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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 ]