The traditional rules of engagement in marketing were built around campaigns, offers and product pitches. Outbound messaging was the name of the game; however, the realities of today's self- navigating buyers have turned those rules on their head.

Customer engagement begins the moment a buyer spots a mention of your company on social media or hears about your product from a peer in their industry. Prospective clients are actively listening to what your current customers have to say. What are they hearing about your company, solutions and people?

While that first interaction with your company is hopefully one of many, customer engagement occurs over the lifetime of your relationship with a buyer.

Therefore, developing a strong connection with customers is critical not only for building brand awareness, it plays a role in acquisitions and retention, as well as cross-sell and up-sell opportunities. Engaged customers will be more inclined to effectively represent your brand through blogs and social media, videos, case studies, speaking engagements and other activities.

In today's connected world, customers are not shy about sharing their opinions, and B2B marketers need to get in the game early or risk having others drive the conversation about their products and services. Customers now play by their own set of rules, choosing to engage with you at any time and through any channel. You need to be ready to respond.

The solution is to mobilize your customers as advocates who can tell your story. By fully engaging customers early in the buying process, you have more people offering insights on your behalf. A strong advocate community is your secret sales force in today's fast- paced environment where buyers digest information in 140 characters or less.

According to the Demand Gen Report 2014 B2B Buyer Behavior Survey, 36% of those surveyed rely more on peer recommendations than they did a year ago. Research from Social@Olgivy also noted that 80% of reach from marketing campaigns now comes from amplification through advocacy. Getting customers to take that extra step and share their positive feelings about your company can truly make or break your marketing effort.

In particular, a formal advocate marketing program can help ensure customers are optimally interacting with your brand at all stages, with specific exploration of:

  • Referrals - When customer advocates submit the names of peers who would also be a fit for your products or services. These are some of the most sought-after leads and where your advocate marketing program can really contribute toyour company's bottom line.
  • The Discovery Stage - When buyers are learning about the features of your services - and others. Blogs, social media, user reviews and other online content figure heavily at this point in the buyer's journey.
  • Final Selection - When buyers reach this point, your advocates have already likely influenced their decision-making process. At this stage, however, they may also ask you to connect them with advocates who can speak about specific challenges in their industry and role.
  • Onboarding Stage - When buyers have made the commitment to invest in your solution and are looking for advice from current customers and product experts to get the most from their investment.
  • Providing Feedback on the Product or Service - When a customer has spent some time with your product or service, and is in a position to provide input on what is working and what needs adjustment.

All of these activities ultimately increase customer engagement, driving demand and revenue for the company.

"Customer engagement is highly correlated to customer loyalty," according to Aimee Lucas, Customer Experience Transformist and VP at the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm. "Companies need to start by understanding how their interactions are meeting the functional, accessible and emotional expectations of their customers through a 'voice of the customer' program."

Companies with more engaged customers are seeing the results on their balance sheets, experts say. "The impact is massive," notes R "Ray" Wang, Principal Analyst and CEO at Constellation Research, an advisory and research firm. "We see companies who have improved engagement increase cross- sell by 22%, drive up-sell revenue from 13% to 51%, and also increase order sizes from 5% to 85%."

Throughout this eBook will be examples of how companies have put advocate marketing at the center of their customer engagement strategies. They are writing the new rulebook and making customer engagement the focus of the story.