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Identifying Influencers and Providing Recognition

Previous chapters have discussed the importance of personal branding. Your advocates might not think of themselves in this way, though. Creating programs and activities which reward those advocates is a key to activating them. The more you can engage those who are most effective at telling your story, the more symbiotic the relationships become.

Of course, there is both benefit and investment needed on both sides.

Our experience at IBM shows that providing access to insider information or to our engineering staff motivates advocates to take action. For example, for many years, my team and I conducted traditional product design reviews. These were face-to-face mini-conferences, with 50 to 100 invited participants. We drew the audience from those who were most active at providing feedback on our products, creating a circular relationship where we gave more information to those who were giving more to us.

This method of selection was useful, but imperfect. It tended to reward the person speaking the loudest or most often, rather than the most insightful. Over time, the need to add a little process to the equation was recognized.

Today, instead of conducting design reviews, a formal design partner program exists. Participation in the program is by nomination only. Nominations can come from product management, development, or sales functions, not from the customer or partner/vendor themselves. Because the companies and individuals who are part of the program had to be formally evaluated before being included, there is an increased level of expectation on both sides.

The result is extremely positive. By providing the opportunity for early bidirectional feedback on new products, better software comes out of our labs. A ready-made force of product advocates is created, too, as the design partners themselves feel a sense of ownership when features they asked for are released into the market. Design partners also increase the visibility of the IBM solution and themselves, within their own organization, building their own reputation, influence, and leadership.

Carrying the title IBM Design Partner was useful to build credibility for some of our advocates, but not every supporter could afford the time commitment to work with early stage, prerelease software required by the program. Therefore, other programs and venues have become part of the product design and advocacy process. Enter the IBM Champions, a program created in 2011 to publicly identify and endorse IBM’s strongest advocates.

Although the IBM Champion program is designed and run by marketing, the social product manager reaps the benefits. The Champions are a ready-made audience for early briefings, insight, and feedback.

In 2011, when we decided to bundle together some of our software capabilities and provide them at no additional charge to a set of existing customers, the Champions were the first audience to hear about it. Under nondisclosure, the Champions were briefed on the upcoming product announcement.

The hour-long e-meeting allowed attendees to see each other online, as well as participate in an open group chat as the e-meeting unfolded. The social nature of the interaction, among Champions, as well as between Champions and IBMers, created much more value than an outbound-only briefing.

This seems like a standard product management tactic to conduct early disclosure, but there are some very specific reasons for highlighting the briefing here.

First, the special invite-only event created a sense of intimacy beyond the usual briefing. Attendees recognized they were seeing a first glimpse of something that would eventually be more broadly shared and treated the information accordingly.

Second, the IBM product management team received early feedback on their proposed messages and were able to refine them before public announcement. While the Champions are all supporters, they also offered candid input as to where the story could be improved. Because this was done in a group setting, they were able to iterate off each other’s ideas and input, resulting in specific and actionable direction back to IBM.

Third, the Champions were now primed to tell IBM’s story, both to the market at large as well as inside their organizations, upon public announcement. In some cases, we even knew or had influenced what to expect they would say because they had already shared their reactions in advance. Preparations to highlight Champion reactions on the day of announcement, to amplify the message, could be put in place proactively by IBM’s Marketing team.

In no place do we set an expectation that the Champions will in fact be publicly vocal upon announcement of news. Internal influence alone may be a valuable result. By providing an intimate, bidirectional, advance interaction, a more-desirable outcome is that our key advocates will participate in the dissemination of news and opinion. Often, they deliver. They adopt the most important attribute in telling the story, too: unique voice.

If all we did was get an army of people to retweet an announcement, it would be helpful but not particularly useful or even genuine. That the Champions can tell the story from their own point of view creates engagement in the marketplace, not just repetition.

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