When Elliott Brown joined OnPay he discovered a company that “wasn’t doing much marketing one way or another.” For a budding head of marketing, it was inspiring and daunting in equal measure. He had a blank slate and was free to pursue his own strategies.
Given free rein to focus on whatever he wished, Brown’s decision may sound peculiar. He didn’t invest in content marketing or social media. Neither did he pour resources into search engine optimization or industry events. Instead, he turned to an often overlooked niche: third-party ecosystem.
“I realized it would be hard for anyone to discover us,” explains Brown, Director of Marketing at the small business-focused payroll platform. “We needed to be where people were looking for us.”
OnPay customers are predominantly small business owners. While they are masters of their own craft, few have in-depth knowledge of back-end administrative software. They turn to industry bloggers and publications for solution discovery, and user review sites for vendor validation. This means much of OnPay’s user journey plays out on third-party platforms. Researchers call these interactions “dark journeys,” the untrackable interactions everyone knows exist but can’t track.
Although the commercial impact of so-called dark journeys is hard to track and quantify, most customer experience (CX) researchers and business leaders agree that they are important.
“No matter how good of a job you do putting your brand front and center, 50% of prospects wind up looking at ratings and reviews before they land on your website,” Brown says. “Addressing the entire ecosystem gives you a much better chance of making a good first impression.”
According to G2, 86% of software buyers use peer review sites to evaluate software. Three-in-five buyers say peer reviews make them feel more confident in their buying decisions and 92% reported being more likely to purchase a product or service if they had been able to read a trusted review about it.
Part of the reason is that consumers often do not have the ability (or the time) to evaluate a product sufficiently on their own. Peer ratings and reviews are a stamp of assurance; a shorthand for approval. Then there’s the assurance that bleeds from the ecosystem’s (perceived) authority. When a partner ecosystem does the heavy lifting around positioning your product, what it articulates tends to leave a strong impression, especially on those who discover brands off such platforms.
This is why leaders like Brown are investing in the niche, analyzing their ecosystem, cultivating strong relationships, and delivering a more consistent, on-brand customer experience.
But before leaders can tackle dark journeys, they must first understand the depth and breadth of the ecosystem—because it extends far beyond review sites and industry publications.
Exploring the four-part ecosystem
Most customer experience initiatives focus on what you can control: acquisition campaigns, nurture workflows, customer onboarding, service design, and so on. But as Brown’s experience at OnPay demonstrates, companies don’t fully own their experience. This notion first emerged back in 2011 when analysts at Forrester coined the term “customer experience ecosystem.”
“Forrester defines the customer experience (CX) ecosystem as the web of relations among all aspects of a company—including its customers, employees, partners, and operating environment—that determine the quality of the customer experience,” explained Nigel Fenwick, Vice President Principal Analyst of Digital Transformation and Business Strategy.
Even though the idea of customer experience ecosystem has been around for more than a decade, companies are still slow to adopt it. In a recent report, Forrester analysts classified just one-fifth of surveyed companies as customer experience enablement Leaders. Most (62%) scored as mediocre Intermediates and 16% ranked as low-scoring Followers. The difference in corporate performance between Leaders and the rest of the pack is immense.
“Leaders in the study were twice as likely to experience [improved customer experience, increased employee productivity, increased revenue, and improved customer loyalty],” wrote the analysts. “On the other hand, Followers and Intermediates face a number of challenges. By being unable to connect their CX, EX, and partner experiences, they can’t generate the outcomes customers crave.”
The low rate of self-sustained customer experience enablement initiatives (that’s an initiative that continues without outside impetus) is perhaps not surprising. The customer experience ecosystem is diverse and unique to each organization. Each partner plays a different role. G2, for example, is the perfect platform to capture and amplify the voice of the customer. Meanwhile, Forrester is where companies can carve out a reputation as a category leader. Organizations must first find third-party touchpoints that are relevant to them, which is no easy task when searching through dark journeys.
Then they must influence the design, narrative, and execution of the micro-journeys. Again, this is no easy task because they exist on third-party websites, not owned properties.
To add one more challenge, there is no one-size-fits-all ecosystem handbook. The four elements of the ecosystem—customers, employees, partners, and operating environment—combine, align, and shuffle depending on an organization’s industry, competition, and demand. All CX practitioners start from scratch, identifying, engaging, and influencing a completely unique constellation of third parties.
A process for ecosystem excellence
Even though customer experience ecosystems are highly subjective, the means of investigation and mapping are more standardized. Kerry Bodine, formerly a Vice President and Principal Analyst of Customer Experience at Forrester and now CEO of a consultancy in the same niche, presented a simple six-step model:
- Pick the most important persona.
- Pick that persona’s most important pain point.
- Document the surrounding customer journey.
- Collaboratively visualize the sources of the customer’s pain.
- Conduct root-cause analysis.
- Identify and prioritize problem spots.
The objective is to map your entire ecosystem, unearthing all third parties and determining their role in your customer journeys. While there are services such as affiliate networks that seek to shortcut the process, Brown suggests that there is no substitute for hard work.
“Exhaustively mapping third parties is the best way to do it,” he explains. “The first thing we did was to build relationships with every third-party. Reach out, create a dialog, and make it ongoing.”
These relationships create influence within your third-party ecosystem. They represent soft power and a means to affect change on platforms that you don’t own. If a review platform is preparing to publish a category report, for example, Brown will reach out, offer whatever help he can, and ensure he is presenting OnPay in its best light. Although he can’t dictate change in the report, he can encourage its authors to focus on areas that play to OnPay’s strengths. With this sort of collaboration, a case-by-case approach is unavoidable as platforms have different business models and roles. Even those in similar spaces can operate radically differently.
Consider Forrester and G2 Crowd, both of which promise to help evaluate software choices. The former does so from a place of internal authority. The latter amalgamates user-generated reviews. Working with Forrester involves the commissioning of reports like Total Economic Impact. On the other hand, performing well on G2 means optimizing your profile, generating reviews, and leveraging analytics to better understand your audience on the software comparison platform.
This is no easy feat. It’s fiddly, intricate, and extensive. It’s also not an initiative to take on piecemeal, because consistency across your ecosystem matters. Consumers and buyers tend to use third-party sites in concert, rather than independently. A business buyer may check reviews on G2, Capterra, TrustRadius, and Gartner. An off-brand experience on any one will create uncertainty and friction, ultimately disrupting their user journey.
The only way to ensure that consistency is by being present—everywhere.
“When people search for your company, you want to dominate that first page of search,” says Chris Perrine, Vice President and Managing Director of Asia Pacific at G2. “If you own or influence all these different properties, you can crowd out your competitors and off-brand experiences.”
The next frontier for customer experience
When it comes to navigating the Experience Economy, high-growth companies cannot afford to go it alone. Even if they leverage the full reach of their own website, product, and owned properties, it’s unlikely to be enough. They need to orchestrate connections and partnerships throughout their ecosystem to deliver on-brand experiences at every single touchpoint. The details and nuances of those partnerships will look radically different between companies and at different points in their development. Most organizations will gravitate towards peer review sites, but others may choose to pursue more niche and granular authorities to buoy product or service launches.
Designing, implementing, and optimizing customer journeys on unowned platforms is a daunting prospect. But with a strong analytics suite and a robust operating model, you can illuminate dark journeys and accurately attribute success to partners. With motivation, clarity, and opportunity, it’s clear that the partner ecosystem represents the next frontier for customer experience.