Practicing The Art Of Authentic Advocacy: Relinquishing the Illusion of Control

I love being a customer advocate marketing manager.

Interacting with customers, getting them excited about your product, enabling them to share their experiences, giving them the spotlight and making it a rewarding experience for them can be downright fun. You get to help make interacting with your brand exciting and unique.

In exchange, your company ends up with customer references and content that are significantly more compelling, authentic and stimulating than anything your marketing team could put out themselves. Surely, customer advocate marketing is for everyone!

However, as customer advocate marketing gains momentum, there’s a real danger that brands will try to use these programs as yet just another way to do the same “advertising” they have already been doing. Hiding behind their customers’ names and faces while doing it, they’ll use advocacy programs to have customers act as parrots and repeat carefully planned and censored content.

It’s easy to do! Customer advocacy programs can give you a powerful army of advocates who are willing to engage with your brand in many ways. If you view customer advocacy and advocate marketing programs as a way to get your own message through by having your customers repeat it, you will miss the true value of what a customer advocacy program can offer.

Customer advocacy can be a fine balancing act. It brings so much value as a way to engage passionate customers who are willing to share their stories and recommend your solution. As they speak to prospects and engage in online conversations as your brand advocates, they bring an authenticity your brand cannot hope to match.

However, the true idea of customer advocacy is not just to locate and engage advocates for your brand. It's to simultaneously become the biggest advocate for your customers.

Customer advocacy is a two-way street. It’s not just customers becoming advocates for your brand. If we think of it this way, we quickly shift the focus of the advocacy program to center on what the customer can do for the brand. Keep heading solely down this road and it won’t take long before you no longer have a true advocacy program. You’ll simply have another advertising platform, not much different from the ones you are already running.

What we as customer advocate marketers have to push ourselves to remember is that while we do hope to grow brand advocates, it’s just as much about becoming advocates ourselves. That’s right. We, as individuals and as brands, become our customers’ strongest, most enthusiastic advocates.

When we remember this advocacy works both ways, we become much better at building an authentic advocacy program. But guess what. It’s hard work. And we’re a little out of practice. As marketers, we are skilled at taking every opportunity to jump into the lime-light we can get. We aren't nearly as skilled as giving it up and shifting the attention and credit elsewhere. We can easily forget that the program is as much about showcasing our customers’ successes as it is meeting our own marketing objectives.

As the world of customer advocacy marketing evolves, it’s going to take practice to build programs that are not used as just another avenue for pushing out our own story, our own message and our own content. Such programs will quickly lose their value and their momentum. Instead we must strive to create advocacy programs that are conduits for our customers to share their own stories, their own messages and their own content.

It’s not as easy as it may sound. So here are two short (yet hard) items to remember and strive toward on your journey to practicing the art of authentic advocacy.

1. Give up the spotlight

You aren't Russel Crowe. You're Proximo.

You're who? Exactly. But I'll explain. Although 14 years old now (where the heck did that time go?), Gladiator is still one of my all time favorite movies. Russell Crowe plays a betrayed, 2nd century Roman general named Maximus who is forced into a life of slavery in the gladiator arenas. Throughout the story, he fights to revenge his family and win his freedom. And he's Russel Crowe, so of course he's the hero. Proximo (played by Oliver Reed) is a retired gladiator himself who gives Maximus vital knowledge and real help in gaining his freedom. In fact, you could argue that Maximus couldn't have succeeded without the role Proximo played. He isn't the hero, but he was a vital part in making a hero. He was a hero-helper.

Asking fans to become advocates does not mean they turn around and tell your story for you. They tell their story for you. You simply give them encouragement and a place to do it. As tempting as it might be, don't try to make their story your story. Simply give them the opportunity and the spotlight for sharing their own tale. Remember, this is more about them than it is your product. If you were instrumental in the making of a hero or creating a hero moment, you can trust that you will be a vital and prominent part of the story.

Practice point:Encourage your advocates to truly tell their own story. Tell them the goal is to hear how they were able to save the day, not your brand. Assure them that they have the freedom to tell their story any way they choose – that means mentioning your brand as little or as much as they see fit. A little guidance is fine, but make sure at the end of the day it's really about them and not you. Your customer's story is one of your greatest assets. Don't influence and tweak it in a way that eradicates all that valuable authenticity.

2. Relinquish the idea of control

My first point may seem pretty easy, but it's not. And this is why. Remember when I said we aren't used to giving up the spotlight? Well, we're even worse at giving up control. For ages, one of the main purposes of marketing has been to control the brand image. But if you haven't gotten the memo, you're no longer in control of that brand image.

Sure, sure. You can put out any kind of advertising you like showcasing your company as a hip, eco-conscious or customer-centric organization, but your true brand image is in the hands of your customers and everyone else who interacts with your company. Every experience with your brand can result in a personal reference, whether you ask for it or not. You certainly don't get to edit and approve every mention of your brand on social media. And jumping in on those online conversations about your product or field as a brand gives you a Klout score of about 0.

If you want to reap the rewards of having customer advocates join conversations, give references and speak about your product, then you need to remember you are not in control. You don’t get to censor or dictate what your advocates say about your solution. Don’t tell them how they could potentially answer a forum thread (lesson learned) or how they should respond to a blog post. Don’t provide a script for a prospect reference call. You are giving them the power to speak about their experiences with your brand and hopefully have built the relationships (and the product) that keep their references positive and enthusiastic. From there, you relinquish control.

If you want customer advocates to be valuable, believable references, they need to know their honesty is valued as much as their praise. Remember, this is their story, not yours.

Practice point: Ask your advocates to tell you how your organization comes across to them and what words they would use to describe your solution. Embrace the fact that your advocates may not see you as having the same image you wish to portray. They may be onto something you never considered, and chances are they have a much less biased view.

As we as marketers grow alongside the growing field of customer advocacy, it’s important we don’t lose site of the true value authentic advocacy can bring. Remembering that your brand is not the true hero of the story and giving your advocates the freedom to be transparent, truthful and uncensored references is a good place to start.

June 20, 2014
Liz Richarson