Ask an Expert: Daniel Palay on Creating Value with a Brand Advocacy Program

So much of marketing happens organically, through conversations and recommendations. But, is it possible to use this as part of your marketing strategy by creating an advocacy program? 

We sat down with Daniel Palay, who has built two advocacy programs from the ground up in the open source software world. He says it’s more about telling the story of the customer and helping them articulate the value they are creating. Our conversation covered everything from how to turn a customer into an advocate, to how you can quantify the effectiveness of a program like this to your team. 

Name: Daniel Palay

Position: Senior Manager, Customer & Community Marketing at Grafana Labs

What’s Your Background? I’m actually a political scientist and historian by education and a political campaign operative by trade. I spent my years post college working for the Obama campaign in 2008 and then as a political consulting firm in San Francisco for 3 years. After figuring out that the campaign lifestyle didn’t lend itself to a healthy lifestyle, I did a stint with a nonprofit until I found my way in 2014 into open source software with Elastic. Over the next 7 years, I helped build up the customer marketing function (putting my political

background to work as most political campaigning is about persuading people through good storytelling) to the point when I left, we had produced over 800 pieces of advocacy content and even got to help put together our S1 when we IPO’d. Then in January 2021, I joined Grafana Labs to get a second bite at the customer marketing apple and I couldn’t be happier.

How did you get to where you are today? A lot of long zoom calls, miles flown, and a bunch of coffee, beer, wine, and chocolate. But in all seriousness, I kind of just fell into being in customer marketing as when I got my start at Elastic, I was hired to be a Marketing Coordinator with a speciality in social media. Then three months in, our CMO at the time came up to me and said our executive team asked for us to start centralizing all of our customer references and stories into one place, go! That was July 2014 and the rest they say is history.

Fun fact about yourself: I own 1 share of stock in the Green Bay Packers, so I suppose you could call me an NFL owner ;-). Go Pack Go!

Let’s start simple... What is the difference between a customer and an advocate?

My customer marketing experience is primarily in the open source world, which is important because this is the world that both Grafana Labs and Elastic exist in. This means anyone can use our software, pay us nothing, and still have a really amazing story to tell – so our job becomes quite complex when it comes to structuring our time and priorities to make sure we tell stories from folks across all parts of our funnel, even the ones that don’t pay us and maybe never will.

The way we define an advocate is anybody who can move people down the sales and marketing funnel. An example of this would be converting someone from using the open source software, to paying Grafana Labs to host their SAAS platform for the plugins or security features. The funnel in this case isn’t much different, it just has a larger opening at the top with 90 to 95% of the people that touch our software never actually paying us. But, we’re okay with this because our goal is to provide good experiences for people, and if we do our job right there will be a reason why somebody wants to pay us.

"The way we define an advocate is anybody who can move people down the sales and marketing funnel."

Is there a way to tell if someone is an advocate? Or are there just steps to make them more likely to advocate for your brand?

The definition of an advocate can be fairly broad, and could really be anyone that is willing to take the time to say something positive about their experience with any of our projects or products. This could be somebody who posts about us online or someone that says they had a great experience using our product. We don’t say, “you have to meet this threshold of doing X amount of things” to become an advocate, it’s a sliding scale.

Another great thing about the open source space is that advocates will go on to GitHub and help out others that are having an issue. These advocates will answer questions on our forums to help others out if they’ve experienced the same problem before, so you don’t have to jump over a threshold to be an advocate, you just have to do something that helps somebody realize that Grafana (or any other part of our stack) is, for lack of a better term, awesome.

It’s important to not get pigeonholed into what someone must do to become part of the advocacy program, because they show up in so many different ways. We have business advocates, story advocates, Twitter advocates, case study advocates, and even internal advocates – who for various reasons can’t say anything publicly – will go to great lengths to help spread the different use cases within their own business. So it’s not difficult to tell if someone is an advocate when there are so many different ways advocacy for your brand can be shown.

What can you do to turn a customer into an advocate? Outside of their experience with the product, is there anything you can do?

There definitely is, and I like to make sure our team is inserted into the customer relationship really early on, sometimes even before they sign a contract. We do this because I want them to view us as a different part of the business that’s helping them tell their story to whatever audience we agree upon.

I love the fact that our company makes money and I have a job, but I never want one of my advocates to think that I’m trying to sell them something. The only thing I’m trying to sell them is that being an advocate or telling a story will help them. Being an advocate can help them, internally, to get more budget, more people on their team, promoted, or just to show that they (and their team) provide value to their business. 

We never go into any conversation trying to sell somebody on being an advocate, with a preconceived notion of what we’re doing. We don’t say, “do you want to do a case study?”, instead we have introductory conversations with all of these different people, and we try to figure out what’s the best way to tell their story. We let them tell us what value they think they’re bringing, along with various questions and ways to help draw out that perspective, then we can go from there in a way that makes sense for them. 

We also spend a lot of time on the back end talking to our sales and CSM teams, digging into Gong calls and various other things to understand the problem and the people. Whether it’s technical or business related, every person we’ve ever talked to is working to solve a problem and it’s our job to figure out how they’ve done it, how we’ve played a part in that, and how they feel as a result of it. Sticking to our core values like this is the best way to turn customers into advocates.

How do you convince your team that setting this up is worthwhile? And how do you get them on board?

The best thing to do here, is just be really honest about it. Sometimes it’s really awesome and you get the immediate payoff, but, more often it’s a lot of hard work that takes time to see the value in. 

If you approach it with empathy and try to connect with the advocates, then you help build relationships and you even help people have that “aha” moment where they’re talking about their story. I find it really powerful to help somebody realize the value and the impact they’ve had with their business and I really enjoy being the person to help them draw that out. Highlighting how this process can be of value to others is also helpful in getting people on board.

Is there a way to quantify the effectiveness of this?

I try to be a realist about it, and our VP of Marketing comes from a demand generation background, so he understands that not any one website visit, webinar, or conversation with a customer will result in millions of dollars worth of business. Instead, we think about all of our work as parts of a greater whole, with each touch point (whether it’s a DG program or a case study, or whatever) being additive to the whole process. 

So if you look at our team, for example, last fiscal year we did two reference calls that led to a total of $5 million in closed won business. I could say, cool, that covers the cost of our advocate software and call it even.

But, if you ask me, our value is much more than that. We are helping our advocates and our champions become more invested in the software because they are able to articulate what value they bring to their business. We are helping our sales or go to market teams, by making it easier for them to articulate what other people are doing with our software to better answer questions from our community users, leads, and existing customers for that matter.

"We are helping our advocates and our champions become more invested in the software because they are able to articulate what value they bring to their business."

This helps us take cues from customers too, because Grafana has sort of an empathetic, driven development strategy. We’re hearing all these stories of what our customers are trying to do with our software and where they are running into issues. Then we take that back to our engineering or product team, and can suggest software improvements that our customers are really going to benefit from. All of these things are what makes this program effective and provide value to the business.

Any tips on what not to do when building advocates, or an advocacy program?

The biggest mistake I’ve made is saying yes all the time, don’t do that. 

A lot of us are just one or two person teams, and we’re supporting the entire company where everybody wants everything at any given moment. But, the moment you say yes to everything, you are incentivizing that behavior. It took me a long time to figure this out, but, luckily my wife is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) so she spends her time studying and designing programs to increase good behavior and decrease detrimental behavior. 

At my last job, I was sitting watching TV with my wife late on a Friday night (I’m talking around 11:00 pm) and then suddenly I got a message from one of my colleagues asking me for a reference of some kind. So what did I do? I responded right away on my phone saying I’d get it for them, stood up, got my computer (which was only 5 feet away from me – which is a whole other story), and got the thing they were asking for. Meanwhile, my wife was shaking her head next to me, so I asked her why? She told me I was reinforcing this bad behavior by killing myself to do something for someone at an unreasonable time, and so therefore they would think that type (and timing) of ask would be acceptable going forward. 

So, when I joined Grafana, I had a chance to do it again and one of the first things we did when I started, was create this deck of what we do and do not do. I was very clear that we will say no if your request is unreasonable (out of our scope, out of normal hours, or make us have to delay or drop our stated goals). But I was also clear that just because we say no, doesn’t mean never or not at all. If we do say no, sometimes we go a step further and try to break down their request and figure out the most important part of what they are asking for, because chances are we are able to deliver 60 to 70 percent of what they are asking for and most likely that will actually be enough to do the job. 

For example, hypothetically speaking if someone asks for a reference of a telecommunications company from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, we could say yes and then go crazy to try to find that quite specific question in hopes there is one of those companies that happens to use Grafana, is happy, and will talk to us. Or we could just quickly ask the follow up of, ‘hey, is the location really that important? Because we have AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile as public references (note to anyone reading from any of those companies, this is a hypothetical, except for Verizon, I have permission to mention them), do you think one of those would work even though it’s only half of what you are asking for? More likely than not, we’ll get a yup, that works perfectly. So not only are we disincentivizing bad behavior in terms of not asking for unreasonable things, we are reinforcing good behavior by encouraging our GTM team to ask for things that are more strategic to our end customers. 

Final thoughts or advice?

Another thing that’s important to remember is that this is not a role that a lot of executives or teams have had before because customer marketing is a relatively new function. People who get hired into our roles can sometimes, including myself, have imposter syndrome. You’re basically making this up as you go along for the team or for the company and there is trepidation when somebody asks how you provide value. 

I say, you got hired for a reason so the company believes that you are the expert in your field. Which means that you can be comfortable enough to say, “you’re just gonna have to trust me, and trust that there is value in this”. I think there should be this inherent confidence in what we’re able to do, as opposed to having to prove yourself, because you already proved yourself by getting hired. 

Be comfortable in the uncertainty that some things will fail, but learn from them and be able to figure out why it failed so you don’t do it again. You should want to make mistakes because if you’re perfect one hundred percent of the time, then what you’re doing is not hard enough. Failure is not a vice, it just means you are trying something hard and you’re gonna learn from it.


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