FEATURE1 September 2010

Circles of influence

Marketers who seek to generate positive word of mouth need to realise that true advocacy is about people not brands, writes Steve Phillips


Advocacy is a hot topic right now for many reasons. Marketers understand that word of mouth has always been one of the key drivers of sales but things seem to be changing. With consumers increasingly relying on advice from social networks it’s no longer about just cracking the TV commercial. As a result marketers feel less in control of their sales approach, and demands from brands to do something about advocacy have risen.

The reason many marketers have avoided focusing on advocacy in the past is that they didn’t know what to do with it. I remember giving a presentation to a client about word of mouth and its impact on telecommunications decision-making. I went through the types of conversations involved and their impact and we discussed what we could do with them, but when I asked who would be the principal person involved in creating strategies for these ideas, there was an embarrassed silence. Should it be the advertising agency (although it doesn’t fit their business model)? The media team? Or perhaps digital (although at the time I’m not sure they even had one of those)?

Since then there have been developments and more of our work is being instigated by digital teams. However, this often assumes word of mouth happens online, which isn’t the case – in fact Steve Barton of the Word Of Mouth Marketing Association suggests that 92% of it happens offline.

So there is confusion about who is responsible for advocacy programmes and what those programmes should look like. Of course there is also confusion about what advocacy is.

“The standard model of advocacy tends to be very brand-centric. It starts with the promise a brand makes to a consumer, and leads through to how it exceeds their expectations, turning them into an advocate”

It’s all about me
The standard model of advocacy tends to be very brand-centric. It starts with the promise a brand makes to a consumer, and leads through to how it exceeds their expectations, turning them into an advocate. It’s a natural way for marketers to think about advocacy because it is based on the brand, but we need to move our perspective. Conversations that we immediately think are about brands are not about brands at all, but about people. Typically when someone says something great about a brand they are really telling the story of their day or week (“I have just bought this great new LG TV” – meaning “This is something exciting I did this week”) or they are trying to project something about themselves (“Did you notice that great article in The Economist this week?” – meaning “Aren’t I clever”) So we need to look at how the brand fits into the context of their life and put ourselves inside the consumer’s world.

Time changes things
The other assumption about advocacy is that once you have delighted someone enough they become an advocate. This assumes that they then stay one when in fact people tend to act as advocates for brands for very short periods. If I buy a new car I will probably tell everyone about it for a few weeks but after that both they and I are bored of the story and something else shiny and new has come along to talk about.

This suggests that brands can’t rest on their laurels but need to constantly engage people in order to create new experiences that develop advocacy. We need to
think of advocacy less as a destination and more as a flow, something to be continually moulded and encouraged.

Not all advocates are created equal
We also need to accept that not all advocates are born equal and there are several different types. Keller and Fay talk about ‘influentials’, the people who tell the rest of us what to buy. Malcolm Gladwell talked about ‘connectors’ who have wide social networks. These concepts are worth bearing in mind – it doesn’t just depend on who the person advocating is, but what the person they are talking to thinks of them.

If I was looking for a new bank account I would probably listen to someone who knows about finance but also someone who has direct experience with a particular bank. These two people could both advocate for a product or bank but I would listen to them in different ways, one as an expert and the other as someone with direct experience. Each would talk in different ways, giving me different perspectives.

I would expect the current user to tell me how it feels to be a customer of the bank but would want more rational product advice from the expert.

Beware of badvovacy
It has often been said that if a brand delights someone they will tell two other people but if the brand angers someone they will tell eight people about their bad experience (the exact numbers vary but the idea is the same).

However, we have found that people are much more forgiving than expected, especially if a brand interacts with them and demonstrates that they are listening to and value their customers when things go wrong. Professor Robert East’s study in this area discovered that “those using negative WOM are much more likely to produce positive word of mouth” (East and Hammond, 2005 ) so that they may say bad things about a brand but can, and often do, say good things too. Additionally, East and Hammond’s study found that people are more likely to be a positive advocate than a negative one. Looking at 15 different categories of market,
East and Hammond’s study found positive WOM to be three times more common on average than negative WOM.


Putting people at the centre
Spring has created a model that distinguishes between types of advocates (see illustration above), enabling brands to create more powerful marketing programmes. Identifying the factors that create and affect advocacy, this new model is made up of three areas: the personality type, the category and the experience. Advocacy occasions occur when you get a combination of these elements. But different mixes of these elements will create four different types of advocacy: anecdotal, advisory, ardent and anonymous.

Word of mouth is the backdrop against which all of this happens. WOM is a conversation with someone you trust about something they have knowledge of. Of course there has been an explosion of advocacy online as well, from social networks to review sites, but most of it is still face-to-face or on the phone with friends, family or colleagues. It is rare now for us to talk to someone about a major purchase of theirs without finding they have spent large amounts of time checking reviews of products online.

For example, I remember interviewing someone about a flat screen TV they had bought. They were trying to decide between two specific TVs and so went on to
blogs and forums looking for someone who had both. They eventually found such a person and chatted with them online, even persuading the person to drag one TV upstairs just so they could put the two TVs next to each other and compare the picture quality.

The ability of people to advocate online has clearly shown the latent demand not just to hear opinions from real people but also for people to give their opinions, in vast quantities and whether people are interested or not.

Where next?
The world of advocacy is more complex than we thought but also more powerful. We need to come to grips with it and even more importantly we need to work out how we can turn it to our client’s advantage.

This means a rethinking of the CRM strategy (probably eCRM by now) and looking at things such as advocate communities. We need to go back to each element of the customer journey, pre- and post-sale, and work out how we can encourage advocacy throughout the journey. It takes a mindset more than a simple action or campaign.

ut as people increasingly see that advocacy is important and want to do something about it, I believe we are getting closer and closer to a world where advocacy programmes take their rightful place alongside other key marketing campaigns.

?Steve Phillips is chief happiness officer at Spring Research. His work focuses on understanding consumer motivation and behaviour