Brand advocates are not new in the B2B arena but social media is changing the way customers big up businesses.
Word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing has long been recognised as a powerful endorsement of a brand, and this is particularly true in B2B marketing where customer references are one of a business’ most influential marketing tools.
Vice chairman of Weber Shandwick, Fiona Noble, believes that B2B brands have a long history of recognising the power of this third-party endorsement. She comments, “In particular, enterprise and small business decision makers have always used their own networks to benchmark and seek out solutions, looking to their peers for ideas that shape their business.” The rise in digital media, however, means that conversations about a brand can now be spread much further. Molly Flatt, president of WOMMA (Word of Mouth Marketing Association) UK, is enthusiastic about the opportunities that this brings. She says, “Now our conversations can be real-time, global, multimedia and searchable; we can bypass the marketing blurb to find out what people really think.” With WOM being the primary factor behind 20–50 per cent of purchasing decisions (McKinsey, April 2010), Flatt rightly recognises the powerful impact social media is having on brands.
Behind brand advocacy A recent study by WOM media agency BzzAgent found what motivates most brand advocates is a desire to be considered thought leaders; they like to take the lead in online discussions and they want to be sought out for their opinion. Katie Colbourn, social media expert at DNX Marketing, says, “The idea of combining the strengths of the connector and maven profiles identified in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Tipping Point demonstrates these people love to connect with others who share the same interests. They are driven by a natural passion they hold for a brand and the human trait of ‘wanting to tell everyone about it’.” Colbourn also cites ‘Generation Y’ as being key players in advocacy – they are heavy users of social media, tech savvy, demanding and confident consumers, so their word carries a lot of weight with the communities in which they are a part of. She points out, “They are not driven by egos but their passion is borne out of wanting to help people because they want to be seen as useful.”
Advocates can also come from inhouse, as well as third parties. Danny Turnbull, managing director of Gyro Manchester, believes a brand’s most powerful advocates are enthusiastic and motivated employees. He suggests, “An advocate needs to be part of something; part of a business that has a mission, part of a purpose, what we call the ‘why’. In turn, a business needs to be greater than the sum of its parts and represent a cohesive vision. The biggest and best advocates are those within a business that has purpose and upholds consistent values.”
Choosing your advocates
A brand should choose its advocates based on those people who have openly expressed loyalty to that brand/product and have done so for a while. The most important factor for an advocate to promote a brand successfully, is having a genuine affinity with it; advocacy shouldn’t be forced as people will see straight through it. Colbourn advises, “Another important factor, and one that people don’t like to focus on, is size of network. To gain the most value from advocacy recruitment, an advocate should have an established network/social media presence of their own to ensure that they are talking to lots of people and that their message has leverage.” Turnbull adds, “The best internal advocates are often the most unconventional and unexpected. Instead of the marketing or comms expert, it is the developer, the engineer; those who are not told to talk about the business but freely choose to.” He advises recognising and nurturing staff like this and having an open and inclusive business culture, will create natural advocates that help businesses go further.
Using your advocates
So, how can advocates advocate for your brand? They can demonstrate their belief in your brand and help you achieve strategic objectives in a number of ways. Lead online discussions about your brand: Spreading the word about the great experience they have had with your company will raise your profile among existing and potential customers. Social monitoring tools, such as Klout, can then help you see who your advocates are talking to and who’s interested in what they’ve got to say. This can help with lead generation, customer acquisition and retention, and brand awareness.
Likes, +1, recommends and share: According to Colbourne, low-barrier interactions, such as follows and liking a page, are all very basic ways to build advocacy but their value is limited since they are a one-off action. The preferred way to recommend and share news about a brand is through blog posts, whether this includes content made up of product reviews, testimonials or their own experiences. Colbourne suggests, “Blogging is seen as more credible because an advocate can add their own view, which is the value the brand alone can’t add.” Noble endorses this, citing the influence that bloggers can have on top-tier journalists.
Online customer reference programme: All of the social influence and testimonials that are generated about your brand can be merged into your company’s LinkedIn page to be used as a powerful customer reference programme. With over 100 million members globally, LinkedIn is now used by many people to research companies as part of their purchasing decision. By featuring your brand advocates on your LinkedIn page, your advocates will influence their networks about your company’s benefits. You can also reach out directly to your satisfied customers to let them know about new products, services and company news, and nuture a pool of advocates to call on if potential customers or the media want to talk to a customer spokesperson.
Beyond the benefits
Brand advocates can help marketers to achieve many of their strategic objectives but Noble believes their value goes beyond traditional marketing objectives. She believes, “Advocates do have a role to play in lead generation, and most certainly in retention and acquisition, but ultimately it goes beyond that: to shaping stories and even news cycles – when advocates are used as third-party spokespeople or, more commonly nowadays, for ‘long-tailing’ conversations after news announcements. This long-tail trend of analysis and discussion post-launch is critical in shaping reputations and informing buying decisions.” However, all of this should not be left to chance. Colbourne advises, “It’s crucial to have a messaging plan and direction given to advocates to ensure that what they are saying has synergy with the brand messaging at that time, rather than being completely random.”
To reward or not to reward?
Many businesses will wonder whether or not it is advisable to reward their brand advocates. However, the general concensus is that paying brand advocates could destroy their credibility. Colbourn comments, “Unusually, advocates aren’t necessarily driven by reward. They do like to receive free products but fundamentally they will only advocate brands that they are a genuine fan of, which is something that can’t be bought. If a company can provide useful information about their brand to these people at the right time, this provides a huge capitalisation opportunity.” Flatt says that the ultimate reward for advocates is to help guide your product or service development. She says, “Brands can reward advocates with access to the people behind the company and ways to collaborate with and influence them.” Noble agrees, “Powerful advocacy comes when the influencer is driven by their own belief and impartial view. Their reputations depend on this, which is why the best currency to deal in with an advocate is access, information, knowledge and feedback.”
And don’t forget, once you’ve got your advocates working for you, to keep them onside and loyal to your brand, include them in your business – take them behind the scenes and let them experience first-hand what it was that inspired them to become an advocate in the first place.