The Advocating Customer: Why and How Word-of-Mouth Amplification Is the Future of Marketing

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Word-of-mouth marketing is as simple as people talking to one another on behalf of a product or service, and it has been around for as long as humans have lived in communities. Over the past decade, the concept, and effective execution, of word-of-mouth strategy has become extremely important to advertisers and marketers as, increasingly, b2c and b2b customers have shown distrust and disinterest in supplier messages conveyed through traditional media.

Several great books have served to raise awareness of such new-age word-of-mouth marketing components as influencer relations, buzz, viral communication, neural networks, online community, collaboration, consumer generated media (blogs, boards, user forums, online reviews, and direct supplier feedback) and peer-to-peer dialogue. Today, we are witnessing customers driving marketing through both empowerment and enablement; and companies have found themselves in a position of learning, or re-learning, how to create a corps of advocates among their customer base. How they use, or misuse, these techniques, and how they assess the return-on-customer effectiveness, and level of monetization, the techniques produce has everything to do with how word-of-mouth will be applied going forward.

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.

In his latest book, Confronting Capitalism (Amacom, 2015), Professor Philip Kotler has noted the customer empowerment demonstrated through informal peer-to-peer communication: “The volume of word-of-mouth coming from businesses and people who have experienced a product or service will end up advertising the good guys and defeating the bad guys. And it will prod the good guys to get better and better.” In addition, he states, informal customer communication can have a negative effect: “By the same token, word-of-mouth has the potential to create turbulence and chaos for sellers. A person who has experienced terrible service during a commercial flight can create a website devoted to the airline and welcome others with bad experiences to tell their tales. One irate customer or consumer can potentially undo an established company.”

From my perspective, what this means as an end goal is creation of active advocacy and amplification, a state of elective, personal, often deep-rooted and emotional engagement between a customer and supplier that goes beyond satisfaction, beyond delight, beyond loyalty and even beyond commitment. At the same time, companies need to be aware and vigilant that negative customer experiences can create alienation, even sabotage, resulting in the kind of word-of-mouth which can damage enterprise image, reputation, and consumer confidence.

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. Active advocates are fully committed, with an emotional connection well beyond the typical relationship of customer and supplier. They are the customers with the highest level of involvement–active, vocal and proud. These are the crème de la crème: the people who “live” the brands that they regularly use. Their lifestyle often mirrors that offered by the brand, and they are active in talking about their experiences.

What are the specific benefits to sales, marketing, and customer service associated with understanding and leveraging customer advocacy behavior? There are several, and all are vital:

• It helps companies identify how emerging trends, image, service performance and reputation relative to competitors, problems and complaints; response to new product or service ideas; and even rumors and back-fence Internet gossip can affect customer behavior.

• It is a means to understand and address the strength of the customer franchise and how this will differ by segment within the base.

• It helps companies determine the amount of momentum behind the franchise and if competitors are undermining it.

• It identifies exactly why and how these perceptions have developed so that companies can act, both tactically and strategically.

Beyond operational, marketing, and communication impact, the direct financial return for creating active advocates is both real and substantial. Studies in many industries have found that, compared to customers who were highly satisfied or even highly likely to recommend (as those who promote this metric as the single number that can be used to understand the drivers of growth), those who are true brand advocates have used products or services more recently, more frequently and at higher purchase levels than customers with high satisfaction and high likelihood to recommend.

Further, significant changes in level of monetization, most notably share of spend, can be identified at each level of advocacy, i.e. as the level of engagement and bonding rises from passive and indifferent to real advocacy, share of spend dramatically increases. Every organization would benefit from optimizing customer advocacy behavior.

Now, how can advocacy behavior be measured? A CX measurement framework needs to address both emotional and functional/tangible aspects of value, Stand-alone metrics such as CES and NPS share multiple challenging characteristics, the principal one of which is granular actionability in all experience processes that leverage downstream customer action. At the top of the list for CES is that it is focused on service delivery. NPS (among many issues) is an aggregated score, and can never get down to the individual customer level. I’d submit, as I’ve been doing for a decade, that there is a straightforward advocacy behavior metric which has none of these impediments: http://customerthink.com/is-there-a-single-most-actionable-contemporary-and-real-world-metric-for-managing-optimizing-and-leveraging-customer-experience-and-behavior/

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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