Is an Advocate Forever? Possibly. Maybe.

Deena Zenyk

It’s a question that comes up frequently in conversations with clients. And, unfortunately, it’s not an easy one to answer.

The long-term success of an advocate marketing program requires a certain alignment of stars. You need a whip-smart advocate marketer who can build out a scalable program on a solid foundation of business goals and objectives, and is willing check their progress against targets frequently and fearlessly. You need the right platform to connect with your advocates and integrate with your CRM, amongst other systems. And, you need to find your happiest customers who are ready, willing and able to actively participate.

From the outset, most of this is pretty straightforward marketing stuff. Hire right for the role, get the right tools, and dredge your database for folks who meet certain criteria, like 9s and 10s on a recent NPS or top contributors in your existing support community. But, advocate marketing isn’t a just-add-water type of practice. Generating a frenzy of activity at launch isn’t a stretch, if you know your audience and have invested time in crafting compelling, perfect-match opportunities and activities, incentives and rewards. But, then what? What happens when the new program smell fades? Well, that’s the hard part.

Going, going, gone…

Seeing advocate engagement dip a month or so after a brilliant, successful program launch typically causes concern, which is quickly followed by a mishmash of quick-hit activities and ill-fated advocate perks and communications. “Come back! Get a $5 gift card!”; “Was it something we said?"; "Tell us why you don’t like us anymore!” These short game tactics don’t tend to offer much in the way of long term gain. Blatant incentives, impassioned pleas. Neither lend themselves to genuine customer advocacy. Instead, this type of transactional approach stands to erode the value of your program – both for you and your advocates. As a last ditch attempt? Sure, why not. Throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. But, what if there was a smarter way to design your program right from the get-go? What if by thinking about advocacy less as a marketer and more as a storyteller you could future proof engagement? Let’s explore.

T’was a Dark and Stormy Night

Us humans, we love a good story. We love telling them as much as we like listening to them. From Brown Bear to the Bible; around the campfire and the water cooler. Stories work well for us on so many levels. We use them to define and refine our world views nearly from day one. We live vicariously through them. We feel emotion. We see our own lives unfold in the most far removed plot lines. We connect. We experience. We dream. We adopt. We adapt. We learn. We grow. We share. We desire.

Apply storytelling technique and literary device to marketing plans is a strategy I have played around with for many years. Narrative, theme, foreshadowing and amplification. These all work well. There have been some home run hits and a healthy handful of blind misses along the way. But, what I have realized and seen tremendous success with is the idea of curated engagement. That is, plotting out a 12-month marketing plan with intentional slowdowns, measuring engagement decreases as a success metric, and building up incredible climaxes of engagement that blow targets out of the water.

This method follows what some of you will remember from early grade school instruction on story structure:

Curated engagement is about embracing this tried and true storytelling approach and capitalizing on our universal need to rest and reset. After all, advocacy isn’t a never-ending sprint. Expecting your program members to be active top contributors month over month isn’t realistic. It’s not… forever.

Think about this approach in terms of peaks and valleys, with the latter being brief, but well designated advocacy breaks.

Peaks. Valleys. And the Hum.

Keeping the lights on within your program year-round is important. I call this the hum. Offering your advocates 3 to 5 challenges or activities a week is about the right cadence for the hum. It is the lowest level of effort a marketer should put into a program. It’s just enough to keep it operational, but not enough to drive meaningful, long-term results or satisfaction. The hum is your baseline of activity. It’s always there. The basics. It’s the core story line that is reliable week over week.

A common mistake I see is advocate marketers relying on the hum to drive results. But, it’s not enough. Not today, not six months or a year from now.

Your peaks and valleys live on top of the hum. And, unlike the hum, those peaks and valleys – campaigns, contests, events, announcements – are not predictable. A common mistake I see is advocate marketers relying on the hum to drive results. But, it’s not enough. Not today, not six months or a year from now. That’s where those peaks and valleys come in.

Timing is Everything

With all successful strategies, when you roll out is just as important as what you're delivering and how you're delivering it. While the timing of this curated engagement approach will depend on many factors specific to the tempo of your business, what follows here is a simplified yet adaptable model.

In month one, the hum. Your advocates are checking in, you might be doing a bit of push marketing around certain activities and opportunities, but you are operating at minimal effort and therefore driving minimal engagement. Intentional down time. Crazy, right? Bear with me.

In month two, the hum begins to fade into the background as you prepare your advocates for a curated peak that is coming in month three. This is known as Rising Action in typical story structure. You start to drop hints (foreshadowing!) and ask for feedback around but not directly about what’s to come; your focus is on building advocate anticipation and excitement.

Whatever it is, you have to go all out. No holds barred. You have to nail that peak activity. Then, let your advocates slide into a slow down.

Month three hits and so does your peak or climax. You drop a killer campaign or contest to support your top-line program objectives. Maybe you have a target around referrals or online reviews; perhaps you are supporting a key product launch or event. Whatever it is, you have to go all out. No holds barred. You have to nail that peak activity. Then, let your advocates slide into a slow down. Falling Action and Resolution.

A curated engagement approach not only helps you manage your budget, but your time, too. In month one, you should have plenty of time to develop your peak month plan. Get your creative ready; get your legal signed off. Your budget is being used strategically to support incentives and rewards specific to your peak activity, which is designed to support your most important objectives. Win! Remember, the hum only requires a minimal amount of your effort, and a fraction of your budget to fulfill those evergreen incentives. This is all about using your extra time and allotted budget wisely to fully support your program goals.

After your peak month, let your advocates gracefully slide back into that restful valley. Back to the hum. And, keep in mind, this quarterly or three-month model is just an example. You’ll likely need to adapt this approach to timing that works best for your business, be that monthly or every eight weeks.

In speaking about this approach recently with the very talented advocate marketer Liz Richardson, she astutely saw the opportunity for folks who are managing programs with more than one distinct persona (employees and customers, for example) to stagger peak activities for those personas, thereby creating a bit of a perpetual canon workflow for the advocate marketer. Remember singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as a child, with each singer entering the singing round at different times? That’s an easy way to conceptualize this.

It Takes Courage.

Curated engagement is a brave approach because you have to be confident in your ability to drive results back up. You have to know your audience and design your peak plans to be can’t-misses, not nice-to-dos for your advocates. You also have to be okay with reporting on intentional decreases before your peak. Your leadership might take a bit of convincing that those decreases are actually a sign of a healthy advocacy community. You do that convincing with stellar peak-time results.

Try it for a quarter. Put everything you’ve got into curating that peak. Test this approach. Whether monthly or quarterly, this will become the rhythm of your program, which like a good story, is something that people tend to like, too. Over time, your advocates will feel and appreciate your program rhythm. You’ll be alleviating the pressure they may feel to be constant contributors – a state of mind that doesn’t always lead to quality advocacy – and improving your own workflow efficiency as well.

Is an advocate forever? It’s too early to say. This approach may help in the meantime.