Customer Engagement Pathways: Loyalty Structure Supporting Advocacy Practice

Oftentimes, the best ideas bubble to the surface at the most unexpected times. In preparation for delivering a workshop in London in April last year, I undertook a routine, deep analysis of the client's advocacy program.

On paper, the program was doing everything right: Excellent brand, strong value proposition, fantastic benefits for active advocates, and a hugely committed and savvy program manager. However, despite best efforts, advocates were not engaging. There were some wins along the way, but typically from an extremely small subset of the entire audience. We had tried to get the program on track by experimenting with new recruitment and engagement strategies, and doubled down on exclusive content, opportunities and campaigns. Still, not much changed. Advocates weren't plugging in. Why?

Around that time, I had a conversation with a colleague about frequent flier programs. We mused on how much those extra perks matter, especially when you are flying here and there a few times a month. Without going into much detail - his status is with one airline; mine with another - we shared an immediate understanding of the nuts and bolts of each other's status programs. And, there it was. The elusive Why.

What if the reason advocates aren't engaging is they don't really know what it is they are participating in - or why. What if the fluid and subjective structure typical of advocate marketing programs is the problem? Are the primary messages about peer networking, professional growth opportunities and the chance to become BFFs with a business actually getting in the way of a company's ability to cultivate deeper relationships with inclined customers, and to activate those customers around specific business objectives? What if the answer to under-performing advocate engagement programs is to borrow the rigidity of the participant > benefit structure and key messages from the world of loyalty programs and use those as a firm foundation on which to build in opportunities to discover, nurture and mobilize advocates?

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Doing a 180 on Loyalty

For most of the 15 years I have dedicated to advocate marketing, Loyalty has been a dirty word. Not generally speaking - I love loyalty programs and benefit hugely from my membership in programs like Air Canada Altitude, PC Optimum, and Starbucks Rewards - but from an advocate marketing best practice perspective. Loyalty always felt too transactional, single-track and impersonal. Let's be real: despite my status, Air Canada still doesn't really know (or care) who I am, and has never made an effort to develop any sort of meaningful touchpoint with me. Yet, I actively advocate. And I spend. And I recommend. I have that little Altitude badge thing dangling from my carry-on bag just in case anyone else lined up in Zone 2 cares. I even defend. I love hitting Altitude status year over year. I plan for it. I pay for it. I once flew from Vancouver to Victoria and back again on Boxing Day just to ensure I made the requirements for the next status tier before year end. Imagine if Air Canada did actively nurture and mobilize? What then? All this to say my behaviour is exactly the type of advocacy my London client and others would do just about anything to see from their customers.

Loyalty-Advocacy Fusion: Curating Value-Driven Advocate Journeys.

As I prepared for the client workshop in London, it occurred to me: Members of their advocacy program were likely confused on how or why to participate. They probably didn't consider themselves advocates and didn't understand, in that very narrow window of opportunity upon joining, how to navigate the program environment. Why? A few reasons:

  1. We tend to communicate the value proposition of and manage advocacy programs in a way that is homogenous and all-inclusive. Being a member of this program means X, Y and Z (regardless of how much measurable value you bring to the business). An advocate is an advocate. Jane delivered $1M in new pipeline via 2 solid peer referrals; Joe completed 543 "fun" and "educational" challenges. Both card-carrying ACME Corp Advocates. Joe is likely at a higher status level than Jane in the program. Joe feels like a super advocate and spends an hour every other day in the program platform. Jane pops by every few months but doesn't do much because she doesn't fully understand what being an "advocate" is all about.
  2. Different advocate personas are motivated... differently. Some want to talk shop about the product, others want gift cards, while others still are most interested in opportunities to build their professional brand. Catering to the whim and fancy of individual advocates is not scalable. Even with an FTE or more at the helm of a stack of shiny tools, delivering highly personalized value at scale has limits if there are infinite combinations of advocate activities and personas at play. The lack of pre-defined "pathways" in the program leaves advocates without a map in a maze of activities. And, often, program managers are using the same tactics to engage all program members, instead of mindfully skewing from lower to higher touch as a customer grows via various activation opportunities.
  3. We tend to structure advocate marketing programs to deliver results monthly. This month over month model works great for plotting content and campaigns and reporting internally, but leaves little room for the long game. We aspire to have advocates spend time actively participating in our programs every week, yet we give those same advocates very little guidance on what to aspire to, why it matters on a longer term (annual) basis, and what they need to do to get there.

A strategy and structure focused on guiding customers to aspire to the top tier of status in a program will drive more ROI for the business because it sets forth a series of value-driven milestones that must be achieved to reach that top level member status. In the same way that I know exactly what I need to do to attain 50K or 75K status with Air Canada, a loyalty-advocacy fusion approach clearly lays out what is required to move up the status ladder, and what is in it for me when I get there. No grey areas. A limited number of milestones: strategically-aligned activities and contributions that must be undertaken in order to ascend the ranks and reap the benefits at each level of status. The milestones along the journey provide customers with a crystal clear roadmap within the program. And, like all of those excellent loyalty and status programs we are all familiar with, plenty of encouragement along the way to aspire to those higher levels by adopting the very specific behaviours set out by the company.

The practice of customer advocacy is well understood to differ significantly from customer loyalty programs. However, the structure and language associated with customer loyalty programs is more widely adopted and easily understood than advocacy by our customers.
Let’s use this to our advantage.

This fusion approach requires equal parts strategy, incentive and gamification. Think of the levels of the program as Customer Engagement Pathways or curated outcomes-driven journeys designed to be supported by status - badges, levels and incentives - that lead advocates towards the key objectives of the business. Key to this approach is maintaining the interest of all participating customers regardless of their current level. While there are varying degrees of value for (nearly) everyone in a loyalty program, structurally there is always less on offer at the top of the funnel and much more at the bottom. Spend more, get more. Visit more, get more. Fly more, get more. The proposal here is to add to these tried-and-true loyalty dimensions: Review more, get more. Refer more, get more. Reference more, get more. A "bronze" level with limited benefits for the broad base; A "platinum" level with all the bells and whistles for the type of customer who has the desire to actively advocate and now has the map to get there.

The practice of customer advocacy is well understood to differ significantly from customer loyalty programs. However, the structure and language associated with customer loyalty programs is more widely adopted and easily understood than advocacy by our customers. Let’s use this to our advantage.

Start by speaking in terms that advocates will already understand from the myriad loyalty programs they are likely members of, and adopt a more rigid approach to levels and benefits:

  • Drastically reduce the number of ways advocates can achieve levels
  • Offer advocates ample, direct opportunities to complete the level requirements
  • Assign and deliver a sliding scale of specific benefits at each level
  • Clearly communicate the levels, what is required and what’s in it for the advocate. Tie level attainment to the strategic priorities and nuances of the business overall.
  • Take an annual approach to certain aspects of status
  • Focus on the funnel and ensure you have a plan to pro-actively identify and nurture customers to move on up

Since April last year, I have proposed this approach to three key clients. Turns out, it made good, common sense each time. Transformation projects are now underway or complete. From enterprise orgs to those a bit smaller, infusing loyalty best practices into existing advocacy programs to jumpstart ROI is getting the green light. If you are interested in exploring loyalty-advocacy fusion for your program, let's connect. If you are already on this path, let me know how it's going.

In my next post, I'll dive into five steps to adapt an existing advocacy program to a loyalty fusion approach, including the impacts on ROI and reporting. Over the next several months, I'll also share additional insights gathered from a handful of clients who are piloting this approach. Stay tuned. As always, your thoughts and feedback are most welcome.

January 29, 2020
Deena Zenyk