Why Brand Advocacy Matters

Brands must a take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves: what are the root drivers of advocacy?

Does brand advocacy matter?

Of course it does, and in the age of consumer control, it’s more important than ever. Every CMO leading a brand that even remotely touches the digital space would be well advised write this on the chalkboard 100 times.

I’m not just talking about word of mouth or buzz. I’m talking about that extreme, passionate customer loyalty that motivates recommendations and testimonials, and even a sense of deep ownership.

Brand advocacy matters today because it precipitates an indelible digital trail of commentary that publicly rewards or indicts brand performance or the fulfillment of brand promises. This digital trail acts like media in both intimate and incidental ways, consistently affecting awareness, trail, and ultimately purchase of products — or the defection from them. And yes, this has everything to do with business growth and health.

Back in business school, my service management professor James Heskett constantly reminded us that keeping customers satisfied over a long time dramatically impacts profitability on many levels. Profit increases from price premiums, increased purchases, and even reduced operating costs. But equally important, profit from so-called referrals also increases over the lifespan of the customer relationship. Heskett and his Harvard Business School colleague Earl Sasser hit this point hard in their more recent book, “The Value Profit Chain.”

Their argument is as relevant as ever, but the digital world puts the model on steroids. Today we have an environment in which barriers to providing feedback have virtually disappeared. Moreover, the choice of megaphones for expressing satisfaction and dissatisfied is almost limitless. To name just a few: blogs, forums, video, photos, social networking pages, mobile Web 2.0 apps, and even Twitter. Trust me, by the time you read this column, there will be more.

What Drives Propensity to Recommend?

With the referral spectrum expanding and leaving a digital trail in the process, brands must take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves: what are the root drivers of advocacy? For eight years, I’ve monitored CGM (define) and online feedback. What I’ve consistently noticed, across virtually every category, is that overall product experience — not the cute buzz campaign — motivates advocacy. And most of the triggers occur offline, not via that one-trick-pony, the viral video campaign:

Reasons for posting product feedback

According to the above data, if you really want to do word-of-mouth marketing well, you’re better off investing your attention on the boring stuff, like product performance, employee training, quality, and especially customer service.

Certainly quite a few tactics and strategies can help you reap even higher conversational or CGM returns from preexisting advocacy levels. Blogs, CGM campaigns, influencer marketing, and online communities all matter. But to have great potential and bring enduring, sustainable value to the brand, they must sit on a solid foundation. Don’t believe me. Just search for your brand on Google or Wikipedia.

And remember, consumers on the extreme end of dissatisfaction can’t be ignored in this environment. Negative advocacy bleeds across the Web. Consumers you’ve pushed to the dark side because of bad experiences or mismanaged expectations can wreak havoc — in perpetuity.

Anger is an emotion, and, like it or not, emotion and conversation have a symbiotic relationship. Conversation drives links, and links translate into more optimized shelf-positioning on search results, which increases the odds that other searchers will be met with brand venom.

Measuring and Acting on the Insights

But there’s a silver lining: this is all quantifiable. In the end, we need strong, compelling metrics to ensure we’re monitoring brand advocacy levels. Metrics can range from informal “what’s the pulse of my consumer” searches to more involved Net Promoter or Online Promoter scores. Lately I’ve been drawing attention to what I call the brand advocacy quotient (BAQ). The BAQ looks at many data sources, including unaided CGM (boards, blogs, forums), aided survey data (e.g., are you likely to recommend this brand, and for what reason?), and even site metered data to pinpoint advocacy depth.

In the end, we want not only a reliable long-term score card around advocacy but also an understanding of the specific talk drivers that compel consumers to reach out, recommend, create CGM, and talk around the water cooler. In some categories, such as restaurant and casual dining, the front counter experience is the number one advocacy driver. In higher-involvement categories like financial services, electronics, and wireless, it’s customer service.

At the end of the day, if we want to see positive vibes about our brand in the so-called conversation, we must dive deeper into the core building blocks of product experience.

Nurturing advocacy also means rethinking what it means to truly listen and respond to consumers. Brand advocates feel a deeper level of intimate connection with the brand that listens to or dignifies their voices, so we must ask harder questions about whether “being heard” is worth the infrastructure investment.

We must always bear in mind the cost of not listening; the more consumers feel like they aren’t heard, the louder they get by cross-posting, videocasting, typing in all capital letters, turning to things like Twitter or The Consumerist, where they know they’ll get a bigger audience. This is precisely the topic of my forthcoming book, “Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000.” Setting up a corporate blog or CGM contest is a good entry point, but it’s not a panacea. Listening requires full attention and commitment.

However you look at it, loyalty isn’t enough anymore. There’s just too much at stake in the flow of positive and negative commentary consumers leave across the Web.

Yes, advocacy matters.

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