In the past, brands' relationships with their customers tended to be intimate, personal, one-to-one exchanges, and the best they could hope for was a good review in the newspaper, a celebrity endorsement, a letter of thanks or at worst a letter of complaint. But now both fans and critics have a truly global, multi-channel voice - and that gives marketers an unprecedented opportunity to enhance their brands' public profile, according to Chris Ford, director of digital marketing and loyalty at UK-based Grass Roots.
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, most marketers would rather have a handful of active customers who engage with them, enthuse about their service, product or brand, and whom they know intimately, instead of simply having thousands of 'fans' who have done no more than click on a 'Like' button.
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 in 2011, 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 Prime Minister, 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
"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," said Ford. "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. Second, most of them enthused about products that I had never heard them talk about before. And third, even given the opportunity to 'advocate', no one suggested or recommended that I should give any of the products a try."
Now look at the dictionary's definition: "Advocacy. Noun: the act of pleading for, supporting, or recommending; active espousal."
So if we are advocates, do we wait to be asked before we recommend? No. 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, and who - both unpaid and unasked - share their passion for your brand with others and actively promote your product or service within their circle of influence. None of the people that were asked about advocacy actually behaved as 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.
So this leads us to two key questions:
- How do you get more advocates?
- What do you do with them - apart from hoping they generate 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. For example: