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Advocacy, a key driver in growth but lay your foundations well

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I attended a briefing this week by Weber Shandwick on their very interesting European Advocacy Study, hosted by the Word of Mouth Association UK.  Let’s start with a few definitions. Word of mouth (WOM) is simply a form of communication between two people (about brands, products etc.). Whilst this isn’t new, the speed at which information can now spread is what is creating all the excitement. Brand advocacy is described as “the personal recommendation of a brand or idea by an independent third party”.

So why is there so much focus on this at the moment?

There are two reasons. The first is because of the rise of the ‘amateur culture’ – fuelled by the uptake of broadband, the democratization of technology with the arrival of social media and subsequently marketing power. Anyone can contribute and publish their content or opinions online with few barriers. The second reason is because research has found that over 80% of consumers believe that the best source of ideas about information or products or services comes from personal recommendation.

The Holy Grail for business is to harness their brand advocates and to support them to spread the word about their brand. According to Weber Shandwick, “advocates are more than just passionate customers – they are believers, they speak out and they pull others along. They don’t love a brand they live it”.

Research in 2005 by Dr Paul Marsden at LSE into word of mouth advocacy (as measured by net promoter score) and negative word of mouth were significant predictors of sales growth. The new Weber Shandwick research, in conjunction with Paul Marsden, builds on this original work. It found that brand advocacy prompts product purchase in a third of all cases (which is on average five times greater than from advertising) and that of a total customer base, 30% classed themselves as advocates and 30% as detractors. How do advocates tend to spread the word? No surprise to learn that they tell stories, describe their experiences and help people find answers to real needs. They do not talk about advertising.

There is no doubt that there is incredible potential to converse directly with customers online to support advocacy (which should in turn increase sales; lower advertising costs and help protect brand reputation). There are other benefits too – such as turning to customers to gain insight and involving them in product and service innovation. There are countless examples of success in this area including Dell Ideastorm and Threadless.

Brands are experimenting with WOM marketing using a range of different techniques including viral marketing, buzz marketing and building customer communities to support opinion leaders and influential customers. There is a good explanation of the differences on Emmanuel Vivier’s blog here.

But there is a potential conflict with some WOM techniques. I still feel that there are some marketers that see WOM as another ‘push’ model or just another marketing channel to control and measure. This may create some short term benefits but consumers will see through much of this as yet another form of advertising that lacks authenticity. And if your house is not in order, negative WOM can amplify the message to an even greater extent and your customers will have no problem in talking loudly about your shortcomings online.

Creating open, transparent and sustainable conversations with customers is the secret to long term success. Conversations need to be held in straightforward language, not corporate speak for ordinary folk to understand. Accepting that this is a two way process and that people will want to talk about the positive and negative aspects of your business will build trust and long term engagement. One of the key drivers of brand advocacy is ‘surprise’ when a brand exceeds customer expectation. An online customer community is an excellent way to extend this principle as you will be more responsive and more relevant because you’ll be listening.=

A lot of money will be wasted as businesses attempt to trigger WOM advocacy without a community blueprint. A good blueprint will cover mapping your communities across your business, developing a proposition that relates to customer activity and pain points, figuring out how to manage and resource the community, leveraging related social networks in your space and importantly aligning the purpose of the community with your strategic objectives.

Address these and you will be the one of the winners in any economic downturn because you will have invested in building genuine engagement, trust and loyalty with your customer base.

Why I love UKVillages.co.uk

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The most exciting thing I heard about at yesterday’s eParticipation and Democracy Symposium was UKVillages. They provide communities and villages with their own website and portal that become online communities. The service is free for every village or community in the country bringing together notice boards, local information, maps, events and people to connect with.

It’s powerful stuff - a huge resource bank for communities, a great store of information (people sharing photos of their village and stories from the past), a useful tool for community empowerment (campaiging about rural post offices) and a potentially powerful market for advertising (although this has to fit in with the ethos of what’s best for the communities).

But, above all, what I like about UKVillages is how they get people to contribute and form communities online. According to Ellie, who spoke at the event, their typical user is a 52 year old woman who is involved in their community. They target people that we found in our own research last year for the Government’s Digital Strategy Review to form half of the digitally excluded in the whole country. People worry about how to engage people online and how to make them take part in a commmunity and UKVilllages are doing it with the some of the most difficult target users. So what’s there secret? I’m sure it’s more complicated and involved but the two great ideas seem to be:

1. Engage people on something they care about and then put it online - get people to talk about their stories from the war or their photos of their village and then show them how they can benefit from sharing this online.

2. Focus on the community not the medium. People want to meet others, share ideas, find information and form bonds. If you make it as easy as possible to do this then they’ll take part.

Sounds simple and I’m sure it isn’t. But it’s a great example of building vibrant communities online. Now my next step is to get my mum to use it for her village walking group…

The what, why, where and how of community empowerment

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I’m speaking tomorrow at the International eParticipation Symposium in London about citizen empowerment. Joining Diane Downey from Sunderland City Council, Richard Wilson from Involve and Steve Dale of Semantix in a session entitled: Citizen Empowerment: Where do we begin?

Our take on this at FreshNetworks is that you can rush too often to ‘empower’ citizens in a way that neither helps them nor makes the most of the contributions they can make. One learning from the private sector is that you can focus customer interests and efforts to help solve either specific problems (such as is the case with Innocentive) or to help with ongoing insight and innovation into a brand or product. This can be done by market research but is best done through ongoing engagement and conversations with your consumers to build loyalty, gain insight on their terms and allow space and time for innovation. By doing this you can also create real advocacy for your brand.

Tomorrow I’m going to be presenting how some of these learnings and experience have informed our approach to citizen participation: the what, why, where and how of community empowerment. The basic overview of this is below - if you want to chat more about this let me know.

WHAT?
Open up a debate…

WHY?
…on an issue that people care about…

WHERE?
…on a platform that makes it easy for them to contribute when and how they want to…

HOW?
…and let them see the benefits of what they have contributed.

Taking this as a framework you can begin to think about how to empower citizens and how to make sure their contributions are useful to organisations and government. Turning this into a set of activities and processes is a more complex job, but something that can see real benefits. Empowerment lets us get insight into citzens and lets them insight into us. Through effective empowerment we can coproduce or cocreate real innovations in services. And finally empowered citizens become local advocates and can support and further what government is trying to do. Now that’s a situation we’d all like to get to!

I’ll blog more about the event after tomorrow.

Facebook fatigue or the rise of niche online communities?

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It seems that everybody is talking about Facebook today. And not about who they’ve poked or pictures from a party last weekend. They’re talking about Facbook fatigue, a concept first reported in the Times and then picked up across the media and blogs. There is much more about this topic at Social Media Influence, Tamar, WebCommunityForum and others, so I won’t talk about that in much detail here. Rather I think that this reporting is a sign of a bigger trend in the use of online communities, and one that is not completely unexpected - a shift from mass social networks to niche online communities.

Facebook began life as an ultra-niche online community. When I was at university we were each given an A2 poster with a picture of everybody in our year, their name and email, phone extension and course: the Table of Faces as we called it. Facebook was really jsut an online version of this when it was first developped. It then opened up across campuses in the US and slowly across universities in the UK and beyond. The rapid growth reported in 2007 (700% growth in users year-on-year) came when Facebook was opened up for anybody with an email address to join. The nice campus-based online community had grown to become a global social network.

There is a process with any innovation where it becomes adopted first by the people who invent it and then by a small group of people who probably hear about it by word of mouth - these are called ‘early adopters’. Then as the innovation becomes more embedded more people use it, although they still feel part of a niche community - still a relatively small set of people who share a common bond. They are all using a new technology before the majority of people around them. When something reaches a mass market appeal things change. It is no longer a new and exciting product. People who use it are no longer part of a minority - they can no longer define themselves as being part of the product. The community feeling is starting to decline. When this happens it isn’t the end of the innovation - it just means it has reached maturity. Rather what you see in these cases is that the original continues to grow and embed itself in society; but some people leave. The innovators and early adopters look for something new. People who liked the community feel go and look for it elsewhere.

This is exactly what is happening to Facebook. It has matured and become a part of people’s lives - I wouldn’t dream of not posting photos from holidays on facebook, and my friends use it as a collective organiser. It now has mass market appeal and has lost its innovative appeal. Whilst there is no doubt that Facebook will continue to be popular and grow people are looking for the next thing in social media. As NevilleHobson notes, the analyst behind the report that talks about the decline in Facebook usage also predicts what this might be: niche social networks.

Facebook was originally niche - it targetted people based on membership of organisations (universities). The new niche online communities will be more sophisticated, based on interests or lifestyles; solving problems or self help. There is evidence of this already. Innovators and early adopters are now part of online communities especially for expectant mothers (Netmums) and Horsesmouth, a peer support and mentoring online community, launched a couple of weeks ago.

We predict that this year will see the rise of such networks. People want to be part of an online community where they feel they have something to contribute and where they can gain something in return. They want to be in communities where they have something in common with other members. They want to enter into a two-way engagement. If you offer them this opportunity they’ll flock to take part.

This year will see new, niche online communities cropping up at a rate we haven’t seen before in areas and interests we can’t predict.

Communities and research communities: some definitions

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I’m speaking next week at the International eParticipation Symposium in London on the subject of Citizen Empowerment: Where do we begin?. I shan’t try to crack this here (you can wait for my write-up of the session next week) but the subject of the conference did make provoke some discussion here at FreshNetworks about how communities online differ from a more traditional use of the work ‘community’ to mean a geographically defined set of individuals.

The simplest definition of a community seems to be that it is a set of people with a similar characteristic of some kind (location being one of these, but it could be a sense of identity or some common interest), but this does not seem to go far enough. Indeed we can think of many sets of people who share characteristics but couldn’t be considered a community. Is everybody who files their Income Tax online a coherent community despite having a shared experience? Do I necessarily form part of a meaningful community with everybody who lives in the same area of London as me? The answer to both of these is ‘probably no’. ‘Probably’ because we need to test whether or not other criteria are met.

In total we think there are five broad criteria that need to be understood when thinking about a community:

1. how does the individual form part of a community and how does the community form part of the individual? I need to talk about myself as being a member of the community as much as the community defines itself as having me as a member.

2. what commonality does the community share? Do we share a common purpose or a common interest?

3. to what extent is the community open or closed? Can others join the community or even know that it exists?

4. is the community built around harmony or difference? Do members have similar or opposing opinions about this commonality?

5. is the community artificial or natural? Was it created by others or did it grow organically?

Only if we can discuss these five aspects of a community can we really begin to talk about it in these terms and when we examine these terms a set of types of communities emerge. I’m currently writing a paper on this so more details on this will be posted at a later stage but for now I thought I’d outline how research communities, like those built and managed by FreshNetworks, can be defined.

Of the five characteristics above it is the bottom two that are of pivotal importance in creating effective research communities.

Communities of harmony have only one voice; they are conformist and conservative and whilst they may share a common purpose of intent they also share common opinions about and reactions to this. These communities do not generate new ideas but norm towards a Leibnizian best of all possible worlds. By contrast, a community of difference (as distinct from dissonance) does not represent the status quo or an idealised state. It raises disagreement and differences where traditional market research techniques has tended to harmony not difference.

Research can only uncover the most insightful and actionable findings when participants enter into a debate amongst themselves. When disagreement forces them to defend their opinions and define how their views and responses vary from other community members, you begin to get real insight and innovations. Ideas are generated and community members work together to resolve problems and differences, rather than not raising these in the first place as too often can be the case with market research. A community of difference provides more fruitful ground for innovation and client insights.

Communities of difference only work if they are natural, or if they are artificial communities which have become natural over time. This is the key to an effective research community – it functions as a community of members brought together by shared interests and aims not as collection of individual respondents who may be brought together in a focus group or panel. Or indeed in some, supposed ‘research communities’. Developing a group of individuals into a natural community is difficult and is where a skilled moderator and qualitative researcher is critical. One who understands how communities function, one who appreciates the different community types and one who has experience of what makes a successful and a less successful community.

However, overall the most successful communities, and those that are of most use from a research perspective, are those where both the researcher (and brand) and community members themselves derive a significant benefit from membership. This is what turns a network of respondents into a community; what makes a community of responses into one of ideas and innovation; and what can help to transform qualitative and market research both in terms of how we do it but also what is possible.