Connecting with hard-to-reach C-level clients remains an ongoing challenge for marketers. More should consider creating a client advisory board, which when done right, provides traction with your most coveted clients.
Let’s start by clarifying the concept of a client advisory board. The term is used fairly broadly to describe a range of marketing- and sales-related activities, which all contribute in their own ways but are designed differently and provide separate outcomes.
A client advisory board is a forum that brings together key clients and stakeholders multiple times a year to advise on strategy, product or service direction, and innovation. It serves as a strategy-level sounding board to help your leadership team learn from and better understand your most important senior executive clients. It also allows your clients to engage with peers to learn and contribute to shared exchange of value.
It is worth understanding what advisory boards are not, as mixing them up with other programs is a key contributor to failure to deliver on their promise. What is conspicuously absent from an advisory board is any type of selling or pitching or product-level testing and discussion. Advisory boards are also distinct from events and one-way sharing, as they are designed as collaborative interactive conversations. This figure highlights key differences.
Why do it?
If an advisory board is well executed, clients become extremely vested in the board and the evolution of the business it is advising, and both the clients and the company derive value from the collaboration.
Benefits can include:
- Deeper, stronger, more aligned client relationships
- New revenue growth and increased share of wallet based on improved positioning
- New leadership direction and approaches based on client perspectives
- Product and service innovation arising from insight into customer emerging needs
- Thought leadership and content ideas created from the perspective of external stakeholders
- A pulse on changing and evolving market insights and access to new thinking
Clients also gain value, and we find that executives from the sponsoring company are often surprised at the extent to which their clients appreciate these benefits:
- Peer connections in a confidential, vetted environment
- New, innovative ideas; access to early-stage thinking
- Contribution to advancing the dialogue on key business challenges
- Opportunity to influence the strategy and direction of key partners/vendors
- More targeted, useful, and valuable client experiences
Ingredients for success
There is a science – and an art – to creating effective client advisory boards that deliver on their promise. Here are several areas in which to focus your planning.
Get membership right.
Core to any successful client advisory board is recruiting the right set of members to provide advice and share strategic insights. Ideally you want to involve those clients who bring the most value; they are likely the most senior executives in those key relationships, are leaders in their industry, and have an interest in shaping your future. Executives highly value peer connections, so those clients invited to join the board must be true peers to each other and your own executive team to sustain a strategic conversation.
Deliver on the content.
Getting the right agenda is critical in driving discussion and keeping board members engaged. Your clients will provide input on any range of topics and challenges you put in front of them. The key is to focus on areas where you really want and need advice. Senior executives also value early access to innovative ideas and are happy to engage in advancing the dialogue on leading-edge, provocative thinking that you are still forming into a point of view. The tone of the content matters – if you pitch or present sales-oriented materials, the conversation will rapidly derail. We also find the most effective advisory board meetings include peer cases and examples (from members or others). Everyone learns from the best-practice sharing and peer stories, and this helps to surface the clients’ points of view on priorities and challenges facing them in their business.
Co-create the agenda.
Your clients are the best resource to help you get the content right, and ensure a discussion that is valuable to all participants. Seek board input on the agenda in advance of the meeting and evolve it together. Early glimpses into board member priorities help improve and influence the content shared at the meeting away from sales and toward relevance and insight.
Fuel content creation.
You can get advice and input on research findings to test for relevance and usefulness of the output. Develop work streams with board members to explore a particular business challenge and potential solutions, co-creating a thought piece with the shared observations.
Extract and analyze the higher-level business challenges and priorities of advisory board members over time to create a position paper on trends. Invite board members to consider sharing case examples presented at meetings with a broader audience.
Act on advice.
The most important step in getting results is to make sure you take action on the advice and input you receive. Clients want to see that their time and effort were not wasted, and will expect a report at a future meeting. To drive broader action, you will need to build a systematic way to share and embed the advice and insights throughout the enterprise, whether it is with the sales team, the senior strategy leaders, the content marketers, or beyond. We also find it helps to work together with your board members to find a way to hold yourselves accountable for taking action, and determine how you plan to track and measure progress coming out of your board meetings.
Client advisory boards require a systematic approach and process to deliver on the potential strategic outcomes you seek. But if you focus on those elements that make it successful and apply rigor to their implementation, you will greatly enhance and amplify your conversations with your executive clients, deepen the relationships – and in the process access ongoing leading-edge insights into your clients’ priorities and challenges.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute