Five Ways Customer Advisory Boards Differ from User Groups


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We are sometimes asked where user groups stand in relation to customer advisory boards (CABs). While it can perhaps be understandable where perceived overlap may occur in the minds of marketers, the differences, as you might expect from our perspective, are quite significant. Indeed, while user groups can be considered as part of an overall customer marketing or outreach program, CABs and user groups should be considered distinct, separate programs serving different customers and purposes – and offering differing resulting benefits.

As such, here are five primary differences between CAB and user group initiatives:

1. CABs are strategic, user groups are tactical: Strong customer advisory boards are established with a central theme or challenge impacting all members, such as mitigating IT security threats or improving financial operations. CAB members provide insights to larger material challenges and strategic improvements that could help their fellow CAB member colleagues and (especially) the host company. User groups, on the other hand, are very focused around your company’s products and how they can be improved or altered to address a very specific job or task. As such, user groups are often driven by your product teams, as opposed to a wider approach that involves many other disciplines and departments.

2. CAB members are executives and may not be product users: Members of your CAB are usually executives who have responsibility above and beyond your solutions’ realm of operations. As such, they see the “bigger picture” of how your and other solutions work together to meet a higher-level company challenge. In fact, CAB members may not even be users of your solutions at all, which may fall to other, typically lower-level employees. In addition, such executives interact with executives from other company departments and disciplines, and as such have wider knowledge about other areas within their companies that may be facing issues or insights, including partnering or potential acquisition targets that users may simply not be aware of.

3. CABs are exclusive, user groups are wide open: CAB programs are selective regarding who is invited to join, as a formal nomination, vetting and invitation process should be in place to acquire the best members possible. As such, only a select number – typically around 16-18 members – is the goal of recruiting CAB membership. User groups, on the other hand, are typically larger and open to anyone who has an interest in contributing feedback to a product. As such, some of the larger tech companies can have dozens or even hundreds of users in their user groups.

4. CABs should meet in person, user groups can be online: As CABs are exclusive gatherings of like-minded executives, their meetings warrant meeting in-person at quality resorts over a couple of days. In addition to meeting topics – driven by the members themselves – meals and social activities enable more in-depth and discussions that foster relationship building. User groups, on the other hand, are usually able to hold their product discussions online via web meeting applications – especially since screen shots and demos are likely the focus of discussion. In addition, user groups can operate in the form of online groups that communicate mostly electronically, such as posting users questions or tips – no need for any personal interaction at all. Finally, in a user group, the host company is usually doing about 90% of talking, demos, sharing and presenting, whereas in a well-run CAB the balance changes completely, where the customers talk 80% of the time.

5. CABs provide high-impact, material insights, users groups is lower impact: By gathering executives in exclusive gatherings, the discussions, insights and suggestions can and do provide valuable and impactful ideas to the host company that can lead to significant revenue opportunities, significant improvements, new products and services, partnership opportunities, competitive intelligence, acquisition targets and much more. Investments in strong, well-run CABs usually pay for themselves in a very short time and deliver customer loyalty and incremental marketing opportunities. User-groups, while providing helpful insights to your product designs and feature roadmaps, provide lesser value simply because their input is so product focused.

While user groups are helpful to a company when making marginal, tactical improvements to their existing products, they should never be confused with strong CAB programs. While both can exist in an overall customer marketing program, they serve different audiences and offer different levels of value to the host company.

Rob Jensen
Rob Jensen has spent over 20 years in marketing, communications and business development leadership positions with leading enterprise business-to-business (B2B) software and technology companies. Throughout his career, Rob has successfully overseen groups that generated global awareness, increased lead generation and enabled sales teams for EMC/Captiva, Kofax, Anacomp, TRW, HNC Software and AudaExplore. In addition, Rob has specialized in initiating, managing and facilitating customer and partner advisory board programs for several of these companies in the U.S. and abroad.


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