Effective Advertising vs. Social Word of Mouth, Part 2: Influencers vs. Advocates


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Many have come to believe that classic print and electronic “advertising” of yesteryear is dying or, at best, probably on life support. Much of this has been a result by the decline in trust in corporate institutions and media, the rise of consumer decision-making influence, and the sheer proliferation of b2b and b2c push messaging.

Columbia University professors Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld concluded that advertising, in and of itself, has limited persuasive power because consumers tend to shield and protect their pre-existing company, product, and service perceptions and beliefs; and they have encouraged advertisers to better target consumer influencers, within society and for the product or service category, and the messages they would like to see conveyed by these individuals.

Today, what we’re really addressing is 360 degree communications, represented by community participation, dialogue, and engagement – terms that can include advertising, sales promotion, event marketing, buzz or viral marketing, design, offline and online word-of-mouth, aka social marketing, public relations, loyalty programs, SEO, and on and on and on. Beginning in the late 80’s there was a term for all of this – integrated communications.

Customers and non-customers now have the opportunity to engage in elective dialogues, with each other and with companies, that have never before been possible. And, unlike in the past, even those who don’t actively share opinions are listening, or ‘lurking’, as others communicate. People participate in brand discussions as they have not done in the past, enabling potentially stronger brand engagement, and through multiple channels.

Experts such as Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, is a strong believer, and frequent writer and presenter, on 360 degree communication, the perceptual and intangible value created by advertising, and the role of technology in making advertising a more vibrant and contemporary component of marketing. He believes that, to be most effective, branding must be created in contextual, timely, and immediate ways.

The stronger the bonding potential with the brand, and the more active and available the opportunity for engagement, the greater the likelihood for growth in positive customer self image through the brand, with the result that advocacy can bud and flourish. This is the summation of melding together various disciplines to better answer the critical business issue of how to optimize customer behavior. It brings us back to the importance of customer promises made principally through outbound messaging and early impression relative to the actual long-term experience, delivered as the customer perceives it.

Inevitably, there is a point of inflection, where (imaginative, creative) advertising and word-of-mouth, leading to some elements of advocacy behavior, meet. Some corporations and media organizations have devoted at least a part of their resources and focus on programs to reach ‘influencers’, who, in turn, will stimulate marketplace buzz.

Again, an influencer isn’t a customer advocate. An influencer, for example, may or may not have had personal experience with a product or service about which he/she is communicating. Credibility through actual use is certainly an element differentiating influencers from advocates. In national word-of-mouth studies conducted by Roper Reports, for instance, 93% of consumers interviewed said they would be likely to try a product or service if given positive information or a recommendation by someone who had used it themselves. This compared to 72% who had received information or recommendation from someone who’d heard or read good things about it (and 58% by someone given an incentive to introduce the product to them).

That said, an influencer can have at least some of the same characteristics and can do a certain amount of positive and negative advocacy table-setting. There has been a fair amount of study supporting this. Donald Lehmann, a professor at the Columbia University Business School, found that online social hubs are earlier adopters of products and services, and can be somewhat mobilized to influence market direction and size; and he and his colleagues identified these hubs, and their networks, as targets for word-of-mouth campaigns.

Barak Libai, management professor at Tel Aviv University, and colleagues have determined that social networks can influence both the adoption and abandonment of products and services, especially on what they describe as ‘first-degree’ direct contacts, also known as neighbors, in their social networks. Like Lehmann, Libai has determined that influencers are both profitable early adopters (and can increase profitability by 6% to 14% when targeted for promotion via word-of-mouth, relative to targeting all customers); and influencers can also significantly increase the likelihood of customer defection through their social interactions. In research, Libai has found that the ‘hazard’ of defection can increase by 80% though direct connection with influncers in a social network.

Research by Keller Fay Group has yielded several insights about the role of influencers in stimulating potential customer advocacy behavior.

– Social influencers have significantly higher word-of-mouth propensities. Compared to the average person, they have 60% more conversations each week about products and services, and are 90% more likely to have brand-specific discussions. So, they generate reach, accelerate product and service adoption, and amplify advertising and promotional messages, all contributing to the building of advocacy behavior.

– Keller Fay Group studies reinforce the finding that, depending on the product or service category involved, up to 90% of peer-to-peer dialogue takes place offline. Marketers, they believe, should keep this actively in mind when designing programs to reach influencers.

– Word-of-mouth is, most typically, positive. Research conducted by Keller Fay, Weber Shandwick, and others shows that the vast majority of offline and online product or service-related word-of-mouth is neither neutral nor negative. Keller Fay has also found that positive word-of-mouth carries greater credibility, though negative word-of-mouth tends to get more attention.

– Connecting with influencers requires a blend of old and new techniques. Some organizations are targeting influencers and other early adopters for word-of-mouth programs, or product development initiatives, recognizing that these individuals, in parallel, are also seeking information in areas of interest to them and sharing it with peers. Nestle, for example, has done this with influencers in the fitness community for their Power Bar brand products, utilizing both offline and online means. Other companies have recruited influencers to take leading roles in online communities, using them as hosts to solicit feedback. Couponing, public relations, and specialized events – all marketing tools which have been used for decades – can all be applied with influencers to begin word-of-mouth communications.

– Traditional advertising and promotional programs can also help leverage word-of-mouth activity. In fact, Keller Fay studies have determined that, overall, one in five peer-to-peer conversations about brands make reference to advertising; and, for influencers, this percentage is even higher. They have found television, print media, and the social and viral elements of the Internet most effective at doing this.

This last insight is perhaps the most important observation because it marks the point of inflection, or connection, between advertising and promotion, word-of-mouth, influence, and customer advocacy behavior.

Influencers, like advertising and promotion, have a role in customer advocacy. They certainly help shape impressions. Moreover, influencers are considerably more active than the general public in creating word-of-mouth about products and services, whether they have personally used them on not.

Increasingly, we are seeing the identification of advocates within a customer base to both influence other customers and prospects, and be leveraged as defacto brand ambassadors. Here’s just one example, from Zuberance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=iZHhUcb2SLo&mkt_tok=3RkMMJWWfF9wsRolv6XNZKXonjHpfsX76%2BolWLHr08Yy0EZ5VunJEUWy2oAGS9QhcOuuEwcWGog82hlaH%2FKUcoNF

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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