Checklist: Develop a Successful Advocacy Program

Recently, I attended a corporate event that showcased products related to an industry. Press, media, bloggers, and influencers were invited to attend, and meet a variety of vendors and see products. Featured were members of the company’s advocacy program, (a group of preferred clients), and were given products to demo. Some members of the this advocacy program are bloggers, in particular one with a journalistic background, who’s credibility came into question. While the event continued on, a not-impressed attendee (who claimed to be a journalist) started to make comments that some of the members of the advocacy program were not authentic and went so far as to say quite loudly during the presentation they were “shills” from the back of the room.

[Brands, which are often untrusted, must develop advocacy programs to influence their market. Despite good intentions, several risks could result in mistrust and even backlash from those they seek to impress]

Let’s break it down, as these same events are likely going to happen to your advocacy program at events and echo online.

Opportunities: Advocacy Programs Foster A Low-Cost Trusted Voice
Companies aren’t trusted, brands aren’t trusted, and nor are your executives. People trust each other, and now they have the tools to communicate with each other using social technologies and mobile with or without brands involved. As a result, trust has shifted to the participants. Many brands, knowing their credibility has diminished, rely on advocacy programs where trusted members of the community are given a platform and encouraged to speak.

Take for example the B2B Microsoft MVP program (I was formerly briefed) selects the most helpful professionals in their space, and anoint their most knowledgeable customers in public, and use the program as a way to get product and program feedback. They MVPs aren’t directly paid, but may have travel and expenses covered to speak at a variety of industry events. Another example is  consumer facing WalMart’s Mom and Dad blogger program (also briefed) where influencers that fit their ideal market are given a place to blog on the corporate website. They have very few limitations and often talk about the competition.

These programs provide brands with a: trusted set of market influencers, a lower-cost program compared to traditional marketing efforts, and a platform to engage in dialog with their most knowledgeable market.

Risks: Incorrectly Implemented, Advocacy Programs Will Cause Brand Backlash
Innovation always requires risk, and many corporate cultures aren’t yet ready to yield control to the market. As a result, they apply command and control tactics to a group that could ultimately shoot them in the foot. Example? The “Target Rounders” program (I’ve not been briefed) encouraged customers to advocate the brand on public social networks, but unfortunately encouraged them to do so without transparency. The email sent from corporate to the members suggesting they advocate without disclosing their ties was quickly put on blogs –detracting from the whole movement. Also, companies not ready to take the bad with the good may not know what to do with the negative feedback, and may push back resulting in the program to crumble. Lastly, the members of the advocacy program themselves may be subjected to scrutiny from the community, they need to ensure they are inline with their own editorial guidelines.

Checklist: Develop a Successful Advocacy Program
Don’t build your relationships on a whim, have a plan, and build off the learnings of others.  This checklist is the start of your program plan, share it with your internal teams before getting started.

  1. Get Internal Teams Prepared First.  You can’t love your customers ’till you first love yourself.  Companies that aren’t ready for the new world should tread lightly.  Marketing, executives, legal, and the rest of the company need to be prepared for a new site of spokespersons to step forward in an unconventional way.  Getting ready for the raw discussions that are already happening in your marketplace closer to your doors requires virtue, patience, and an open mind.
  2. Find Credible Advocates.  This is not a shill program.  Getting individuals that are already experts in your market to learn more about your company and talk about it in an open way requires a filter.  Likely they have respected blogs, or thousands of followers on Twitter, or frequently attend and speak at industry events.
  3. Ensure The Advocacy Program Is Above Board.  Make sure disclosure is loud and clear.  Find advocates that are already vocal, maybe have sung your praises in public, and may already be a raving fan.  Recognize them in public (online and off) give them a badge (maybe for blog, or even at events) that signify their distinction.  Develop a policy, and enforce that any public mentions should require disclosure, involve your legal team.
  4. Ensure It Matches Up With Their Agenda. Advocates need to feel comfortable this is a topic or association they like.  If they are not comfortable with this program they risk ruining their own credibility which will damage your own associations.  Make sure they can say whatever they want to –but always give them the right to discuss it with the brand first as a right of first refusal.  Never limit their access or privileges based upon what they do or don’t say.
  5. Incentivize Them With Special Access –But Don’t Pay Them.  I’m a firm believer that your most passionate customers want to be recognized as experts, so thanking them, saluting them, and giving them access to information or events is key.  Letting them demo products before others and providing an honest review is commonly done.
  6. Hand Over The Microphone –Give Them The Platform.  This isn’t about you, it’s about them.  The market doesn’t trust your brand, so let them have the platform to speak.  Recognize them on your public website, develop a way to indicate that they’re the most trusted members in your online communities, and allow them to tell others.
  7. Intake Negative Feedback –But Be Actionable. You’ve now asked for open dialog for them to discuss with their community, but be prepared to intake their experience and thoughts with your marketing and more importantly: product and development teams.  This can’t be just lip-service by corporate communications, but their input must be acknowledged, and then reported back to them it was taken into account.  Use this as a way to reduce innovation costs –but ensure product teams correctly know how to develop these relationships.
  8. Provide Them With Communication Tools. Give them the opportunity to talk with each other. Develop an online community or email distribution list, just for them to participate in and talk with each other.  Additionally, give them a platform on your corporate website or within your communities to vocalize.  For those with advanced communities, give them higher level abilities than other members such as ability to moderate, add unique media, or personalize their experience.
  9. Define Success Based On Influence And Reduced Cost. This is an influence program, much like media, press, or analyst relations.  Measure based on influence by looking at KPIs around number of touch points, impact (anecdotal and through surveys).  Also, measure how much and how useful the feedback to product and development teams was taken used –divide by traditional ways of getting similar feedback.  Measure cost savings: offset the measurement with the denominator of lower costs of a WOM program to develop a measurement based on value.
  10. Got An Idea? Leave a Comment. Whew, that’s my list, however the real knowledge is with the community.  Love to hear your thoughts.  What are key steps companies must take to have a successful advocacy program?  Here’s a chance for agencies, brand managers, and anyone who’s got first hand knowledge to share what they’ve learned.

Advocacy programs are a mainstay of today and future marketing programs –yet to be successful companies must have the mindset of being enablers –not controllers.

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  • Chinedu Ohanyido

    Splendid list and true the real knowledge is with the community, which makes these list so  relevant for my coalition’s advocacy in basic education rights. well done.