There’s an ongoing debate as to whether it is better to use influencers or advocates in your brand’s marketing campaigns.
Before we join the discussion, we had better be clear what the differences are between these two groups of people, and the benefits of using each one.
Both advocacy and influence are about using a third party to reach new audiences, but using entirely different techniques. Influencers are people who have a large following. They may be a celebrity, but might also be a blogger, CEO of a company, columnist, or Internet personality. So long as many people listen to what they have to say, brands pay them (or give them goods) to convey their message to their followers.
Advocates, on the other hand, are people who are already brand converts—maybe satisfied customers or people who will always buy the latest product—who spread the brand’s message willingly, maybe by recommending them to their friends or sharing their marketing on social media. Brands can encourage advocates, or potential advocates, by reaching out to them to help share their message.
When it comes to reach, generally an influencer will have a much greater reach than a brand advocate. Coca Cola’s latest marketing campaign features Taylor Swift writing her latest hit while drinking Diet Coke. Taylor Swift has a large, loyal following, particularly among young women, which is exactly the target audience Coca Cola is hoping to attract. When choosing an influencer or celebrity for a campaign, it is critical to line up influencer’s following with company’s target audience; a large following means nothing if they are not the right fit for your brand. But even with the large awareness numbers, companies are not always seeing the spike in sales when they engage influencers or celebrities.
A brand advocate is unlikely to have the reach of someone you would choose as an influencer, but, according to McKinsey, a recommendation from a trusted friend conveying a relevant message is up to 50 times more likely to trigger a purchase than is a low-impact recommendation. McKinsey also found that marketing-induced consumer-to-consumer word of mouth generates more than 2 times the sales of paid advertising. Furthermore, it is worth considering what the collective reach might be of all your brand advocates, and the fact that their audience, no matter how small, might not only be exactly the demographic you are trying to connect with, but also is more likely to be influenced by the passion of your brand advocate towards your brand/products and their deep knowledge of such. Your army of advocates is your volunteer marketing army.
It’s hard to measure commitment, but it’s likely that an existing fan of your brand, or a satisfied customer, has a more genuine commitment to your brand than someone you would choose as an influencer. The challenge for marketers is to find an influencer who is already loyal to your brand: actor Stephen Fry has been a long-time fan of Apple computers (he claims to have bought the third Macintosh computer ever sold in the UK)… and he has a Twitter following of nearly 5.9 million people.
Generally, though, an influencer will need incentives to work as a brand ambassador, whether it is through advance copies of products or through payment. Think of the number of not-yet-released products that get sent to prominent bloggers every day: There might not always be a contract involved, but leveraging their following comes at a price.
Brand advocates, on the other hand, will likely talk about your product to their friends and followers despite there being no direct reward in it for them: they are passionate about their brand experience and want to share it with others.
It is far easier to employ an influencer than it is to activate your existing customers, as long as you are willing to trade something in return for their endorsement. But what is less clear is the return on investment for this spend: Employing someone with a wide reach can backfire if their followers disagree with their involvement with the brand. There is a risk of alienating the very audience you are trying to engage.
Your brand almost certainly has a large number of loyal fans already, so your role in activating them is essentially bridge-building: it is worth investing the energy in creating the links between your satisfied, motivated customers and your brand. That’s the great thing about potential brand advocates: they already exist, so it’s more a question of how to connect with them and give them the opportunity to extend their passion to their own audience. The investment with fans of your brand will be one of time and effort rather than money, and this is what puts off many marketers. It may be easier in the short-term to sign a contract with an influencer than activate a large number of customers to speak for your brand.
Short-term versus long-term
The strategies and tactics you will use will depend on your whether your goal is short-term or long-term, and whether you want to reach the largest number of people in the shortest time, or invest in a strategy that may only pay back your efforts over a longer period of time, but with much higher impact. An influencer will be able to convey your message to their large following very quickly, whereas it may take far longer to reach the same number of people using your brand advocates. But if you want an investment that will continue to pay off over a long time, your brand advocates are likely to remain loyal to your brand long after the contract with an influencer has expired: think of all those loyal Apple fans lining up outside stores for the latest release of a product, before even knowing what the features will be. Apple as a brand may appeal to a specific kind of customer, but their love for the brand will last a long time. You can’t buy that kind of loyalty.
Knowing the value of advocates versus influencers is key to making the right decisions when it comes to your marketing strategy. But most importantly, you need to be honest with yourself about the true purpose behind your marketing efforts. "Do I invest my limited budget into a one-time burst and get a lot of short-term buzz? Or do I build a bespoke network of advocates and engage, direct, and activate them long-term, which may require commitment beyond a three-month campaign?" We see our customers struggle with this question every day. You need to be clear from the outset what your goals are before deciding whether to harness the passion of your existing fans or to turn to the broader—but arguably less committed—reach of an influencer. Both can be a hugely important part of a marketing campaign, but only if their capacities are used effectively.
Build movements, not campaigns!
Don’t just stimulate buzz, ignite passions through engaging the true believers who "get" who you are and are fanatical about your brand. Identify them, listen to them, engage them. It is worth the effort.
[Image: Flickr user Messycupcakes]