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  • Writer's pictureCharles Edge

Customer Advocacy Programs For Startups

Customer advocacy often starts in the most authentic of ways. A customer tweets something nice about us and we retweet it. It feels natural and in exchange for promoting us we promote them. Maybe another customer posts a link to a blog post on LinkedIn and we share that. We promote them and they promote us. There’s no quid pro quo. There’s no expectation. It’s just natural.

Over time, we get busy. Especially in startups. Competing priorities pull us in different directions. We don’t open the social accounts during a mad dash to get a new feature out, get a round of investments, or close some sales. Our interactions go in fits and spurts.

Organizations are looking for feedback in more and more places. We want as diverse an outlook as possible, and we need it quicker than ever. The customer advocacy programs being run at a lot of organizations can be a great place to start looking for more people and to find them faster. We see these in large companies but increasingly in startups as well.

What’s an advocacy program?

Advocacy programs are systems that motivate customers to take an action. This can be as simple as a spreadsheet or an elaborate portal we create or outsource. If a vendor were to offer an employee at a customer cash to take an action on their behalf, that would be inappropriate, probably unethical, and possibly criminal. But a lot of people who use our products will become fans of what we’re doing. And many will naturally share that.

As a product grows, we naturally get more and more people taking small actions that benefit us. And we start to notice those actions and promote them. Maybe this is retweeting a post or interacting with them in a public forum. People notice these interactions and we end up subtly driving behaviors based on our reactions.

The value of those actions is that they can attain a desired result (think a Call To Action) and help to achieve multiple goals simultaneously. Our fans are often happy to be helpful, especially with some incentives on the line. Those incentives can ultimately be structured in a way that they are branded and fun.

Many of our advocates are amongst our most experienced users. As products mature in the market, the people who have been with us the longest often have the most to gain from our success. The people who have invested the most time in our products can be those with the most to tell us about how to improve them in a way that makes them more enjoyable to use while making them more productive.

An advocacy program can help uncover these fans. Many who participate in those programs would be delighted to help us make their lives better. Let’s start thinking of advocacy by looking at our personas.

Define Personas

Personas let us find the best content to put in front of advocates and determine what incentives, or opportunities are appropriate to provide advocates. Marketing teams in larger organizations are likely already using those so we should be careful about stepping on toes. But there’s a huge question that we forget in our zest to get portals developed: what is the motivation to take an action as an advocate?

The larger an organization gets the more disconnected the organization often becomes with being able to answer that very question but for startups it’s often sufficient to just make two or three quick personas and a list of actions we want to inspire them to take.

There are a lot of actions that can be taken so we often just put a bunch of things in front of customers and react to what gets amplified. But being a little deliberate goes a long way. So when taking our personas and creating actions, think of the motivations and so what will drive behavior.

Start With A The Spreadsheet

Now that we have personas, let’s take the actions and put them in a spreadsheet. This can be as simple as a column for actions and another for each persona. We can also add columns for points (if we want to use a point system to inspire advocates) or a simple prize. That prize could just be to create a social media post promoting them or a prize.

Next, let’s think through how prizes will be delivered. An easy way to go about this is to pick a site like and choose prizes from there. If the spreadsheet only has one item: refer a friend, then the prize should almost always be a free month or a free tier increase for our product. The more rows we have for tasks and prizes, the more difficult the system will be to manage, but for now let’s just have fun and brainstorm for ways customers can authentically promote our brand and the ways we might choose to reward them.

A Word Of Caution

We receive a benefit when a person advocates on our behalf. However, as mentioned, not every industry or organization can accept prizes, even if the prize is just a $5 cup of coffee. Any company serving government, education, and highly regulated organizations should probably have no prizes with a monetary value.

Instead, think of more creative ways to reward people. Those social interactions are a great start. Helping our friends do more in their careers and be more visible is a great start. Many just want us to keep doing great work. So another reward to consider might be to let them tell us about how they want our product to shape up or having them serve on our customer advisory board.

Another reward that we might not actually write down as an explicit offer is a hand-written thank you card. Hopefully it’s obvious by now that we don’t have to pay a customer or advocate in order to show our appreciation for helping us on our mission.

A Simple Implementation

Now that we have a few items that we’ve brainstormed, let’s try and put this into action on a small scale. In the beginning, we want a lightweight system and a really personalized experience for the people participating. Point systems can be fine later but for now let’s look for something simpler.

Pick one action and a reward. Let’s stay away from monetary rewards. As programs scale that’s often an option but for now, let’s try and avoid a bunch of people looking for free gift cards. Instead, let’s look for a motivator our early startup customers might want. One that seems authentic. I love branded materials for this, like a shirt or a notebook with a logo. These are things with minimal cash value and it might be a pain to send it to a person, but it’s so much more personal and real.

We can also get fun with gifts. If we work with artists or designers, branded protractors or slide rules can be made for a couple of dollars each that are really fun. Or if we work in construction maybe a branded headlamp that fits on a hardhat. Inexpensive but thoughtful.

Make the Ask

Now let’s make a list of people that might say something good about us. Think about customers who have had success, those who were involved in some of the decision making, some who got features implemented at their request, and maybe a couple of those random ones that come in who we’ve never met. A good sampling across a couple of different personas is a great start.

Then, we just send them a request to take the action we have in mind. Keep in mind that some people aren’t allowed to talk about the vendors they work with. So don’t worry about rejection. Phrase it in a way that shows their opinions are valued and we’d like to share their story.

We are so glad that you’ve joined us on this amazing journey. As we get more and more organizations using our solution we find there are more and more stories we’d like to help share. For everyone that posts about their journey with our product today, we’ll send out a branded pocket protector and we’ll be resharing the best, most meaningful. Just tag us in your post and we’ll do the rest!

Let’s break down a few elements of the above paragraph:

  • It’s short. Let’s just assume customers don’t read much beyond the size of a tweet any more. After all, we all have day jobs!

  • There’s a call to action. Here we’re asking them to post something about their journey.

  • There’s a clear reward: we’ll send them the lovely pocket protector. There should also be a photo with the pocket protector in it, of course!

  • There’s an added incentive to reshare the best story. We can always reshare multiple of the stories if we so choose.

  • We aren’t overly specific. This is about them. As programs grow there’s often a “tweet this exact post” mission for 5 points type of ask, but when we’re getting started we want to retain flexibility.

There are a few things to avoid. We don’t want to seem desperate. Nor do we want to make any inauthentic requests. We want to reach more people but we want to do so in a way that stays within regulations for a given industry and doesn’t just create a bunch of noise that complicates the marketing and analytics. In other words, let’s avoid incentivizing the wrong behaviors.

Collect, Analyze, Repeat

Once we’ve put an offer out there, let’s see what resonates. Keep an eye on the social impacts, the clicks, the traffic, and then the conversions. Sure, we want to do this all the time but as we look to develop momentum, use utm codes and link shortening.

Then pay attention to the analytics for new traffic generated by advocacy efforts. This helps us understand what’s driving people visiting our site, where people fall off, and ultimately how to keep people interested in what we’re doing.

Add More Structure

Once we’ve found some success, let’s add a little more structure to the program. In the beginning this might just be doing more of the same. More offers and more rewards.

If all goes well, there should come a time when there’s too much work to handle without either more people or some software. There are a few tools that can help with scaling a program:

  • Influitive: is a true customer advocacy solution with integrated reward systems and lots of options for centralized management of rewards.

  • InnerCircle: might be the simplest advocacy tool to manage. There might be more manual interaction than an Influitive but we can still sync to/from standard other tools and especially in the beginning it’s fine to do manual entry when tasks are completed.

  • SaaSquatch: is much more of a referral tracking tool but has some advocacy options as well.

  • Crowdvocate: is an advocacy and loyalty tool. Great as we scale up into a place where advocacy and/or loyalty programs have a dedicated person to manage the programs.

It’s always good to test each and look for one that matches a given use case, rather than simply trying to shoehorn a workflow into a mould so a tool works. Having said this, one of the reasons we sign up for off the shelf software tools is that the developers have more knowledge about a given industry (such as advocacy) and we can learn a lot from the options available in the software.

As the program grows, we should be experimenting more. Providing more challenges might mean any of the following:

  • Submit a customer story

  • Create or reshare a social post

  • Post a video somewhere

  • Create a video testimonial

  • Make a video to contribute to a compilation

  • Send us a photo in a Star Wars costume on May 4th

  • Write a script that does something with an API

  • Make a screenshot of an innovative workflow

  • Fill out surveys

  • Send a pet photo

  • Refer a friend to an open job listing

  • Contribute to a non-profit we support

  • Submit a feature request

  • Write a guest blog post

  • Send us a recipe for Pi Day

  • Refer a friend to sales

  • Submit thoughts on a beta version

  • Meet with a product manager

  • Review a product

  • Be our guest on a podcast episode

  • Drop us a life hack

  • Create a playlist of songs that are just perfect to listen to when working with our products

The list is endless. Some (if not most) should be fun and engaging. As we grow the programs usually become a little less impactful per-capita. Redemption rates in point-based systems usually hover below 25%. It’s hard to keep fresh ideas flowing, especially given the constraints for working with the personas for a given organization. The person pulling the strings of these programs really needs to know the customers well.

Once we have a program that’s working, we also want to protect it. The community, engagement, or advocacy manager is a critical role and one of the biggest risks is what happens when they’re ready for a new challenge.


Employees move up or employees move on. Anyone that’s developed an advocacy program is often going to be in high demand when other organizations look to build a program as well. Or within the organization when the program is a huge success. We have to be prepared for that eventuality.

Have a backup. This can be someone in another team who shows interest, someone at a junior level hired specifically to run the program, or someone who’s run a similar program at a large organization who can hit the ground running. Either way, train the replacement quickly so we don’t skip a beat!


Customer advocacy programs can be awesome. We can find and promote people who love our products in meaningful ways. We can reward our most ardent supporters. We can connect with our users in more ways today than any time in history. And they can help us build better products.

We can also alienate people when we speak to them in ways they don’t understand or that come across as inauthentic. We don’t want to do anything to risk the trust it’s taken us a long time to win.

As we’ve shown in this article, we can start small. A simple spreadsheet is all it takes. We can move on to more and more complex ways to help our customers promote our mission. We can end up making lifelong friends, finding new teammates, and grow together in our careers. That’s probably the most meaningful thing I’ve found.

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