Social Media: Consider the Impact of Both Offline and Online Communication in Creating Customer Advocacy


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Over the past few years, so much has changed about the way companies sell to, communicate with, market to, and maintain relations with their customers that comparing effectiveness of both media and message content is very little more than an academic exercise. These are not fleeting trends but fundamental and long-term realities.

Today, marketers must be aware that customers are so inundated and overwhelmed with messages, impressions and the availability of product and service information that they’ve gone, in large measure, to alternative, informal and less traditional methods of helping them decide what and where to buy. At the heart of seeking sources for decision input is trust.

This is an era where spam, pop-up ads, telemarketing and other types of targeted advertising and marketing communication, indeed most long-standing forms of electronic and print messaging and promotion, receive low trust and believability scores in survey after survey of customers. Beyond permission email, supplier and brand web sites and the like, customer trust is consistently highest for word-of-mouth. How high? While the aggregate value of print and electronic advertising as a decision-making influence has remained about the same since 1977, word-of-mouth has doubled in leveraging power to the point where it is the dominant communication device in our society. Through public studies, it has been learned that more than 90 percent of customers identify word-of-mouth as the best, most reliable and relevant source of ideas and information about products and services. This is about the same percentage who find it the most trustworthy and objective source.

As a result, no matter how well suppliers believe they understand their customers’ needs and their behaviors on an individual basis, they must have both a strategy and array of tactics which will help customers create influence and personal leverage, peer-to-peer and situation-by-situation. What this means as an end goal is creation of active advocacy, a state of elective, personal, often deep-rooted and emotional engagement between a customer and supplier that goes beyond satisfaction, beyond delight, and even beyond loyalty.

Advocacy represents the highest level of customer involvement achievable; interaction with suppliers on an individual and emotional level well past the typical functional, passive relationship between supplier and customer; and having them proactively and voluntarily convey their experiences to friends, relatives and colleagues. Advocacy is not merely a different spin on gaining insight about customer purchase, referral and communication behavior.

Arguably, because the name of the game is rational and emotional value optimization, learning about how customers perceive suppliers, brands, products or services and then having them carry their experiences and consideration forward as active advocates is, or will become, the only way to think about them.

Responding to the new complexities and realities of customer decision-making, marketers are zeroed-in on finding methods of creating bonds – through trust, commitment and advocacy – among customers well beyond traditional advertising and editorial material, ‘pushed’ in formal electronic and print channels to generate awareness and interest. The currency for meeting these objectives is, collectively, called ‘consumer generated media’, which consists of any method of personal, neural communication, including casual conversation (and text messaging) between peers online or off-line (which dominates WOM, btw), blogging, forums, email, private and public communities, chat rooms, and portals online.

Though word of mouth looks inexpensive, simple, and relatively painless to implement, one of the things marketers must be prepared for in this brave new communications world is giving up the full control they are used to having in both the message and the medium. The rewards, however, can be substantial.

Why the Focus on Word-of-Mouth and Advocacy?

Two books, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Ed Keller’s and Jon Berry’s The influentials, considered together, provide an effective reference point for understanding the behavioral impact of word-of-mouth and social networks (aka neural, peer-to-peer, informal, and viral communication). The significant increase in available information about alternative suppliers, combined with how customers now make supplier product and service selections, have put word-of-mouth front and center in the minds of marketers and organizations.

When the effectiveness and trust levels of traditional sources of supplier information – print and electronic advertising, print and electronic editorial, and word-of-mouth – are compared over time, word-of-mouth has emerged as the dominant communication vehicle for impacting customer decision-making and supplier selection. Customers use words like trust, inclusion, relevance, objectivity, integrity, and honesty to describe why informal communication, i.e. word-of-mouth, is the most reliable and behaviorally leveraging information source.

At the macro level, word-of-mouth produces societal influentials, those individuals, about ten percent of the population as identified by Keller and Berry, who impact, lead, and/or guide the behavior of the rest of society. On a category influence basis, Gladwell has identified members of social networks who are mavens, connectors, and salesmen. Everyone knows people like these. They are product or service category experts in subjects like wine, sports, food,
entertainment, computers, finance, cars and travel to whom others often defer, and listen to, when making decisions in these areas.

Finally, there are brand influentials, or advocates. Advocacy, simply defined, occurs when customers select a single supplier from among all those they have used might consider in the future, giving that supplier the highest share of spend possible, and telling others about how positive the relationship is and how much value and benefit they derive from it. Advocates are the golden prize for any brand or supplier organization because these are customers who have minimized their consideration set, are extremely favorable toward ‘their’ supplier, and are active, vocal, frequent, and positive communicators on behalf of that supplier.

What Can Advocacy Mean To Marketers?

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. So, having positive word-of-mouth is essential to generating true advocacy; and, similarly, negative word-of-mouth can contribute to customer disaffection and, in some notable cases, even sabotage.

Advocacy considers not only the likelihood to have an exclusive purchasing relationship, but it also incorporates both strong emotional kinship and alignment, and active, positive, and voluntary communication about the supplier. Advocates are fully committed. These are the people who ‘live’ the brands they use. They are the customers with the highest level of brand or supplier involvement – active, vocal, and proud.

Harris Interactive WOM Customer WOM Power Research Background

There is an intersection between customer experience with a product or service, informal peer-to-peer communication about that experience, and downstream customer decision-making. We make an important distinction between company-created advocacy behavior (inside-out) vs. outside-in activities that are customer-created and largely free from company control (such as loyalty and reward programs). Our research was designed to help evaluate incidence and effect of both web 2.0 social interaction media and also offline communication (which remains where the strong majority of information-sharing takes place).

The core intention of this research has been to develop, and publish on a broad and continuing basis, well-validated perspectives and trends, relating to loyalty behavior influenced by experience and word of mouth in selected industries.

We’re happy to share what we have learned thus far, and to engage in dialogue with interested companies and individuals

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.


  1. Michael,

    Your article is very timely and well focused. Social media is a hot topic that cannot be ignored but it is just one vehicle in establishing relationships with customers.

    One thing that does make it unique it that customers don’t need vendors permission to talk about their products. Vendors are the ones that need to regain influence.

    I believe what you are pointing to is taking a lesson from the “social” element in social media to the real world. This is, of course what many of use have been taking about when we use terms like outside-in and customer experience.

    We have talked but many businesses have not been able to make the transition. I believe we need move from tactical uses to more sweeping strategies that shift the focus of relationships from “things” to “issues and experiences” that matter to customers.

    Thanks for presenting a perspective that pulls things together.


    John I. Todor, Ph.D.


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