5 Ways To Foster Fanatical Brand Advocates

You don't need advertising, you need advocates--the people who tell everyone they know about how awesome your product is. But first you need to know who they are and how to get them.

Zappos, Trader Joe's, Amazon.com, Method, Red Bull, The Body Shop, Google, and SodaStream all built their brands without advertising. Their brand advocates are their marketing department. "We've built this entire business, and an entire category in fact, on the power of our brand advocates," says Kristin Harp, U.S. marketing manager at SodaStream, which turns tap water into sparkling water and soda.

In fact, the three most powerful social media companies--Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn--never spent a dime on advertising or paid people to recommend them. They didn't need to. Advocates used social media to recommend them to their friends.

You may spend millions of dollars on elaborate marketing campaigns. But there is nothing more powerful than a trusted recommendation from a brand advocate.

Advocates are your best marketers and salespeople, and your most loyal, engaged, enthusiastic, and valuable customers. In today's world, it's advocates--not advertising's "Mad Men"--who have the power.

The Trust Factor

The biggest reason brand advocates are so powerful is a single, five-letter word: Trust.

Nine of 10 online consumers say recommendations from friends and family members are the most trusted form of advertising worldwide. Only about 2 of 10 trust online ads.

Advocates' recommendations are the number-one influencer of purchase decisions and brand perceptions in nearly every product category from smartphones to software, hotels to housewares, cars to computers, financial services to fitness memberships.

In a recent Zuberance survey, 89 percent of advocates said their friends buy or consider purchasing the products and services they recommend. Many consumers and business buyers ignore, skip, and TiVo out ads, but when advocates recommend something, consumers will go out of their way to buy it.

Social Media Amplify Advocates

In the old days (pre–social media), advocates' reach was limited to their immediate circle of family and friends. Recommendations were made over the water cooler at work or over dinner with friends. Now, empowered by social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, blogs, Foursquare, online reviews, and more), advocates collectively reach millions of buyers with trusted recommendations.

According to one market research firm, each time a consumer posts something on the social web it reaches a minimum of 150 people. There are about 500 billion word of mouth impressions on the social web each year in the United States, rivaling the reach of ads, the company says.

Different from Fans and Followers

Many people use the terms "fan," "follower," and "brand advocate" interchangeably. But these are different types of people.

Fans and followers may like you but not all of them recommend you. In fact, until recently, Facebook required that you "Like" a brand in order to write on their wall, even if you wanted to complain about the brand.

Fans and followers have different motivations than brand advocates.

The top reason people like a brand on Facebook is "to receive discounts and promotions" (40 percent), followed by "to show my support for the company to others" (39 percent); "to get a freebie" (free samples, coupons); "to stay informed about the activities of a company" (34 percent); and "to get updates on future products" (33 percent) (ExactTarget, April 2010).

Brand advocates, on the other hand, are motivated by good experiences and a desire to help others. Over the last three years, Zuberance has powered over 30 million advocate actions. We've never paid or provided an incentive to a single advocate for their recommendation. And no advocate has ever been given a freebie if their friends buy something.

Generating advocates

Advocates already exist. Your opportunity is to turn them into a powerful marketing force.

But how do companies create more brand advocates? Here's what it takes:

  1. Provide an "insanely great product.": This was one of Steve Jobs's famous statements. Very few people go out of their way to advocate mediocre products or services. Advocacy starts with having a product or service people are eager to recommend.
  2. Deliver memorable service: In an era when so many products and services are similar, service is the great differentiator. Nordstrom, Zappo's, and Four Seasons hotels are examples of companies that created legions of advocates by providing extraordinary service.
  3. Focus on good profits: As loyalty guru Fred Reichheld has stated, there's a difference between good profits and bad profits. Bad profits include earnings from price gouging, cutbacks on customer service, and hidden charges.
  4. Do the right thing, even when it costs you money: It's easy for companies to do the right thing when it doesn't cost extra. But when doing the right thing costs companies money, many firms take the low road. For example, if allowing a customer to return a lemon costs you money, do it anyway. Much better to do this than create a Detractor. If your company has screwed up, admit your mistake and fix it as fast as possible. In the social media age, a handful of disgruntled customers can harm your company or brand's cherished reputation.
  5. Have a social conscience or get one fast: People are more likely to recommend companies and brands that have a social conscience. When it was revealed that Nike was paying low wages to workers, its advocates abandoned the brand. Take a social stand on issues or give back to your communities. Brands like The Body Shop earn advocacy in these ways.

Advocates For Life

When you create and engage an advocate, you've identified a renewable marketing asset you can leverage for years.

Advocates' love for you isn't fleeting. This isn't a summer romance or a brand fling. I know advocates who've evangelized Apple since the days of the Apple IIE. Same thing with advocates of brands like Harley Davidson, Sony, and Starbucks.

Even when your company goes off track or does something dumb, advocates have your back. I have experienced this many times with Apple; its advocates forgave the company's missteps like its failed early experiments with PDAs (anyone remember the Newton?) or its ill-advised foray into enterprise computing.

But don't take advocates for granted. Target, the discount retailer, incurred the wrath of many of its advocates when they learned that the company donated money to an anti-gay candidate in Minnesota. Target is known in Minnesota for donating to public school programs, food pantries and the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival. Still, its support for the candidate angered advocates.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. from Brand Advocates: Turning Enthusiastic Customers Into a Powerful Marketing Force by Rob Fuggetta. Copyright (c) 2012 by Zuberance, Inc. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

[Image: Flickr user Aftab Uzzaman]

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6 Comments

  • Pierre-Loic Assayag

    Great post, Rob. Look forward to reading the book.

    I absolutely agree with the growing role of brand advocates, however they are not necessarily an extension of a brand's Facebook fans or customers. We have find that the most impactful brand advocates can also be influencers, domain experts who may not even be aware of the brand at first, that companies manage to turn into their best brand advocates through relationship building and, as you said, a kick-ass product.

    On a separate note and in response to Donna's comment about these big names mentioned in the article all living off advertising. 1) Trader Joe's actually took the brand advocate concept to an extreme and letting their community of fans and advocates do the marketing for them, and only spend a ridiculously small amount of money in advertising. This is an extreme case but worth studying. 2) Most (all) small businesses can't afford effective advertising. There are very few small businesses that will yield better results from paid media than earned media.

  • Donna Barlow

    I would say that this is an EXTREMELY misleading article! While it may be true that some of the larger companies have succeeded without advertising, a lot of small businesses read this and think "oh, I shouldn't advertise either, then."

    I'm sorry, but saying that none of the mentioned companies advertise is ridiculous. When someone pays extra to build a store on a prominent street, that's advertising. When Facebook and Twitter pay a television station to promote their social media page instead of their own website, it's advertising. When Google pays a film studio to show the lead character using Google on his laptop, it's advertising. When you have employees on payroll to make social posts to promote the business, it's advertising.

    If you're a start-up and have a $20 million investor like Facebook, then by all means, do whatever you want. Or if you're an older business that already has plenty of customers, then sure, focus on retention instead of getting new customers. But these articles need to be clear that following that model is a clear path to failure for small businesses.

  • ericbrody

    Good post Rob. For me, it's not so much the amount of success these brands have enjoyed despite the lack of any "traditional" advertising, as much as their ability to deliver on your five points. While #1 is very tough given the incredibly crowded nature of most categories, numbers 2-5 are available to all. Crucial, however, is the ability to create an engaged, mobilized and empowered internal team (your true front-line brand advocates) to deliver "advocacy-building" service. 

  • Grant Powell

    Red Bull has done a large amount of advertising.  Also, keep in mind the street teams and point of sale is a type of advertising.

  • James Gentes

    Great article. Services companies that rely on word of mouth referrals can gain a lot by connecting with their advocates, but unfortunately it's hard to do when you have a small number of customers to start with.

    We just launched a business referral app for Facebook that helps services companies connect with customer advocates and use their testimonials to generated referral business. It's called Good Peeple and you can check it out at http://goodpeeple.com

    We believe this space is really gaining momentum as the majority of internet users leverage social networks, and people trust their friends for recommendations more than any other form of advertising.

  • Michael

    This article is exactly what my company through and through.  Very nice and reassuring to read as we begin this journey.