A Holiday Gift for All Marketers: Cheerful Rewards of an Advocacy-Based Customer Relationship

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Customer loyalty, in and of itself, principally focuses on retaining customers, and ‘barriers to exit’ in the macro sense. In today’s interconnected world, with active vendor substitution, search-and-switch migration, and high churn rates an everyday reality, traditional approaches to customer behavior management will inevitably fall short. Advocacy and bonded relationships, the highest expressions of customer loyalty behavior, will be the standard for successful brand and corporate performance going forward. Building and sustaining these relationships, through optimized experiences and employee ambassadorship, also reflect movement to a more customer-centric enterprise culture.

Advocacy occurs when customers select a single supplier from among all those they might consider, building the level of kinship and involvement, giving that supplier the highest share of spend possible, and informally (without any form of compensation) telling others about how positive the relationship is and how much value and benefit they derive from it. Advocacy incorporates opinions formed from customers’ transactional and other contact experiences, but it is built on a foundation of strategic, positive purchase and communication behavior. This level of behavior results when the customer is favorable toward a supplier, and not only purchases consistently from that supplier over others, but also actively tells peers about the personal value and benefit received from the relationship.

How is advocacy different from satisfaction or loyalty, which so many companies use as key measures of performance and effective customer management? Satisfaction, because it depends principally on attitudes and recent transactions, isn’t dependable because it doesn’t correlate very well with long-term relationships and bonds with suppliers or with key monetary measures like share of spend and willingness to try new products/services.

Loyalty, though it recognizes a longer-term relationship and more active purchasing from fewer suppliers, or a single supplier, doesn’t take into account the power and influence of peer-to-peer communication. Advocacy considers not only the likelihood to have an exclusive purchasing relationship, but it also incorporates both strong emotional trust, kinship and bonding, and active, positive, and voluntary communication about the supplier.

By focusing on advocacy (and mitigating or eliminating sabotage), companies are able to both strategically, and positively, differentiate their value proposition while, simultaneously, create optimum levels of desired customer behavior. Oft-identified examples of companies which do this well are Harley-Davidson, which has been able to create a growing corps of enthusiastic owners through its million-member Harley Owners Group (with very little advertising) and IKEA, which has differentiated itself within the home furnishings retail category by offering unique products, services, and purchase experiences to a highly devoted customer base. These are both also strongly data-driven companies with highly customer-centric cultures.

Customer advocacy, which identified the impact of brand favorability and informal communication on behalf of a brand or product – on others as well as the communicator – has been with us since there were organized societies. Before there was mass communication, principally in the form of print and electronic stories and advertising, seeking the advice and guidance of others, along with the customer’s own personal experience was the way most product and service selection decisions were made. Simply, people trusted other people.

The challenge began in the 1930’s through the 1980’s, with the advent and growth of radio and television commercials, to go along with the newspaper and magazine advertising which had been around for a couple of hundred years before that. This marked the zenith of ‘push marketing’, with marketers determining what to offer, with little customer involvement. Before too long, consumers were being exposed to so many product-related messages – by some estimates over 2,000 per day – that absorbing fact from the clutter, and distinguishing it from puff, hype, and fiction became a daunting task for any prospective or active customer. Then came the internet, handhelds, and smart phones, and with them arrived the exponential availability of product information – good and bad product ratings, positive and negative ‘buzz’, etc..

Perhaps the pivotal point in time when customer advocacy and more emotionally-based customer relationships began to re-emerge as a powerful marketing force came with Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book, The Tipping Point, followed by Keller and Berry’s 2003 book, The Influentials. In somewhat different ways, these books chronicled the ability of individuals, through favorable personal experience and social word-of-mouth, to influence the product and service purchase behavior of peers. These books were then followed by a flurry of others on the emergence of social networking, Web 2.0, consumer-generated media and related major trends.

Much of customer advocacy (and sabotage) depends on levels of trust and transparency between individuals, and also between individuals and organizations, and allied concepts such as objectivity, credibility, honesty, reliability and originality in the online and offline communication methods that they, themselves have created. A 2005 Yankelovich study found that 76% of consumers don’t believe that companies tell the truth in advertisements. This reflects a 30 year declining trend for believability of electronic and print editorial and advertising content around products and services. In short, 68% of adults trust other people ‘like themselves’, up from only 27% in 2003 (Edelman Trust Barometer).

GfK, a leading market research company, has been tracking consumer trust trends through the Roper Poll for several decades. In the 1970’s, consumers already trusted and valued WOM more than print and electronic advertising and editorial content. By 2003, almost all (92%) of consumers trusted WOM when making product or service decisions, while electronic and print content influence actually declined.. Other studies, such as 2008 research conducted by OTX and DEI Worldwide, have generated similar findings and conclusions. The effectiveness gap between push messaging and trust-creation, and customer engagement and inclusion, and focus on emotional elements of the customer relationship, has only widened in the past several years.

Advocacy, the willingness to speak positively, actively narrow product and service consideration sets, and have strong favorability toward selected suppliers as a result of personal experiences with a specific brand or supplier, has been recorded principally in B2C sectors. However, if anything, advocacy behavior is even stronger in B2B industries, where so much of communication is offline and the pressures to make correct supplier decisions are even more acute.

In sum, for both B2B and B2C industries, there is well-documented proof that engaging (business and consumer) audiences in multidimensional experiences is directly linked to their propensity to act and advocate on behalf of preferred suppliers, products and services. For companies that understand – or learn to understand, and apply – the benefits of advocacy and brand relationship, this represents a present that keeps on giving, throughout the year.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.

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