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It’s All About Your Advocates: Program Dynamics and Strategies

Advocate programs leverage recognition and other key motivators to encourage desired behaviors among select members of your communities. It’s up to you to decide what those desired behaviors are—whether it’s happy customers blogging about how passionate they are about your products, responsive subject matter experts who are fanatical about providing technical help to others, or anything in between. It’s also up to you to understand what will truly motivate your customers (and even employees) to blossom into advocates. (Check out two great chapters in this book on advocates and influencers: Hootsuite’s Michelle Kostya with “Arming Your Advocates,” Chapter 14, and Cisco’s Nestor Portillo with “The Silent Revolution,” Chapter 8).

There are some powerful statistics to support your company’s investment in building a world-class advocate program, for example:

  • McKinsey & Company found that peer advocacy generates more than twice the sales as paid advertising does.15
  • Deloitte and 22squared showed that 1 in 3 people come to a brand through a recommendation, and customers referred by other customers have a 37 percent higher retention rate.16
  • Deloitte also showed that advocates spend 2 times more than average customers and recommend or share 2 to 4 times more than an average customer.17
  • Fred Reichheld found that a 12 percent increase in brand advocacy generates an average increase of 2 times in revenue growth rate and boosts market share.18

But the most salient fact in accepting the benefits of brand advocates is that people simply don’t trust companies; they trust each other. And now more than ever, people have adopted powerful platforms that they are leveraging to share opinions and information across vast networks, with or without your involvement. Trust has shifted to the participants in these networks, and as business leaders, we must recognize this shift and adapt in creative ways—most importantly, by encouraging our communities to share authentically and transparently, while incenting desired behaviors and rewarding our top contributors.

Although the business benefits of leveraging advocates can be similar, few advocate programs are themselves identical. The goals and needs of each company—even each organization within each company—can be different, and the core motivators of each community to participate can be different as well. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you don’t work for Apple or Google, where the perception of legendary products and legendary workplaces themselves lead to the creation of legendary advocates (even without advocate programs). Let’s say you work for a company that will benefit from a thoughtful approach to encouraging certain behaviors.

Here are seven key considerations for building a world-class advocate program.

#1 Get Internal Support, Anticipate Risks

  • Go as far as you can see; when you get there, you’ll be able to see farther.” —J.P. Morgan, American Financier

Step-wise, it’s always a good idea to get your internal stakeholders involved by making them aware of the plan, benefits, and even risks of launching an advocate program—especially if you are considering more than recognizing top contributors in your branded communities, and leaning more toward external advocacy where participants are encouraged to talk about your brand in blogs and social networks. Getting internal buy-in is important because some executives might not be prepared for a new layer of company spokespeople, and being able to articulate the “whys” while anticipating the “what ifs” should be an imperative.

Although advocate-driven peer-to-peer technical support might lower the financial overhead of the organization, and the power of peer-to-peer endorsements might increase customer retention and purchasing, the question from your executives just might be, “at what cost?” The more an organization depends on others, the more the expectations placed on the brand might change. When people become more passionate about participating on the brand’s behalf, they expect a relationship with that brand. You should anticipate questions from executives like, “Is it dangerous to have so many people acting as company advocates?” “Should we pay them?” And, “What are the risks associated with co-owning the brand?”

#2 Ask Them What They Want, and Build It Together

  • I love the early process of asking questions about a story and deciding which questions matter most.”—Diane Sawyer, American Journalist

If you think that your product isn’t “sexy” enough for people to get excited about, you might be surprised—all you have to do is shift the lens to focus on what your customers are doing with your products and what aspects they are most passionate about to determine what to build community around. Don’t build a community around your products, build it around your customers.

One of my favorite examples of an “unsexy” product surrounded by a vibrant community is the “Fiskateers”19 community, created by word-of-mouth agency Brains on Fire on behalf of its client, Fiskars—the 350-year-old company that makes those orange-handled scissors that everyone either owns or remembers. After brand loyalty at Fiskars dropped to a historic low, Fiskars did some brand research and found that there was little emotional connection between its products and its customers—Fiskars was described as the “milk and saltine crackers of its industry”—which isn’t very sexy at all. However, they shifted the lens and focused not on a community around scissors, but what people do with scissors—namely crafting—and built one of the most energetic word-of-mouth inspired communities that I have come across. (For a sample of its enthusiasm, search for “Fiskateers” on YouTube.)

Every guide to social media will tell you to “listen” first, and that’s great, but I believe most of these guides are referring to passive listening, for example, following your customers on Twitter and identifying trends. Although that’s helpful, I recommend going a bit old school to really understand what your potential advocates are passionate about. That’s right—talk to them.

Ask them what they want, what problems they’re trying to solve, and what they’re passionate about, and build a community with them around what you learn. For example, you can ask

  • What aspects of working with your products are they most passionate about?
  • What are their biggest pain points?
  • What types of collaboration would make them more effective?
  • What kind of content do they like to consume?
  • How would showcasing their expertise or helping others advance them personally or professionally?
  • What is their interest in helping to build it with you?

Talking to customers, listening to what they say, and asking them to build it with you not only positions your community to harness the passion of your advocates, but it creates a sense of shared ownership from the beginning. This sense of shared ownership is critical for seeding both early content producers and community promoters as well. Shared ownership means a sense of purpose and accountability, and that’s the inspiration that will get them talking about it with friends and colleagues.

#3 Raise the Barrier to Entry

  • I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.” —Woody Allen, film director

Sure, we love all our customers, but when it comes to inviting customers to participate as brand advocates, we should love some more than others. The point is, it’s important to have a filter so that the advocates are admired for the accomplishment of gaining advocate status, and the risks associated with unwanted behavior from less-qualified candidates are reduced.

Begin the screening process with nominations from your staff—who do your engineers, salespeople, customer success, and marketing people think would be a good fit? Then survey your communities and ask community managers who the top contributors are (if that isn’t already part of your reporting process). Also consider venturing outside your four walls and determine who in your industry has a presence at events, a respected blog, or an influential Twitter following.

And one more thing to consider: Asking the right people to participate is great, but asking them to demonstrate their commitment to participate first is ideal. This can be something as simple as filling out a simple profile on their skills and experience, and why they should be considered a good candidate. The goal isn’t determining whether they can write a good essay; the goal is to determine whether they’ll write one at all. If they don’t bother jumping this low barrier, do you think they will bother jumping a higher one in their role as advocate?

#4 Make it Meaningful, Tangible (and Transparent)

  • Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” —Steve Jobs, Co-founder of Apple

Anyone who you’d consider making an “official” advocate is probably already an “unofficial” advocate, currently poking around the periphery of your online platforms. It’s likely that these folks would be delighted to be acknowledged by you, so thanking them, sharing their insights, and promoting their work today will go a long way in formalizing the relationship a little further down the road. And when you do formalize your approach, there are numerous ways to incentivize advocates, depending on your company culture and a clear understanding of which specific motivators have the potential to be the most compelling to your unique audience.

A common approach is letting advocates demo your products before they are released to the public with the understanding that they will provide candid reviews. But recognizing them offline at events, as top contributors in online communities, and providing access to experts inside your company are all proven approaches as well. One recommendation is to simply ask them how they would like to be recognized and rewarded—you might be surprised at what you will learn.

It’s also important to consider ways to bridge the online/offline divide with your advocates (for more on this topic, check out Chapter 5, “360º Social,” authored by Shar Govindan). When is the last time a witty tweet swayed you more than an in-person conversation? My guess is never—the most powerful word of mouth happens offline, in bars, at conferences, and dare I say the water cooler. But that doesn’t mean the vast reach of online networks isn’t important; it means that web strategists need to find creative ways to connect people by integrating online and offline strategies.

There are different approaches to bridging this divide and making your communities more tangible. Many larger communities host conferences and events for their biggest supporters. This provides a reward for participating, the elevated status of being a top contributor and a unique opportunity to connect and collaborate with other subject matter experts in person. Those on a budget might consider simple thank-you gifts or even cards that recognize community participation, or invitations to special online events such as Q&A with key executives or engineers. The goal is to connect online and offline worlds to make the experience more tangible.

Whatever recognition or incentive program you choose, it’s critical that all aspects of the program are kept transparent at all times, which means a policy should be clearly and publically articulated that states that relationships with the brand are disclosed.

The “Target Rounders” program20 is a searing lesson in how clandestine advocate operations can backfire. The popular retailer encouraged customers—mostly college students—to promote the brand on Facebook, and it also told them to “keep it like a secret,” while getting free CDs, store discounts, and other prizes for doing so. The corporate e-mail with the stealthy instructions was intercepted and posted online—everywhere—which created quite a backlash that lives on today in social media infamy. Of course, that was way back in 2007. Today, the pros at Target are teaching many of us how to do social. But what it taught us back then is to always be transparent with the relationships we have with our advocates, and it’s never a good idea to pay advocates to promote you.

#5 Encourage Authenticity

  • Truth is a point of view, but authenticity can’t be faked.” —Peter Guber, American producer, executive, entrepreneur

The most successful word-of-mouth communities are built on trust, and the feeling that members can personally relate with one another. Both internal and external advocates should be encouraged to be real people when they communicate online. Training programs should teach advocates that successfully engaging in social media is more like chatting at a cocktail party than speaking at a conference. They should be encouraged not to blatantly advocate the brand and your offerings, but instead talk about what they did over the weekend, how their dog digested a pair of socks and threw up all over the rug, and even talk about other products and companies (in a positive light). Of course, potentially inflammatory topics like politics and religion should be avoided in public venues where diverse views are common.

#6 Gamify It

  • [Gamification] is not a new concept...it’s just that now we’re beginning to create systems and technology to empower it.” —Bob Marsh, CEO, LevelEleven

Although the term itself might be reviled, its impact on spurring engagement in branded online communities is anything but. Gamification is a general term for applying the principals of games and healthy competition to online community participation, with the goal of motivating certain behaviors, for example, for contributing helpful replies in a support forum, and bolstering loyalty in trust with increased user-created content.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to gamification—the goals and games are as diverse as the companies they support. It’s only through a careful assessment of your business objectives along with a thoughtful consideration of the most likely community motivators that your gamification strategy will become a success.

For example, EngineYard, a platform as a service (PaaS) company for coding and deploying applications, had implemented a Zendesk knowledge base and community to increase the effectiveness of peer-to-peer support, only to find that the amount of customer-contributed content was initially far below expectations,21 putting its investment at risk. EngineYard turned this around by incorporating unique badges (from gamification company Badgeville, see Figure 1.3) related to customers’ abilities to accomplish different “missions” considered critical to community engagement—one for liking content, another for creating a topic, and more. Its gamification strategy ultimately paid off. The ensuing flood of user-generated content for its self-help portal led to 40 percent greater engagement in the forum, freed up staff with a 20 percent reduction in support ticket volume, leading to a 40 percent decrease in ticket response time and higher customer satisfaction.

Many companies also use gamification to identify and encourage top contributors, or as some call them, “Super Fans,” which although accounting for only the top 0.5 percent of responders, are especially valued by companies because they account for a disproportionate volume of responses. For example, “KachiWachi,” a Super Fan in the Logitech community, has posted an astonishing 50k helpful replies supporting one of its products.

Figure 1.3

Figure 1.3 EngineYard’s Knowledge Base & Community

At Lenovo, a measly 30 Super Fans have contributed 1,200 accepted support solutions, which is 44 percent of all solutions available.22 And Giffgaff, a mobile telecom provider in the UK, rewards helpful users with points that can reduce their monthly phone bills (a perfect example of tying business outcomes to solving customer pain points). Because of this unique approach, 100 percent of the questions that were previously answered by Giffgaff staff are now answered by the community.23

#7 Prepare to Take the Good with the Bad

  • When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” —Lao Tzu, Chinese Philosopher and Poet

If we’re asking advocates to be authentic, be themselves, and provide candid feedback, sometimes we are going to hear things that don’t sound exactly like advocacy. It’s okay, really. This type of unadulterated feedback—and what we do with it—is exactly the type of public discourse that will build credibility and trust in our communities. If you agree that poor customer experiences that are quickly redeemed with stellar customer service can create heightened customer loyalty, then you will also agree that how we deal with less-than-stellar feedback in public forums will reveal the human side of our companies, ultimately building new levels of trust and credibility.

And it’s not only how we respond to individual comments, but it’s also what we do with the feedback we receive. Companies that leverage negative feedback as opportunities to create a feedback loop with customer service, marketing, product development, and other groups will capitalize on timely and less-costly Voice of the Customer insights. And companies that complete the loop by circling back to the customer with mentions of how they are utilizing the feedback will make customers feel even more involved, appreciated, and willing to continue engaging with the brand on even deeper levels.

Yes, there might be risks in handing our customers the microphone, but if advocate programs are approached thoughtfully, there will be unimaginably greater reward. The point is that we can’t talk about an effective community without talking about a sustainable community co-created with the people it aims to support. It’s up to us to find out what our members are passionate about and what inspires them to participate, and built a community around that.

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