Much like romantic love, customer relationships exist at varying levels of intensity. Many shoppers may purchase once, never to return. Others exude loyalty, coming back time after time. But those who are truly devoted don't just support their beloved brands monetarily, for these consumers provide services that money cannot buy. These customers-these loyal fans-are brand advocates.
Brand advocates are the most lucrative of all customers, as these fans act as word-of-mouth advertisers for the given company. However, this level of loyalty isn't something brands can cultivate overnight. Advocates, of both the customer and employee variety, require nurturing over an extended period of time, for this strong inclination to recommend develops from consistently exceptional brand experiences. Ultimately, advocacy serves as both a growth and culture engine.
"This means that customers want to have your experience again and tell others about it, and employees want to stay and be a part of improving customers' lives," explains Jeanne Bliss, president of Customer Bliss and co-founder of the Customer Experience Professional Association (CXPA). "Building a company that grows from customer and employee advocacy challenges leadership behavior, priorities, and how they're united in what they will and will not do to grow the business. This isn't something to go 'get' from customers, but rather something to 'earn' by committing to improving customers' lives. Many leaders point to an operation or role to drive these actions, but the work is in uniting the C-Suite to lead differently, to build a company that behaves differently."
Yet, while it's easy for leaders to recognize brand advocates and the ideal internal state of the organization itself, few organizations have the insight into how to promote and maintain this level of loyalty. Here, we explore the drivers behind brand advocacy and the steps companies must take to achieve and sustain this voluntary support:
What Drives Brand Advocacy?
Brands cannot deny that, above all else, honesty, transparency, authenticity, and trust stand as the core pillars of advocacy. Each aspect goes beyond the benefits of any product or service, thereby creating the foundation for an enhanced experience and long-term relationship. Jonathan Moran, product marketing manager at SAS Customer Intelligence, emphasizes that advocacy only happens through the delivery of exceptional customer experiences that are guided-not controlled-by the given brand.
Sarah Simon, director of voice of the customer consulting at Confirmit, believes that the brands with the greatest number of advocates take these qualities one step further, with each exhibiting three specific variables:
- Integrity: Brands that make honesty their priority instill an air of trust, as they refuse to lie to customers in any fashion. Such brands own their mistakes, communicate openly, and show respect for customers.
- Membership: Customers long to be part of something greater than themselves. Fostering community, in response, assures consumers that their favorite brands align with their morals and support their values.
- Fun: Exciting experiences are more likely to engender advocacy than dull, listless campaigns. Just as with learning, fun has the power to boost retention, thereby stimulating sincere brand loyalty and advocacy.
Phil Hamburg, executive managing director at Root Inc., also explains that, to drive truly authentic experiences, brands must first make employee experience their primary focus. Without the right people, he adds, these companies will never be able to cultivate brand advocacy. "You need people who represent your culture and who embrace customer experience as an essential value proposition," he says. "Most importantly, when you've found the right talent, you have to work hard to keep them engaged."
Ultimately, advocacy begins from the inside out, for the brand and its employees are responsible for creating the exceptional experiences that impact consumer perception. But how can brands determine what resonates with customers so they may strategize and engage accordingly?
Listen to the Chatter
From social media to product reviews, it's not hard to immerse oneself in consumer sentiment. That's because people trust what others-particularly friends and family-have to say about a given brand. Leigh Chesley, senior marketing manager for North Plains Systems, highlights that brand advocates, in fact, are the best cheerleaders any company can have. These individuals are also usually willing to voice their frustrations if someone's willing to listen. Chelsey adds that companies must listen, engage, and react to negative feedback and communicate this information across the organization to close the gaps and alleviate pain points these vocal consumers reveal.
Bliss notes that customers tell companies what they love, or don't love, about them, every single day. However most brands don't optimize for these "listening" opportunities by creating common categories of information, nor do they roll up that information by stage of the customer journey to tell the story of customers' lives. Great opportunity and work lie within the need to build this common framework of gathering and storytelling every place where customers volunteer information to and about the company.
"Organize social media feedback, feedback from your call centers, feedback given on your website," Bliss advises. "When these are commonly categorized and presented by stage of your customer journey, they will tell the story of what your customers advocate about your experience, and what they wish you would improve."Brands must assure customers that their voices are being heard by the leaders who drive this change so they feel empowered to share their opinions without the threat of inaction. Only then will companies begin to grasp what consumers want and how to deliver these desires.
Rise Above the Noise
Listening remains critical to growth and success, but the chatter can become overwhelming. Therefore, once the brand has its listening strategy in place, leaders must then parse this incoming information to determine what's merely noise and what's constructive. As Joshua Reynolds, head of marketing at Quantifind, emphasizes, brands are no longer in full control of their reputation and success because consumers have so much influence over one another. Savvy marketers, however, recognize this new reality and are prepared to co-create with customers.
"Brands are 50 percent promise, 50 percent experience," Reynolds explains. "Marketers define the promise, but customers pass final judgment on the experience. So brand advocacy works best when marketers know when to sit back and let the customers tell their own stories in their own way, even if at times it feels off-script."
However, brands must also admit that silence also holds great insight. Leaders must read between the lines and listen to what's not being said. When there's a large delta between a known topic that drives intent to purchase and the volume of chatter among advocates, brands may reveal latent problems they didn't know existed. In the end, listening for negative signals may be easy, but listening for the lack of positive signals matters even more, as the lack of noise says just as much, if not more, than the chatter itself.
Secure C-Level Buy-In
As with nearly all initiatives, brand advocacy cannot become reality without executive buy-in. Leaders must be on board if organizations wish to live and breathe their purpose, Hamburg adds. Customer centricity doesn't start with some plaque on the wall. Instead, this critical mindset must begin with an enterprisewide focus on creating strong customer relationships. Therefore, leaders must walk the talk and exhibit accountability to the culture. However, in many cases, C-level executives fail to look at the long-term, as they are more concerned with metrics that demonstrate monetary growth and success.
"Though current customers are a company's most important source of revenue, company culture can sometimes be too focused on the next big fish," Chelsey adds, emphasizing that companies must value customers from both a revenue and product development perspective. "When customers feel valued and connected to the company, they become invested in the products and services. Brands have to be willing to reach out and ask for feedback, both positive and negative, from its current customers, and recognize that the negative feedback is often more valuable than the positive. Negative feedback gives you opportunities to grow and improve relationships."
When necessary, Reynolds adds, marketers may need to ground their data analysis into KPIs that their leadership already cares about. Find the KPI they're looking at most closely and orchestrate analysis of the brand around the given metric to create a data-driven case that proves the right relationships translate into revenue. By speaking the same language, leaders are much more likely to respond to substantiated correlations to changes in revenue.
Ultimately, however, executives cannot fixate on numbers, for advocacy isn't quantifiable in the same fashion as sales and ROI. In fact, as Hamburg notes, loyal customers who advocate for the brand are better at bringing in new customers than an organization can do on its own. Hence, without a truly customer-centric culture as their backbone, leaders may do the brand more harm than good in the long-term.
Appeal to Emotions
Once companies understand what resonates with their most supportive, vocal consumers, they need to use this information to guide future campaigns and outreach strategies. Playing off consumers' emotions often generates the greatest impact because, as Hamburg says, the stronger the emotional connection, the less important things like price become. Such campaigns appeal to the consumers' morals, reinforcing the element of community and demonstrating shared values that reach beyond the scope of the given product or service.
Always, the feminine hygiene company, for example, recently instituted its #LikeAGirl campaign, which taps into the emotions of its primary demographic without directly promoting the products themselves. Each ad touches on social issues that girls face throughout their lifetime and empowers younger generations by shattering the stereotypes society imposes at every turn.
Though these advertisements hardly mention the brand or its products, they connect with consumers' emotions by encouraging girls and young women to embrace who they are and be confident in their own skin. Once brands incorporate this new layer into relationships they've already built, sustain each previous step will come naturally.