In the last few years, I've heard the terms advocate and community thrown about almost interchangeably. Most commonly, the term “ambassador” is smacked on top of a thinly veiled affiliate program to describe a supposed “community” of people marketing on behalf of a brand.

Confusion abounds. The confusion between the terms is then compounded by the fact that, more and more, community software brands are adding “advocacy” functionality inside their platforms, which edges into the territory of referral marketing. This would be inconsequential, except when brands confuse these terms, they tend to go down rabbit holes and pick the wrong technology, resourcing and metrics to make their community or advocacy programs successful. I’ve seen this first-hand and had to lead companies back to clarity.

There is a clear difference between advocacy and community programs, and it’s important to understand that difference so each program can each be successful in its own right.

Advocacy vs. Community: A Simple Clarification

Advocacy programs are, at their simplest, programs meant to drive marketing value for brands. Customers become “advocates” for a product or service, and are rewarded (often tangibly) for sharing their “love” of said product or service. When done well with a customer-first mentality, they can and do build community (think: Hootsuite's Ambassadors). And this is where the confusion begins.

Community programs, by contrast, are about carving out a core shared identity among members (often not about the brand itself) and creating value for these members, while simultaneously encouraging them to create value for the brand in exchange.

Related Article: Memo to Facebook: A Platform Isn't a Community

What Sets Advocacy and Community Programs Apart?

On a deeper level, community programs stand apart from pure advocacy programs on three key areas. These are:

1. In an advocacy program, the asks are one-way: from brand to advocate. In a community program, value creation moves multi-directionally.

The primary function of an advocacy program is to impact marketing goals: referrals, awareness, content creation that drives referrals and awareness. In an advocacy program, success is measured by reach and shares, not by the closeness of a network, trust or social impact. These programs tend be carefully gamified, through things like gift cards and points, enabled by advocacy platforms like Sprinklr Advocate and Influitive. Of course, advocacy platforms also enable companies to build community and connection from brand-to-advocate and from advocate-to-advocate, but many brands are still scratching their heads how to do this well. It can seem so much easier to exchange concrete value than to build a long-lasting advocacy-driving community.

Community programs, on the other hand, are about carving out an identity for members within them and creating experiences that serve their needs. It’s not about the ask first. It’s about value creation first, making small asks over time, and reaping the rewards of long-term brand engagement. Gamification can also be a feature of community programs, but the gamification is meant to solidify identity. For example, when a brand uses gamification inside of a community platform like Vanilla, the badges can signify things like filling out your profile, liking others’ posts, or otherwise engaging for engagement’s sake.

Related Article: 9 Big Community and Collaboration Platform Trends for 2018

2. The advocate relationship tends to be more transactional in nature.

Advocacy programs work well when created for short-term, time-bound goals, like a crowdfunding campaign or finite marketing campaign, or for adding on a layer of incentives for a brand that has multiple other avenues to cement loyalty, such as an employee advocacy program (tacked on top of an “employee community”).

Community programs work best when they go on indefinitely. Members are not just advocating on your behalf, they are an integral part of your brand. Often, this leads to natural advocacy over time.

Learning Opportunities

3. Advocacy programs are about incentivizing people with tangible rewards. Community programs play on intrinsic rewards.

Today’s advocacy software incentivizes tangible rewards (though this is shifting, as these platforms mature). They incentivize points, payment or other tangible rewards.

Community programs, at their best, play on intrinsic rewards. Members have a shared mission in which working toward that mission and having an impact is, in itself, a reward. Rewarding people in this way not only creates belonging, but is simply more effective. According to the meta-analysis of 128 research studies in social psychology, “tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation.” In other words, if people are organically sharing how much they love your brand, one of the worst things you can do is to reward them with tangibles (either physical goods and swag or digital “goods” like points and gift cards). At best, they’ll ignore such things. At worst, they’ll stop doing what they were doing in the first place. Author Daniel H. Pink delves deeply into these ideas in his book, "Drive."

None of this is to say that advocacy programs are not valuable. They are. But confusing them with community programs is only muddying the waters and making it harder to resource either program effectively.

Related Article: Turn the Promise of Employee Advocacy Into Reality

Where Do Advocacy and Community Intersect?

Most of today’s advocacy programs ask everything of their members and give very little in return. For this reason, it is possible to have a community program that creates advocacy, but it is far more rare to build an advocacy program that creates community.

Advocacy programs can and should have their rightful place in the for-profit world, but to create long-lasting loyalty with such programs, we need to shift our thinking about them from pure advocacy programs to full-blown community initiatives. This is the only way that investing in resources like technology and people to run the programs makes sense.

In order to do this, we need to think beyond the immediate value exchange we might get from an advocacy program, and flip how we think about them. Instead, we should first ask: what is the most valuable thing I can do for my potential advocates? Build a community to connect them to others? Offer them education? Spotlight them? Listen to them? 

Build a program around those answers, and long-term advocacy will be secured at the same time as real value is created for your customers.

fa-solid fa-hand-paper Learn how you can join our contributor community.