Demand for references is up, social is the ‘Next Big Thing’ and you shouldn’t pay customers to say nice things about your business. The headlines from this year’s Global Customer Reference Survey could have rolled over from 2010. Scratch below the headlines, though, and the comments revealed a far more accurate picture of referencing.

Back in 2008 we wrote about a rise in the need for references in an uncertain economic climate that saw marketing spend slashed. Little could we have predicted just how bad the global economy was going to get, and how slow the recovery is going to be (some economists predict another three years of static markets before sustained growth takes hold).

From a customer reference perspective, the last three or four years have been interesting; we have seen budgets cut and restored, an increase in programme centralisation (often with a reduction in team size) and a short period when the demand for references reduced as there were less deals to chase and marketing activities were cut.

Move forward to 2012 and for most organisations, we are in the third year of growth in the need for references. In some cases this need is doubling year-on-year. Programmes are leaner than before and are trying to read trends and set their 2013 strategies accordingly.

We believe that the three largest strategic issues (and opportunities) for customer reference programmes in 2012/13 are:

1. An insatiable demand for customer evidence, often doubling year-on-year

2. New channels (social) and ways that customer evidence is consumed (mobile)

3. The Asia-Pacific region – taking it seriously

Finding the fanatics

Society is becoming less trustful of governments and global organisations1, and even though ‘technology’ is consistently the most trusted of sectors, the need for customer evidence to prove capability, differentiation and yes, trustworthiness, is continuing to increase.

Organisations need to deliver on promises, and those that do regularly, become trusted. Customer evidence and reference customers make that trust tangible and the issue for many organisations is that new reference customers are not being recruited with sufficient volume and rigour to keep up with demand.

At the same time as these reactive pressures, there are two main opportunities:

Social media and mobile consumption drives new formats

In terms of new formats, social media (and video) was again mentioned as the coming platform for references. But social is not new; while reference professionals might like to talk a bold, new game, there is little evidence of companies ditching the PDF case study.

History will determine the business impact of social media on Enterprise business. For now, Enterprise social = newer channels for content push. Broadband and mobile data speeds now permit references to be consumed in multimedia formats, even on the move, and the rise of the tablet and BYOD means that smart organisations will provide reference content in more formats than ever before. This is a huge creative opportunity for the whole industry.


In many ways it’s incorrect to speak about APAC as a region. Being a large part of the world a long way from Silicon Valley sometimes seems to be the only thing that APAC countries have in common! We applaud those organisations that have invested in ‘feet on the street’ in this region; yet they are firmly in the minority. Many organisations treat APAC as a poor relation rather than a new way of thinking and doing business which will impact the West.

Surely resource should be placed where revenue opportunity will beWe’ve given you all the problems; here are a few thoughts to consider:

Managing the increasing need for references

There are real concerns that demand for references is outstripping supply (Q14). Nearly 90% of respondents said there were not enough new customers in the pipeline or that existing contacts were being used to the max. (This point was echoed in the Reference Panel when, asked, how they would spend extra budget, the panel unanimously cried ‘Reference Recruitment!’).

This requires a multi-strand strategy. To improve recruitment, sales engagement at the highest level is critical; in 2012/13 marketing simply cannot take full responsibility for the recruitment of reference customers. Salesperson quota/KPIs, league tables, incentives, etc are all being used to good effect.

Recruiting happy customers with high customer satisfaction scores and the use of online survey-based recruitment tools will play a part too.

For both recruiting reference customers and fulfilling reference needs, we believe that most organisations will consider an increase in the automation or outsourcing of some business processes in order to increase bandwidth and efficiency. When integrated effectively with CRM tools, industry-standard reference applications will play a part, along with custom applications such as Cisco’s Kinetic tool.

Whose job is it to recruit customers anyway?

Embracing the opportunity for creativity

A recent article discusses one interview which netted 38 pieces of content; a little extreme perhaps. The 2 and 4-page PDF is not going anywhere soon, even though the numerous ways that prospects can consume content has ballooned.

It’s not unheard of for a single interview to result in a traditional case study, an infographic, Twitter text, a newsletter article, a by-line piece, an animation, PPT slides, an RFP doc, best-practice sharing materials, etc; even more if the interview was videoed or recorded. Mobile devices love clear, simple content that is linked to the nth degree that moves, and is in easily-digestible chunks.

Organisations that embrace this change will differentiate and have some fun in the process.

For the first time the Survey asked ‘which reference programme do you most admire?’ Oracle topped the chart.


Emerging markets

It’s strange that we often refer to APAC generically as an emerging market. Even though you may not find many Chinese organisations in the Interbrand100 it does not mean business here is not massive and equally well-established and complex.

The best way to engage with APAC is to have feet on the street within the countries, or to outsource to a partner/agency that does. The need for references and the approach to creating references differs wildly from country to country within the region – the biggest mistake we can make is to try and fit APAC into an EMEA or North-American-shaped hole. Make the decision to listen to what’s really going on and be flexible enough to deal with differing reference requirements.


1 Edelman Trust Barometer 2012
CRF Metrics SIG and Mainstay benchmark report 2011

The Survey, the only global survey of the reference industry, featured the views of 114 customer reference professionals from 49 enterprise organisations and 18 agencies; 41% from North America, 53% from EMEA, 6% APAC. Click here for a copy of the results.