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Maria Sturgeon on Measuring Advocacy and Reference Programs

June 21, 2024

tl;dr: Stripe's Head of Customer Reference Program, Maria Sturgeon, shares the journey of her 15+ years of advocacy experience, including how she harnesses customer stories to accelerate sales and strengthen market perception, and more.

Maria lays out:

  • The importance of starting advocacy programs early, even with limited resources.
  • Strategic  perks and rewards to keep customers engaged and active.
  • Managing diverse customer personas for a robust reference database.
  • Leveraging customer stories and strategic networking to drive program success.


Angela, Laudable: Can you describe your current role and your focus on advocacy and reference matching?

Maria, Stripe: I joined Stripe last October to revitalize our customer reference program. It originally launched about three years ago, and we had a global relaunch on April 8th, which was super exciting and well-received by account reps and sales leaders worldwide. We're currently focusing on sales references, like reference calls and EBC speakers, but we also plan to expand into marketing references, such as analyst activities and speaking engagements, in the second half of the year. The goal is to revamp and relaunch the program, gain strong support, and drive our go-to-market efforts forward.

Angela, Laudable: How do you use references in your role today?

Maria, Stripe: Obviously, the most popular use is for prospect and user adoption, especially for expansions, cross-sell, or upsell. We do one-to-one reference calls and meetings, like at our big user group sessions in April 2024, where attendees share knowledge with peers facing similar challenges. Beyond sales, references are about customers telling our story and showing how we help them succeed, which in turn helps their customers. This includes marketing references, like speaking with analysts from Gartner or Forrester, writing white papers, and participating in conferences. We're focusing on industry conferences, where our customers can significantly shape our brand perception.

Angela, Laudable: Are there any unconventional uses of references at Stripe?

Maria, Stripe: We're revitalizing and revamping the program, focusing on what's crucial for closing sales deals and accelerating future sales. As we expand, we're excited about possibly kicking off customer tables or networking roundtables. These will let users share their stories in small groups, connecting like-minded individuals using the same Stripe products. They can have interactive forums to discuss product usage and feature some of our product experts.

Angela, Laudable: How do you measure the impact of the reference program?

Maria, Stripe: Our main metric is revenue-influenced and tracking supported opportunities. We use our reference management tool to track all references in Salesforce, measuring them when deals close. I check daily to see if references have pushed deals forward. Market perception is harder to measure, but increased reference requests are a good indicator. For example, if a prospect sees our user present at a conference and wants to speak with them later, it can help close another sales motion.

Angela, Laudable: What are common pitfalls in setting up a reference program?

Maria, Stripe: People often focus just on the number of reference customers instead of how they're used. It's essential to activate and keep them happy—they join to network and gain something, not just to have their name listed. Proper technology is crucial for tracking references and metrics. Without it, you can't manage references effectively. A centralized system for sales and marketing is necessary to track usage and maintain accurate profiles for quick access.

Angela, Laudable: Have you ever experienced overwhelming a reference customer?

Maria, Stripe: Absolutely, this happens at every company. Popular customers, especially enterprise ones, are always in high demand. When new products launch, few customers can quickly address them, which is always a challenge. One solution is reference roundtables, where customers share their stories. We did this at Teradata and plan to launch it here too, ideally at face-to-face events. At next year’s conference, we'll have roundtables during lunches and larger sessions, using our most requested customers to share their experiences repeatedly.

Angela, Laudable: Does creating content featuring customers reduce the need for references?

Maria, Stripe: There's nothing quite like a live reference, being able to talk face-to-face and hear their story firsthand. But if that reference isn't available, sharing their story through our account reps is key. Another part of my team focuses on capturing customer stories—they're doing an amazing job. We recently collected many great stories at our user group, and I'm excited to see them shared. Sharing these stories helps bridge any gaps and can attract more prospects through social media.

Angela, Laudable: How do you leverage in-person events for advocacy?

Maria, Stripe: My team helps choose event speakers, ensuring diversity across products, industries, and regions. We organize user group sessions spanning two days and international events like Stripe Tour London, Paris, and others. Panel discussions offer varied perspectives. Planning networking spaces is crucial; the benefits outweigh the costs. Partnering with analyst and media teams enhances networking. Recognizing internal teams, including account reps and customer success, reinforces our collaborative approach, delivering a seamless user experience.

Angela, Laudable: What benefits do you provide to customer advocates?

Maria, Stripe: The most crucial aspect of any program is the users. Constant interaction with customers emphasizes the importance of networking, connecting them with peers facing similar challenges and potential career opportunities. Building connections drives the program's success internally and externally. Offering strategic rewards, like educational credits or professional service passes aids both the company and the customers' professional growth.

Angela, Laudable: When should a company consider implementing an advocacy program, considering varying company sizes and resources?

Maria, Stripe: Start as soon as possible, even if you’re a team of one. Lacking a tech platform creates big problems, like needing to set up tracking in Salesforce. Before launching, ensure you have the right system. At Teradata, we used a homegrown system until we needed a compatible CRM. I've used the same reliable platform at my last three companies. Key advice: create a detailed requirements document to ensure your vendor meets your needs. Early investment in the right tech is minimal compared to the revenue your program can generate.

Angela, Laudable: Can you share insights into effective program perks and any surprising outcomes from your experience?

Maria, Stripe: We tried offering executive education at top business schools, which people loved, but it was too costly and required a lot of credits. We didn't see many redemptions, so we had to scale that back. Instead, we offered exclusive sessions with analysts, which cost less and were a big hit. Users love staying updated on trends and market insights. These sessions, featuring analysts sharing specialized research and trends, were well-received. They didn't require earning credits and were more of a benefit we provided through partnerships with our analyst team, offering valuable, exclusive insights to our users.

Angela, Laudable: How crucial is understanding customer personas in designing effective advocacy programs?

Maria, Stripe: Understanding customer personas is critical. Most companies have different personas within their reference program because you're not dealing with just one person. You need a breadth and depth of personas in your database for when internal users submit requests. For example, at speaking engagements, you'll often see C-level folks, VPs, and senior VPs, while on technical calls, you'll see more user-oriented types. It's key to work with your marketing leads to ensure you represent all these personas. Whether it's your reference database or your content, make sure users see you have a good mix of personas available.

June 21, 2024

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