The Blessing and Curse of Brand Advocacy

The changing way in which customers review products can be great for business ... or terrible.

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This image shows a Yelp web site on a computer screen in Los Angeles Thursday March 18, 2010. Yelp, one of the most popular, fast-growing online review sites, has been hit by several lawsuits from small businesses claiming they've been pressured to advertise so that Yelp will squash negative reviews users have posted about them. Yelp denies the claims, but exactly what happened may never be known.

You ask a friend where she got her new Macbook Air and she gushes about the selection and service at her local electronics store so much that you decide to check it out next time you're in her neighborhood. Your boss can't decide where to go out to dinner, so you pull up Yelp on your phone and find a nearby restaurant with the highest ratings. Whether you're aware of it or not, both you and the businesses you patronize benefit from brand advocacy.

Brand advocacy is the latest reincarnation of a concept that most of us are quite familiar with: word–of–mouth advertising, individual recommendations, vouching and the like. It relies on advocates promoting brands via personal marketing, which can be as simple as telling a friend verbally or posting on Facebook.

This method is incredibly effective because of a simple – and very, very human – concept: trust. We trust our friends, the Yelp community, particular bloggers or Twitter personalities who share their preferences and influence our decisions accordingly. From the consumer’s perspective, personal testimony is vastly more relatable than pure numbers, and we value reviews over ratings. How often have you looked at a Yelp or Amazon entry without reading the reviews?

Additionally, brand advocacy pays off immensely for the brands themselves. Forget employing people to stand on street corners with signs or hand out flyers. Advocates can be anyone – employees, partners or simply satisfied customers, and they aren't in it for the money. Advocates are in it for the experience, the interaction and, most of all, the community. Advocates, especially those in the younger generation, crave engagement with their favorite brands, and as a result experience an authenticity that cuts through the overmarketing of the modern age, of which we are all too aware.

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Brands that engage with their consumers provide, in traditional terms, a personal touch that not only creates advocates but keeps them happy to promote their favorite brands. It's a win–win for both businesses and buyers. Apple does an excellent job of this – its cult of brushed aluminum and minimalist design creates some of the biggest tech buzz in the world, and its ardent customers remain devoted across both platforms and generations.

Advocates, however, are not always the golden dream children of every brand manager's fantasy. The same genuine nature that makes them so attractive also makes them a liability, in the sense that brands simply can't control every action or statement by their advocates. A negative action by an advocate might reflect poorly on a brand, or an advocate might decide to take a brand in a direction that the marketing team might not have foreseen.

Notable examples in recent memory include Princeton mom Susan A. Patton who urged female Ivy League students to snatch up husbands while undergraduates on elite university campuses (and if that husband happened to be her son, so much the better!) It would have been impossible for Princeton University's PR team to plan for the backlash that followed against both Princeton in particular and the Ivy League in general, and the ensuing discussion that raged across editorial pages of major publications. Mrs. Patton was clearly advocating for her alma mater, but the message she spread was not necessarily one that Princeton shared.

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Another example might be more familiar to those who follow the Jersey Shore television series – if those still exist. Clothing brand Abercrombie & Fitch was worried that viewers would associate their moose logo with the party–hard and uber–tanned cast. The company went so far as to ask Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino to cease and desist wearing the brand’s product line.

However, My Community Manager co–founder, Tim McDonald says, "Keeping a consistent message and having others in your community who understand the difference between a rogue brand advocate and the actual brand is a way to proactively mitigate any negative reaction."

One of the other problems that often comes along with brand advocacy is manufactured negative press, an especially irritating and persistent dilemma on ratings–based sites such as Yelp.

As SafelyStay CEO Andrew Bate points out, "The good news is consumers are used to some negativity around an authentic social conversation and genuine brand, so this unmanaged and negative brand advocacy is not necessarily devastating."

Luckily for both brands and site users, it's easy enough to make bots that churn out negative ratings and hire people to write generic slurs, but exceedingly difficult to match both the quality and passion of good advocates. This discrepancy is incredibly obvious thanks to the "rate this review" option present on many such ratings–based sites, helping viewers separate the wheat from the chaff and determine as a community what is truly genuine.

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Moreover, author of the WSJ bestselling book "Think Like Zuck,"  Ekaterina Walter explains,

There is such a thing as negative advocacy. When someone doesn't approve of your brand actions or your products and has an opportunity to reach a wide audience, it may become detrimental to your brand reputation. But there is a fine line between love and hate and I believe that a situation like this can be turned around by truly caring about your customers and doing the right thing. Instead of being sheepish or scared to engage, brands should use any golden opportunity to turn brand hate into brand love through building meaningful and, most importantly, authentic relationships with their customers. Even in this situation, positive brand advocacy a lot of times turns into true influence when the army of your brand fans organically impact the negative advocacy and, through their knowledge and passion, turn it into brand love. When you build relationships with your advocates they become your volunteer marketing force that educates, tells stories, provides support, and defends you without you asking them to do so. That is the highest form of brand–bonding."

In today's society of counting clicks, views and retweets, it is extremely difficult to quantify the effects of brand advocacy. It is simultaneously valuable and impossible to measure the impact of impassioned conversations between friends or determine which reviews sealed consumer purchases. A fundamental shift in perspective is required: one away from lifeless numbers and more towards where those numbers are originating – the paths through which advocacy flows, whether through Facebook, Yelp or even offline, via personal interactions. Brand advocacy necessitates that we expand the definition of effective marketing and focus on small, tightly knit communities of devoted individuals with a high level of brand interaction.

Blaine Ponto is a senior at Dartmouth College majoring in Middle Eastern Studies with a minor in Linguistics. She recently completed an internship at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START Center). She is a social media enthusiast who has been on Twitter since the Iranian Green Movement.

Lisa Chau is a private consultant focused on social media and cross–platform marketing. Previously, she spent five years working for her alma mater Dartmouth College, as assistant director of alumni affairs and assistant director of PR for the Tuck School of Business. She has also taught at MIT, and guest lectured MBA and undergraduate courses in e–business Strategy at Baruch College and The New School. 

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