Your Brand's Uber-Fans Are Not Uber-Advocates. So Who Is?

Understand the difference between fanboys and influencers, then start spreading the love.

Marketing spend is up.

The average CMO’s budget increased 6% from $104 million in 2012 to $110 million in 2013. A huge chunk of that $110 million are investments that marketers are making in commerce experiences, social marketing, content creation, and mobile marketing. Somewhere in there, you’ll also find significant spend on brand advocacy programs, a gray area in marketing that’s often undefined and unfamiliar.

In this unknown territory of advocacy, marketing teams are using the terms "fans" and "advocates" interchangeably, which is wrong. The definition of a fanatic (or fan) is an individual marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion to a person, place, thing, etc. An advocate, on the other hand, is someone that pleads the cause of another, or one that supports or promotes the interest of another.

Apple is a great example to help further illustrate the difference between the two. In Q4 of 2012, Apple sold 27.4 million iPhone 5 devices and 17.4 million iPhone 4S units. That’s more than 44.8 million people around the world with a newer Apple iPhone model. Consumers were so eager to get their hands on the latest device that iPhone 5 pre-orders topped 2 million in the first 24 hours--record-breaking. So while Apple has its fanboys, we don’t exactly know how many of those 44.8 million are actually advocates. However, the possibility for Apple to create them is huge and largely untapped (Ed note: as this post explores). The same goes for many leading companies out there today.

As the founder of a marketing technology company that helps brands tap tens of thousands of advocates at a time on an ongoing basis for their input, I see huge potential for brands to create more advocates than they think possible. They just have to remember the following:

Social is only a single approach

Brand advocacy is often discussed in the context of social media, which makes sense. It’s easy for companies to monitor online behavior and track what’s being said.

A recent study did a great job of profiling a brand advocate. It found that advocates are prolific content creators, producing and curating more than twice as many online communications about brands as the average web user. The report also found that nearly 60% of advocates send information about products, brands, sales, or stores via social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. On average, brand advocates are 2.5 times more likely to use social media as a means to expand their friend network and they’re recommending you about 26 times a year.

Yes, social media has an important role within brand advocacy, but it only represents a single touch point in creating and understanding advocates along the advocate to brand journey. Over the last several years, I’ve learned that a successful brand advocacy program must look beyond just social and closely engage with consumers, fans, and influencers across a variety of marketing channels. But how?

Here’s one idea: Like Nascar, launch a brand-owned and operated online community that creates exclusivity amongst stakeholders and serves as an additional marketing touch point. The Nascar Fan Council includes 12,000 handpicked Nascar viewers that are given a chance to be heard as they connect directly with the brand and other fans to influence key decisions within the organization. When customers, or in this case viewers, are given a stake in the future of a brand, they’re much more likely to become and stay advocates. Customers that see their opinions turn into real choices, like the launch of the Gen-6 model for Nascar earlier this year, are more likely to stick around and vocalize their positive attitudes about the organization to others. The Nascar Fan Council approach is one that works. It’s so popular today that it has wait list of folks in line to join the community.

Influencers require special coaxing

It’s a bad idea to assume that speaking to influencers or potentials is the same as messaging to a broader, less interested population. Influencers require a specific kind of attention from a brand. In order for it to create advocates and to sustain existing ones, here are a few rules to live by:

Don’t fake the funk

Deliver stellar products. The first rule in getting and keeping consumers on board is to always deliver unique and meaningful products and services.

Know when to keep quiet

Create opportunities for customers to connect with you. Open doors for your fans and get them involved. Then, just sit back and listen. It’s important for customers to feel like the brands they like are listening to them and their needs. These individuals like to feel valued and not smothered by repetitive advertising gimmicks.

Never incentivize

A big no-no in creating advocates is any attempt at incentives or a customer loyalty program. Advocates feel emotionally connected to a brand that’s awesome to them. They don’t like to be tracked via a customer loyalty program or bribed with incentives. Extrinsic motivation can actually weaken brand perception and turn away possible influencers, rather than lure them in.

Don’t sweat NPS

A company’s Net Promoter Score (NPS), often used to gauge the loyalty of a brand’s customer relationships and used in customer satisfaction research, is merely another marketing metric and doesn’t tell management what’s working and what needs change. The NPS system tells little about what motivates purchasing decisions and what drives a customer to recommend a product. Like sales numbers, a high promoter score is viewed as fantastic, but to manage growth and success, brands need to dive deeper to understand the underlying causes that determine their successes and failures.

Give them a voice

Exclusive groups and programs that have direct brand visibility empower advocates to share insights and let their voices be heard. What's more is that within these groups, brand advocates can be leveraged to promote a brand and also monetized if done right. Look no further than Coca-Cola. Last year, in an effort to engage with customers, the company asked its 50 million fans on Facebook to suggest an invention, cause, or social app that could spread happiness--an ongoing theme for the brand.

Ambassador programs are underutilized

Consumers trust each other more than they trust anyone else. An ambassador program is center stage for creating a trusted peer-to-peer environment, while also keeping a brand honest.

Despite Lululemon’s recent see-through-pants product mishap, the company is still a great case study when examining the rewards an ambassador program can bring to a brand. In fact, the company’s big fan base, which has grown to have a strong emotional connection with Lululemon clothing and accessories, is probably what helped Lululemon bounce back as quickly as it did.

Founded in 1998, the Vancouver-based yoga and athletic wear company has been able to make and sustain advocates through its ambassador program. Lululemon’s ambassador approach is a local influencer campaign, and the way it works is simple. The company approaches local athletes, fitness entrepreneurs, and leaders (e.g., yoga instructors, tri-athletes, etc.) and requests that these individuals be the local “face” for the company. In return, Lululemon offers these advocates free gear to test and wear while teaching classes or participating in live events. They’re also invited to local stores to teach classes and highlighted in stores via a poster-sized image of themselves in their local community.

With more than 200 stores and about a dozen ambassadors per shop, that’s nearly 2,400 advocates creating even more advocates. Rolling out ambassador program worked for Lululemon, to say the least. In 2012, Lululemon was ranked number six in Fortune’s list of fastest growing companies with 45% revenue growth and clocking in at more than $1 billion in revenues.

Bottom Line: The crazed fans you thought were advocates aren’t. Continue to dream big with your advocacy goals. Be relentless and investigate every corner in attempts to create them. The opportunity is tremendous and the payoff unimaginable.

--Andrew Reid is founder, president, and CPO of Vision Critical, a strategic global market research and technology firm based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He also sits on the board of directors for the B.C. Technology Industry Association. Follow him on Twitter at @reidandrew.

[Image: Flickr user Neekoh.fi]

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2 Comments

  • Holly Llewellyn

    Great article! I think letting the consumer having a “voice” is just the beginning of brand advocacy! Soon they will be not only in local ads like lululemon’s program, but will be taking photos for their favourite companies that are shown nationally. A few companies heading in this direction are http://foap.com/ (native app) or http://candid.io/ (web).

  • Mike Harmanos

    Wow... talk to you buddy over at the Apple's Flawed Marketing Strategy article.  Or are you all just trying to cover your bases at Fast Company?  ;)