By adaptive - February 27th, 2013

In the third in our series on brand advocacy, we look at how to leverage the brand advocates you've accrued for more influence, reach and consumer engagement.


Building a cohort of brand advocates is increasingly important to businesses of every size and type, from local craft shops to multinationals. But having brand advocates is only the beginning of the story: failure to interact with them, or worse still ignoring their input, can have seriously negative impacts. Setting up communities of advocates costs money, and if they are not used properly, this investment will be wasted – and the advocates could even become detractors. So what are the best ways to maximise the investment and how should businesses interact with their advocates to the greatest effect?
As noted elsewhere in this series, brand advocates are and essential but often hidden asset within an enterprises customer base. Businesses must prospect, refined and convert advocates into something of real and tangible value. And once this process is complete, the fundamental issue is how to use these assets as a component of long-term profit building.
It sounds too obvious to be worth saying, but perhaps the most important use of brand advocates is to do just that: advocate. While they should never be taken for granted, it’s fair to assume that – so long as the business continues to fulfil its brand promise – advocates will continue to buy the products or services and more importantly, shout about these products for services across their social media networks. Brand advocates should therefore, be seen as something much more than a guaranteed potential buyer. Instead, one of their most important roles comes from their ability to influence the attitudes and purchasing decisions of their friends and associates. 
It’s not an original thought, but in a sense, brand advocates combine the characteristics of the three types of individual identified by Malcolm Gladwell in his seminal book The Tipping Point. These are the people who can turn a product or idea into what Gladwell called a “social epidemic”:
  • Connectors: These are advocates who know lots of other people, and who are at the heart of a large and diverse social group.
  • Mavens: These are the "information specialists" who find things out and use that knowledge to help others by “sharing and trading what they know.”
  • Salesmen/Saleswomen: These are the persuaders - the sort of people who can make others agree with their opinion, and who take personal pleasure from doing so.
Who are your business’ brand advocates?

Persuading others to share their passion

The most valuable brand advocates share all of these characteristics: they have Facebook and Twitter networks with hundreds, even thousands of contacts; they gather and exchange information about their favourite brands; and they enjoy persuading others to buy into their passion. Given this, it clearly makes sense for companies to provide whatever facilities are needed to enable and encourage this advocacy. What form these facilities take will vary somewhat from brand to brand, but should certainly include a platform for communicating with other advocates and – just as importantly – with the individual advocate’s circle of friends and associates. 
Advocates make ripples across their social media networks that your business can take advantage of.
Many brands have developed their own social media presence, notably Facebook pages and/or Twitter feeds, and with careful management, these could be used to encourage and foster advocacy. More imaginative options include user groups and forums through which advocates can be further incentivised and motivated. It’s very important to recognise that advocates want their voice to be heard, and generally it’s in the brand’s interest to make sure that this happens. A brand Facebook page or Twitter feed can be used to repost or re-tweet comments, and relevant opinions can be posted on company websites. 
It’s also important to recognise that brand advocates are invaluable sources of market and consumer information. True advocates will give honest and forthright opinions about “their” products or service, often without being asked. However, it’s also vitally important to ask for recommendations and comments, particularly about potential improvements. Going on from that, it’s essential to listen, and to give feedback. One of the key characteristics of a brand advocate is that they are passionate about a brand, and they really care about its success: suggestions must therefore be treated sympathetically, and any criticisms – which will almost invariably be constructive – must be taken on-board. 

Taking brand advocacy to the next level: the online community

Some products and brands have taken advocacy to the next level and formed online clubs or communities of advocates. Fiskar’s craft community, the Fiskateers, Walmart’s Mom Bloggers and Ford’s Fiesta Movement are all examples of this. The formats vary, but the objectives are similar: grouping advocates together so that their community voice can be used to promote the brand. Other companies rely on community forums in which members share information and opinions, often forming – as is the case with many technical products such as GPS systems and software – a knowledgebase that can be of direct benefit to both customers and the hosting company.
How one of the Walmart Moms engages with her own community.
A potential danger with brand-advocate communities – particularly those that are closely managed by the company – is that can they end up being seen simply as mediums for puffing the brand. If this happens, the advocacy value is largely lost: the online community, particularly social media adepts, are very aware – and wary – of being used.
On the other hand, well-run brand advocate communities can be very effective when linked in with other promotional activity. Brand advocates can take the place of, or work alongside, conventional focus groups in assessing the effectiveness of marketing communications. 
For example, if a closed member-only advocate community is given prior exposure to product promotions, they can provide feedback, which can be used to refine the activity. By the same token, television or press advertising can be pre-tested before being exposed to the market as a whole. 
Fiskateers are an integrated community of brand advocates, linked to but separate from the Fiskars brand.
One particularly sensitive area of brand advocacy is the use of a company’s own stakeholders – employees, business partners, suppliers etc. – in an advocacy role. From one perspective, stakeholders – and particularly employees – should be brand advocates: after all, if they don’t believe in the product, why should the customer? 
And to a degree, encouraging and empowering stakeholders to become advocates will have knock-on benefits throughout the business. A brand-advocate employee is much more likely to focus on making the company/brand successful than someone who is simply going through the motions. And a supplier who is brand-orientated will want to ensure that the quality of supply is faultless from every perspective. 
Although brand advocacy is still in its infancy, the basic rules for interacting with advocates are well established. Listen and react to what they say, work with them; use their opinions, enthusiasm and ideas to build the market. The watchwords are respect and appreciation. Brand advocates are pure gold - and should be treasured as such.

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