The last time I visited San Francisco, I was looking for a place to eat and came across a neighborhood with a remarkably high concentration of restaurants. I had plenty of choices, but with so much clutter, nothing really stood out. Some places tried to differentiate with an approach I’d never seen before: They paid people to stand on the sidewalk and stop pedestrians to tell them about a “favorite dish” or something they “had to try.” The strategy didn’t seem to work. It was clear these “advocates” were paid, and as a result everyone tuned them out like verbal spam.
Many attempts to build brand advocacy don’t look much different. Whether it’s an offer of 20% off your next purchase in exchange for a Facebook “like,” or a $50 store credit for referring five friends, many brands try to build advocates through incentives. In the short term this may be effective, but for many potential customers, encounters with this type of advocacy can feel inauthentic and transparent. We move it directly to our mental spam folder, and sometimes create negative associations with the brand as a result. Brands interested in creating lasting, long-term relationships with customers should avoid the temptation to incentivize and focus on building advocates that are authentic and genuine in their recommendations…but how?
It’s helpful to make a clear distinction between advocates and other similar brand allies, such as influencers and ambassadors. Brand influencers are people with a wide network of followers who will trust their recommendations (think celebrities like Oprah or Martha Stewart), while brand ambassadors are essentially paid marketing representatives chosen by a brand for their ability to tap into broad personal networks (think college campus representatives for clothing brands or energy drinks). Brand advocates, however, are actual customers and experienced users of a brand who actively recommend and defend it to others. Even though advocates are not necessarily the biggest brand loyalists (repeat customers, frequent purchasers), their ability to drive the purchase decisions of other people enables a brand’s customer base to grow exponentially, creating opportunity for new revenue greater than the purchasing power of any one loyal individual. A brand advocate’s word of mouth recommendations are extremely effective: a staggering 92% of consumers say they trust recommendations from people they know, while overall, consumers trust word-of-mouth recommendations at least five times more than advertising, paid search, email, and other marketing. It is for these reasons that many brands want to build advocates, but without incentivizing them, it’s difficult to do.
One category particularly good at building genuine, effective advocacy is problem-solving brands. These brands offer a product or service that provides a significant amount of utility to customers, resulting in genuine advocacy. Inspiring customers to talk about the brand is easier as the brand is rooted in meeting a consumer need. Customers who see the direct positive impact a brand has had on their lives make for better advocates.
Convincing potential customers to listen is easier, because advocacy is cast in a different light: The discussion is no longer about the brand to be recommended, it’s about finding an effective solution to a shared problem.
Zocdoc.com, a website that helps users find doctors in their area, has seen recent success in the hands of brand advocates. Searching for a new doctor is often a cluttered and difficult process, and Zocdoc provides an elegant, one-stop solution. The site locates doctors by practice types, catalogues patient reviews, and even lets users book appointments online. I was recommended to Zocdoc by a friend of mine. She advocated the brand because she had a great experience using it, and when I recently moved to a new city and faced the problem of finding a new doctor, she was eager to share the Zocdoc solution. Her advocacy of the brand was an attempt to help me rather than a pitch for the brand itself, and as a result I was more receptive to her advice. I recently used Zocdoc to find a new dentist, and have since recommended their service to other friends of mine.
Another brand successfully utilizing brand advocates is Nest, a company that makes a “smart” thermostat that automatically adjusts the temperature of your home to your daily schedule. On the surface, Nest may seem more like a technology brand as opposed to a problem-solving brand (it was founded by former Apple designer Tony Fadell), but their website’s description of the thermostat reads as a problem statement: “We didn’t think thermostats mattered either… the problem: 89% of thermostats waste energy… half of your home’s energy bill.” With this statement Nest essentially tees up the conversation for any customer to become a brand advocate. They recognized that a thermostat isn’t the type of product that gets people excited, but a problem-solving thermostat that saves you money on your energy bill? That’s something to talk about.
While not every brand can be a clear “problem-solver” like Zocdoc.com, more brands should learn from Nest’s approach. If a brand doesn’t seem like a problem-solver at first glance, it can still inspire brand advocacy by unpacking and marketing a specific problem-solving capability.
When companies satisfy customers who become brand advocates, everyone benefits.