When Amy Downs joined videoconferencing company Lifesize as chief customer success and happiness officer in 2014, the company had a Net Promoter Score of -4. On top of that, the company was in the midst of a transition from a distributor-based business model built around selling on-premise products to one selling cloud services directly to customers. The fact that basically none of its customers would recommend its products was a problem.
We’re now living in the engagement economy, where everyone and everything is always connected. People have always talked, but now they do it at unprecedented scale. That’s important in a world where it takes anywhere from five to 20 touches with your marketing to generate a sales lead, and 80% of marketing reach comes from amplification via customers. Marketing is no longer one to one or even one to many, it’s one to many ... to many ... to many.
For a brand like Lifesize, embarking on selling directly to customers for the first time, success would not only depend on building loyalty from existing customers, but also on generating advocacy. Instead of relying on distributors and resellers to sell directly, it would be relying on customers to recommend its products to peers.
What Is Advocacy?
Brand advocates aren’t always your most loyal customers, according to Downs. “Your advocates are really the ones who care enough to talk to you,” she told CMO.com. They might gush about your product, or they might rake you over the coals for some issue, but if they’re taking the time to proactively give you feedback, those are the people you want to identify as advocates. They’re providing your brand with an opportunity to engage on a personal level.
Calvin Peters, the now former PR and digital communications manager at Walgreens, takes it a step further, defining advocacy as a willingness for customers to tell others about your product. At the core, these are two sides of the same coin: Brand advocates are the customers who take the time to talk about a company, either to the brand or to their peers.
To succeed with advocacy, brands have two jobs: to deliver an experience worth talking about, and to make it easy for customers to share those stories.
More broadly speaking, the product has to be good if a brand is to be successful. It sounds trite, but all the customer evangelism and excitement in the world can’t save a bad product. But fostering advocacy actually can improve your product--one of the main reasons Downs said she has put so much focus on identifying and connecting with advocates at Lifesize. The feedback the company receives from its most vocal advocates helps identify product and service issues, improve processes such as onboarding, and chart a path toward future features or services.
Encouraging advocacy among customers boils down to four main points: engaging customers, listening everywhere, telling great stories, and making advocacy a sport.
In the three years since Downs joined Lifesize, the company’s NPS score has rebounded to north of 80. That’s largely because it made a commitment at the start to be customer-centric, Downs said. Everything it does stems from a core value to deliver a great customer experience over anything else. This was an oft-repeated theme.
“The foundation for any customer advocacy is based on delivering an amazing customer experience, so brands need to focus on that as a top priority,” said Chris Newton, VP of marketing and business development at Influitive.
Newton counsels brands to talk to their customers often, across all platforms, and not only when they want something from a customer, such as feedback or a purchase. “Customers' vision of your brand encompasses your every interaction with them as well as their every interaction with your product, so make them good,” he told CMO.com.
But brands can’t be successful at fostering advocates unless they first listen to what their customers are saying, said KIND Financial CMO Dave Peck, formerly PayPal’s global head of social and digital media marketing. “If you don't listen, your company won't be successful,” he said. “Once you hear what they are saying, see what is actionable and realistic to improve the customer experience.”
Advocates are the canary in the coal mine for brands. They’ll let you know when you’re on the right track and when you need to pull back and course correct. In the engagement economy, they can do that on so many different channels and they can reach large audiences with a click.
“You’ve got to be listening everywhere,” Downs said. “The customers who are going to engage with you, who are your advocates, are going to tell you what is going wrong.”
Beyond listening, brands that successfully encourage advocacy reflect the values of their customers, said Jamie Grove, co-founder of Mini Museum, which has run three successful $1 million-plus Kickstarter campaign.
“To get people to advocate, you need to be very genuine in your approach. You need to actively demonstrate that you are doing the sorts of things that match up with [their] values,” he said. The way to do that, he added, is by “crafting stories and creative that makes the customer see themselves in an idealized state.”
At ThinkGeek, for example, where he was VP of marketing, Grove and his team focused on making geeky things look extremely cool. “It worked for us because we believed they were cool, too, and so the creative came across as genuine at the same time,” he said.
Storytelling is core to advocacy efforts at Walgreens, too. “We look for opportunities to create shared stories,” Peters said. “We give people a platform and a reason to share their thoughts, which propels inherently authentic, earned advocacy.” He pointed to the Walgreens VIP Influencer program, which often runs campaigns to encourage influencers (previously identified advocates) to share stories about shopping experiences or specific products.
Finally, to truly reap the benefits of customer advocacy programs, you need to engage your entire organization. “We have over 220 Lifesize employees that are in our community, actively engaging with customers,” Downs said. That includes almost every department, from customer support to product marketing to sales.
The commitment to teamwide customer-centrism is important for multiple reasons. It increases the likelihood that customer problems will be solved effectively and efficiently when everyone is on the front lines. It demonstrates to customers a high level of commitment and care from the brand. And it opens up multiple touch points across the brand with customers that offer opportunities to delight and deliver a positive experience.
“I encourage my team to look for personal and unique ways to appreciate our customers,” Peck said. “Sometimes it’s the simplest things, such as picking up the phone and giving a customer a call and having a conversation.”
Should You Pay For Advocacy?
Think twice. “Paid advocacy creates shallow customers. They might buy once or maybe twice, but they do not stay in for the long term,” Grove said.
Peck echoed that sentiment, pointing out that encouraging customer advocacy is about creating meaningful experiences, which is done by delivering what people want to engage with, not by artificially boosting engagement with incentives.
That’s not to say paid advocacy is never appropriate. But it doesn’t have the same long-term effect or ability to scale as organically earned advocacy behavior. Peters said Walgreens focuses on quality over quantity, regardless of the type of campaign.
“We’ve found broad programs designed to get hundreds or even thousands of advocates to say something in exchange for a small gift or points are not particularly effective,” he said. “The content is often uninspired, so it doesn't seem to engage or inspire their friends, which is the ultimate goal of advocacy.”
How can a brand know whether advocacy is effective?
“A common advocacy mistake is to focus too narrowly on a tactical marketing metric, such as number of referrals, online reviews, or social shares per month,” Newton said. Focusing on narrow top-line numbers can lead to missed opportunities for using advocates for things that might not directly boost sales--such as product development or community support--but can save you money and improve your relationship with those advocates.
“We’ve found really strong correlations between winning share of voice and increasing sales,” Peters added.