I’m frequently asked the question of “how do you compare to Company X? They say they have an army of hundreds of thousands of “advocates” just waiting to share my content, and that sounds awesome!”
I’ve banged my head against my desk with this question so many times it hurts. I love real brand advocacy and word-of-mouth marketing and we’ve built Smync to help brands and agencies identify, engage and amplify the relationships they have with their true advocates – those people engaged with their brand that are eager to talk to others about the brand, are trusted and viewed as helpful, and have a long-term positive impact on the brand from every angle.
So, when asked that question today…BANG. (Ouch, that’s going to leave a bruise)…rub forehead, realize the jargon in this industry is confusing and I’m advocating for my brand – so I’m trying to help.
The people in “advocate armies” are anything but advocates.
Follow me down this slippery slope. If somebody doesn’t have an existing relationship with your brand – either a fan of the product, a purchaser, an employee, a business relationship – some pre-existing connection to your brand, there is absolutely no way this person is an advocate. Worse yet, if I’m considered “influential” as part of an advocate army enlisted for a campaign about automobiles and you’re the marketer from Chevy and I’m a Ford guy…there can be a distinct negative. Regardless, the lack of pre-existing relationship with the brand may make someone part of an army, but instead of “advocate”, the appropriate phrasing might be “social mercenary”.
Many of the people in these programs are overly enthusiastic, because they are being compensated, gaining contest entries, points or swag in some direct form for sharing your content or being part of a campaign. I use the word “campaign” deliberately. Campaigns have a beginning and an end – the spreading of your word lasts as long as you’re paying for it. They aren’t going to be sharing their experience with your brand months after the campaign ends. They won’t be encouraging their friends to try it and the value of their impression is far, far less. And don’t forget that these programs, if done properly, are #sponsored. It’s not that it’s a bad thing, but a key component of getting people to act is trust. If it’s from an actual influencer – blogger, industry figure, celebrity – showing the sponsored part is expected. If it’s somebody they really don’t know and they see that message – it’s the equivalent of an ad – trusted about ¼ as much as from somebody they trust and acted on 3-10x less.
Finally, it really shouldn’t be about an advocate “army”. People aren’t targeted audiences, they’re people in communities. If you’re building word-of-mouth, it’s not a campaign, it’s building conversations. The number of true advocates doesn’t have the be huge…they just have to be the right people – an energized group of 25 advocates can influence 1,000,000 people.
Generally speaking, they’re not influencers, either.
Many times, the people who are involved in this “crowdsourced advocacy” do this fervently – they’re involved with multiple programs, call themselves “social influencers” on their Twitter or LinkedIn bio and you’ll find more than a few are a part of the ubiquitous “Team Followback” whose sole goal is to accumulate followers based on following back whoever follows you – it doesn’t mean you’re engaged with them or even care…all that matters is they represent +1 in their sphere of “social influence”. When trust is a core characteristic of advocacy because it provides encouragement for other people to act – to try, to buy, to engage – is this type of solution generating trusted reach? Are these the people you want spreading your word? Can reach generated this way be viewed as positive? How much impact outside of the compensated actions do they have?
Don’t get me wrong – there are real influencers out there – celebrities have influence although they have a tendency to “advocate” for Samsung while tweeting from their iPhone. But there are 1000’s of great people out there with quality blogs, video channels and a sizeable, relevant audience of people who trust their words and recommendation. They make a living by sponsorships and advertising, which is awesome. These “PR Friendly blogs” use a creative phrasing for paid promotion, but the same thing holds true – their influence, while it can be substantial, extends as long as they’re being compensated and we inherently understand it’s a different form of advertising and act on it less than being from somebody who is authentically an advocate of a brand.
I feel bad for those social media professionals who are charged with balancing the trinity of budget, impressions and “engagement” while being driven to instantly achieve results. Because these crowdsourced influencer programs do “work” – if you pay or incentivize people to share, comment or publish content on your part who have built a micro-business of getting free stuff by connecting with 1000’s of other people, you will get the desired numeric end result. But what does that mean when you consider quality of reach, customers and engagement? If it generated 1,000,000 impressions but no sustainable action, no sales traction, what was the value? If the “engagement” you received was a comment on your post reading “grf.”, which met the requirement for a contest entry, did that help tell your brand’s story? Or did the people who signed up for a free trial REALLY want it…or did they get more points for showing a higher conversion?
Be willing to think beyond tomorrow.
The first criteria for decision making for any social media manager or director is “will it get me fired?” While that isn’t on the official score sheet, self-preservation rules. Which is why sometimes building word-of-mouth and advocacy are considered a little more challenging – you can’t flip the switch and buy reach as you can with ads or crowdsourced reach. You have to build it – it takes a little time and if great results are expected within 2 months, like human relationships – an advocate community has to evolve, but the payoff is far greater.
When you’re looking to build advocacy, look beyond the crowd and look inside – inside your social communities – and find those that are excited about your brand (maybe a little too excited) and foster those relationships, build a community and ignite their passion for your brand. Each one of those people create a ripple effect far beyond that of paid-reach solution. Think about how one empowered advocate can affect 40,000+. Think of the value of their word-of-mouth impression being worth 5-250x a paid impression. Think about not having to reload another “advocate campaign” next month and having real social word-of-mouth that provides Return on Advocacy.