By Mark Organ, CEO and Founder of Influitive
Following the story of a company offering to pay influential bloggers to write about a client’s new product, the emerging discipline of advocate marketing has been placed under intense scrutiny recently, both in the media and on social networks. From where I stand, however, these types of campaigns that are so common in the consumer world are NOT advocate marketing.
In fact, much of what is currently described as advocate marketing is actually influencer marketing; ‘pay for play’ consumer campaigns aimed at popular bloggers, social media mavens and Internet celebrities to generate buzz.
These so-called influencers are not advocates; they are shills who sell their followers and readers to the highest bidder over and over again.
I take issue with the label, not just because I’m the founder and CEO of an advocate marketing software company. It’s troubling because there is a world of difference in how marketers execute on advocate marketing in the consumer versus business-to-business markets. The objectives, advocates and tactics employed are like night and day.
What Advocate Marketing Really Is
Real advocate marketing is not about cutting checks for quick hits of publicity; it’s about mobilizing your company’s true fans — the customers, partners and employees that already love you — to grow a business over the long term.
You don’t need a blue chip marketing budget to trigger this groundswell of support either — just a solid understanding of your customers and the will to engage with them daily (which you should be doing anyway, right?).
Advocacy as a B2B marketing strategy is growing fast in response to the increasing demand for genuine insights from real customers. Reliance on knowledgeable peer references has more than doubled in the past five years, according to SiriusDecisions, and so it’s not surprising that 60% of B2B tech buyers seek peer reviews before they make a purchase decision.
They invest tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and their professional reputation, on any given solution, so they must be confident it’s the right one. They don’t want to hear from corporate marketing departments or enterprise sales reps — until they’re ready to sign. They want to know whether people like them at companies like theirs have been successful, not bought off by a marketing campaign.
As a result of this massive shift in buyers’ expectations, the brightest marketing leaders see enhancing customer loyalty and advocacy as their top priority. A few years in, we are already seeing incredible results from the first few hundred business-to-business advocate marketing programs, including from some of the fastest-growing companies in technology today. Independent analysts, commentators and industry veterans are also bullish on the idea of advocate marketing. In January, Gartner analyst Hank Barnes declared 2014 the “Year of Advocacy Marketing.”
In working with more than 100 of those early adopters since founding Influitive in 2010, I’ve discovered five key insights that seem to hold true across the board when it comes to “real” advocate marketing:
1. Know Who Advocates Are — And Who They Are Not
Advocates are customers and other stakeholders, such as employees, investors and partners, who have made some kind of social capital investment in a company. They are IT administrators, developers, marketers, lawyers, salespeople, HR managers, financial advisors and more. Real people with real jobs.
Name a profession and you’ll find advocate marketing programs for the products and services they use on the job day in and day out. When they love those solutions, they’re willing to put their reputations on the line to let their peers know about them.
2. Advocate Marketing Is Not A “Campaign”
It’s an ongoing engagement strategy that only works when advocates are consistently presented with opportunities to participate; like an all-you-can-eat buffet that never closes. Success is measured in high-quality referral leads, genuine customer reviews, deal-accelerating references and quota-busting revenue quarter after quarter — not short bursts of social media and blog mentions.
3. Understand The Motivation Equation
What motivates these advocates isn’t landfills of free stuff or the so-called “opportunity” to have your company’s name associated with theirs. By surveying thousands of users across dozens of advocate marketing programs, Influitive discovered that advocates are typically motivated by one or more of the following:
- Increasing the size and quality of their network;
- Sharing information that will help others;
- Being recognized for their hard work and success; and
- Publicly demonstrating their professional expertise or domain knowledge.
4. Strong Human Relationships Are The Foundation Of Success
There should be no middle-man (or woman) standing between a company and its advocates. Strong human-to-human relationships form the foundations of the most successful advocate marketing programs. The goal is not just the output of advocacy; customers also look to these programs to stay up-to-date on the latest news, best practices and educational content so they can become more proficient at, and ultimately celebrated for, effectively using that solution in their work.
Advocates also become increasingly motivated as they reap the benefits of a special relationship directly with their vendor; they crave the personalized attention, status and access that a vendor-led advocate marketing program offers.
5. Cash Isn’t King
Put your checkbook away. These advocates already have jobs and they’re not looking to moonlight in exchange for a few hundred bucks. To them, the most valuable rewards have little or no monetary value. Some examples include a 30-minute feedback session with a product manager, an invitation to speak about their success at a national industry conference, or a handwritten thank you note from the CEO.
They’re looking for opportunities to have an impact on your product, company and industry, ultimately propelling their careers upward. Minor tokens of appreciation consistent with business relationships are also valued, such as company swag, a favorite bottle of wine or tickets to an exclusive event. The more personalized the better.
The Future Of Marketing
Advocate marketing is still being defined and many voices are contributing to that conversation, however my vision for the future of B2B marketing is a well-coordinated team of advocates systematically supporting campaigns, referring leads, driving sales and influencing product strategy. I believe the future belongs to companies that cultivate, mobilize and recognize their advocates in an ethical, mutually-beneficial way. Kudos to those marketers who have already seen the light.
To those of you who are still purchasing “advocacy,” measuring success in impressions and page views: Take a step back and ask yourselves how you can better serve your customers, prospective buyers and other stakeholders in your business by working toward more authentic advocate marketing practices.
Mark Organ is the founder and CEO of Influitive, helping companies mobilize their advocates to increase referral leads, reference calls and social media participation. His early insight on the future of marketing automation led him to become the founding CEO of Eloqua, the world leader in marketing automation software, which was acquired in 2012 by Oracle for $871M.