EngageSciences’ report that only 4.7% of a brand’s fans generate all of its social media referrals forces marketers to deal with a harsh reality: As much as we like to talk about them, customer advocates are a rarefied segment. Other reports have been somewhat more generous, estimating that perhaps as many as 20% might discuss a brand in an online forum. Whichever findings you chose to believe, the advocate segment is clearly a minority. As Francesca Heath points out, few brands are attempting to identify or reach these internal promoters.

In a world where the Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising report tells us that 92% of consumers say they trust earned media such as recommendations from friends and family (far more than any other form of advertising), most brands are ignoring some of their potentially fiercest advocates and a huge opportunity to increase awareness, consideration and purchase intent with little cost. Instead, many brands squander their marketing budgets on ill-conceived mass-market ads and promotions. In her article, Heath urges brands to focus on “organic influencers.” Surely these numbers are category driven. Your business might provide a more positive picture. More people certainly are writing and speaking about their favorite restaurant or the latest movie. Moms with babies are surely talking to other moms in much greater numbers about everything from food brands to strollers to diaper ointments. But no matter what the numbers, if you accept the Nielsen study, then every marketer should want more people to be generating more frequent, and more positive word of mouth.

Getting Beyond the 4.7%

Beyond simple cost inefficiencies, it’s going to be downright discouraging if you attempt to turn all fans (or even all current customers) into advocates. So how do you get beyond 4.7%? We believe the goal can be accomplished through a process that first identifies those individuals who have the greatest potential to act as advocates, and then arms them with greater motivation, content, and opportunities that enable them to act.

Sounds simple, but how do you identify them? 

We think the best advocates usually possess:

  1. Behavioral commitment — “Fans” aren’t the same as customers. Someone who visits a Facebook page hoping to win a prize or get a product discount can hardly be expected to generate a recommendation for the brand. Further, not all “customers” are equally committed to a brand. Yours could be just one of the 3 or 4 brands they buy, they may not have purchased for months, or they may only buy your brand when it’s on sale. The best potential advocates typically display a dedicated purchasing history.
  2. Emotional connection — Even those who appear behaviorally committed to a brand may buy only out of habit, or because the product is more readily available, without any kind of emotional glue needed for advocacy.
  3. Good communications skills – Let’s face it, not everybody is comfortable or particularly good at communicating with others in writing or verbally. No matter how behaviorally committed to the brand, and no matter how much they are emotionally connected, if they lack what we like to call the “communicator gene” they won’t act as brand advocates.

Therefore the process for identifying any brand’s best potential advocates revolves around these 3 factors.

  • It all starts with the customer base (you’re really out of luck if you don’t have some form of customer database that includes some form of buying history such as recency, frequency or monetary value). Establish a criteria to select those that have proven themselves to be most “behaviorally committed” to your brand.
  • Those selected as having that strongest behavioral commitment are contacted, and based on responses to questioning, are further screened, first based upon their emotional links to the brand and second based upon their possession of the “communicator gene.”
  • A simple mathematical model then ranks the customers, top to bottom based upon their advocacy potential.

Depending upon how aggressive management is ready to be, you can start by arming the highest ranked (those with the greatest potential to generate more frequent and more positive word of mouth) and work down. It’s a matter of how many advocates you want, and how effective they will be. Word of mouth isn’t amorphous, immeasurable, or unmanageable, and having only 4.7% of customers acting as advocates shouldn’t be accepted any longer.

Doug Pruden and Terry Vavra are principles at Customer Experience Partners, LLC in Darien, Conn. They have experience in advertising, direct marketing, and marketing research, and focus on issues related to customer retention, growing share of wallet spending, and word of mouth measurement and management.

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