Marketers have spent a lot of time and money building awareness of their brands. Arguably, they should be spending a lot more time building advocacy.
What do I mean by advocacy? I mean enhancing the commitment of key stakeholders like employees and existing customers. I mean engaging people and inspiring them not only to take action themselves but also to influence others, through word of mouth and personal recommendation.
Here’s an object lesson in the costs and limits of spending on awareness, drawn from my home country, the US. Last year, marketers spent an average of $2.6M US (about R18M) for every 30 seconds’ worth of advertising time during the annual Super Bowl broadcast. An estimated 91 million viewers tuned in to the Super Bowl, and according to Nielsen most viewers actually stuck around to watch the ads. But recall – viewers’ ability to remember not only the ads but also the brands associated with them – was rated by one source as low as nine percent just a week later. To me, that sounds like a 91 percent failure rate, and a lot of money wasted.
Beyond lack of recall, there’s the problem of trust. A recent Journal of Marketing Research article reports that “a majority of consumers hold negative beliefs toward advertising and that distrust is a central feature of these beliefs.” The article notes that complaints about deceptive advertising to a US trade association doubled between 1997 and 2001.
If consumers can’t remember what you’ve told them, and don’t trust the medium you’re using to talk to them, it’s time for a change in strategy. It’s time to redirect some (some, not all) of that time and money being spent on awareness to generating advocacy for your brand.
According to the advocacy model, people are engaged and form a connection to your brand. They then talk to others and recommend it, thereby creating a spiral effect of connection and influence – and generating economic impact.
Advocacy is a priceless marketing channel for this simple reason: earned opinions trump bought impressions. An earned opinion, which presumes that the audience has been actively engaged and won over, is simply more lasting. Additionally, it’s more likely to result in participants sharing their brand experience – and hopefully a brand recommendation – with others.
The value of brand recommendations and word of mouth cannot be underestimated. Consumers commonly cite recommendations from friends, family and colleagues as a leading driver of consideration and purchase. According to Yankelovich, 68 percent of consumers say they “trust people like themselves” – and they will buy on that basis. 88 percent of respondents to a Millward Brown study said they bought a product in whole or in part because of a personal recommendation. The Keller Fay Group, a research consultancy focusing on word of mouth, has established a tracking study in which they ask consumers on a daily basis to report conversations the previous day where marketing-relevant information was shared; they estimate that consumers have 112 marketing relevant conversations a week, and that 61 percent of these conversations have an impact on likelihood to buy a product or brand.
In the US, there’s intense focus right now on developing best practices and metrics for advocacy, more commonly described as word of mouth marketing. To that end, in 2004 trade association the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (www.womma.org) was founded. Multiple books have been published on the subject. Among the most influential (no pun intended) are The Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy, by Jon Berry and Ed Keller; and The Ultimate Question: Driving Good Profits and True Growth, by Fred Reichheld. (The fact that both books have inspired debate is to me a sign of the seriousness with which marketers take advocacy. For example, no one questions Berry and Keller’s core contention that a small group of passionate people can influence a much larger group; and no one questions Reichheld’s view that the extent to which your brand stakeholders say they’ll recommend it to others is a critical benchmark of its health.)
If there’s any doubt that advocacy is a powerful marketing channel, consider the following assertion published in one of the most trusted sources of business insights in the US, the Harvard Business Review: two thirds of the US economy is influenced by word of mouth.
The core question for marketers is then, how do I generate advocacy? How do I get people to talk?
For me, the answer – engage people to become advocates by creating brand experiences – is part common sense, part science and pure marketing.
On the level of common sense, I know that I am more likely to remember and believe things I directly experience; if I remember and believe, I’m far more likely to tell others. For example, some months ago I was the unsuspecting recipient of a campaign by coffee retailer Starbucks to “spread cheer”– and in so doing promote its brand – during the holidays. I got into a taxi cab in Boston and the driver said: “This is your lucky day. This ride is being paid for by Starbucks.” He then handed me (and I was very cheerful indeed by this point) a Starbucks coffee card with a $5 US credit. Within days I had told dozens of friends and colleagues about the experience, and within a month I was putting about $30 US on my Starbucks coffee card every week. Direct experience had made me realize how nice it is not to have to carry money around when I run out for a coffee break, and it made enough of an impression to spur my talking to others. Starbucks’ $30 cab ride, $5 gift card and fees to the media agency that hired the cab company might add up to a significant cost for my experience, but just calculate the return: a committed customer (me) and all those people influenced by my advocacy and talking (including you!).
What about the “science” of experiential engagement I referenced? Years ago a psychologist named Edgar Dale developed a hypothetical pyramid asserting that “learning outcomes” – people’s ability to remember and apply knowledge – steadily increase as more senses are engaged. So, for example, he theorized that people remember a relatively low portion of what they simply see (20 percent) but a very high portion of what they experience through simultaneously hearing/seeing/talking/touching (90 percent). Marketers might think of multisensory experiences, then, as a more effective way to improve learning outcomes for their brand advocates – as a way to improve their ability to remember and apply brand messages through personal action and recommendation.
On the level of marketing, there is extensive research that confirms the propensity of people who’ve been engaged by an experience to take action and talk to others. For example, the agency I work for, Jack Morton Worldwide, commissions annual studies on the impact of experiential marketing. In 2006, we surveyed 1,625 individuals in the US, UK, Australia and China: 82 percent identified participating in a live experience as the most engaging form of communication; and 85 percent said that participating in a live experience would cause them to talk to others. We also asked participants about their brand advocacy as employees, and similar results applied:
86 percent said participating in a live experience is the most engaging medium for communications from their employers; and 86 percent said that participating in a live experience would make them more likely to talk positively about the company they work for with others. In our most recent 2007 survey, we theorized that brand advocacy plays a significant role in business-to-business marketing, given the typically higher levels of complexity and investment for enterprise-level marketing, and therefore focused our study on advocacy and the impact of experiences for business executives. Based on our survey of 2,188 executives in the US, with additional input from 700 executives in the US and UK, we found that word of mouth is the number one purchase influencer for business decision-makers, and 86 percent of executive word of mouth is based on personal experience.
It’s important to note that while the conventional wisdom in our virtual age assumes that word of mouth is mostly occurring online (e.g., in blogs and online chat rooms), both Jack Morton’s research and that of others (such as the Keller Fay Group and Walter Carl of Northeastern University) clearly indicate that the vast majority of word of mouth happens in the most old-fashioned medium: face-to-face.
All of these findings clearly support the advocacy model: engage people (whether consumers, employees or business influencers) in experiences, and they will talk to others about your brand; their advocacy will in turn cause the people to whom they talk to take action themselves.
Although there’s a limit to which models based on experience in one region can be transparently applied to another, I would hypothesize that advocacy may even be more powerful in the South African context than it is in my home country. I say this for two reasons. First, given the differing levels of media penetration here versus the US, particularly for television and the Internet, there is less of a propensity to rely on the mass, awareness – building model simply by default; and more examples of major brands engaging customers through individualized, on-the-ground marketing. Second – and again I say this as an outsider – because so many African traditions emphasize trust in ways that are profoundly linked to human, face-to-face interaction, I would imagine that there’s a greater receptiveness to experience-based marketing and a greater value on personal recommendation at the level of culture.
So how do you measure brand advocacy? Our approach at Jack Morton is based on a proprietary tool, nGauge, which combines measures for return on investment (ROI) with customizable measures for return on experience (ROE). In its simplest form, we give clients insights on the quality of the audience reached by the campaign; the quality of their engagement; and the quality of their resulting actions and advocacy. The combination of these factors yields an “experience index,” which clients can use to benchmark their campaigns over time as well as versus those of other brands.
Brands will always need to generate awareness; media that are efficient in reaching large numbers of people are not going away anytime soon. But increasingly, as I hope I’ve shown, brands should embrace advocacy as a goal – and shift more resources to the media that are most effective in inspiring people to take action and influence others.
Liz Bingham is SVP/Director of Brand Marketing for Jack Morton Worldwide, a global experiential marketing agency whose clients include Nokia, SUBWAY® restaurants, General Motors, eBay and other leading brands. Liz is responsible for the agency’s global marketing, PR and communications as well as its research and thought leadership initiatives. She is a frequent speaker at industry conferences, including the American Marketing Association, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, the Experiential Marketing Summit and the 2007 African Experiential Summit. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Research, white papers and case studies on advocacy and experiential marketing are available online at