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Advocacy 2.0: It's time to listen to the voices

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5th Dec 2011
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How do you get advocates and what do you do with them, aside from hoping they generate you extra business through their passion for your product or service? Chris Ford explores.

In the past, brands’ relationships with their customers tended to be intimate, personal, one-to-one exchanges. The best brands could hope for was a good review in the paper, a letter of thanks or celebrity endorsement to pin on the wall, and at worst, letters of complaint, or negative media coverage. Now, both (our) fans and (our) critics have a global voice across multiple communication channels and it’s time to make the most of the opportunities we have to enhance our public profile.
Popularity is certainly an indicator of success, and numbers of followers can be a powerful influence. Your customer reviews and testimonials can deliver the social proof you need to convince more sceptical prospects. But while no one will say ‘no’ to sheer weight of numbers and pages of reviews, is quantity alone actually doing anything for your bottom line? While there’s no formula or equation for it, I’d rather have a handful of active customers who engage with me, enthuse about my service, product or brand and who I know intimately, than thousands of fans who have done no more than click on a ‘Like’ icon.
Social proof and advocacy
While many of us are willing to check out something that seems popular before committing either enthusiasm or hard cash to a brand, most people require real, unbiased evidence - the ‘proof’ part of ‘social proof’.
Online reviews and testimonials are a great way to generate and demonstrate social proof, whether on your own website, through a reseller, such as Amazon, or drawn from a third-party review site, like Reevoo. Cynics may contend that review content can be biased (perhaps unwittingly by over-enthusiastic employees), or even deliberately manipulated. True enough, although savvy fellow users are usually quick to point the finger at any entries that look suspicious. But actual advocacy is much more than a mark out of ten in a standard review format in response to a request (direct or implicit). 
True advocacy comes from passion. Earlier this year, Lady Gaga tweeted that 10 year old Maria Aragon was the future of music, and that watching the young girl’s video made her cry. Fast forward a few months, and Maria has duetted on stage with Lady Gaga herself, appeared on US television, met the Canadian PM, and performed ‘O Canada’ for Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge. Advocacy thrives on viral communication, of course made all the more powerful when it comes from a celebrity with global reach.
                     
Advocacy works best when it comes from a trusted source – when someone we know or respect comments without inducement or prior incentive on something they have no obvious connection with. Stephen Fry’s early public adoption and advocacy of Twitter is a good example. He’s as a trusted public figure: familiar, successful, intellectual. What makes his advocacy particularly powerful is the fact that he’s not seen as a tech geek or expert; he’s simply someone we recognise and respect who’s an enthusiast with a public voice and who uses the tool he advocates about to wax lyrically regarding its value and reach.
Fandom and advocacy
I have a colleague who says he loves Apple products – he’s a fan, yes, but I’m not sure I can call him an advocate, as I’ve never heard him recommend or praise the virtues of the shiny things he worships. 
In preparation for this article, I asked some friends a few questions about advocacy, and in reply I received mostly testimonials for a diverse range of products. Three things struck me as interesting about these responses. First, no one mentioned services, even though I had included an obvious one (a supermarket) in my cover email. Interesting. Second, most of them enthused about products that I had never heard them talk about before. Strange. And thirdly, even given the opportunity to ‘advocate’, no one suggested or recommended that I should give any of the products a try (in the case of the cycling enthusiast, that’s understandable).
Take a look at the definition: ad·vo·ca·cy [ad-vuh-kuh-see] – noun, plural -cies.
The act of pleading for, supporting, or recommending; active espousal.
If we are advocates, do we wait to be asked before we recommend? I don’t think so – I think the advocates you really want are the people who don’t wait to be asked: they are the enthusiasts who can’t wait to tell you about their latest, greatest find or to show you their latest purchase. These are the people who drag their friends to ‘come and have a look’; who leave cracking reviews on feedback sites; who participate in online user support groups. Who – unpaid and unasked – share their passion for your brand with others, and actively promote your product or service within their circle of influence. I concluded that none of the people I asked were advocates, even though they were happy to share their positive opinions when asked. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one, that makes all the difference in generating enthusiasm and interest in others.
Which brings me to two key questions:
  1. How do you get more advocates?
  2. What do you do with them, aside from hoping they generate you extra business through their passion for your product or service?
Turning fans into advocates
A quick search for ‘loyalty ladder’ online will bring up all sorts of variations on the same theme: how to advance people from one level of interaction and relationship with your brand to the next, from prospect to partner if you like.
The first stage in developing advocates is knowing what you’ve got – creating your own version of this basic model. You may wish to add additional customer types (such as first time or repeat customer); some organisations differentiate between different levels of fandom; someone may become a fan before they are a customer (this is more likely for ‘aspirational’ high-end brands and products). You may wish also to add a final row, plotting existing and desirable interventions at each stage, such as: advertising and PR activities; your loyalty schemes and sales promotions;, and including key employee engagement programmes that will drive customer engagement, underpinning the connection between brand and customer. 
Of course, it’s all academic if everyone’s still stuck at the prospect rung of your loyalty ladder. Get the all important early steps right, and you’ll provide the firm footing you’ll need to be able to do some of the fun stuff further on. Turning customers into advocates is not a dark art – it’s simply a question of delivering great value and supporting them with excellent service in a way that delights.
The best way to look at this is to consider the brands you are an advocate for (the ones you really rave about, not the ones you simply like). They’ll have all their customer relationship ducks in a row: they’ll have first-rate branded and personalised communications; you’ll like the way they look and talk to you; their product/service works really well (and if it doesn’t, they’ll fix things so wonderfully that you’ll be even more impressed than you were before); they deliver on their promises and beyond; they provide relevant little extras and courtesies you didn’t expect but really appreciate; and above all, you feel that you genuinely have a relationship – even a kinship - with that brand. 
Finding advocates
Do you regularly check customer forums to see who’s contributing and what they’re saying? All too often we look for the bad news, wanting to serve the customer, protect our online reputation and set the record straight. But the good news can be a gold mine: those contributors who seem to know more about your product than you thought possible; the reviewer who has returned to use your service again and again; the person who helps other users out with their queries and questions on help forums.
Do you regularly monitor customer accounts to view interactions with your organisation, and related comments? Even without a single view of the customer, capturing interactions is key – you should be able to identify signs that an individual or organisation could be an advocate for your business. This could be based on the type of query or conversation with your service team; number of purchases or nature of repeat business.
Harnessing the power of passion
Once you’ve found your advocates, there are two simple ways to let your advocates help you and your brand: ask them to help, and give them a voice. How you do those things may require some creative thinking, depending on your proposition, but here are some ideas.
Recommend a friend or member-get-member schemes are an excellent example of asking for help. Customers may participate – advocates are far more likely to. For example, you can create an advocate programme, like a loyalty programme, but geared more towards recognition rather than pure reward. How do you show your appreciation to those who rave about your brand? Is there a special area of your website for them? Do you invite them along to events as a ‘thank you’? Do you allow them special ID status on forums and blogs so that their peers can recognise them as experts, authorised to offer advice on your behalf?
If you’re pitching a business solution (internally or externally), have you ever considered asking one of your advocates to help, either to give their opinion, or perhaps have lunch with the relevant budget holder or prospect (with or without you there)? Do you have regular sales meetings and conferences? If so, consider inviting an advocate to come and speak about their experience with your brand. Invite advocates to test, review or even launch new products, or to participate in trials. This isn’t just advocacy, it is recognition of their value to your organisation, which only serves to cement relationships further and demonstrates to the world at large how much you value your customers and work in partnership with them.
Ultimately, advocacy is all about free will, and the best we can do is provide the right conditions for our advocates to do what they do best - advocate.
Chris Ford is business development director, digital marketing and loyalty at Grass Roots. For more information about Grass Roots, please visit www.grassroots.uk.com.

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