Let's move away from that transactional way of doing reference recruitment and move towards building a holistic customer advocacy community!

How do we do that? Well, you have to start by asking yourself some key questions:

  • How are we elevating customer voice?
  • How are we putting the customer voice first?
  • How are we nurturing and developing relationships with our customers to build and create true customer advocates?

But first, let's strip it right down to basics.

What is Community?

“A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals”

As human beings, we crave connections with others, through sharing our stories and experiences. That's how we create a true community. Gathering and sharing stories is something that I've been passionate about in my personal life.

I never really knew that there was a way to bring that into the business and tech world until I learned about customer advocacy, and through learning all about what customer advocacy has to offer, I realized that's exactly what the business and tech world needed to embrace and bring to life.

When I was at VMware, I was responsible for creating and launching our global customer advocacy community. It was a really exciting and rewarding challenge. When I joined the DocuSign customer advocacy team it was to be part of building and launching the customer advocacy program.

Hands in a line

Our work at DocuSign

At DocuSign, we're working together to identify opportunities to move away from that traditional way of engaging with our customers. We created true customer advocates with a robust and engaging experience.

So, to create an engaging experience for our customers and those relationships, we had to look beyond the way we'd done things in the past. We needed to look at bringing these special moments of being together ‘in person’ to an online forum.

There might be times where we're able to engage with our customers in person, but in reality, the majority of our connection will be with our customers online.

How do we bring these moments into the online community?

I wanted to share this quote from one of our customer advocates from a few years ago, when my team and I were on-site at a conference after launching our online customer advocacy community. 👇

‘The IT world is a big place and it’s easy to get lost. The future of technology is only going to move faster. We must build and rely on a community of people and resources we trust to achieve our current and future goals”

We were standing there at our booth, watching our customer advocates engage with each other, exchange numbers, attend sessions together and share stories. It was incredible to witness how creating community within the tech space could truly come to life.

This was the moment that I realized the impact we can have on our customers by creating community in our business.

Building an online community from scratch [Q&A with PMA]
PMA get bombarded with a whole host of requests from practitioners keen to learn how they have such an engaged online Slack community, with 10,000+ members. So, Richard King, CEO & Founder at PMA, sat down for an AMA and shared some of the secrets of his success.

I think about and reference this quote all the time as I'm realizing what is possible with customer advocacy and community, and it’s exactly this, it's the impact that we can have on our customers by bringing them together to let them network and share experiences.

What that does for our business is hugely significant. It's really just bringing that magic of being together in-person, and bringing it to the online format.

The dream state

I share this as a success story to inspire you, wherever you are in your journey, whether it's moving from that transactional reference recruitment model, to providing and creating a customer advocacy community for your customers.

Having a customer share the impact that your community has on them is the dream state, but it takes a lot of thoughtful work and planning to get there.

For those of you who are just at the beginning of your journey, we are with you at DocuSign. We are in the beginning stages of transitioning from a transactional reference model to a relational experience with our customers.

Throughout this article, I will share experiences that I've had building an online customer advocacy community in a previous role. I will also share experiences that I'm having in the beginning stages of our customer advocacy program at DocuSign.

My hope in sharing these experiences is that you can identify where you are in your journey, and you're empowered to take that next step to move away from that transactional way of engaging with customers and really build a community around customer advocates.

The traditional way

When I was introduced to customer advocacy, it was really through that transactional and traditional way of doing reference recruitment.

We interact with our customers, we provide them with an opportunity through email, whether that's a speaking opportunity, a webinar or anything like that.

Any opportunity for them to share their story, we work with the customer to bring this to life, to showcase their story, we thank them, and that's the end of our communication.

There's a gap between when we create the opportunity with our customer and when we connect with our customer again. We typically are not reaching out until there's another opportunity to engage with our customer around an opportunity that's arisen.

It's really difficult to nurture relationships with our customers when we're only reaching out as opportunities arise.

So, what's wrong with that model?

It's very transactional, to start. How can we expect our customers to feel a connection and a commitment to our business if we're only reaching out as opportunities become available?

When we gather in person we don't just walk up to each other, exchange the bare necessities and leave.

  • We stay.
  • We listen.
  • We share experiences.
  • We connect with one another.

This is why building an online customer advocacy community that mirrors the in-person experience is so important.

It's giving our customers a dedicated space to share their stories, to connect with each other, to connect with our business, and feel the sense of partnership.

A group of friends with their arms around each other

First: Carry out a business assessment

Before we talk through some of the steps to launching a customer advocacy community, I want to point out that it's really critical to do a business assessment to identify all the customer touch points within your business.

So from the moment that our customers transact with sales, what happens next?

  • What does that journey look like?
  • Who's engaging with our customers throughout their journey?
  • What does that experience look like?

Community-led growth is the Future of SaaS
Community-led growth is a go-to-market strategy that relies on an engaged community of customers as a tool for acquiring new customers, retaining existing customers, and expanding your business reach.

I think that's really going to help as you build your customer advocacy program. What does that experience currently look like? What do we want it to look like in the future?

Launching a customer advocacy community

Identify your internal stakeholders and executive sponsors

As you take off on this adventure, it's important to first identify your internal stakeholders and executive sponsors.

Think about all the teams that you support as a customer advocacy team. Those will be really important stakeholders that you'll want to identify as you're building out what it looks like to launch this community.

Also, your executive sponsors are going to be your advocates throughout this journey. They’re going to help you get to the point of launching your customer advocacy community.

Research and identify a platform for hosting the community

From there, you'll want to research and identify a platform for hosting that community.

Take the time to really look at what makes sense for your business. When we were at VMware, we partnered with Influitive, and it was a great partnership, and we were able to accomplish a lot together.

Schedule time to share your presentation with executive sponsors and internal stakeholders

I would recommend really looking at what makes sense for your business and your overall goals. Find the platform that meets the criteria that you're looking for and build a presentation that talks all about the value of that platform,

Get that all in one presentation.

Schedule time to share your presentation with executive sponsors and internal stakeholders. it's really important that we not only lay out and identify the value of the platform, but also, we need to ask:

What does it look like for the business?

How is this customer advocacy community going to be a value to:

  • Customer success
  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • PR
  • AR
  • All the internal groups that we interact with

We need to make sure that the value is very well-defined as we present to our executive sponsors and internal stakeholders.

Network internally and socialize your community plans

As you're meeting with different groups, socialize what you're planning to do with your customer advocacy community and get their feedback. Make them really feel a part of this village, make them feel a part of this customer advocacy group.

That way, when you go to launch, you're not in a place where people are asking,“Why are you launching this? What is this?”

You have a whole village behind you, supporting you, because they see the value and how this is going to really make a difference in the customer journey.

Schedule 1:1 training with reference managers

Pay close attention to your reference managers.

Having been a reference manager myself for many years now, we're used to that traditional model where we reach out to our customers through email, we work with our customers on the opportunity, we thank them.

You need to recognize that this is a big change, and change can be hard.

It's very important to schedule one on one sessions with reference managers to make sure that they see the value in engaging with their customers and being able to nurture their relationships with their customers in this community.

Make sure that they have the opportunity to share feedback, and really feel empowered to go into the community, engage with their community and their customers.

A rocket launching

Create your launch plan

Identify the regions that you launched to and develop a plan to support.

As you're looking at the different regions that you're rolling out to, you'll want to make sure that you identify the right way of engaging with these different regions.

When you invite these customer advocates into your community, it’s important that they feel really welcomed and it's a great customized experience for them. So, it's really important to dedicate the time to do the research around how you can launch with each region, so that they feel supported and welcomed.

Identify a list of customers to invite

If you think of a party or a gathering, often there's the stars and those who are really excitable, and then there are the individuals who are listeners.

It's really important to look at that in-person gathering and ask, “how do we bring that to life into this community?”

You can do that by inviting existing customer relationships that you've already nurtured, and then inviting new advocates so that they can interact with each other.

Draft email invitations and welcome messages for customers

You'll want to make sure to draft email invitations and welcome messages for customers. Have that all prepared, outlining the value.

From the moment they join the community, you need to find out what is valuable to them, give them a guided journey so that when they join the community, they’re not lost. They know where to go. You can guide them through their experience, creating an editorial calendar and content is hugely helpful.

Publishing content every single week, prior to launch, will make you successful.

Create editorial calendar and content to support

We created an editorial calendar. That way we can be really thoughtful with planning ahead of time.

You need to ask: What content do we want to have? You need to be flexible as things pop up.

You need to make sure that you have fresh content in the community each week. It needs to be different types of content, not just more of the same. You need to engage with your customers in an ‘in person’ manner, ask them things like: What are your holiday plans? Would you be interested in sharing your story?

Find ways to really elevate the customer’s voice and give them a chance to shine, whether it's enhancing their personal or professional brand, and you can do that by engaging in a variety of different content.

Outline a plan of engagement and the community role

Make sure you have someone dedicated to the community. Your advocates are being engaged with, they have someone to ask questions, someone who is showing up every single day for your customers.

That's the way that you can really nurture and develop relationships.

A great network of advocates

So from here, you'll probably be asked,

  • What is success?
  • What are the benefits?
  • How do you know you have a great network of advocates?

Loyal customers

No matter who your customer is, how do you show up for your customers, when they're having product issues, or any other type of friction?

The way that you show up as a business and as a customer advocacy team is how you establish loyal customers. It's your customers who, even if there's been some struggles, still speak positively about your brand when you're in and out of the room.

Empowered reference managers

You need to empower reference managers. You want your reference managers to be excited and empowered to jump into the community, network with their customer advocates and nurture those relationships.

Niche product use cases

It's about uncovering niche product use cases. Looking at the community, there are going to be different niche use cases. Maybe it's because a sales request came in and you show it to the community and find them that way.

Customer Storytelling

It might be customers raising their hands to share their story, saying, “Hey, I've got a story and I would love to share it. How do I do that?”

Maybe your customers could do a speaking session, or maybe they would prefer more private conversations so they can talk one to one with other customers.

When you have customer advocates who are raising their hand to share their story, you know you've got a great network.

Community engagement

In addition to raising their hands to share their story, they're engaging in the community. If a discussion forum is relevant to the community that you launch, they're the ones creating topics.

It's not just from the business, it’s from the customers themselves. It’s customers creating those topics. If you look at your community and see that it mirrors the presence of an in-person gathering, you know you've done something really meaningful.

How to measure success and report ROI

I really start with our stakeholders. As a customer advocacy team, who do we support? It's really mostly going to be sales, marketing, public relations and analyst relations.

There's a consistent theme you can see here as far as fulfilling requests through the community. I think that has a huge impact on the overall success of the customer advocacy team.


When a sales request comes in, we typically have a pretty short turnaround to fulfill that. The request can take hours, days or even a month.

If you create that opportunity for customers to share their story in the community, within hours you have a huge network of advocates who are raising their hands and wanting to support you.

They love your brand, and they love your business.

That's a huge impact on sales when you fulfill this request quickly. Ultimately, this could close the deal faster. You have influence on revenue by supporting sales, and you increase the number of customer stories.

By having a huge community of advocates who want to speak and share their story, you're able to create even more customer stories to support sales, marketing, public relations and analyst relations.


Product roadmap feedback and NPS surveys are a great opportunity to engage with customers to get feedback, then you can relay those results back to marketing.

Public relations and analyst relations,

You want to save time by securing customers more quickly. Media opportunities come in fast. So, how can we identify those and fulfil those requests faster through the community, and then increase the number of reviews on analyst review sites?

We want to provide an opportunity for customers to engage and share their story in that format.

Going forward

I hope the experiences and tips that I've shared in this article help you identify where you are in your journey.

I hope that, going forward, you will be motivated to move away from that transactional way of engaging with customers to really building a holistic customer advocacy community.

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