Helping Our Customers Enhance Their Careers with Continuous Learning
Your customers want a voice. They want to know you have their needs in mind and are listening when they provide feedback. These days, customers are also looking for human connection, and they need to know that they're more than numbers on a spreadsheet. Treat them well, and they'll promote your brand by sharing their satisfaction with others.
That is the promise of advocate marketing, a strategy that puts your customers first and harnesses their experiences to engage new users and to improve your products and services. If you're publishing case studies, testimonials, or user reviews, you're doing advocate marketing at its most basic level. But if you expand on the type of stories you share, and flip the equation to place a greater emphasis on your customers’ voices, you'll start to see its full potential.
At its best, advocate marketing is a two-way street that allows you to follow and enhance customer journeys, all the while harvesting valuable insights that will hone your brand presence and fine-tune your product offerings.
Advocate What, Now?
I graduated from NC State with a degree in Fashion and Textiles Brand Management and Marketing. I got a job at a clothing startup that built an app that let women rent dresses to each other in their area. After the company restructured, it was time to move on—and that’s when I got the call from .
I didn't know what advocate marketing was, or so I thought. But I was actually doing a bit of it at my previous job, and my current boss took a chance on me despite my limited experience. It turned out to be a serendipitous moment in my career.
Everyone knows Cisco. If you're a network engineer, you use our products every day, and the company is a big part of your life in one way or another. As such, our customers are natural advocates. When their employers or peers ask for a solution, our users consistently recommend Cisco hardware and software. Users often become lifelong consumers, partners, and advocates, following the evolution of the company and our products for decades.
A Home for Newly-Certified IT Professionals
Rather than being focused on hardware or software, my corner of the company is focused on education. I'm the project manager of Cisco Cert Insiders, a community for network engineers who have recently completed their . Our goal is to help CCNAs on their post-accreditation path and encourage them to continue their certification journey by pursuing CCNP (Cisco Certified Network Professional) level certifications. We also encourage them to renew their existing credentials by taking a recertification exam every three years.
Our typical community members are IT consultants and network engineers. Our CCNAs are starting to advance their careers and we want to encourage them to become CCNPs after they've gained some experience. We’re all about a commitment to education and continual learning, and we view our certifications as more than pieces of paper. In many cases, they’re gateways to a better life.
A CCNA empowers its holders to move from the unskilled labor pool into the world of IT, and a CCNP provides opportunities for further advancement. We recently overhauled our entire certification curriculum and reduced it from 10 separate streams of associate-level certifications to one, broadening the scope of what certificate holders learn and further widening their career options after they complete the program.
People have told me that getting their Cisco credentials increased their earning potential and gave them the career stability they needed to buy a new car, put a down payment on a home, or even start a family. I know that the work I'm doing with Cisco Cert Insiders helps IT professionals achieve their dreams.
The Cisco Certs Insiders program is by invitation only. After certifying and adding them to our marketing efforts, we invite them to join. They’re typically pumped about becoming part of the community, but it can be hard to maintain our members' interest over long periods of time, partly due to the cyclical nature of the certification process. Members are very active initially, and then the inclination is to fall away until they have to recertify three years down the road or choose to pursue an additional certification. At that point, they begin to reconnect with their community members.
We’re focused on our customer life cycle journey, and to capitalize on their enthusiasm for our company, we have to do everything we can to ensure continuous participation and engagement.
Building an Engaging Advocate Community
A leader like Cisco needs to partner with other market leaders, and we’ve had a long partnership with , who are pioneers in the advocate marketing space. Influitive has launched hundreds of successful customer and advocate marketing programs at some of the world’s best companies. Their platform helps companies use their customers’ energy to onboard new customers, support existing customers, improve your product, enhance events, and more.
Wanting to make the most of our customers’ loyalty, Cisco operates an aggressive advocate marketing program. Our primary advocate community is called The Gateway, which launched in 2017 with Influitive's platform, . It complements our traditional marketing and advertising efforts with content targeting, gamification, engagement, and rewards.
We used Influtive to build the Cisco Cert Insiders community as well. Using the platform's streamlined interface, custom design elements, and gamification functionalities, we created a user experience that initially rewarded CCENT and CCNA certified customers for the hard work they’d put into getting certified. We also made the program into a venue where Insiders can share their knowledge with fellow Cisco-certified IT professionals and voice their opinions about current and future versions of the Cisco certification training stream. Influitive is a place where our Cisco Cert Insiders community can channel their excitement for our products, as well as their devotion to the Cisco certification program.
A lot of our customers rave about the gamification of the platform experience. We used Influitive to set up fun and rewarding challenges that keep community members coming back. For example, every September, we run a themed social media frenzy challenge that rewards the Insiders who generate the most shares. My first year here, the theme was "shark week," so we worked with a graphic designer on a lot of playful imagery that added to the excitement.
Earlier this year, we held our annual conference online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked our Insiders to share pictures of their "convention-from-home" setups, and then assembled a collage we shared on our Learning@Cisco social channels. Our community members were very excited to be recognized in this manner. It was a way of acknowledging their participation even though we couldn't reward their physical presence as we had in previous years.
More Than Fun and Games
One of the best features of Influitive is its consistency. No matter what challenge we roll out, Influitive allows us to create a consistent, Cisco-branded user experience with easy-to-understand instructions, personal dashboards, and leaderboards that enable community members to track each other's progress.
On top of friendly competition and the recognition of their peers, we also encourage participation by offering community members highly desirable rewards such as Cisco Cert swag, exam vouchers, and product trials. Behind the scenes, Influitive allows us to monitor engagement levels and adjust challenge goals and parameters based on user reactions.
But advocacy and engagement isn’t just fun and games or handing out rewards. Our Cisco Cert Insiders share their success stories on social media and advice to online developer communities like GitHub. Our members also form a peer support group through the Insiders forums, where they can ask each other questions about the certification process and learn from others' experiences.
Recently, our community provided valuable feedback about the new online certification testing procedures we adopted during the coronavirus pandemic. It was critical to ensure the continuity of the certification process, not just for new applicants, but also for those whose credentials are coming up for renewal. Our advocates helped us smooth the transition to virtual exams in this time of crisis.
Influitive has also made it easier to manage testimonials and collect user opinions, both good and bad. When a community member shares a positive experience with me, I put it out there—both on the Cert Insiders program and our social media channels—to inspire others to seek out certification or to renew their credentials. When they share something bad, I take it back to our team so we can do better next time. Consistent consumer contact also helps me to keep things in perspective. People share their negative experiences because they care about Cisco and are invested in our certification program. If we weren't important to them, they wouldn't give us any feedback at all.
Building on Consistent Growth
In my two years at Cisco, the Cisco Cert Insiders community has nearly quadrupled in size, swelling from 3,000 to 11,000 members. In the last year, we've raised our NPS score to 75 and garnered 28,000 social shares that generated 300,000 clicks. We’re proud of these numbers, but the real achievement has been deepening our dialogue with Cisco's most ardent supporters—our CCNAs. There's tremendous value in nurturing our customer advocates, and the ROI on our Influitive spend is tremendous.
My department is looking to expand our Cisco Cert Insiders program to people who are thinking of applying for certification in addition to those who are already certified. We're also considering extending invitations to recent CCNPs. To do that, we’ll need to expand our department, but I don’t have to worry about scaling up our program. Influitive has us covered.
I’m also expanding my own credentials. To better understand our community members' customer journey, I'll be working towards a CCNA certification myself. I'm also planning to become so that I can make the most of the Influitive platform. I want to take sharing customer experiences to the next level.
A Message Worth Sharing
Customer advocacy isn’t about a company benefiting from the goodwill of their customers. It’s a two-way street where companies and their customers give and take for everyone’s mutual benefit. I've come to appreciate the contribution of our advocates, and I want to do everything in my power to amplify their voices and share their wisdom. Their stories are inspiring, and I want the whole world to see how Cisco certifications can open doors.
People know Cisco. They know we offer best-in-class networking and security solutions and cutting-edge telepresence and collaborative tools like our . But they don't know that we also provide world-class training that can help folks advance their careers and build better lives for themselves and their families.
It's a message worth sharing, and I want to make sure that it's heard loud and clear.