Customer communities have turned into somewhat of a holy grail for businesses in recent years, and for good reason. In addition to being chock-full of valuable insights on the needs at every stage of the customer lifecycle, they are the best at spreading trust in and loyalty for a product or service.
Leveling up these communities will become increasingly crucial to business success as social media-related behaviors continue to permeate the Web, but many marketers find themselves wondering exactly what the next step is.
More Than Friends
Last year, Get Satisfaction and the Incyte Group joined forces and released a white paper encouraging marketers to think of their customers as more than just friends. This remains a smart and relevant way to look at communities, since their value goes much deeper than the number of followers they manage to achieve.
Popular outlets like Facebook and Twitter are great for breaking the ice, but turning the enthusiasm within them into a viable business resource takes a bit of finesse. The same white paper claims that, simply branding and moving those communities in-house can accomplish a number of desirable outcomes, such as:
- Introducing new customers to a brand
- Influencing new customers as they evaluate or trial products
- Creating better product usage experiences
- Gathering feedback and ideas for improving product/service experiences
- Providing self-serve, peer-guided service and support
- Building customer loyalty
- Identifying and activating brand and product advocates
And while these branded customer communities are a great pool to fish from, they too can be taken further.
The Cream of the Crop: Customer Advocates
While establishing a bustling community -- branded or not -- is essential, it’s a much smaller group of people that goes the extra mile in terms of brand loyalty and spreading word of a company’s greatness. With the right structure, a company’s biggest fans -- a.k.a. their advocates -- can become a marketing force of their own.
Unlike the ever-changing attendance patterns of community members, advocates are generally consumers who are constantly engaging -- either with their brand of choice or with their personal networks about their brand of choice. And because it’s all unsolicited love, such earned advocacy taps deeply into that critical trust factor.
In fact, according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer for 2012, the word of the consumer (as well as regular employees) is more trusted than just about any other source.
Dion Hinchcliffe, who calls advocacy the new currency of marketing in this article, says:
Today, companies must build their social capital, gathering their advocates around them, and relentlessly engage while using practical methods to uncover and then zero-in on what works. For without embracing the new currency of marketing, companies will continue to have to spend through the decline curves of legacy marketing channels.”
Go Go Gadget Advocate Hub!
Circling back to that structure part, companies like Influitive are blazing the trail for this advocate-based approach with platforms specifically designed to provide advocates with a slew of engagement opportunities. Think of it like a VIP room at an event. Everyone in the venue is important because they’ve chosen to be there, but the people in the VIP room are certainly the most dedicated.
“Our approach encourages marketers to mobilize their customers first, and get them proactively sharing their product experiences in communities, forums and social networks, where buyers are likely to be gathering information as part of the purchase process,” explained Mark Organ, Influitive’s CEO, who claims a properly nurtured advocate can outsell a company’s best sales rep. “The intent is for buyers to find authentic, user generated content, opinions and experiences before requesting a reference call.”
“[Branded advocate communities] house a company’s earliest and most dedicated adopters, resulting in a collection of people who are truly passionate about a product and therefore predisposed to both purchasing it as well as effectively spreading its gospel,” adds Jim William’s, Influitive’s VP of Marketing, in this neat article about the psychology behind advocacy.
Honing the Strategy
Of course, none of this is to say traditional marketing will be completely replaced by the word-of-mouth-buttressed approach, but nothing is going to amplify the message like a laser-beam focus on a company’s most pro-active customers. As peer production, social engagement and crowdsourcing continue to drastically transform and expand the reach of media, I think we’ll continue to see the need for companies to nurture their most central customers in order to reach every potential customer.
Editor's Note: To read more by Chelsi, see her Word of Mouth: Content Marketers' New Best Friend