Every brand can benefit from strong consumer advocacy. Fewer consumers are relying on ads and media coverage to make their purchase decisions. They are increasingly turning to each other and to social media to share opinions and gather insight before making purchases, whether it's a big ticket purchase or an innovative new laundry detergent (have you tried Tide Pods yet?).
The fact that shoppers trust personal recommendations more than brand messaging is nothing new. But did you realize that even as social technologies mature, our trust in word of mouth is skyrocketing? Nielsen's latest trust in media report shows that in the last four years, our trust in recommendations from friends increased 20 percent and trust in online reviews is up 15 percent. At the same time, trust in TV, magazines, and newspapers are all down more than 20 percent. The funny thing is this -- that's where marketers spend much of their money. Go figure.
Advocacy is big business. We've seen advocacy programs lift product sales an average of 8 percent in a market and return $1.50 for every $1 spent. And once advocates start talking, they don't stop. Continued discussion keeps sales at high levels months after the program ends.
One national retailer estimates that improved customer advocacy is a $5.3 billion opportunity. Even if your business isn't that big, getting more of your customers to share what they love about your product can be one of the most effective new business promotions you can run. Marketers need to support sales, and your customers are the most influential people you've got. If they aren't talking about you, you aren't doing your job.
So how do you get people talking in a way that influences your bottom line? You know what they say about free advice -- so here's a list of nine things not to do.
Focus only on Facebook followers
Precise targeting is one of the most important things for a successful advocacy program. If you start with people who don't have a strong connection to your brand, they certainly aren't going to convince anyone else to forge such a bond. Almost every study on the topic shows that the No. 1 reason people follow a brand on Facebook is to get free stuff and special discounts. These aren't necessarily your best customers.
Look at shopper purchase profiles from retailer loyalty cards to see who has a long history and a high frequency of purchase with your brand and in your category. When you can find those people in social media, you've really got something to get excited about.
Treat everyone the same
If your best customers are so valuable, why do they see the same Facebook posts and tweets as everyone else? You send them highly personalized direct mailers and emails, but in social media, they see the same generic conversation as those hanging around for the freebies.
Invite them to exclusive activities and share interesting new products, ideas, videos, and offers with them first. You'll improve their loyalty, and they'll be itching to share their enthusiasm with friends and followers. Remember, people who habitually advocate about products are a unique breed. They are experts in their category and thrive on helping others make better purchase decisions. This is how they build their own brand, and they have a lot of fun doing it. Join them in the fun.
Give them a hard sell
You've got company sales goals to meet, and your direct marketing offers are great at driving action -- so you think that'll work in social, right? Nope. Hitting people over the head with "buy now" messages and a set of steak knives doesn't work in social. Your customers certainly aren't going to want to share it with anybody.
It's about encouraging someone to talk about your product with friends, followers, and others with similar interests. This requires some tact -- and a whole lot of respect. The call-to-action options you're looking for include posting a review on Facebook or Amazon, tweeting a link about an offer, filming a demonstration video for YouTube, or taking photos of the product in action.
Pay for posts
There's simply no faster way to ruin an advocacy program. Offer compensation to people for posts, reviews, and tweets, and all your credibility is gone. There's an obvious difference between a detailed and honest review and a shill. That includes celebrities. Paying Kim Kardashian five figures to tweet about your product might get you some attention -- but it's an ad, not advocacy.
Ignore the FTC
There's something called disclosure, and it's the law. If someone is reviewing a product that he or she got for free, the FTC requires the person to disclose that. It's up to you to have a disclosure policy in place for your advocates, and you must have a monitoring program to ensure it happens every time. If not, you not only risk your credibility, but you leave yourself open to some pretty steep fines.
Limit sharing to social media
Advocacy is a lot more than Facebook and Twitter. In fact, it's bigger than the entire internet. Research firm Keller Fay estimates that 90 percent of word of mouth about products occurs in person. If your advocacy programs are just focused on generating online discussion, you are missing the point of word of mouth. Some of us are comfortable sharing everything online, while others might prefer discussing some topics in person.
A Wharton School research paper found that social media is most effective for new products or messaging when someone can gain status by sharing. But in-person sharing is better for tapping the emotions from brand satisfaction and excitement that comes from a recent purchase. It's complicated. So don't make it complicated for your advocates. Encourage them to share anywhere and in the way they feel most comfortable.
Rely on your website for product information
No matter what you try to tell people, you can't expect them to bang the drum for you and influence the opinions of others if they've never used the product. If you want advocates to say something more meaningful than "this stuff rocks," they've got to use the product themselves.
Personal, hands-on experience enables consumers to discuss the details that others want to know about and tell their personal stories about how the product helped them. Remember, this isn't a sampling program, so include extra product and coupons for sharing and help people understand what's talkable. Make it fun. Guidebooks, DVDs, educational materials, and recipe books (if appropriate) help enhance the product experience.
Let it run itself
Even though consumers control the message, they don't control the program. You've got to be actively involved to keep it fun and interesting. Provide guided activities, new ideas, and constant interaction to keep advocates engaged and motivated. Monitor conversations as they happen and make adjustments to emphasize what, and who, is making the greatest impact. Watch out for anyone getting a little too zealous. Over-posting annoys people and can do more harm than good.
Measure success with "likes"
Everyone likes to be liked. A Facebook "like" is easy to get, and it makes marketers feel like they've accomplished something. But what does that actually accomplish? A "like" is meaningless if the person never talks about your company and walks right past your product in the store.
The engagement metrics that are popular with social media marketers are great at representing value, but value is not the same as ROI. No CFO is going to increase investment in an advocacy program that can't show a direct impact on product sales. Fortunately, this can be done. Measurement firms like dunnhumby (BzzAgent's parent company) and SymphonyIRI conduct a matched market analysis between multiple cities to identify the sales lift of an advocacy program. If your brand conducts marketing mix modeling studies, companies like Nielsen can analyze social data apples-to-apples with all other media.
You were attracted to social media for its promise of increased word of mouth and the influence your customers can have on your sales. An advocacy marketing program can make that a reality. Avoid these nine screw-ups, and you'll be on your way to a very profitable program.
Brian Cavoli is director of marketing at BzzAgent.
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