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How to build community partnerships: an interview with Sarah Nagel of Sprout Social

An air of mystery exists around word-of-mouth marketing. When done well, it feels natural and good-natured—a piece of insider information meant to help you make better purchasing decisions. Done poorly, it feels disingenuous. Manipulative even, if the the recommender is exposed as a brand shill. The taut balance between “helpful friend” and “brand spokesperson” is challenging to nail because the secret ingredient is something that is hard to manufacture in marketing and brand strategy meetings.

Real word-of-mouth marketing thrives on trust.

A recent Nielsen report shows that 68 percent of consumers trust online opinions from other consumers. Other consumers being key here. It’s honest feedback about your products from real customers that will build brand trust. But that doesn’t mean you have to wait on the sidelines watching the conversation happen. Engaging with these natural promoters can be a fruitful partnership for both the brand and the customer. Sarah Nagel, Community Outreach Manager at Sprout Social, Inc, has advice for businesses interested in shining a spotlight on their biggest promoters. She founded the successful Sprout Social All Stars program in 2012, which has been instrumental in building word of mouth marketing for Sprout Social’s product.

What is the All Stars program at Sprout Social?

Sprout Social All Stars is a customer advocacy initiative recognizing our brand champions. Our All Stars are vital extensions of our organization. They share advice and content on our behalf on a wide range of topics from product updates and best practices to Sprout thought leadership. All Stars are loyal customers and know the platform as well as any employee. We’re fortunate to work with these folks.

What are the benefits of investing in real customers versus identifying influencers on social media and asking them to talk about your product?

We work with influencers on some projects and campaigns, but All Stars is more about our loyal, invested customers. These users have been with us for years and are eager to use new features or suggest ideas of their own. They are vocal: celebrating the ease-of-use or troubleshooting an issue. We think that people who are really vocal, even through complaints, can be a really great thing. The complaining demonstrates they truly care and want the platform to be great and the company to succeed.

What are the perks for All Stars?

Some of the benefits we provide are:

  • Collaboration opportunities, such as #Sproutchat, a weekly Twitter chat or speaking opportunities
  • Thought leadership via contribution to the Sprout Social blog

  • Networking opportunities with the All Stars network
  • Insight on upcoming product features, something typically reserved for enterprise customers only
  • Custom swag with Sprout Social All Stars branding
  • All Stars badge for use on social networks and websites
  • A direct line to our customer success team as a resource

What are the perks for Sprout Social?

We get to build a better relationship with our most loyal customers. By staying top of mind for All Stars, we garner great exposure in the community of social media entrepreneurs—our potential customers. We are one of the first products for social media management that they think about. These relationships we’ve built also keep us relevant with our audience.

The exposure for our content is another valuable perk, as well as the promotion of our free trial for interested prospects.

How do you ensure that the program is working for the All Stars?

We have ongoing conversations via Slack. I also facilitate a quarterly call where we chat about the state of the program.

Internally, we’ve set some benchmarks around metrics for progress, but since the program is brand new, they can be a bit arbitrary.

Your branding for the All Stars doesn’t look anything like that of Sprout Social. Was that intentional?

Yes. It’s different because it’s about much more than the product. It’s about recognizing these smart and talented people and our affiliation with them. We wanted the branding to stand out because we want the All Stars to stand out. It’s been really exciting to see many All Stars adopt the badges in their social profiles.

Sprout Social All Stars Zendesk

Why do customer testimonials resonate with non-customers?

Content is saturated right now. There are so many ads and marketing campaigns that it’s hard to know what to trust. Word of mouth marketing is crucial.

Word of mouth has changed though; brands have more access to the people who are vocal via social. Companies that aren’t tapping into their happy customers are missing out. Customers that came in by referral are more likely to purchase, spend more and stay a customer longer.

It seems like the All Stars have a genuine, personal relationship with Sprout Social.

Building solid relationships with your customers is key. They know your brand, they are paying you money, they are rooting for you.

One of the benefits of building personal relationships in business, especially with customers and partners, is that personal ties can drive loyalty. Do you try to make the All Star relationship feel less transactional and more personal?

Yes, definitely. For the kind of long-term relationship we’re building, making it feel less transactional is key. I strive to introduce other team members often so each All Star has multiple connections.

I think any time you meet someone in person you form a much stronger relationship. I’ve traveled a lot for conferences and I make sure to meet up with our All Stars anytime I can. Focusing on building a friendship, along with business relations, has helped get to know each person very well quickly.

Have these relationships impacted business outcomes?

Yes, and I have one great story as an example. When All Stars was still a nascent program, I was looking for new candidates. One of the current All Stars recommended Steph Nissen, a social media marketer for small businesses and startups.

Steph is a well-known marketer but she wasn’t on my radar yet. There are many passionate people promoting Sprout, so it takes time to find all of them. As soon as I saw her level of expertise in social media and her skill in community building, I wanted to build a closer relationship with her. I sent the All Stars invite. She wrote back, “Oh your ears must be ringing, I was just about to cancel my account.” I immediately went into damage control mode, asking questions like “What’s wrong? How can I fix it?” and, “Are we missing features that you need?” For Steph, the product was great but it was a little too expensive for her use case. Unfortunately, I can’t do much on my end regarding pricing, but I did empathize with her situation. I emphasized the benefits of All Stars, like collaboration opportunities, more support, and advanced product insight. She came back with, “I love your product, I love your team and being part of the All Stars would be very exciting to me. I will stay.”

In this experience, I saw that you can’t always offer solutions to everything as well as their success can go a long way.

What is your advice for people who would like to start a brand advocate community in their organization?

1. Do the research beforehand. Who are your invested customers? Who spends the most? Who talks the most? Reach out to all the teams within your organization that touch your customers. Go to sales or customer success to find long-standing and high-value customers. Go to customer support to see who is always asking about features. That upfront research will help you connect with the right people.

2. Communication is key. Whether it’s through Twitter, email, Zendesk or a Slack Channel, ensure that they have an accessible channel. Do your best to ensure that the program is mutually beneficial and that it’s fulfilling on both on a business and personal level.

When it comes to influencing purchasing decisions, the cleverest advertisement in the world, the brainiest salesperson, and the best prices together won’t compare to the effectiveness of a personal recommendation by a trusted source. Word of mouth marketing still reigns supreme in getting people to trust your brand and buy your product. Next time you are looking to invest in a marketing campaign, think about investing in your customers—they probably have something great to say.

Sarah Nagel is the Community Outreach Manager at Sprout Social. Follow her on Twitter at @sprout_sarah.


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