will take advantage of the improvements.
  5. Get them talking with each other.  Once you’ve got a few customer champions in your corner, turn them into social media rock stars the same way you would showcase that special analyst who “just gets you.” Feature them in webinars. Promote them in trade press. Support them on LinkedIn. Invite them to your advisory board. Perhaps even invite them to host an opinion column on your own web site. Chances are you’ll not only cement the relationship, you’ll also learn something valuable along the way.

Up next week in XTC: changing your relationship with risk.