Want to learn about Formalized Social Advocacy Programs? An embedded recording is below.
What are some of the most advanced social media programs by companies? We see formalized Advocacy Programs like Fiskers Fiskateers, Intel Insiders, Microsoft MVPs, Walmart Moms (and Dads), and beyond (see this quora thread) as the most advanced. Why? In order to gain scale and trust, companies must give up significant control and management to allow these advocates a platform to speak. Furthermore, we found in our research that these advocacy programs often put the advocates front and center, often before the brand.
Altimeter has been tracking these programs for research for over 2 years, and have conducted a handful of workshops for clients, but for the most part, haven’t shared our findings in public. Because this topic is so niche (our survey data yielded less than 20% of companies were investing in these programs) we held off on publishing till the market matured. Interestingly, we found companies that were ripe for these programs either had already an engaged set of brand loyalists, or was a brand under scrutiny, or those that were ready for uncomfortable conversations with critics performed best.
We do not recommend this program for companies in their formative years, as these programs impact all customer relationships spanning product teams, sales, marketing, corp comm, media and executives. Companies that have become ‘social organizations’ throughout are able to properly invest, sustain, and use advocate feedback to actually change products and services.
Also, please welcome Christine Tran, Senior Researcher at Altimeter who was a driving force in this webinar. The webinar recording is embedded above.
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!
The recession has been great for social marketing, in fact, I feel it’s spurred the industry on. With overall reduced marketing budgets, companies must innovate, and find new channels that are more efficient than the ‘carpet-bombing’ techniques of traditional marketing.
There are a handful of goals that companies can have with social technologies, from learning, dialog, support, and innovation (see Charlene’s deck, starting at slide 8 to learn more), I want to drill down in the following matrix to focus on the goal of spreading, and word of mouth, and viral. I call this “Advocacy”.
Marketers, who strive to find efficient ways of reaching customers at lower cost, seek ‘force-multipliers‘ or a method where using a small degree of energy (or the energy of another force) to your advantage. Do remember, there is a downside to any action, and with ‘advocacy’ there’s reduced control over message and therefore more risk. With that said, many marketers know the benefits of content spreading are worth the risks.
Matrix: Breakdown of Advocacy Marketing
||Sophistication and Description
||Investments and Returns
||Baseline effort. Tools like Sharethis, AddThis, Gigya, and some features in Pluck, and Kickapps.
||High. Low investment as it can easily be deployed on CMS templates. Continual returns of content spreading with no additional overhead or cost.
||Easy to deploy, yet transactional
||Do not build deep relationship with customers
||Getting started, a baseline activity.
||A basic technique. Word of mouth campaigns on Facebook apps, YouTube (see popular), or Twitter (see moonfruit example)
||Low. Being able to hit the right elements of the content people want, timing, and other factors are difficult. Chances are, most campaigns that intend to be viral never are
||Easy for media and interactive agencies to create and deploy.
||Dime a dozen. Short term and cheap. Not conducive to building long term relationships.
||Traditional agencies and transactional marketers that are trying to learn social
|Social Network Connections
||An intermediate technique. Facebook, Twitter Connect. Easy to comment systems on blogs, to sophisicated Huffington Post social recommendations, see Buddy Media.
||Moderate to High. Allowing customers to login to your site with existing connections increase value of social sharing and chance to serve up contextual data. However there are considerable costs in creating contextual content and systems that are not yet mature.
||Encourages people to quickly login, share, and find others who have interests
||Challenges in collecting email leads as customers now ‘login’ using social connections.
||Static websites who need to inject social interactions.
||An advanced technique, see this checklist. Longer term programs with customer advocates like Microsoft MVP or Walmart’s 11 Mom’s
||High return but high cost. Companies can benefit from an unpaid army that will market, defend, and support customers, but this requires significant resources to launch, grow, and maintain.
||Builds long term deep relationships with a customer group that will defend brand.
||Requires full resources for program, takes time to build
||Companies that can’t scale their marketing in a high touch customer experience.
Companies Should Embrace Advocacy Programs
Organizations are already deploying these word of mouth tools, but often without a plan or strategy, get started now by:
- Deploy simple sharing features now. These cheap and easy to insert embeds should be on every content type where companies want the content to spread. From press releases, to blog posts, companies need to make it easy for their market to share with others.
- Reduce risks by providing proper support and resources. Organizations should first understand the costs, downsides and risks for each type of marketing program, with greater returns (Advocacy program) comes greater commitment of resources, and greater risk, so to reduce those risks, put the right resources behind it.
- Develop new measurement techniques. Measuring the spread of information is more difficult, as often companies won’t have web analytics installed on third party websites. Instead use a variety of mention and url tracking with brand monitoring software to track how far information spreads over time.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.