The rapid growth of social media, online review sites and comparison tools has turned the concept of brand advocacy on its head.
A brand’s reputation is increasingly informed by what others say about it rather than what the brand says about itself. This means marketers need to find new ways to persuade customers and influencers to explain the values and benefits of brands to others. But rules and regulations are also quickly catching up – and catching companies out.
In a desperate bid to retain control of their reputation, some are simply inventing brand advocates. Last month, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) identified several “potentially misleading practices” among brands, following a four-month investigation into the online reviews market. They include businesses that commission fake positive reviews about themselves to boost their own ratings and firms that post fake negative reviews to undermine their rivals.
Marketers undoubtedly need a strategy for cultivating the new breed of brand advocate but could the nefarious actions of the few poison the well for everyone else?
The incentive for such skullduggery is clear. According to the CMA report, more than half (54%) of UK adults use online reviews and find them valuable, resulting in £23bn of consumer spending that is potentially influenced by reviews. As the CMA seeks to prosecute rogue operators in the months ahead, marketers should consider how they can turn people into committed brand advocates in an honest and trustworthy manner.
1. Prioritise social promoters over followers
James Westlake, UK vice-president of online review site Trustpilot, believes that while some businesses will always try to “game the system” by posting fake reviews, law-abiding brands are getting better at listening and responding to genuine customer feedback. Trustpilot, which hosts over 500,000 reviews each month, contributed to the CMA investigation and has pledged its own measures to combat fraudulent reviews, including whistleblower and flagging functions on the site.
“Companies are realising that they’re no longer in control of who says what, where and when,” he says. “More and more see this as an opportunity rather than a risk.”
Westlake suggests brands can embrace the rising influence of online reviews by displaying customer feedback – both negative and positive – on their websites. This level of transparency can help brands to generate new sales leads, improve services and create positive advocates, he says.
Phone recycling service Mazuma Mobile, for example, links to all reviews on its homepage and responds directly to customers on its Trustpilot page when it receives bad reviews in order to address their concerns. This strategy has helped the brand to achieve a Trustpilot rating of 9.8 out of 10 from over 100,000 reviews. “That’s one company that really sees the benefit of online reviews,” claims Westlake. “It doesn’t want to bury anything.”
Authenticity and transparency are also core watchwords for brands seeking to create advocates on social media. Research unveiled at the Cannes Lions festival last month by agency Social@Ogilvy and software company SurveyMonkey suggests that many companies are using “crude” measures to track their progress on social channels, including the number of likes, followers and retweets they garner. This fails to accurately show the number of true brand advocates that brands are creating, the companies claim.
The survey of over 5,500 social media users across 11 countries finds that while 84% of respondents are ‘followers’ of a brand or product, only 19% are authentic ‘promoters’, meaning respondents who are extremely likely to recommend brands and products to friends. In between these two categories are ‘sharers’, accounting for 58% of respondents who say they proactively share both good and bad experiences on social media.
Although there is some overlap between promoters and sharers in terms of their behaviour and characteristics, the report notes that promoters are “much more rare and a far more influential group”. It urges marketers to apply the net promoter score methodology (the likelihood a consumer will recommend a product or service) to their base of social media followers in order to identify the most valuable people and produce more targeted communications.
“Social media addicts may look like your most engaged consumers, but marketers need to stop looking at their data in silos to find their true advocates,” says SurveyMonkey’s vice-president of marketing communications Bennett Porter.
Image-based social network Pinterest calculates that around two-thirds of its content comes from brands, and suggests that love for a particular brand is one of the main reasons that its users ‘pin’ images on the site.
“By the very nature of the platform, pinners naturally become brand advocates by pinning things from brands that are meaningful and add value to their interests,” says Tram Nguyen, head of product marketing at Pinterest.
Pinterest also supports brands globally with their organic content creation strategies. In the UK, this includes a partnership with Waitrose for its current Taste of Summer campaign, whereby users are encouraged to create boards that express their summer inspirations and favourite recipes for the chance to win a prize.
“Brands are an essential part of the overall discovery experience on Pinterest and if we didn’t have this content, Pinterest would be a very different service,” says Nguyen. “People are repinning content from brands to their own boards and actually taking action and doing things in real life based on those pins.”
2. Create consumer advocates through a positive company culture
For many companies, the quest to create brand advocates begins with their internal culture. American online fashion retailer Zappos is often held up as an example of a business with a near-evangelical approach to creating internal advocates within its workforce. This in turn translates into a strong reputation for customer service and in more committed advocates among its customer base.
In 2013, the Amazon-owned company decided to implement a radical new management system in which there are no bosses, management hierarchies or job titles. Instead, the company operates as a ‘holacracy’ whereby authority is distributed to self-organising teams and people take on flexible and regularly updated roles.
This overhaul follows other initiatives by Zappos designed to energise its staff and ensure they deliver the best possible brand experience. This includes an ongoing offer to pay each new hire $2,000 if they decide to leave the company within a week of joining. The idea is to ensure that employees are fully committed to the company to the extent that they will turn down the easy money for the chance to work for the brand.
Such steps have contributed to Zappos’s strong reputation and consumers’ willingness to recommend the brand to others. A study of net promoter scores across major US businesses compiled last year by CustomerGauge found that Zappos came second overall in the online retail category with +60, putting it behind only Amazon (+64).
The introduction of the new management system has proved controversial, however. Just over 200 of the company’s 1,500-strong workforce (14%) left after Zappos chief executive Tony Hsieh offered staff the chance to quit with three months’ pay if they were not on board with the reorganisation. “It seems we are ready now to move beyond rigid structures and let organisations truly come to life,” he said in a memo to employees reported by US magazine Fast Company.
Not all businesses have to follow Zappos’s extreme example, of course, but some degree of innovation is often required for brands to inspire their workforce so that they in turn inspire advocacy in consumers. In the case of Meantime Brewing Company, a London-based beer-maker, internal advocacy extends to the pub operators that sell its products. This summer, the company is seeking to engage with staff at pubs and bars by experimenting with virtual reality (VR) technology.
Armed with Oculus Rift headsets, the company is touring premises across the country and inviting operators to experience an interactive tour of its Greenwich brewery. This provides an in-depth overview of the brewing process and incorporates pop-up on-screen visuals and 360-degree directional sound.
Meantime, which is stocked in over 900 outlets, is partly using the technology as a customer acquisition tool as it grow its presence in pubs outside of London. Existing stockists are also invited to take the VR tour so they become more knowledgeable about the brand and, as a result, are more likely to promote it to consumers.
“You can try to convince someone to recommend your brand by incentivising them to do it, but in reality if you give them information then they’ve got something they can talk about,” says Meantime marketing director Richard Myers.
“The consumer has changed and wants to know more too. It’s no longer just about fun, exciting advertising campaigns – it’s about knowing where the product has come from and how it’s made.”
3. Appeal to a lifestyle
In addition to online tactics and internal company initiatives, marketers can encourage brand advocacy through clever sponsorship deals and partnerships. A classic example is Red Bull, which through its sponsorship of extreme sports has created a huge global fan base of advocates who see the brand as synonymous with a particular way of life. Similarly, through its sponsorship of cycling, media company Sky has developed a reputation for peak performance and skill that extends far beyond its core services and is embodied by the professional and amateur cyclists that wear replica Team Sky jerseys.
These examples show that consumer advocacy is not necessarily just proactive; it can also include associations between a brand and a particular lifestyle choice. Numerous charities, for example, aim to make donating an implicit part of people’s everyday routines.
This month WellChild, a charity that supports seriously ill children in the UK, became the first brand to partner with new ‘ethical’ search engine Storm. The site works like a regular search engine except that a ‘Give’ button is displayed alongside listings for participating retailers on the search results page. When a consumer makes a purchase from one of the retailers, Storm earns a commission which it shares with WellChild. The amount the consumer pays for goods online remains the same.
Storm aims to have 10 million active users within two years and believes up to £25 could be generated from each active user per year for charitable causes. The site was set up with £2m of seed funding from various angel investors and participating retailers include Waitrose, Virgin, Sports Direct, Currys and Boots.
WellChild chief executive Colin Dyer says he was attracted by the idea of making donating a seamless part of the everyday search experience, to the extent that people do not even give away their own money but simply contribute by making purchases on retailer sites. Taking a similar approach by ensuring that consumers can support a brand without effort or inconvenience is a tactic many marketers could adopt to foster the next generation of advocates.
“This is a very non-intrusive way of raising awareness and funds for our work through people’s everyday activities of browsing and buying online,” says Dyer. “We’re not calling on people to do something they wouldn’t normally do. The power is with the consumer.”