October 18, 2012
In today’s marketplace, if your customers are your business—and your marketing engine—you should be spending a considerable amount of time on cultivating brand advocates to help you build brand awareness and boost perception. You know this, of course, but maybe you’re struggling with how to make it happen.
The first step in activating brand advocates is identifying your best customers, be they the top spenders, the most frequent buyers or the most complimentary (and vocal) patrons.
“True brand advocacy comes after loyalty,” said Susan Gunelius, president and CEO of Gainesville, FL-based marketing communications firm Keysplash Creative and author of How to Create Vocal Brand Advocates. “These are the people who love your brand [and] will defend it against naysayers, so when they’ve reached that advocacy stage, your role is really to continue to meet their needs and acknowledge them.”
Malcolm Faulds, senior vice president of marketing at Boston-based BzzAgent, a social marketing firm, says brand advocates can offer you valuable insights to drive innovation. “You can activate them to create reach for your brand or create exposure for your brand or drive sales for your brand,” he added.
Here are five ways to leverage your best customers to help boost your bottom line:
1. Garner a diehard following
The first step in building a successful brand advocacy program is to create a stellar customer experience, making your customers want to tell their friends about you because they’re so happy with the products or services they received and with every interaction they’ve had with your company.
“Map the customer journey or do a live walkthrough exercise. Is it easy for customers to access or use? Is it better than competing offerings or come with a lower price? Is there a fun back story or social context? If not, then keep working on it,” said Faulds, who added, that successful brands shape their customer service practices around customer pain points.
“Apple and Zappos mapped their customer journeys and isolated some key pain points they could mitigate. For Apple, they saw that computer buyers hated dealing with tech support. Dell Hell, anyone? For Zappos, they understood that customers were reluctant to buy shoes without trying them on first,” he said.
“By fixing these pain points and actually turning them into delightful brand moments, they disrupted consumer expectations. It’s this disruption of expectations that generates the word of mouth.”
2. Recruit customers’ help
To create effective and active advocates, make your customers feel like they are invaluable to the brand that they love. “Make people feel like they’re part of the extended team, the marketing team,” Faulds said. “We want to give them an insider’s point of view on how the product was developed, how it compares to competing products, what kinds of consumers would be interested in hearing about it.”
Tap your best customers to serve on online customer panels and help steer elements of your strategy. Solicit their feedback and demonstrate that their insights help make your company better. Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, for example, encourages loyal customers to participate in online panel discussions and demonstrates that their feedback is valued.
“There are several benefits to establishing dedicated groups of brand advocates [online]: increased customer loyalty, faster and better customer insights, and increased word of mouth among targeted groups of consumers,” Faulds said. “Consumers love the VIP treatment and enjoy feeling like their message is being heard.”
3. Reward good behavior
Make your advocates feel special and exclusive, and appeal to their desire to contribute. Create a loyalty program that offers discounts, coupons or an industry newsletter for your best customers.
Give your advocates points within that loyalty program for trackable advocacy, such as retweeting a product announcement or referring a colleague’s email address. “Making them feel like they’re part of an exclusive group only helps to reinforce that relationship with them,” Gunelius said.
4. Make sharing easy
Brand advocates need outlets to talk about your brand all over the web, so help them find outlets online to connect with your brand. “Social media is a great amplifier of word of mouth,” Faulds said.
“Tactically, in that amplification role, brands should be using Facebook Connect, and they should be using the Twitter API, and they should be using blogging tools, making it easier for bloggers to share content. Use the tools that they as consumers are already using. Make it very natural for them to share.”
5. Keep employees passionate and engaged
Your best advocates are your own employees. If they don’t believe in your brand’s mission and viability in the marketplace, advocacy cannot filter out. Apple’s Genius Bar, for example, is known for its educated and passionate employees.
“Robust internal communications are mandatory. Make sure employees have ready access to updated information about your products, train them to understand your customers' needs and mindset, and make sure the information is sinking in,” Faulds said.
Companies that have strong brand advocacy programs make it easy for customers to engage with the brand and move from customer to advocate. Zappos’ online suggestion box collects user comments, and the company’s employees respond directly to many of the questions and critiques.
Users can track the progress of their suggestions: “implemented,” “filed away,” “future” or “under review.” Faulds warned that while suggestion sites are an efficient way to stay connected with brand advocates, “there can be risks. If brands establish these communities and don’t properly resource them—don’t respond to comments or let content get stale—they can backfire.”
MyStarbucksIdea.Force.com is a website that allows Starbucks customers to not only post their ideas for new menu items, retail design or customer service practices, but also track their standing as contributors on a leaderboard that lists the users with the most posted ideas, comments and up-votes.
“It’s a place where they’re soliciting ideas from people who are, if they’re not advocates, they’re at least engaged in the brand and are willing to give feedback,” Faulds said. “That participation quotient is an important thing. If you’re not finding people or building programs that are going to cultivate participatory consumers, it’s not going to work.”
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