Rethinking Advocacy: Finding value in unequal customer relationships

Liz Richardson

Give and take. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Mutual benefits. A win-win for all.

That is in essence what customer advocate marketing has in mind as its goal, even if we don’t use such blatant terms. The idea is to offer something of value to get something of value in return – specifically, to offer your customers whatever they deem valuable—whether status, training, spotlight or rewards—in exchange for customer testimonials, references, referrals, feedback, testing, and so on. In short, your customers become your organization’s most valuable advocates (and marketers), and in return, you become the biggest advocate for your customers.

And that is generally what most organizations have in mind when they launch and run an advocacy program – creating a mutually beneficial relationship that is desirable, enjoyable and prized by all -- and I've written about the great value of these relationships. Heck, perhaps this is what we all have in mind when partaking in most types of relationships.

The concept is simple enough to understand and it's definitely got a lot of truth to it. But what I want to do here is dig a little deeper to determine what’s at the core of the most passionate advocate activity.

What exactly is advocacy?

The Merriam Webster definition for advocate is “a person who argues for or supports a cause or policy.” We can reasonably expand that to include a person who supports another individual, organization or idea.

While there is great value in advocacy built on a “give and take” foundation, the most compelling forms of advocacy are the ones where the belief in something is so strong that advocacy is given with nothing expected in return. This is rare when it comes to an organization or person with power. Even if we invest in a company or believe strongly in a politician, we often have expectations when we give our support of what they will be able to deliver down the road.

Even friendships or romantic relationships take on a lot of this underlying expectation. There are expectations to what roles we play in any given relationship. When the relationship ceases to be beneficial to one or the other, someone is bound to eventually move on to greener pastures.

The best advocacy.

But when I think of advocacy in its most compelling form, it has more to do with belief, respect and love than it does with expected dividends. The idea of a pay off or return on investment isn’t there in the forefront. There is a selfless element and an inherent desire for good - whether good as a whole or the good of an individual – and a noticeable lack of thought regarding reward.

I’m a mother of two (soon to be three) sons, and I often marvel at the natural “advocacy” one feels for their children. As soon as that child is in your arms (and even before), a parent is an ardent advocate. As they grow, you promote this child by sharing pictures, telling stories, protecting and advocating for him. You will stand up for this child if they are under verbal or physical attack. And you do all of this without expecting the child to do anything in return or pay you back. We don’t keep tallies: “You owe me for teaching you to walk, providing you with opportunities, and making sure you had friends at your birthday party.” You inherently believe in and love this child, and you naturally advocate for them for their own good without the thought of what they bring to the table.

Parenting is of course an extreme example. Who else do you pop out into the world that looks like you? Kind of an unfair comparison. True, true. So let’s look at some other relationships.

Many friendships are legitimately based on equal value to both parties, as are marriages and romantic relationships. But when it comes to your deepest friendships and your strongest relationships, we often realize it’s the people who stayed by our side when we didn’t have anything to offer them that are the most treasured. It’s the friend you pushed away or the spouse you hurt but still stood by you that has made some of the deepest and longest lasting impressions on us. We could say they “advocated” for you without expecting something in return. Often these more selfless forms of advocacy are the ones that inspire the truest and most valuable response – and the most passionate advocacy in return.

So what does that have to do with me and my customers?

But wait, Liz, customer/vendor relationships don’t function on that level. Customers aren’t going to stick around when you stop improving your product, start giving lousy customer service or stop engaging with them. You are, of course, absolutely right. But here’s where I’m going with this.

It’s the advocacy that comes for free with no expectations of return that is the most authentic and often the most powerful. That’s pretty easy to understand. As customer advocacy becomes a more and more prominent program in organizations, we all know to begin our search for customer advocates with those who have been advocating for you without even being asked.

Flip that on its head. Has your company (or even you personally) been advocating for your customers without being asked or seeking a reward? For instance, when you set up your customer advocacy program, was your first thought “What can they do for us?” or was it “What can we give to them?” I’ll go first. Mine was “What can they do for us?” But wait a second, I just argued that your most valuable advocates are the ones who are willingly advocating for you without expectation of acknowledgement or reward. So, why would it not follow that the organizations and companies most valuable to a customer would be those that advocate willingly on their behalf without any expectation of acknowledgement or reward?


All relationships are a two-way street going both ways. It’s not just how authentic your customers are on your behalf but how authentic you are on their behalf as well. Is there a give and take to any good relationship? Of course. But if you aren’t willing to give without the expectation of taking, then how valuable are you as an advocate of your customers’?

Are we showing the respect, value and love that is found in the best kind of advocacy to our customers? Do we acknowledge them only when they are “doing” for us, or are we there from the day they become our customers being one of their most loyal and outspoken advocates? Do we stop advocating for customers who aren’t or can’t advocate for us? Do we only pay attention to those special customers whose logos we’d like on our website?

Maybe it’s time we remember that not all valuable relationships are simply built on return on investment and that perhaps we would have a lot more customers who were gladly advocating for us if we were the kind of company advocating for our customers with less forethought for what they can do for us in return.

What exactly does that look like?

Some of you might be thinking, “Well, that’s a nice sentiment, but what exactly do you have in mind?” When setting up your customer advocacy program, you will of course have activities you hope your customers will do on your behalf. But before you even go there, why not start out thinking of what you can bring of value to them, whether they decide to become advocates or not?

  1. Let them know that, no matter what, you’re already a big fan. Just like we (hopefully) don’t wait to ensure we are going to receive a gift before deciding to give one, don’t let whether your customer has true advocate potential be the basis for showing them some love. That might involve sending a small but thoughtful token or gift when inviting them into your program before they have decided whether or not they want to do a single thing for your brand. It can be actively following customers on social feeds so that you are there to acknowledge and congratulate their company or personal wins. Wish them a Happy Birthday, congratulate them on a promotion or read their blog post. Sometimes it’s as simple as just checking in and asking if they need help, have any questions or if there is any way you can help make their job easier. From day one, treat each customer with extreme value and appreciation. Go out of your way to treat them like a VIP, whether they have made a $100,000 purchase $100.
  2. Give them what they’re looking for. Your advocacy program should be first and foremost about what you can offer your valuable customers, so start there. What do they need to be successful? Is it access to training? Is it mentoring from other customers? Is it having a way to really get their feature requests across? Then find a way to give them those things. Be their advocate within your own company and make sure you are acting as their voice. It doesn’t matter if they are willing to do a case study for you or not (although obviously that’s super if they do). Give them what it takes to make them successful. That means investing some time, effort and money in folks who may not advocate for you at all.
  3. Let them shine. Find ways to let your customers shine, not ways you can get your customers to help your brand shine. This will mean getting to know your customer, what their role is and the things they are most interested in. This could involve recommending them for a media opportunity, sharing content they worked on with others in your network, or even writing them a great recommendation on LinkedIn after you’ve become familiar with their work. When you are a big fan of someone, you find ways to brag, promote and stand beside them.

I know your job as an advocate marketer comes with a bottom line, and it’s natural to reward customers who make your job profitable and successful. But what if we just were to add a touch of humanity and think of these people first and foremost as…well…people and not just prospective marketing tools. As customer advocate marketers, we like to tout authenticity in relationships. I think people are smart enough to see when someone engages in a relationship just to get something out of it. And guess what, customers are people too. So what if we did something a bit crazy and strove to be marketers (and people) who try to engage and bring value to others without thinking first of what kind of value they can bring to us? Who knows what could happen.