Influencers vs. advocates, part 2 — why?

“The future belongs to marketers who establish a foundation and process where interested people can market to each other.” – Seth Godin, “Unleashing the Ideavirus”

Last week, we kicked off this three-part series by explaining who influencers and advocates are. Now that our definitions are in order, we’re ready to look at why these people matter to marketers.

When working with either influencers or advocates, the underlying principle is the same: we all trust people we know more than we trust advertising. If a brand’s message comes from someone you know personally (like a friend) or even someone you have a more one-way relationship with (like a blogger), you’re far more likely to pay attention and take action as a result. As Emanuel Rosen said in The Anatomy of Buzz Revisited, “buzz travels most smoothly through channels built on trust.”

Although influencers may not have as intimate a relationship with their audience as advocates do, they can reach a large number of targeted people quickly. If you’re collaborating with an influencer to create content for your owned properties or theirs, they can help craft the branded message for that particular audience to maximize its effectiveness.

According to researcher Barak Libai, influencers can also serve as important accelerators. Broadly speaking, word-of-mouth marketing can do two things: initiate conversations that wouldn’t otherwise have happened, and make conversations happen sooner than they otherwise would. Libai has argued that many products — especially great ones — would eventually reach the masses on their own, but influencers help expedite the process by getting the word out to lots of people quickly. (For some products, like books and movies, this speed is essential.)

But while influencers can increase awareness at scale, they can’t necessarily deliver high levels of authentic engagement, especially if their audience is so large that individual relationships are weak or impersonal. This is where advocates come in: although they know fewer people each, they know them well, and thus a recommendation is more likely to carry real weight and lead to a purchase or other action. Jay Baer said it well: “Advocacy is driven by the depth of conviction, and influencers typically are less committed to the product or company than are actual customer advocates.”

That’s why advocates are the true word-of-mouth superstars. Although working with influencers can be a powerful tactic, it’s your brand’s most loyal fans who really make a lasting difference.

Nielsen validated this in its most recent Trust in Advertising report, which revealed that 84% of consumers trust “recommendations from people I know,” a higher percentage than for any other form of advertising (and a full 15 percentage points higher than the second-highest option, “branded websites”). Perhaps even more importantly, 84% also reported being likely to take action based on a personal recommendation. Advertising that can lead directly to a desired action is, of course, the holy grail; recommendations are that advertising.

Advocate-driven word of mouth works so well because it occurs authentically and naturally. According to Jonah Berger in his book Contagious, “Every day, the average American engages in more than sixteen word-of-mouth episodes…this kind of social talk is so basic and frequent that we don’t even realize we’re doing it.” The beauty of advocacy marketing is that your brand can find a place in conversations that are already happening; it’s far less of an interruption than other forms of advertising.

Advocates also offer a long-term association. Whereas you might engage an influencer for a campaign or two, advocates are true fans of your brand and — if you treat them well — are likely to remain that way. While engaging your true brand advocates may lack the thrill or the headlines of landing a big celebrity endorsement, it’s an invaluable investment in your brand’s future. Advocates are, according to Zuberance, “a sustainable marketing force…eager to support, promote, and defend your brand on a long-term basis.”

Finally, a moderately sized advocacy campaign, with hundreds or thousands of fans organically spreading the word, is more likely to drive action than one with a well-connected influencer or two because consumers often need to hear about a product or service a few times before deciding to pull the trigger. We all have different exposure thresholds. If a close friend tells you about a new book she loves, you might make a mental note of it but nothing more. If three or four different friends mention it, though, you’ll probably decide that you need to give it a read yourself. This network effect is one of the reasons why increasing the number of advocates you initially engage can dramatically improve your campaign’s impact.

So: now that we know the “why” of influencer and advocate marketing, what do we do about it? Join us back here in two weeks to find out.

You can check out Parts 1 and 3 of this series here and here.