It’s time to face the facts: your brand is no longer a simplistic 2-dimensional depiction of what you say it is. Of course, you want to be deliberate with your messaging -- but that’s just one dimension. You can have the most polished brand messaging and customer case studies, but if your customers’ experiences diverge significantly, it will affect perception. This divergence is sure to come to light via social channels. Vendor-made claims are now verified by prospects against feedback of existing customers, and stellar user experience can catapult a little-known brand into the social media hall of fame.

However, it’s not as simple as providing a great experience and watching the tweets roll in. There are some steps in between, and those steps mark the difference between several happy customers and a true brand advocacy. What happens next is magic, if you do it right. Do you know who your champions are, where they are and what they are saying? Do you know how to notice the first signs of advocacy, extend the relationship and create a champion for life? Your relationship with each advocate is going to be different, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Nevertheless, here are some tips:

Listen First

An old adage goes: you have two ears and one mouth, and thus you should listen twice as much as talk. This is true of any relationship building -- online or offline, in the digital or analog age -- everything starts with listening. Keep your ear to the ground and understand where people are talking about you and what they are saying. Are they asking questions about you, getting answers and abandoning you? Are they testing, buying and repurchasing? If they are experiencing you, are they also telling others about this experience? If they aren’t, why not? Where are they talking about you and to whom? What words are they using? When they are asking about you, do they hear crickets, or do they get back raving declarations of love?

What Do You Hear?

In a best-case scenario, people will sing you praises all over the web. The worst-case scenario is actually not negativity -- it’s silence. When no one cares enough about an experience with you, it will be difficult to create a community of advocates. What about those brand haters? In fact, your brand critics are closer to brand advocacy than you think. Haters and champions have something in common -- passion! Usually your loudest complainers are just waiting to be converted to champions. Their experience with you resonated with them -- either you hit a nerve or provided a solution to a real pain-point -- but you did it in a way that irked them. They recognize the potential, and want so badly for you to be their solution -- all you need to do is be that. If you take the time to listen to your critics, understand their concerns and extend an olive branch, they may surprise you. You will definitely learn and become a better company. If someone took the time to write a review, send a tweet or write a blog post -- shouldn’t you also take the time to notice.

Extend the Relationship

Suppose you took the first step and reached out to your brand critic and solved his problem or thanked an ardent fan for writing a gleaming blog post. What happens next? Think about creating a space where you can have a deeper dialogue with your community of fans, and nurture them to advocacy. A tangible digital space is optimal, because enthusiasm feeds upon itself and your fans would enjoy meeting each other.

Be careful though -- this is not a space for you to broadcast your marketing messages. This is a space for your community, and everything you do there is about them, not you. Allow fans to connect to each other, share experiences, ask each other questions. You need to know when to get involved and when to give it space. These are some things you should consider as you further your relationship with your fans:

  • Ask them for their ideas: Your superfans have very specific ideas of how your product should work, and they want to tell you about it. They want to see their ideas come to fruition and become part of the product -- they want to become linked to its future. Allowing for this conversation to happen is a win-win, as your product becomes better, and the relationship is cemented. That being said, you aren’t going to build every feature your customers ask for -- far from it -- and you need to be very clear about your prioritization process and developmental priorities. Asking for feedback and not using it can end up backfiring, so be careful of not doing it for appearances only.
  • Recognize and reward: Recognition is important, and you can help your advocates visibly look like rockstars in front of their peers. Bearing a visible superfan designation or being part of a private VIP community or customer advisory board, the superfan feels recognized and heard. Your community must be a meritocracy, recognizing high contribution with deep intrinsic rewards.
  • Give them praise: “Be lavish in your praise,” said Dale Carnegie years ago, and this has never been truer. Praise your champions verbally or give gifts of appreciation -- but beware of coming across too gimmicky. Praise them because they are helpful to other users and a great community member, not because they say nice things about you. Praise them because they have taken ownership of their superfan status.
  • Listen, learn and take action: If you aren’t learning from your community, you are leaving money on the table. These are the people who are the heart and soul of your customer base. They are going to tell you what you need to know, and you should be so lucky to be getting this kind of unvarnished feedback. Make sure you take the time to listen and really hear. Make sure the right people in your organization are hearing these messages, and take action together based on what you learn. As a result, you will end up co-creating your future with your customers.
  • Be real; be humble: You are going to make mistakes, and each mistake is an opportunity to build a little more trust. A way to erode trust is to become defensive, dig in your heels and refuses to make an apology. A humble brand -- a brand with which an advocate is able to have an emotional connection -- is going to admit the mistake, apologize and ask the community for help to avoid the mistake next time.
  • Don’t use your advocates: No one likes being used, and that includes your advocates. Be careful of forming these relationships with the end purpose of using them for PR or an influencer campaign, people will sense that. Rather, focus on building and sustaining a relationship -- it will help you build something better together. If you approach it that way, the positive PR will come naturally.

There’s no one right way to build community and nurture relationships with your brand advocates. What really matters is the customer-centric DNA, commitment to listening and learning, humility, vision and agility to bring about change.

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