Our customer reference team was born out of necessity. It was the early days of Linux, and Red Hat needed to prove that Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) could stand up to the competition. We needed validation that enterprises were taking this operating system seriously and that mission-critical workloads could run on top of Red Hat technology. From the beginning of the customer reference team, we knew that customer content was going to be a key part of Red Hat’s marketing mix. This is how our team adapted and evolved over the years to tell innovative stories of customer success, and the four lessons we learned that can help you focus on customer storytelling. 

1. Pull all the levers

It’s not enough to capture great stories, you have to make sure your audience sees them. 

The customer reference team began life in our corporate communications department. Customer validation and proof points can make PR moments and press releases more effective. And as the number of PR moments and customers grew, a new team was created to focus exclusively on these customer stories. 

While our customer reference team has become separate from public relations, our collaboration remains strong: nearly every major announcement is supported with customer validation. This not only lends support to the news, but also provides a showcase for customers’ success. 

Customer reference teams are like any part of the marketing engine: they must adapt to changing media consumption behaviors to stay relevant and meet audiences where they are. We now publicize customer innovations through a number of media formats, including video, web success stories, webinars, in-person (or in today’s world, virtual) speaking engagements, blog posts, press releases and press and analyst opportunities. 

This year, our team launched the Innovators in the Open program, a new way to share our external customer facing content. The addition of this program allows us to explore even more storytelling opportunities, from new collateral like customer-focused checklists and e-books, to expanded video frameworks. 

We also developed the Innovators on the Line program, which allows customers to connect with their industry peers to learn what it takes to succeed with Red Hat technology. Innovators on the Line started as peer-to-peer calls between customers and prospective customers looking to connect to find out more about the processes of adopting Red Hat technology. Today, it has grown to include a webinar series that allows many more customers to connect and discuss innovation with open source technology. 

Innovators in the Open helps us meet the customers where they are in their technology journey, and tell the kinds of stories that help the many different audiences that seek out customer reference content. When you are telling a customer story, ensure that you are meeting your audience on the platforms they use to get the most out of your references.

2. Focus on authenticity

The best advice we can give is to focus on authenticity when telling customer stories. It’s tempting to only focus on the success of a project, but that isn't helpful for our audience, who may be struggling with a digital journey of their own. Our readers know that setbacks happen, and we don't do our customers any favors by showing only part of the picture.

Our prospective customers are looking for guides to help them as they drive change with technology, and customer stories are often a key resource along the way. They want to see not only the success, but the challenges, missteps, false starts or even failures that led up to it. 

We keep the customer in mind as we tell authentic stories that highlight the power of open source technology, and how open teams working together can produce meaningful change. Allow the customer to walk through their experience in their own words, and ask them not to shy away from the difficult moments that helped them get to where they are today. In this way, we help others see the hard work of innovation, and ways to follow in an innovator's footsteps.

3. Explore the human element 

While the focus of our stories is on the technology, it is important to remember that there are human stakeholders on both sides of any application. The best customer stories are the ones that highlight the hardworking developers, architects, and many other roles behind the success of an application, and the effects their work has on the customers and users that rely on their products. 

In 2007, we launched the Red Hat Innovation Awards program, which recognizes outstanding innovation with open source technology every year. Through this program, we are able to tell stories that have human-interest impact beyond the organization and into the communities they support. Winners like 2020’s Vodafone Idea Limited and 2019’s HCA Healthcare show how technology can be used to change people’s lives. The program showcases the pillars of community, innovation and openness that we bring into every asset we create. 

Especially in the software industry, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the complex technology behind the customer stories. But without a grounding element to humanize it, you may lose some of your audience. Make sure that your customer stories are accessible to a broad audience with varying levels of technical expertise, from the CIO to the developer. 

4. Customer-centric content

Working alongside customers is an interesting marketing challenge. We have to balance the goals of Red Hat, the Open Studio, and the customer all at the same time. To effectively strike this balance, we like to have discussions about the customer’s goals from the very beginning so that we can create pieces that work well for all our stakeholders. 

Every customer has a slightly different reason for agreeing to be a reference. Some want to show the market that they’re innovating using robust technology, while others may want to build specific awareness around a segment of the company that doesn’t get as much external attention. One of the most frequent goals we have is around recruitment: every company wants to offer a rewarding and innovative work environment for their employees.. Knowing what our customers’ expectations are allows us to work those themes into the content we create, and hopefully deepens that understanding that Red Hat is a trusted partner, from technology all the way through to the business. 

The future of reference stories

Of course, 2020 presented its own challenges for Innovators in the Open and the entire Red Hat customer reference program. We had to pivot to a virtual experience for major events like Red Hat Summit and AnsibleFest. We’re also learning how to create engaging customer content without traditional video capture opportunities by leaning on animation and new storytelling methods.

The key to adapting in this environment is keeping the open and transparent processes that have guided us from the earliest days of our program, and letting our customers continue to be the star of the show. A close partnership with the highly creative teams from the Red Hat Open Studio is also key to our success. Creative support has been essential in every project, from launching our new brand identity to outlining how to pair animation and live action to tell these customer stories. We’ve been lucky to work with a talented team of content specialists and creatives that really understand the customer perspective we’re trying to show the world. 

Reacting to this new way of working has offered some benefits for our program. Beyond focusing on new storytelling methods, the reliance on digital media has allowed us to focus on the way we amplify these stories on web properties, social media,  into paid advertising and showcasing our customer successes throughout all marketing programs and channels. 

We can’t wait to show you what’s coming next. To stay up-to-date on the latest customer content, visit our success stories webpage, as well as the Red Hat newsroom and blog.

About the author

Anna Nathan is the Director of the Red Hat Customer Reference Program. She is responsible for the program’s creative, storytelling and promotion of customer stories on a global scale.

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