By adaptive - February 20th, 2013

In the second in our series of articles on brand advocacy, we look at defining and tracking the worth of an influencer - and working out how much to invest in them.

At a very basic level, brand advocates are free at the point of delivery. Positive reviews on sites such as Amazon and TripAdvisor, endorsements on company and sector forums, and unsolicited recommendations on Facebook, Twitter and the rest can all be achieved at little or no additional cost to a business. Apart, that is, from providing a good product and/or service in the first place. 

However, it’s increasingly clear that brand advocacy can have a far greater impact on sales than many other forms of marketing, and businesses are now investing in specialist staff, software and third-party consultancies to try and maximise these benefits. The question is how much to invest? And, leading on from that, how to measure the returns?

The increasing importance of your advocates

Brand advocates are not new – personal recommendations have been around for as long as consumers have had a choice – but their importance and influence is becoming increasingly important. As recently as ten years ago, most advocacy was simply word-of-mouth, but the internet, and more specifically social media, has changed all of that. In 2006, research by Gfk Roper Consulting found that the average consumer recommended fewer than four brands to friends and associates; last year, a study for Zuberance showed that on average, brand advocates recommend nine brands, products or services a year, while 16% of respondents recommend 15 or more. 
Study after study has shown that brands that are recommended consistently outsell those that rely solely on conventional marketing. Moreover, acknowledged brand advocates are seen as more likely to share product information, to make recommendations and (significantly) to use social media to communicate with friends about their brand preferences. 
It’s also important to recognise that true brand advocates are different from the normal run of satisfied customers. They positively enjoy talking – in person, and online - about their favourite products and brands, and they take their brands seriously: ask an Apple fan about their iPad and you are likely to get chapter-and-verse about every other Apple product they own – as well as those that they intend to buy soon. As a study by BzzAgent noted in 2011, “brand advocates write more than twice as many communications about brands as the average web user [and] brand advocates forward between two and three times more of other people’s online communications about brands.”
Businesses need to understand what motivates their customers become their brand advocates.

Investing in people and resources

Because brand advocates tend to be avid users of social media, it’s essential for marketers to understand the online behaviour of their key advocates, and how to influence this in a positive way. All of which indicates that, for many businesses, future sales growth will increasingly rely on their ability to identify, encourage, and nurture the brand advocates within their customer base. That’s not an easy task. It takes time, and it calls for specialist knowledge and experience that is, almost by definition, in short supply. In turn, this implies investment – in people, resources and, in many cases, third-party agencies. 
All marketing activity has to justify its existence. Sometimes the justification is straightforward: a direct-marketing programme has to pull a given number of enquiries, an internet banner advertising campaign must generate a level of clicks, a new web design has to meet specific metrics for unique visitors, dwell-times and the rest. But as we’ve noted here, proactive development of a team (army, as some describe them) of brand advocates is a very new concept. 
A straightforward online search will show that there are now dozens, perhaps hundreds, of brand advocacy “specialists” in the field, any one of whom might promise that they can take your customer base and mould them into a legion of avid and proactive supporters. The difficulty appears to be that there are few accepted metrics, comparable to those for SEO campaigns, with which to judge the effectiveness of these advocate recruitment campaigns. This, in turn, makes it difficult to establish realistic budgets for brand advocacy.
That’s not to say that companies should give up and trust to luck: far from it. One effect of the growing awareness of brand advocacy’s importance is an increasing number of studies and surveys about the issue. The best of these provide, if nothing else, good examples of companies who have invested in and who are benefiting from advocacy recruitment. 
Among the most interesting are those businesses that support active communities of advocates. It’s recognised that one of the characteristics of the best advocates is that they feel a sense of “belonging” to a brand, and communities can foster and develop this sense of identity. Communities such as the Fiskateers and My Special K connect people who share interests and enthusiasms, and who provide mutual support – while at the same time advocating the parent brand.

Do incentives encourage or devalue advocacy?

Aside from providing a sense of belonging, many brand communities offer premiums and promotions to signed-up members. Studies give conflicting information about the effectiveness of giveaways to brand advocates. Research by BzzAgent suggested that getting free products and other incentives was one of the main reasons why brand advocates communicate online. However, only one percent of respondents to a study conducted for Zuberance said that they would recommend their favoured brand because they get incentives. Perhaps the only sensible approach is to give reasonable rewards for genuine customer loyalty: that has, after all, long been a staple of marketing investment.
Nick Cifuentes, Director, Global Social Media at recently told Useful Social Media: “We initially reached out to our user base to identify which of our users was more socially enabled. We got close to a million responses from our first request, and from those, we identified about 150,000 people whom we launched the program with. These people are prolific sharers, and prolific content creators. These are the personality traits of an advocate that we really want to build upon.
“Since the program started running lat April 2012, we send out a bi-weekly emails that gives these people advanced information about what is happening on Ancestry. It’s like a VIP program that gives these advocates materials they can disseminate to their followers.”
One of the more intriguing ways in which brand advocate communities are used – and for which incentives seem entirely reasonable – is for product development. The aforementioned Friskateers, FordSocial and Dell’s IdeaStorm are typical of communities where businesses actively seek their advocates’ ideas for product tweaks and improvements. And this is eminently sensible, of course: who knows better how something can be improved than a person who uses it on a regular basis. 
Apart from directly influencing sales and providing feedback on products or services, brand advocates can also be used to add value to other marketing activity. Advance notice of upcoming advertising campaigns or web promotions will help to reinforce the sense of community, and can increase effectiveness by encouraging recommendation and pass-on. A community of 50,000 Facebook users telling their online friends about a new television spot or web campaign will have a major impact on viewing figures and page visits: and the value of this can be directly measured using conventional metrics. 
In much the same way, advance notice to brand advocates of new products – perhaps with the opportunity to buy at discounted prices – can provide an immediate boost to sales. It can also offer an opportunity to iron out any minor issues that might have been missed during the development process; brand advocates are generally forgiving of minor glitches, although this loyalty should not be taken for granted.
The bottom line – it always comes down to the bottom line – is that investment in effective brand advocacy will increase marketing forcefulness. Word-of-mouth – or more accurately, word-of-keyboard – is always going to be the most assured way of getting information about products or services in front of potential customers. A large and committed band of brand advocates can ensure that that information is both positively and effectively communicated.



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