Parsing the Value of Social Media Brand Advocates

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Two weeks ago, I wrote about how social media was best used for brand marketing but not for driving transactions. Monday’s WSJ article “Now on Twitter: Holiday Shopping Deals” illustrates how some retailers used Twitter on Black Friday to nurture conversations about their brands.  But it also pointed out that brand reps remain unclear about whether those interactions really translate into sales. So why are brands using Twitter?

It’s because Twitter is an ideal medium for brand advocacy. Brand advocates cite an April 2012 Nielsen survey claiming 92% of respondents trust peer recommendations versus 24% putting stock in ads. The strategy is to get tweeters who are perceived as influential to a brand’s customer base to endorse, review, and share deals that will lead to transactions. Among the various social media platforms, Twitter has been found to facilitate the sharing of posts and links faster and more efficiently than Facebook because 1) influential Twitter accounts generally have larger follower bases that can number into the millions and 2) tweets can be composed, shared, and retweeted easily, often with one click.

The big-picture marketing goal for brands is to build “advocate” networks of influencers who can credibly act as variegated voices for the brand. The building of these networks to reach consumers nationally and locally will be one of the next challenges for social brand marketers.

In mid-November, Best Buy set up a social gift giving forum separate from its BestBuy domain without much media fanfare beyond TV spots. GiftsThatDo sponsors influential tech and shopping bloggers who write articles about gift-giving ideas and schedule “Twitter parties,” involving bloggers (like Chip Chick, below); shoppers connect for deals and prizes.

Ideally, brand advocates promote something purely for the love of a product or service with no expectation of reward. As the practice becomes more institutionalized, however, sustaining advocacy marketing over the long run will require advocate renumeration and appreciation. For GiftsThatDo, Best Buy harnesses its brand and in the process wins visiability with shoppers for its affiliated blogger network; Best Buy grants these bloggers affiliate revenue opportunities and maybe some sponsorship cash in exchange for their writing articles and participating in Twitter sessions to promote its products. The other way to gain advocate loyalty is by random acts of appreciation, as explained in this segment of the Wall Steet Journal article:

“The week after Thanksgiving, the 22-year-old Dallas resident posted on Twitter about her grocery run at a Target store. The retailer replied with a surprise $25 gift card, which spurred Mrs. Pyron to text her family and friends about Target’s move and to circulate the retailer’s message to her 350 Twitter followers. ‘Target definitely won me over,’ Mrs. Pyron said.”

Many start-ups have entered the space to provide advocacy solutions that leverage brands’ existing social networks. Crowdtap develops programs for brands’ fans, followers, and CRM contacts that reward their participation in games, surveys, and other campaigns to grow their advocate network. Zuberance also converts fans into advocates and involves company employees as well.

The same lessons of brand advocacy can be applied by brands at the local level and to SMBs. The most natural pool of local brand advocates are reviewers on YelpFoursquare, and other such engines. A simple brand advocacy program for SMBs may include the following steps:

  1. Offer a freebie for a Yelp review, or send a surprise gift certificate or coupon for a posted review like Target does.
  2. Create a business blog, and like GiftsThatDo, sponsor the contributions of local bloggers. In the case of a restaurant, find all the local foodies on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest and invite them for a free dinner in exchange for a blog post.
  3. Institute a “trade and share reviews” program with other local businesses like a local referral network might do.
  4. Grow the advocate network by involving network friends in referring more participants and repeating Steps 1 and 2 above. Involve local charities.

Although building a brand advocate network on social media potentially involves a lot of quid pro quo costs, it also likely creates stronger commercial relationships with the customer base than any campaign that tries to buy loyalty with a discount coupon.

Patrick Kitano is a founding principal of Brand into Media, a strategy group for social brand management solutions, and administrator of the Breaking News Network, a national hyperlocal network devoted to community service. He is reachable via Twitter (@pkitano) and email ([email protected]).