Building Advocates, and Why It Really Matters

One of my primary interests is the development of customer advocates – people willing to put their own name, time, and effort into recommending, defending, or inspiring a particular business on the social Web. From a business perspective the benefits of advocates are clear, though they are sometimes (and maybe too often) viewed only in the “recommendations” sense. It’s that “what have you done for me lately” thing, where given our fast-paced lives “lately” generally means “just now.”

And it’s true: advocates can drive sales. Bain and others have conducted studies that show conclusively the value of advocates from a marketing perspective: across verticals, the brands that are the most highly recommended grow significantly faster than the rest. A self-fulfilling prophecy, to be sure, but the fact is that, in a connected society, recommendations translate directly into (more) business.

Two questions: What drives positive recommendations (I’m assuming here that negative recommendations do not drive business…at least not in the direction we want it driven), and what beyond “I recommend this” can you cite as a specific benefit of brand advocates?

The first question – what drives recommendations – has a clear answer: great experiences. When we’re delighted we take notice, and we’re given the chance we recount that delight, generally casting it as a recommendation. When we are presented with consistently great experiences – when we are able to make unconditional recommendations without the risk of loss of our personal social capital – we become advocates.

So, the first step in building advocates is to consistently deliver great experiences. I stayed at the Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge recently, during the Corporate Social Media conference. When I checked out, the woman at the front desk – Beverly – took specific steps to ensure that I was completely satisfied. She even offered to buy me a cup of coffee at the Starbucks in the hotel. Then, when the line of guests checking out started to grow, she summoned the hotel’s general manager to walk me over to Starbucks in her place. In other words, not only did she ensure that I had an excellent experience, in a page right out of The Art of War she had the professional skill and training to recognize that she was responsible for creating a great experience for all of the guests, simultaneously. She managed it perfectly and as a result that is a hotel that I will go back to. Put a check in the “great experiences drive repeat sales” box.

Later that evening, I arrived in San Francisco where I was booked into the Parc 55 Wyndham. I’ve stayed at this hotel before and had a rough idea what to expect: clean, comfortable, and reasonably appointed. In short, a great business hotel. I arrived right around midnight: the registration agent, Elysse, sensed I’d been traveling for a while (I had been…I’d just come from New York) and offered me a room upgrade. That simple act changed “one more as-expected late-night hotel check-in” into “wow…thank you…what a great room.” For the next two days I had a great experience, in part because I had been “conditioned to expect a great experience” by an unexpected act of kindness.

Yes, Parc 55 is also a hotel that I’ll go back to: but there’s more. Because of that experience I created a review on TripAdvisor to which the hotel’s public relations manager, Shelly, responded, thanking me for taking the time to write the review. And it wasn’t just me: Shelly makes it a point to read what people write on TripAdvisor – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and respond. I recall a travel site that I worked for years ago; one hotel had a negative review about the state of the bathroom, and two years later not only had the manager not made any attempt to address it, it was still the only review for that hotel! Shelly’s got it under control. To the checklist of advocacy value you can add “creating social content.” By the way, earned media has a value, so add this to your return-on-investment (ROI) calculation, too.

What’s beyond repeat business and the creation of social content? Advocates actively defend the brands they love. Take a look at this article from Yahoo travel. A handful of airlines, and a simple (in fact, too simple, but more about that later) experiment that went like this: post a question to the brand handle on Twitter and see how long it takes for a response. You can read the results, but they’re really not the interesting part, though to be sure had the experiment been a bit more thought out it might have been.

The interesting part about this example is the reaction of the brand advocates, across all of the brands referenced. Where you might see a bunch of comments about brands presented negatively along the lines of “they deserved it,” while those presented positively are somehow seen as “the best in the sky,” instead it was almost the opposite. Advocates quickly ripped the study apart, and cited examples where they’d been helped by the very same firms presented as unresponsive.

Even more to this point, the comments defending the brands that had been presented negatively, along with the comments generally questioning the validity of the study itself, greatly outnumbered the comments that reinforced the “top placements” and/or found value in the study. The majority of commenters took the study itself to task, questioning the methodology as well the entire premise: with a smartphone in your hand, would really use Twitter to ask a customer care team what their phone number was? Probably not. And if you did, would you expect them to prioritize that request equally alongside someone who experiencing a real problem? Again, probably not. In that sense, as noted in several of the comments, the brands taking longer to respond actually looked smarter!

Advocates matter, and you need to take steps to create them. After all, not only does social media provide the means for customers to express frustration when they encounter “less than delightful” experiences, it also provides the means for advocates to call foul when the brands they love are unfairly characterized. And that’s exactly what happened in this case. Take the time to ensure that you’ve got an advocate army that will do the same for your brand.

Image via Shutterstock.

Related reading