A reporter was interested in a story pitch. He interviewed my client and at the end asked for a customer reference.

Sure, we said, give us a couple of days.

A couple of days turned into a week and a week into a month. The reporter dropped the story and stopped answering my emails.

The probability of that client ever being in a story by that reporter is very low. The simple fact we could not produce a customer reference not only ruined that opportunity – and permanently inhibited our future chances.

Unfortunately, this isn’t unusual in B2B. Building media references tend to take a back seat to 1,000 other things. As a result, when the time comes that you really need one, there isn’t one to be found.

Fostering Media References is Inherently Hard

Media references are hard for several reasons.

First, people are simply afraid of misspeaking or being misquoted. People have been conditioned to view reporters as people who are just out to get you.

Second, many corporate clients have policies that prohibit such interviews without a permission slip. There’s a good reason for this too. I’ve worked for a global organization that purchased technology from hundreds, if not thousands of vendors. Being a reference for your vendors can easily become a fulltime job – so some companies make not doing them a blanket policy.

Third, the sales account management model many B2B shops means marketing has to lobby an enterprise account manager (AM) for references. A quota carrying salesperson is loath to spend a favor asking for something that doesn’t advance a specific deal they might profit from.

The Remedy Starts with Relationships

The best remedy is to build a relationship with sales and – at the organizational or leader level – to put into place a thoughtful system for cultivating references. On a grand scale, it might include discounting, special access or a leader board for the AMs – but it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Putting together a simple process and recognizing those account managers that play along is a good way to get started. Marketing also has purse strings that can be creatively – and ethically – spent to appease a specific rep with the right reference. You certainly need the sales leadership on board with a reference program, but marketing has to drive it, or it will fade away.

This works best when you start well in advance and some helpful ways of getting it done is to make part of your other marketing programs. This where someone with real PR experience can really help because it brings together three programs B2B shops typically already have in place – PR, content marketing and social media – to support a reference program.

1) Soft interviews on your company blog.

Ask your customers for interviews on your corporate blog – soft and easy interviews. By this I mean ask them about their thoughts on the market or how they solve a specific challenge rather than talk about your product. Make it safe and easy: they talk – you write – they edit and approve (this would work for a podcast too). Most people love to share their expertise, and this makes you a broker of good ideas for your target market. In the course of doing this, you’ll get a whole new level of smart about the market in the process.

The caveat is, you’ve got to have a blog with a history of content your customers won’t be embarrassed to be associated with. If you can label several interviews under a dedicated blog tag – as I do for my own Off Script Q&A series – this gives you examples and social proof that goes a long way in convincing a customer to take part.

An interview exchange gives you a chance to build a relationship with a customer – you are giving something too rather than just asking all the time. Once this channel of communications is open, work on it over time and stay in touch. Creating opportunities for customers to know, like and trust you on a personal level is handy to have when you ask for a B2B media reference.

Those annual “prediction posts” are where many vendors strive to show how smart they are about the industry. But how many ask their customers for prediction? And I don’t mean marketing sends a note to the AM team and hopes they’ll ask for you – because it won’t happen – you have to champion the cause.

Weave the call to action (CTA) into your newsletter, your NPS score put an alert in whatever app your selling, or do a dedicate email send. Yes, your list of responses might be short the first year you do it, so you’ll need to weave in some other ways to get predictions. But you’ll definitely have better predictions and if you work at it over time, you’ll start to build a list of active customers ready and willing to participate.

You don’t have to wait until the end of the year to use a variation of this idea. Pick an issue in the industry to address quarterly or better yet, monthly or even weekly. If you are working for a large organization and publishing posts five days a week – this is a no brainer – make including customers part of the process. You’ll know you are successful when sales reps start asking you to include a customer.

StartupStockPhotos / Pixabay

3) Collect comments for reports, ebooks and white papers.

A few of my clients, and employers even before that, created annual or semi-annual reports on one topic or another. For some it was an annual survey, for others it was data derived from the usage of a SaaS product. Yet it was how the final deliverable was woven together was what gave it real polish: we’d get real feedback from real customers to use in the report.

It didn’t have to be a big endeavor for the customer. In the case of a survey, for example, simply introducing a finding based on the data and asking the customer how they address it today. They’ll give you an answer and it’ll probably be one the other customers would like to read about.

If you can do this with half a dozen customers, your report starts to have a genuine context that takes things up a level. That fact that customers basically co-created it with you, means you have built-in distribution because they are more inclined to share it too.

Remember that the first time you do it…it’s a lot of work, but it will get easier with time. You might even have to begin with anonymous sources until the community gets comfortable. That may not work on a blog but can work for long-form content like a report, ebook or white paper. Again, here, it gets easier with time because you gain experience, and customers can literally see what you mean. Then, the references and contacts start to come a lot easier.

4) Personal social media engagement.

Around 2008 or 2009 I started to recognize customers on social media – people that worked for companies that used our products. It opened a new channel of communications – I didn’t have to ask a salesperson for permission to contact a customer – they were right there on Twitter or LinkedIn.

I started to make it a habit to follow people or make lists (on Twitter) of customers to engage. You start to form relationships that way – which was the original idea (gasp) for social media – and so when references came up, it was like asking a friend for a small favor.

You can absolutely still do this today. Seek out customers online and engage them over time. Add your personal social handles – if your company permits – to your signature line and you’ll find customers you engaged over email will start to seek you out too. That personal engagement is an investment in trust that will pay dividends when it comes to media references.

5) Network at tradeshows and events

At tradeshows, good PR people network – online and offline at the same time. This relations part of public relations. They are in sessions taking notes and tweeting and shaking hands in-between. You’ll find your blogging, writing and reports will all come together as people you start to meet people – in real life – that you first met online.

For all the magic of digital communications, there’s nothing more powerful in relationship building as meeting customers face-to-face. This is your chance to ask questions – ask them about the industry, their top challenges, their successes – and the conversation will usually get very good and pretty fast.

And then you can pop the questions about an interview for the company blog or report. Because of the conversation, the customer now has context for what you are asking – and a face. You’re not just another email introduction made by an AM.

The Little Things Add Up to a Big Reference

You can see in all these examples that the approach is a key aspect: a very low-risk engagement that builds trust and demonstrates success. When you’ve graduated from that, it’s a lot easier to make the bigger ask – like for a media reference.

Time is another important part. Trust takes time to build and so do media referenceable customers. If you build this out as part of other programs, like content marketing, you’re able to accomplish a lot more with the same effort.

Finally, the little things matter. Whenever you “get” something – say thank you. I’ve always found sending a handwritten note through the U.S. Postal Service on company letterhead goes a long way. If you can swing a $5 gift card to Starbucks to include, that’s even better.

Start the process of fostering public references today, because the alternative of waiting until you really need one has so many more disadvantages.

Note: A version of this post was previously published on Sword and the Script: 5 Proven Ways PR can Develop Client Media References in B2B Organizations.

Featured image credit: Pixabay