How to Supercharge Customer References with an Online Customer Community


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NEWS FLASH! Your perspective customers would rather hear from people like themselves, than from your marketing and sales departments.

Online Customer Communities Luckily, you can develop a customer reference program where existing customers assist with telling your story to your market.

According to customer advocacy expert, Bill Lee, the president of the Customer Reference Forum and author of the new book, The Hidden Wealth of Customers, the essence of customer reference programs is cultivating customer relationships to the point where your successful customers would help grow your business at all stages of the business development process. This includes helping sales people close deals, helping marketers by providing them with good customer content, and being interviewed by the media.

Why Are Strong Customer Reference Programs Important?

  • Buyers are getting further into their decision process without engaging your company
  • Senior executives want results faster
  • Many marketing and sales professionals don’t come from the buyer’s world and lack the credibility to persuade people

The aim is to bring customers into the entire buying process as early as possible. When buyers are looking for a solution, they want to talk to peers.

You want to bring customers in at the awareness-growing phase and in the education phases, as much as possible, to let prospective customers learn from your customers’ success and experience with solving problems that your buyers understand and can relate to, as supposed to trying to get them interested in your features and your benefits. They’re just not interested.
– Bill Lee, Customer Reference Forum & Lee Consulting Group

You can learn more about partnering with your customers to help grow your business from Bill’s appearance on Socious’ social business podcast, ProCommunity.

Online Customer Communities Strengthen Reference Programs

The interview covered benefits and examples of creating customer advocates, as well as the emerging role of online customer communities in developing and nurturing those customer relationships.

Many of the world’s top B2B companies are finding out that customer reference programs and online customer communities go hand-in-hand. Here are nine tips for using your online customer community to make your customer reference program even more effective.

Tip #1) Help Make Customers Successful

Before you can begin cultivating a customer as a reference, you must first ensure that they are successful and satisfied with your products or services. The #1 purpose of an online customer community is to bring customers, employees, and partners together to help your customers achieve more success with your solutions.

Tip #2) ID And Recruit References

There are a tremendous amount of analytics tools in most enterprise customer community platforms. Just as companies use those reporting features to identify customers who are at risk of ending the relationship, your company can find, monitor, and recruit your best customers for your customer advocacy program.

Tip #3) Connect Customer Advocates With Prospects

The segmentation and security features in your online customer community present a terrific opportunity to convert more leads into sales and shorten the sales cycle. You can do this by creating online groups for prospective customers that provide social proof and relevant information to help them during the buying process. Giving access to your customer advocate corp allows prospective customers to have private authentic discussions with peers that are using your products and services.

Tip #4) Keep People Engaged

One of the most time consuming parts of managing a customer reference program is nurturing customer advocates over time. Online customer communities are not just for reference professionals. They serve your company and customers on a variety of levels. If you produce the right amount of helpful content, rollout the right features, and use the engagement tools available with the platform, reference-ready customers will be engaged and up-to-date on your organization when it is time to act.

Tip #5) Let Customer Advocates Lead

From the strategic decisions down to tactical community management activity, running an online customer community is a lot of work. You can help customers build their personal brand, get assistance in responding to discussions and producing content, and expose your customer base to your best customers by appointing advocates to lead product advisory groups, co-plan events, or manage sub-communities/chapters.

Tip #6) Move Online Advocacy Offline ( And Vice Versa)

Offline events and conferences are just as important to customer reference programs as online communities. Use the event management tools built into your customer community software to plan customer conferences, manage registration, and promote the event to specific groups of customers and non-customers. At the end of the event, it is easy to keep the momentum going in your online community with conference content, forum discussions, and virtual follow-up events.

Tip #7) Play Games

While pay-for-reference models are often ineffective and unsustainable, many customer advocacy programs track reference activity and reward customers that reach certain levels with things like discounted conference registration. Use the gamification tools in your online customer community software to track points for reference activity in the community such as engaging with a lead.

Tip #8) Bestow Designations

Customers love recognition. It is part of how companies boost the “social capital” of customers to entice them to be a customer advocate. In addition to bringing in offline designations like, SAS Canada’s Customer Champions, you can use the gamification features in your customer community platform to run online advocacy contests, give awards, and set up badges for your online customer advocates. This data can reside in your online community system or be piped into your CRM and customer reference database.

Tip #9) Cross-Train Community Managers on Customer Advocacy

Customer advocacy is all about relationships. Community management is all about relationships. There is often overlap between how community managers nurture customer relationships and how customer reference professionals cultivate customers. Train your community managers in the business of customer reference programs by sending them to events like the Customer Reference Forum. It can be invaluable to have someone that entrenched in the community understand how to identify, recruit, and build community around your customer advocates.

Online Customer Community Takeaway

Online customer communities and customer reference programs are tied together in more ways than you can count. While they often exist separately, the companies that take advantage of the natural synergies are seeing measurable gains in sales, marketing, and customer service.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joshua Paul
Joshua Paul is the Director of Marketing and Strategy at Socious, a provider of enterprise customer community software that helps large and mid-sized companies bring together customers, employees, and partners to increase customer retention, sales, and customer satisfaction. With over 13 years of experience running product management and marketing for SaaS companies, Joshua Paul is a popular blogger and speaker on customer management, inbound marketing, and social technology. He blogs at


  1. Reference professionals have been extending their reach to include social media for 3-4 years now. Your advice is spot on Josh. Communities offer a great source of reference candidates, and with the right boundaries, a nice way for prospects to get their burning questions answered.

  2. Thanks for your feedback, David. I think your company has the it’s finger on the pulse of what works in customer reference programs. I’m interested in seeing how customer reference programs and online customer communities merge even further in the next couple of years.


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