Do You Under-Invest in Advocacy?


Share on LinkedIn

Author Note: This post originally appeared in the Adobe Experience Delivers blog. You can find it here. This version has some updates and new ideas.

Often when people talk about the social media phenomenum, they seem to be focused on the risk of brand damage. People bring up stories like “United Breaks Guitars” (purposely not linked here due to the focus of the article) and cite how much more likely people are to share bad experiences than good ones. As a result, there is a tendency to focus on social “listening” activities to making sure that brand damage is not occurring.

While I am a fan of “listening”, I think focusing primarily on “brand protection” is a mistake and a missed opportunity. An associate of mine, Steven Webster (who is now with Microsoft) pointed out an interesting quote from Bill Bernbach, one of advertising’s greatest thinkers and the father of the “Think Small” campaign for Volkswagen, and the AVIS “We are number 2, so we try harder” campaign.

“We are so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it. We are so busy listening to statistics we forget that we can create them.”

The idea of “creating statistics” is reinforced by some information I’ve cited before that I found in a blog post at and will quote it here again:

“Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have concluded that it only takes 10 percent of a population holding an unshakable belief in order to convince the majority to adopt that same belief. In fact, the scientists found that this will always be the case.”

These ideas make me think we may be spending money in the wrong places. While many companies have loyalty programs, those are generally very broad based and not focused on advocacy. (I am loyal to my local CVS drug store, but I am an advocate for Sonos). I never tell anyone how good (or bad) my CVS is—even with their nice prescription notification services, but I can’t seem to stop telling people about Sonos.

In fact, I’ve looked at a lot of reports on evolving marketing budgets and the general consensus seems to be that most of the money goes to advertising. Money spent on social is often about “being there” and marketing through social channels. I’ve yet to see anyone make the focus of their marketing program the development of a strong (10% or greater) base of advocates.

Do you ever here businesses talk about the number of strong brand advocates they have? Rarely, but they will talk about the number of people that “like” them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter–regardless of the level of engagement in these broad audiences.

A greater focus on advocacy might be worth a try right now.

To pursue this approach requires focus in two directions—on the advocates and on your business. For advocates, its a three step program:

  1. Identify – Using tools like NetPromoter, Voice of the Customer Programs, Listening Posts, and emerging social analytics tools, seek to identify the people that are passionate about your company, products, and/or brand. Some of those passionate people may not start as promoters–but turning them around with great experiences can provide immeasurable value to your business.
  2. Embrace – While not violating their trust (see below), find ways to embrace these passionate supporters and let them know that they are appreciated. Connect with them emotionally. This also requires a new way to measure customer value–its not just about how much they buy (and how much it costs to support them)–its also about how many folks they influence to buy (saving you lots of selling costs).
  3. Empower – Create, or support, platforms and tools that enable them to be your voice in the crowd. Deepen those emotional ties. Then, your advocates will tout you when appropriate, defend you when needed, and generally be a front line force for your company. The exact nature and approach for these programs is more of a greenfield for some innovative company to take the lead.

Focusing on these three steps, and measuring the impact, will prove the value of advocacy to your business. But advocacy does not come easily.

People have been talking about it for a long time.

Back in 2004, Glen Urban published a paper in the MIT Sloan Management Review called “The Emerging Era of Customer Advocacy”. In it, he identified eight factors that a company needs to focus on to “become trustworthy in the eyes of its customers” (he viewed trust as the key to any advocacy strategy—something covered in other posts–including my last one on little things that can improve experiences). Those factors are:

  • Transparency – Not hiding business practices and issues from impacted customers
  • Quality of Product and Services – High Quality products are ones that companies have no probem promoting honestly
  • Product Comparison – Helping customers find alternatives if your products don’t fit their needs
  • Alignment of Incentives – Ensuring that rewards for advocate, employees, and agents promotes trustworthy behavior
  • Partnering – Creating a partnership environment with customers that goes beyond the core business relationship
  • Cooperative Design – Engaging customers in design practices.
  • Supply Chain – Ensuring your partners behave consistent with your brand promise
  • Comprehensiveness – Creating an environment where there is complete company commitment to building trust

These eight ideas are very broad based, but tie in well with customer experience. Great customer experiences deliver on brand promises (at any phase of the customer journey). Consistent delivery on brand promises builds trust. Trust provides the framework for advocacy. And, developing advocacy requires some science (to identify advocates) and art (to embrace and empower them emotionally).

Putting advocacy development at the core of your social business strategy should be a priority. Remember it only takes a passionate 10% to sway the majority, but your brand needs to find the right targets for the number of advocates it wants to develop and nurture. Establishing and tracking these goals is key to social success. It would be great to hear companies spend more time talking about the size of their advocate community more often than their broad follower numbers.

And imagine the power of a passionate 10% coming to your defense when something bad happens to someone else. Its definitely worth more proactive consideration and investment.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Hank Barnes
Hank Barnes provides research and advisory services on go-to-market strategies--particularly around marketing, positioning, and customer experience--for technology providers. Hank has more than 25 years of high-technology sales and marketing experience in both field and corporate roles, both as an individual contributor and the marketing leader for several startups. He is a long-time proponent of customer-centric marketing and the use of customer experience as a key differentiator for business success. His posts here include content from his days with Adobe, SAP, and now Gartner


  1. Hank –

    Customer advocacy, as a concept and performance metric, is just beginning to go mainstream. Companies, as a result, are now coming to understand its potential impact on business outcomes.

    I’ve been working on customer advocacy research, and have understood its multiple benefits, for close to a decade. Two colleagues and I – all at GfK at the time – developed an early customer advocacy framework (well before Urban), which was reported in a U.K. business publication in 2005: In my current position at Market Probe, we’ve significantly improved the framework and have conducted scores of b2b and b2c customer advocacy studies around the world.

    Incidentally, Urban’s paper, and his book written about the same time, represent what academics (including Philip Kotler of Northwestern) and major consulting organizations were beginning to learn about customer advocacy, starting with Malcolm Gladwell in 2000. My 2011 book, The Customer Advocate and The Customer Saboteur (ASQ Press), now in its second worldwide printing and graciously endorsed by folks like Professor Kotler, Bob Thompson, and Jeanne Bliss, examines the value of customer advocacy in great detail:

    Finally, you and others may be interested in reading some of my advocacy based articles and blogs for CustomerThink, where I’ve addressed such subjects as advocacy and branded experience, the influence of culture and employees on customer advocacy, the relationship of brand image and reputation on customer advocacy behavior, how advocacy compares and contrasts to recommendation, etc:

    I would point you, and readers, particularly to my article on the conceptual and results differences between customer advocacy and recommendation. As you’ll see, it is profound:

    So, long story short, there is much that I can agree with in your blog, especially how customer advocacy can positively and negative impact business outcomes; and I would be happy to share perspectives.

  2. Michael,

    Thanks for all the links to additional info. I will be hitting all of them as soon as I have time.

    I do believe that this is an important topic that is being buried as people apply traditional advertising metrics to social instead of new ones that matter.



Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here