Forbes: How To Create A Customer Advocacy Program

Social media doesn’t scale.  That’s right, social media doesn’t scale.  Consumers will only increase their adoption of social technologies, most social networking data shows this is going ‘up and to the right’.  You can never hire enough community managers to manage your millions of customers that are now using social channels to communicate.  You must have a strategy to scale.

This article, which I originally wrote on my regular column on the Forbes CMO network explains in pragmatic steps what marketing executives must do to develop a scalable program.  I look forward to hearing what you’ve learned below.

How To Create A Customer Advocacy Program
CMOs must tap the voices of their customers.

While marketers traditionally were the direct channel and voice to the customer, creating direct mail, advertising and corporate press releases. CMOs today must develop advocacy programs in order to scale, increase credibility and demonstrate commitment to customers. In doing so, marketers will develop a low-cost trusted unpaid army of customer advocates.

Why an Advocacy Program?
Research by Edelman’s trust barometer indicates that buyers, customers and consumers often will trust each other far more than they’ll trust employees, sales or company. While factual information about product specs, pricing and usage will still be relevant on the corporate website, expect customers to do online research and consider advice from their peers before they make purchasing decisions.

Five Phases of Mature Advocacy Programs
To develop advocacy programs, CMOs must conduct the following five steps:

1.) First, get ready internally. You’ll need to dedicate an internal staff member on a part-time basis to manage this program. Look for folks who have a background in influencer relationships and are savvy about social media–traditional command-and-control techniques need not apply. Develop a plan and educate internal stakeholders. You will need to inform Support, Product, Account Managers, Legal. Next, develop a content plan to constantly fuel the advocates with topics and time with upcoming product releases.

2.) Find the right advocates that will represent your brand. It is important to select the right advocates. First, find them where they already are. Look at top blogs in your industry, the most helpful and knowledgeable community members in the support forums, and those that have dedicated their time to managing Facebook pages, online forums or are active in the ecosystems. Use the following six attributes to gauge if they’ll be successful advocates: 1.) They should have a track record of their contributions and expertise. 2.) They should be respected and have influence in the community. 3.) They must be helpful, passionate, reliable, trustworthy. 4.) They should possess strong communication skills. 5.) They should have existing communication platforms. 6.) They must be committed to the program requirements.

3.) Build a relationship for the long term. Just like courting, in any relationship it is best to start by building trust. Invite your select group of advocates to your headquarters to meet with key product teams, communications and customer-focused executives. Be prepared to listen, and be attentive to their requests. The key is to acknowledge their ideas, without coming across as defensive. After this effort, you’ll have a strong sense of who you’ll want to work with more closely. Wal-Mart  invited top bloggers to its HQ in Bentonville AR, which resulted in an advocacy program called the Elevenmoms. Intel invites its ‘Insiders‘ to social media and digital savvy folks to key events like Intel Developer Forum.

4.) Give them a platform–but do not pay them. The crux of an advocacy program is giving fans a platform for communicating. You’ll want to support their efforts by giving them a publication platform such as a group blog or community, so they can tell their story. Ensure they are properly kept up to date, and that the lines of communications are always open for discussion, even when there is negative content. Enable them with graphical “badges” they can put on their blogs, email signatures, T-shirts, and business cards as they become extended ambassadors to your brand. Microsoft MVP program showcases their advocates, and provides them with a variety of resources to evangelize.

5.) Integrate them into your business and recognize them. It’s key to continue to build on the momentum you’ve established by following the above steps. Next, continue to integrate them into your existing events, product launches and even planning meetings with product teams. Lego invited top advocates for their next-generation mindstorm product, and intertwined customer opinion with the produce team. As a result, a successful product launched, that was quickly sold out. Microsoft ( MSFT – news – people ) has “conference” funds for MVPs who are encouraged to speak at industry related conferences about their passions–further spreading the brand.

These five phases of your program will make you successful. But remember above all, give them recognition and access to special events, review on-brand products, access to important people and information–and do not pay them, or you risk making the relationship a thin transaction. Instead, focus on building a long-term relationship with customer advocates who are an extension of your authentic brand.

That’s my take, after taking briefings and meeting with the folks that have run these programs. Just wanted to share my research over the years in a consolidated pragmatic step-by-step. Please leave your suggestions below, thanks!

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  • http://mikepascucci.com/ Mike P

    Jeremiah,

    Great post, really like the 5 steps (especially #4). There are a couple of things that we did at eBay with the Voice of the Community program that are slight additions to your 5 steps.
    1. Invite a true cross-section of your community to participate and interact as well, especially when you talk about gathering feedback on products and services. When you start to build products and services based only on 1 segment of your community, that is where you will get into trouble. Granted at eBay we had buyers/sellers/newbies/long-time members…so we were afforded with that option
    Also, be prepared, down the road, for some of your members to feel “entitled”. The more and more that you engage with your audience, and the more that they help you out, the more entitlement they feel that they have. This needs to be managed effectively and expectations need to be set in stone up front.

    Mike

  • http://BestSellerAuthors.com Warren Whitlock

    Social Media will ultimately fail if it's a program. The future business will have to listen to customers and will be rewarded for it.

  • http://web-strategist.com/blog Jeremiah Owyang

    Thanks Mike. It's akin to involving your customers and making them feel like they have ownership too.

  • http://web-strategist.com/blog Jeremiah Owyang

    In most cases, it's a business program now. That's the way things get funded in traditional enterprise.

  • http://twitter.com/schwartzp Paul Schwartz

    Interesting you define customer advocacy as what the customer can do for the company. I've usually defined as what the company can do for the customer. Are companies doing what is in the best interest of the customer? That builds real relationships.

  • http://twitter.com/StartupSidekick Jason Sullivan

    Finding the right advocates is huge. The last thing you want is to dedicate a large amount of your budget to social media marketing, and realize that your 'presence' is full of spelling and grammar errors

  • http://www.idiomstrategies.com/ Christine Fife

    Thanks, Jeremiah. I've had the experience having to try and make these points with potential clients (as a strategic marketing consultant) and after reading this I realize that some of my challenges in making them understand is probably in my wording choices. I've been trying to get businesses to understand that SM does scale, but knowing that SM in and of itself doesn't scale, it is the strategy for how you use it to build customer advocacy, as a support tool, as a lead generation tool, etc. that draws your audiences in that scales.
    A few small word changes can make a big difference.

  • http://web-strategist.com/blog Jeremiah Owyang

    I've spoken to a number of these companies, and positioning is key, as you're essentially asking them to give up some control to gain the voices of advocates. Thanks Christine, glad it helped.

  • http://web-strategist.com/blog Jeremiah Owyang

    The good news is they've left a string of digital breadcrumbs around the internet that you can review from a historical perspective.

  • http://www.depthondemand.com/ Miguel H. Gonzalez

    The missing piece is, has been and continues to be linkage to key performance indicators … usually sales or share or revenue. My clients know that social media and advocacy are good for the company and the right thing to do. But they want ROI.

    For example, when a major CPG marketer uses ASI to test TV commercials, they feel confident that the best performing spots will generate impact on sales, which they measure. Likewise, the results of a national FSI coupon drop can be tracked based on redemption rates and accounting results from key retail accounts. Marketers tie together the combined results of these media/channel specific efforts and justify the expenditure based on the returns.

    I have yet to invent, borrow, steal or beg for a commensurate model for social media marketing efforts. Your thoughts … and the community's thoughts … on this topic are greatly appreciated.

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  • JustinAtSmile.ly

    Excellent Post! Brand advocates/influencers are more important than ever. I think the key is to make them feel important/integral to the brand. This will serve as their incentive to recruit others.

    Justin

  • Catherineadavis

    Great post. Identifying and building relationships with advocates is a great way to make social media more scalable and to help ensure that you have enough presence to have a real market impact.

  • YahooThurry

    Thanks Jeremiah, really like the 5 step approach. I think it's interesting that you've got Customer Advocacy under the CMO and not the support organization, but then again it's been my experience that once you open up the social gates and start to interact with social customers in the space the traditional customer life cycle gets blurry fast. That's why I'm convinced more than ever Marketing is Support and Support is Marketing in the social space as customers and potential customers cycle through the Awareness, Engagement, Use & Advocate cycles in these social / community settings.

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  • Tammy

    I am starting a new business and view this as an important launch strategy. Your article was very helpful. I am wondering if there are some companies that you feel have done a great job with their Customer Advocacy Programs that I can check out online and see if/how they describe the participants online. Much thanks!

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    I realize that some of my challenges in making them understand is probably in my wording choices. I’ve been trying to get businesses to understand that SM

  • http://www.astutebuyersadvocates.com.au/ Buyers Advocates

    This is great, thanks a lot.
    I’ve develop few strategies out of your points, which i think would really work.

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  • Anonymous

    What about the next step of measurement? What are some metrics by which a brand or company measures the success of their customer advocacy program? 

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