Finding ways to encourage customers to talk about your company and products—creating B2B buzz—is easy once you know what to do.

Why B2B Buzz Works

In B2B companies, buzz works due to two key factors. First, saturated markets breed competition. This means that buyers of IT equipment, like people buying cosmetics or jeans, are overwhelmed with lots of brand choices, messages, and ads. This "noise" makes the decision-making process longer as buyers conduct research and talk to colleagues, trying to find the truth.

Second, IT buyers have long memories. Vendor and channel reseller claims are definitely taken with a grain of salt. When errors cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, buyers are unwilling to take on a high degree of risk. Even with the speed at which the enterprise operates, the time to decision is limited. This is where influencers enter the picture.

"For big-ticket items, we want to talk with references. But we want candid feedback…so we usually try to get around the formal reference by going to the lowest point possible within an organization."
—Stephen Bjorgan, vice president of engineering,
France Telecom

Techies who spend time in online communities are influencers, and frequently they're also decision-makers. If you make products managed by storage administrators or engineers, those people are likely to be online and see negatives quickly discussed in blogs, on Web sites, in online communities, or in postings on association sites.

How Unstructured Word-of-Mouth Works in B2B

In the B2B environment, unstructured word-of-mouth is similar to a consumer environment. Survey data show that people go to one another for information. The Phelon Group recently conducted a client survey measuring primary sources of information. The survey found that 33% of respondents turned to colleagues and peers for input. Next was the Internet at 21%. Research continues to rank word-of-mouth as a predominant source of information.

"Real buzz is all about authenticity and honesty. No amount of marketing gives buyers the confidence that they get from a recommendation by a trusted peer."
—Andy Sernovitz, CEO, Word-of-Mouth
Marketing Association

How Can B2B Word-of-Mouth be Measured?

In B2B scenarios, decisions are frequently made by many people—even a committee. This makes measurement difficult. While one instance won't make or break a situation, you must recognize that purchase decisions for enterprise technology are a delicate dance between departments.

The measurement difficulty inherent in B2B word-of-mouth makes it critical to avoid customer disappointment. What kind of situation should you avoid? I had lunch recently with a senior executive at a well-known ad agency who had experienced deep disappointment in a company. "I make sure I always speak about them negatively whenever I present," he said.

In his paper, "Advocacy Drives Growth," Dr. Paul Marsden of the London School of Economics writes:

One solution to the economics of buzz, recently pioneered by Bain & Company consultant Fred Reichheld and Satmetrix Systems, has been to use surveys to track recommendation rates for different products and services and correlate these with sales growth. In a recent US analysis published in the Harvard Business Review, Reichheld found that a single question; the likelihood (0-10) that buyers of a product or service would recommend it to a friend could predict growth.

Called the net promoter score, this measurement has proven meaningful in assessing and forecasting business growth. The formula is simple, as discussed by Reichheld in his recent book, The Ultimate Question:

The best way to gauge the efficiency of the growth engine is to take the percentage of customers who are promoters (P) and subtract the percentage who are detractors (D). This equation is how we calculate a company's NPS: P - D = NPS.

Remember that buyers want to hear from reference customers, but negative information will catch their interest too. Comments on performance of customer care associates, service response time, or ease of use of the new upgrade are sure to be taken into consideration.

Reference Programs as a Structured Form of Word-of-Mouth

Customer reference programs structure word-of-mouth and become what the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association calls "facilitated word-of-mouth." Program managers work closely with the field sales organization to probe for account successes and articulate those wins in ways that promote the organization.

Taking this to its most positive extreme, Network Appliance has crafted a corporate pitch that includes concrete customer evidence. Connecting performance claims to customer proof is now part of the company's communication culture.

Developing B2B Word-of-Mouth

The proactive management of positive buzz means cultivating customer advocates. Many are already located within the boundaries of a good customer reference program. Nurturing these advocates equals shaping the references—the buzz—that will result. Here are five ideas for the development of solid advocates:

  1. Segment customers by the reference value they add to your program. Pay attention to high-value reference customers. Be aware that not all customers have the cachet of an IBM or a Microsoft. By the same token, a customer may be very important within its particular vertical industry, as Con Agra is within the food industry. Allocate time and effort according to reference value.

  2. Create value propositions tailored to resonate with the needs of high-value customers. A special awareness program created around specific customers may help them highlight an unseen area of their business. Perhaps a high-value customer will react positively to partner speaking opportunities, a webinar tailored to highlight its newest product or maybe a lunch with an EVP the customer has been trying to woo. Find out what makes a difference to your high-value customer and provide it.

  3. Protect those high-value customers from overuse and burnout. It's not your customer's business to promote your company. Create one-to-many situations where you'll be able to leverage the success story into a piece for your newsletter and capture your high-value customer in a webinar scripted from the same material. Later, use part of the webinar as a podcast. Give such customers a breather and let them know you won't be asking for further reference information for some time.

  4. Develop processes that ensure customers are up to date on changes within your company. One of the worst situations is the quickly tapped reference customer who hasn't been filled in on alterations to your management, products, or services. Positive reference customers placed in stressful situations quickly refuse to speak. Include them in your newsletter, make brief calls every other week just to say hello, and take the opportunity to catch them up on the latest news. Preparation avoids poor performance.

  5. Host advisory boards and councils that allow customers to network and share insights. Sometimes the most valuable thing you can give customers is an introduction or connection to their peers. Provide a collegial atmosphere by hosting client dinners, invite key clients to membership on your advisory board, and encourage them to get to know one another.

Commit to Customer Success

Buzz occurs when companies commit to customer success. Be your customer's greatest fan and biggest advocate. Get your customers noticed in the press, help them find speaking engagements to give presentations (alone or with you) about their success, champion them within their management and the greater enterprise.

Positive B2B buzz becomes viral when you and your customer advocates make savvy use of the knowledge and tools needed to communicate value, strategy, and benefits loudly enough to be heard above the "noise" in the marketplace.

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Steven Nicks is a partner with The Phelon Group (