One of the biggest values of social media for brands is the increased influence of “brand advocates.” A new report from eMarketer focuses on how to leverage and amplify their influence.

Brand advocates have been around as long as brands have been, but they used to be limited to conversations between friends. Now, enthusiasts of a given product or service not only have global reach through social media, but their enthusiasm and brand knowledge can quickly spread to others. It is, as the report notes, “engagement at scale.”

Advocates’ Opinions = Gold

The report, called "Brand Advocates: Scaling Social Media Word-of-Mouth" and sponsored by Google’s Wildfire, defines brand advocates as social media influencers, industry experts, brand employees or customers. Their tools include recommendations, blog posts and “likes” to gain discounts, deals and -- occasionally -- payments.

And those advocates’ opinions are gold. A survey late last year by Nielsen found that a whopping 92 percent of Net users worldwide said they completely or somewhat trusted recommendations from people they knew, and 70 percent had that opinion about anonymous consumer opinions posted online.

Fifty percent of respondents said they might recommend a brand, product or service primarily because they’ve had a good experience. The next most popular reason, at 37 percent, is that the recommender wants to help others, such as their friends, make smarter purchasing decisions. No other motive breaks into double digits.

How to Leverage

What is the demographic profile of a typical brand advocate? The report said that they’re often younger consumers, especially millennials, and they prefer to interact with brands via social media rather than through more traditional channels. More than a third of millennials interact with brand content at least three times a week, compared to about a quarter of older consumers.

But young people don’t get all the credit. The report found that parents have also “proven to be impressive brand advocates for the products and services they favor,” especially moms. One study cited in the report found that 59 percent of the U.S. "mom social network" recommend companies or brands via social networking sites.

How can a company engage and leverage its brand advocates? The report recommends providing great personal experiences with the product or service, making advocates feel special by offering exclusive content or special offers, offering opportunities for them to “geek out” with similarly-minded consumers, and welcoming and even using their advice -- and their criticism -- if appropriate.

But the report advises companies to do so sensibly -- by having a brand management strategy that treats advocates differently from ordinary consumers, while not overwhelming their social media accounts.