The term word of mouth has been a long held marketing tenant of basic “mom and pop” businesses. The notion that there is hidden value in someone outside the business who would take it upon his or herself (with no assurance of personal gain) to promote that business is lost on the cynical in our field. The biggest hurdle to many who have questioned the advocates “buy-in” has been the absence of an ability to track the ROI once they’re travelling that path. As we all have witnessed, however, that is changing. The central questions posed are that of influence vs. advocacy and cultivation of digital word of mouth as a strategy.

Most of us have observed or participated in the rise of the professional celebrity as influencer on behalf of a product or point of view. To be clear, the influencer does this only when it benefits his/her celebrity directly or carries the promise of a reward. On the other hand, the advocate, in it’s purest form, is a natural born brand evangelist. This brand believer touts that idea or thing with no expectation of payback, other than your commitment to listen. His/her only reward is satisfaction in knowing they were genuinely helpful with their message carried by the weight of trust and familiarity.

While it is true that influencers can affect the behavior of a larger following, it is done with a motive that does not move those seeking unbiased, informed referral. Further, the influencer does not connect with those seeking direction or advice on a personal level. And after that influencer has adopted a number of products or causes, their association carries little more than that of the celebrity endorsement on TV. For anyone who has seen a well-known sit-com star taut reverse mortgages or out of work actress rave about a new skin cream you’ll know this approach is losing its appeal to an increasingly sophisticated and informed audience.

The advocate is different in that he/she advocates for a brand out of genuine belief. This kind of authenticity becomes priceless, as they not only become a sales force, but a feedback loop on product positioning. The familiarity of an advocate translates into trust, that in turn generates demand and conversion levels that the mere influencer cannot reach. I’m observing a new group of collaborators that are, for the first time, committed to the digital application of Word Of Mouth. Their intent is to find, recruit, engage, and retain advocates from their clients’ customer base first, and then from profiled segments of the greater buying public. Conversely, while many will enlist the help of a turnkey marketing software platform as a knee jerk reaction, few first grasp the power of brand expansion or the lacking of quantitative reach. In an era when quantitative analytics drive many marketing policy decisions, the real work and reward comes from converting someone’s “like” to “love” in keeping the pipeline primed into the future.

I want to raise the question of differences in content used and disseminated by influencers and advocates ( and I will address it in my next post if possible). For now, I’ll simply support my argument by describing the content shared by influencers as passed along, while that of advocates is largely user generated and highly personalized. I’m not suggesting an all or nothing choice of direction between influencers and advocates, as the line between them does sometimes appear blurred. In fact, there are platforms and influencer networks that recruit future advocates unintentionally. We’ll take them anyway we can.

The bottom line is that supremely satisfied and engaged customers are the most powerful marketing force we have, but are largely overlooked or marginalized. Once engaged, how they are treated will have a profound effect on unexpected content such as favorable product ratings, countering unfavorable reviews on third party review sites, and improving SEO.

A brand must find those existing advocates that are already here. By surveying a company’s segmented database and engaging with Q & A’s on social media platforms, we’ll begin to get a sense of who they are and what they need. Additionally, we’d be best served by turning our advocates into content creators by making useful, relevant materials easily available. We have to make sharing that material through the voice of our customer easier to use as well. Lastly, we have to be ready to amplify their voice and leverage their messaging by strategic placement in a future customer’s purchase journey. I mentioned earlier that fork in the road decision we could make as to influencer or advocate. For many the choice has been the influencer as broadcaster because advocates were difficult to measure. But I can’t stress too strongly that successful outcomes in a qualitative approach such as advocacy marketing depend on credibility and authenticity. Pre-defining KPI’s for you brand advocacy should be tied to long term campaign goals. But, no matter the purpose, studying the nature of your current customer engagement will allow us to correctly interpret attitudes, preferences, and willingness to advocate. The more people feel part of some company brand, organization, or cause, the more likely they are to commit to your program. I advocate for a brand I may never own. In such a circumstance, what is my value in conversion? The answer: quite a bit! Because I’m intensely interested in its development and success, I build a narrative around that product through differentiation with people who could be buyers.

Any business who can count on as little as 10% of its customers being advocates sees a very high multiple return in marketing dollars spent compared to that of paying an influencer for reach. If Peter Drucker is credited in saying that “The purpose of a business is to create a customer,” surely the quote of Shiv Singh applies to that of advocacy in that “the purpose of a business is to create a customer who creates customers.”