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.

60 Replies to “Checklist: Develop a Successful Advocacy Program”

  1. “People trust each other” — This gets to the heart of it and is the reason that brands interested in advocacy programs should consider the ways in which their consumers take an interest in them. I think faceted branding approaches, using content that allows or even encourages consumers to speak on behalf of a brand in their own voice, can make all the difference.

    Brands taking the perspective of the consumer, recognizing through observation and by listening to existing conversations, can leverage the good will (if it exists) and interests consumers already have. But I think they should do so in a way that empowers and provides consumers with content ready for re-use by advocates. As you say, less about the brand and more to the consumer’s inclinations.

  2. Jeremiah:

    Well, I couldn’t agree more with this post – I put one up the other day titled “Advocates are more important than influencers”

    The challenge is that influencer marketing is pretty easy – you round up some big names and design a program they can talk about (while providing transparency and full disclosuer) and then launch. I just don’t think it is effective.

    With Advocacy Marketing you actually have to go our and find your advocates, discover their issues and motivations and develop a deep understanding of what they love about you. Then you have to craft a program to support and leverage your advocates. The problem here is that to do it right, you actually have to put your advocates motivations and interests first – ahead of your organization’s motivations and interests.

    Once you know who your advocates are and understand then, you have to engage. Advocacy engagement is not a campaign but a commitment – which requires cross-functional support and resources over time. This is the hard part for many organziations. The initiative may come out of marketing or customer support, but ultimately will involve most departments.

    We help our clients measure the success of advocacy programs by tracking changes in online advocacy with our Online Promoter Score. We have documented statistical correlation between changes in the OPS and changes in sales or share in multiple markets now including Autos, Cellular and some CPG brands. If you can drive higher levels of advocacy, you can driver sales. This is the ultimate SM ROI.

    (The challenge, of course, is that brand advocacy is a result of a persons total experience with the brand – it cannot be manipulated – but it can be leveraged.)

    Of course I could go on, but you get the gist.

    Tom O’Brien
    MotiveQuest LLC

  3. Thanks Adrian, the interesting trend to watch is how brands will aggregate the trusted voices from around the web back to the corporate website.

    Tom, interesting. The event where I saw this take place was more of an influencer program more than a customer program.

  4. Jeremiah I very rarely read a piece on social media or web strategy that strikes me as effective. By effective, I mean insightful, helpful, and MORE than just the same old repetition of hot air common to most “expert” posts.

    This piece stands out. As someone with deep experience creating and implementing corporate and entertainment advocacy programs and overall social media strategies, I wanted to say thank you.

    I’m a pessimist and it is rare my faith gets restored, but this piece was fantastic, thorough, and straightforward.

  5. Jeremiah and Adrian,

    “…interesting trend to watch is how brands will aggregate the trusted voices from around the web back to the corporate website.”

    One way we’re seeing this happen is the offering of niche digital communities attached or tied to corporate site that used to attract, engage and empower brand advocates and influencers from across the web.

    Pepsi is taking this approach by unveiling a new digital community focusing on African-American moms:

    Also, MomFaves is about to announce its Branded Mom Word-of-Mouth Communities program.

    Mom brand evangelists are enabled to submit new favorites, vote on, discuss, and discover the most popular reccomendations tied to a specific brand, an association of brands, or a targeted campaign. Facebook Connect and Twitter integrations are tied to each community making it easy for moms to promote and extend the reach of their recommendations.

    As the CEO of MomFaves, I’m curious as to what you think the major challenge or key to success will be for brands that are taking a shot at aggregating trusted voices around the web back to their corp site?

    Great discussion…thanks for letting me join in.

  6. We are in the beginning stages of our social media program. An advocacy & influencer campaign is something that is on our near horizon. I’d be interested in knowing how different orgs have identified their customers who would be good advocates, and then how they approached these clients.

  7. Seth thank you, you really made my day. You may start to notice I give more detailed information, insight, and hopefully actionable recommendations in my posts in the last few weeks. Thank you for noticing!

  8. Mr. Owyang,

    I received a report from a good friend of mine (Mr. Chris Hendricks, who was just named number #26 on Mediaweek’s Top 50 list for 2009). This report (and if you give me your email I will send you a copy) is from Marissa Gluck at Radar Research. It states that nearly 90% of clicks on PPC ads are frauds. I have not read through the report yet but I feel this number is way to high. Do you know this group or report.

    Thanks for your time.

    John Flynn

  9. Many Thanks Jeremiah.

    As an absolut newbi to this field, it is definately helpful having someone like yourself point out what should be obvious, but is often obscured when navigating these fast moving waters.

  10. Jeremiah, thanks for starting this checklist. We at Weber Shandwick started conducting research in nine countries on Advocacy in 2007 because we sensed that there was a fundamental change in how people were communicating and defining influence. With that as background, I™d like to add more insights to your list and hope they are useful to others as well. We learned that nearly one out of two survey respondents were Advocates (45%) for causes, products, issues or organizations and divided into two distinct segments “ high intensity advocates (9%) and low intensity advocates (36%). Some people refer to them as passive and active advocates. Your choice. High intensity advocates, as we defined them, engage demonstrably in activities such as organizing protests or writing blogs about causes or issues or companies and contact about 110 people on average when they have something to say. Lower intensity advocates are less zealous than their counterparts and are more likely to write letters or emails, solicit support for causes /issues/companies or send product information to others. These lower intensity advocates reach a smaller network of 38 people on average. Therefore when building an advocacy program, a company should consider where their Advocates fall on the continuum in order to maximize their resources. Some might want to focus on moving the low intensity advocates to a more active state (more costly and time intensive) or just focus on the high intensity advocates who have a wider network and already highly involved. However, this latter group is already working for you so they might not lead to measurable change as you would get with the former segment. We also identified a segment who we dubbed Badvocates¦those advocates who detract from brands, issues, causes or organizations. Getting them to advocate for you is obviously much harder but also extremely important to have a dialogue with and engage with over time. They are usually very vocal and active. In your advocacy program checklist, they should be listed as DO NOT IGNORE YOUR BADVOCATES or else!

    From my point of view, another addition to your checklist would be to enlist advocates before you need them. They are more likely to give organizations the benefit of the doubt if a problem arises and help stabilize revenue and sales. Therefore the time to engage your advocates in the ways you have already noted is before you need to. Simply put, it is just good business.

    And one more factor that fascinates me about advocacy and you touch on in your point about giving them a badge of sorts is that advocates like making their brand loyalty visible. They enjoy wearing logos or carrying branded products or adding photos to announce their allegiance. Therefore as part of an advocacy program, organizations should make branded items available to buy or for free. The best example that comes to mind are the (RED) GAP T-shirts in support of fighting AIDS.

    Thanks for asking for comments.

    Leslie Gaines-Ross
    Chief Reputation Strategist
    Weber Shandwick

  11. Jeremiah. Nice to see you returning to this topic and especially good to see you promoting ‘doing the remarkable and giving customers opportunities and tools to remark on it’ with a value prop built on thanks and peer networking rather than paid endorsement (a strict no-no in the enterprise space).

    re your point 9 ‘Define Success Based On Influence And Reduced Cost’ I agree, we’ve done some work here and with a formalised programme it’s possible to place some hard $values on advocates. In fact we’ve seen organisations changing their attitude to the ‘value’ of customers; taking into account the total value as opposed to focusing merely on direct revenue.

    Again, nice stuff.

  12. Great post Jeremiah. Vendors also need to remember that customers deal with tons of vendors. We are not the only ones knocking on their door asking for things. Be patient and understanding and treat your customers like people rather than just another customer.


  13. Great post Jeremiah. Vendors also need to remember that customers deal with tons of vendors. We are not the only ones knocking on their door asking for things. Be patient and understanding and treat your customers like people rather than just another customer.


  14. This is one of the most comprehensive posts I've seen regarding generating advocacy. Actually achieving all points is another issue, but the road map is solid here.

  15. This is one of the most comprehensive posts I've seen regarding generating advocacy. Actually achieving all points is another issue, but the road map is solid here.

  16. This is one of the most comprehensive posts I've seen regarding generating advocacy. Actually achieving all points is another issue, but the road map is solid here.

  17. Man, I guess I’m pretty late to the game on this post! I guess it does show that what you say on the internet lives on long after you out it there. Thank you for the insightful checklist.

  18. Man, I guess I’m pretty late to the game on this post! I guess it does show that what you say on the internet lives on long after you out it there. Thank you for the insightful checklist.

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