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Brand advocacy as a marketing strategy

Part 1: Observations

I wanted to share some thoughts on a market trend that, while not new, is very much coming into its own in terms of capabilities and relevancy.

Many of us are witnessing a paradigm shift in the selling of products or services. As control of an online conversation continues to shift, we are experiencing a power transfer from sales and marketing arms to that of the informed and empowered customer. Aside from the seismic impact this could have on the way businesses are managed and marketed, it is also creating new opportunities for those whose voice was previously limited to their in personal conversations.

The customer, or at least a very specific subset known as advocates, are now taking the lead as marketing’s primary point of interest because of their maturing place in the buyer journey. Buyers are increasingly looking to their peers for direction in making purchasing decisions.  Advocates provide personalized assistance in when, what, and for how much. Thus, marketers must in turn shift their focus in part from impression-based awareness and buyer funnel timed pitches to consideration and education phases, all the way through to conversion, and then start again.

I’m watching the online review as it evolves in its placement and relevancy from third party aggregator sites to that of a preference for person to person conversations on social platforms. It’s where they just naturally signal to marketers that we place a higher value on genuine acceptance, trust, and familiarity. Because of this new role, whether they are self-identified, discovered, or bred, Brand Advocates are emerging as the leading edge of the personal recommendations. They’re increasingly sought after by sales and marketing practitioners to be incorporated in their strategies.

This new appreciation and search for more advocates begins with identification within a database, cultivation based on shared values, and finally, recognition. Starting with the last part of this process; recognition, we ask ourselves how best to keep advocates joining our effort and keeping them engaged. Do we pay them, reward them in some other way, or simply recognize them privately or publicly (or both)? The answer lies in the motivation of that individual or organization and the setting (context). It also realizes that many advocates do so for no other reason than to be helpful and relevant.

Without question, our continued role as a brand or marketing entity is to insure we adhere to our brand promise. This means going so far as to acknowledge that we’re human, and occasionally make mistakes with the support of advocates approachable. Surprisingly, fessing up to and correcting those mistakes often strengthens a brand in the eyes of its customer base. What’s even better is not only getting to know that current or future advocate, but to engage in a conversation with them, explore their problems, and to have the brand offer solutions where applicable to its purpose. A commonly shared interest usually helps and rests on the already mentioned recognition and anticipated reciprocity. Then, aligning marketing messages with the customer’s expressed interest or passion on social platforms starts an ongoing conversation.

Another important part in leveraging advocacy is to speak with one voice. A brand’s PR should carry the same message of empathy as the individuals or groups that advocate for it. Clarity and brevity are hallmarks of PR and provide the advocate a baseline for much needed consistency.

So why should Brand Advocacy increasingly be used as a strategy now? The answer is in the proliferation of Mobile, the exponential growth of Social, and the behavioral changes in generational lifestyles that fueled it. Now there are facilities to track paths, infer behavioral intent, and attribute actions. While loyalty programs have largely failed in their promise of retention, and affiliate programs seen as being less than genuine, only true advocates communicate the passion necessary to recruit others. A Brand Advocate becomes the principle character in a story that holds weight and stays memorable. Performance based evaluation of a program to find or create more advocates exponentially increases sales growth. With the help of a mobile advocacy platform, even the smaller marketer can craft a strategy to take advantage of its most valuable resource… its fans!

Brand Advocacy turns loyal customers into the most effective sales force available. It leverages powerful Word Of Mouth in a way offline conversation cannot and does so on demand within a small, portable hand held devise and screen. Over time, the conversations that take place on it become narratives. Those narratives will tell stories, allowing Brands to shift resources along with the shift in paradigm from pushing or telling a story to facilitation of story creation. If a brand needs to grow and adapt to its customers (and thus its advocates) to succeed, it has to move from the one sided messaging of advertisers and its low ROI to building enduring relationships with its advocates based on trust and confidence. My observation is that while many CEO’s see their advocates as important as themselves, they have yet to take the plunge because of short term marketing dogma.

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