Advocate marketing vs cloud suites – Influitive’s Mark Organ weighs in

SUMMARY:

Influitive’s Advocamp event defied my expectations. But can advocate marketing succeed as a category amidst the marketing cloud behemoths? Influitive CEO Mark Organ makes his case.

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Mark Organ (second from left) and friends

As a media member who crashed Influitive‘s Advocamp party, I had no idea what to expect. It was not what I expected, though mostly in a good way. I went into the show with one view of advocate marketing, and came out with another.

On day one, I found myself in a refreshing clash of ideas with Influitive CEO Mark Organ. Organ rattled off a ton of things he hates about enterprise shows (he has a list of 40 somewhere) – Advocamp is intended to move beyond those gripes.

Organ believes advocate marketing can muscle a distinct position amongst the “marketing clouds.” Given the elephants stomping in the marketing cloud room, cementing advocate marketing as a best-of-breed category would be no small feat. During an informal pre-conference Q/A in his hotel suite, Organ spoke frankly about these ambitions. We also hit on why he sees a huge impact coming from the surge of Slack, and yes, even Facebook Messenger.

Advocamp – no crummy panels, competitors welcome

During a trade show bashing session, Organ and I knocked everything from bad motivational speakers to three-hour keynotes. Advocamp’s 900+ attendees went through rapid fire session tracks, 18 minutes a session, and the keynotes were more like a variety show than a stump speech. Organ wants to distance Advocamp from an Influitive user group event. Yes, the “camp” part gets pretty campy, with fake campfires galore, but the goal is different. Organ:

We don’t really talk too much about ourselves here. We do have a booth for people who want to find out more about us, but the way we look at it is that we are the stewards of the advocate marketing category You’ll find even though we actually do have some pretty big news – like we acquired a really interesting company last week [Editor’s note: two mobile startups now acquired] – we’re actually holding on to that news until next week.

Organ likened his category mission with Tesla and electric cars:

We’re much better off working together to build [this category] than we are competing for some tiny piece of market share. We take our cue from Elon Musk, where he shared his patents with all his competitors. It’s smart because Tesla will do much better when mainstream America buys electric cars. The way to do that is to encourage Toyota and other effective companies to do the same thing.

Companies that mobilize customers will win

Influitive sells “advocate marketing” software, but Organ sees the growth of Advocamp tied to a broader push to ‘mobilize’ customers:

What brings people to Advocamp is this idea: the future belongs to companies that figure out how to mobilize their customers to get more customers. I mean ‘customers’ in a pretty broad sense. Your employees can be considered your customers – so can your partners or investors. It’s a pretty big idea, and a lot of people just want to support it. I think it also fun, which attracts interesting speakers.

[Note: I taped an on-site podcast with one outspoken/entertaining keynote speaker, ZERO ad budgets and the brand zealots debate – with Joseph Jaffe].

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Mark Organ at Advocamp

If Tesla’s end game is “every family owns an electric car,” what would be the end game for advocate marketing? Organ:

I do see a world where almost every company has some kind of advocate program… Right now every company – even your local coffee shop – says, “Hey give us your email address and let us communicate with you electronically.” I think you’re going to see the same thing with advocate programs.

Speaking of Tesla, Tesla’s built their entire company on advocacy. They are not our customer yet, so they’ve built all their stuff homegrown. They’ve built their advocate programs right into their cars. When you fire up the car, it links up to your address book and suggests five people who may want to buy a Tesla. If you refer them, you get $1,000. So I do think one day it will be ubiquitous, and in that case, it’ll be us and four or five other companies that are doing it. We all slice and dice the market in different ways.

Face off – best of breed versus the “marketing clouds”

Is there room for a best-of-breed play amidst the marketing cloud suites? No surprises here – Organ says yes, though he conceded that this play only works with excellent/easy integration. That led to a discussion of Influitive’s Salesforce integration, as well as plans to further integrate with more platforms, including Slack. It’s also about total API access:

We’re investing a lot more in integration with outside services. We’re working towards a big announcement we’re making on June 21st, called our “solstice” release. One of the things that we’re investing in is making every part of our product an instance of an API. In other words, every part of the product can be consumed by another application. This is not a new idea. Jeff Bezos, in his brilliance, mandated that more than a decade ago. You can’t build anything at Amazon unless it has an interface for others to consume it.

Organ isn’t a fan of so-called “marketing clouds,” two of which are owned by diginomica partners:

As I look at a lot of the marketing clouds that are out there, like Salesforce’s and Oracle’s and Adobe’s… I think they’re doing well with really big companies. But as I look out five to ten years, I don’t think those clouds are going to be dominant out there… I don’t think it represents the future in marketing, which for me is around a couple things. One is around mobile and particularly around messaging. I think the second is around peers, around advocates.

The future of mobile is messaging, not apps

Organ has taken a deep look at Facebook Messenger, Slack, and WeChat, the Chinese messaging sensation. He showed me the latest version of WeChat, and how Chinese users literally live in the messaging app, procuring all kinds of services within the app itself.

Organ noted how Slack is using AI to provide mobile services:

If you’re on Slack, there’s a product where you can say, “I need to find a hotel room in downtown Boston at least 4 stars, 90% approval rate” or whatever. You may have a human on the other end, but that human is often augmented with AI. This is called ‘human interloop processing,’ and it’s very powerful. It’s what Facebook is doing with their Messenger product as well. I think this combination of chat and AI is huge. I think it represents the future. I think it’s what the Internet looks like in a few years. I don’t know what that does to society or whatever, but I think it’s coming.

How that ties into advocate marketing is a longer discussion, but we get clues in Organ’s mobile acquisitions blog post: “It won’t be long before we do almost everything in our professional lives on our mobile devices. Influitive will not wait for mobile usage of B2B enterprise technology to become pervasive….”

My take

I don’t know if advocate marketing will become a dominant solution category separate from marketing cloud suites. I expect the suites will strengthen advocate plays with acquisitions and referral program beef-ups. Between influencer marketing, employee advocacy, and customer advocacy, you have distinct communities that need attention. All must be integrated into a plan to reach the informed buyer on their own terms. Companies won’t want a laundry list of products to pull that together.

Prior to Advocamp, I wasn’t sure if software solutions were essential for advocacy. But after speaking to a number of Influitive customers, I’m convinced some type of software is necessary to manage these relationships at scale. Otherwise, too many potential advocates go untapped; others will never be recruited. Whether that software ends up as part of a broader suite or separate remains to be seen. I expect a combination of the two rather than a clear victor.

User experience design is one of Influitive’s strengths, and a big incentive for companies to move beyond stale reference programs, or flatlined LinkedIn groups. If advocate marketing succeeds as a category, other vendors will need to achieve a similar level of UX appeal – not an easy task.

For companies that have sunk way too much into enterprise communities and struggled to justify ROI, an advocate community is an approach to consider. Advocate communities can be measured in external-facing activities, whereas most enterprise communities struggle to justify their existence via product support metrics. You can’t tack advocacy on later. Advocacy must be built into the community design – an area where Influitive excels.

One of Influitive’s greatest strengths is designing from a “whole” – dare I say human – view of the customer. Instead of building a basic referral engine, which will only appeal to certain industries or individuals focused on financial perks, Influitive recognizes that communities are energized by any number of motivations. As we’ve learned from my prior Influitive use cases, many of those motivations are not financial.

However, there are risks:

  • Positioning gets fuzzier when you speak to a range of uses rather than the simplicity of, say, a referral focus. Customers use Influitive for initiatives ranging from peer review campaigns to referrals to product input/feedback and more. All those “asks” are driven by a community sensibility: you don’t spam your customers, you give them a peer community that matters first. Even the asks are gamified as challenges designed to appeal.
  • A couple customers, including Blackbaud, told me about their desire for expanded referral functionality. Influitive must invest heavily in functionality that ties directly to ROI. This enables customers to sell/expand Influitive to executives who are – in the good sense of the phrase – bean counters. It will also give Influitive traction against aggressive, referral-focused players.
  • Influitive is taking the right approach by going all-in on APIs. But several customers I spoke with harped on the need for greater integration with Salesforce. I’m not clear if Influitive puts the same priority on this that their customers do. A middle ground, or at least more explicit communication on this issue, might be needed.
  • There’s a big challenge for customers to move beyond “volumetrics,” or what I call vanity metrics. That means moving beyond counting member enrollment or volume of reviews, and attributing advocacy actions directly to revenues. Influitive and its customers are both working on this issue. This is a fascinating can of worms that I’ll explore in future articles and use cases, but it’s another example of why tighter integration with systems like Salesforce will be needed to track actions to sales.

During my last meeting of the conference, with Influitive’s Imran Saleh, he confirmed that Influitive is hard at work on expanded referral functionality, including building referrals for salespeople into their workflow, and opening up referrals to customers who are not part of the advocate community. Or, as Saleh put it, “The general vision is to make referrals awesome.” That means they recognize that opportunity and threat. It also means they are listening to their customers – which sounds simple but is never as easy to do as it is to type.

I won’t pronounce Influitive as a victor over the marketing cloud when there is so work ahead. But one moment from the conference stands out. During their “Bammies” awards ceremony, a special guest was invited onstage to give out the final award for Advocate Marketer of the Year (Michael Beahm of Blackbaud, the subject of one of my use cases, ended up winning).

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Tang and friends

The crowd’s reaction to this guest presenter was over the top. Who was this dapper man? Some type of hipster celebrity booked for the event? Nope, it was Influitive’s Truman Tang, charged with managing Influitive’s own advocate community. The customers in the room felt a palpable connection to him.

We can talk about ROI till we’re blue in the face, but what we really crave in the ass-busting, nitty-gritty enterprise are extraordinary experiences and lasting connections. If Influitive can do that, they’re doing something very, very right. As for the rest, time will tell.

Bonus coverage: here are my three Influitive customer use cases to date:

Updated, evening 3/25 with a few tweaks for clarity. Only key additions: added vanity metrics bullet point, and clarified the point on user experience for other advocate vendors.

Image credit - Feature image and photo of Truman Tang by Hootsuite Community. Photo of Mark Organ by Jon Reed.

Disclosure - Influitive paid the bulk of my travel expenses to attend Advocamp 2016. Salesforce and Oracle are diginomica premier partners.