How to Build a Brand Advocacy Program

People believe in marketing less than any other time in history as customers continue to lose trust in many brands and trends. A recent study by media agency UM found only 4% of people trust influencers on social media, and paid acquisition costs are rising even as conversion rates drop. The harsh reality is that modern marketers are investing more in paid channels with less returns. 

To alleviate this pressure, many marketers are looking for organic growth—the holy grail of channels that comes with high levels of trust, reduced acquisition costs and exponential scaling.

This need has led to the newly formed practice of brand advocacy, where passionate customers and fans help amplify a brand’s reputation, sales and messaging because of a mutually established trust and appreciation.

Passionate customers have always been referring friends and communicating the values of brands they love, but brand advocacy applies specific concepts and practices to help encourage these relationships.

Now, modern companies have started to invest in systems called Advocacy Programs, organised structures that encourage passionate customers to engage in brand supportive behaviour.

It is a powerful experience when brand advocacy is done right, and thankfully many brands are realising this truth. The truth that customers expect more from the companies they buy from. They expect stronger relationships. They expect promises that are never broken. They expect their brands to stand for things, just like they do.  And when brands hit the mark, they are more than willing to stand up for them and shout their message from the rooftops.

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Companies like Glossier and Lululemon have known this for many years and have been built on advocacy from the ground up—while others like Adidas have only recently invested in their advocacy efforts, but have already found meaningful impact.

In doing so, they've captured the many benefits of a brand advocacy program:

  • increase in customer satisfaction and trust
  • increase in sales via organic channels
  • stronger engagement and conversion rates
  • a sales and marketing army that willfully advocates

But brand advocacy isn’t only for large, successful brands with big budgets. The principles of brand advocacy can be learned and applied to create passion-led communities that grow brands with deep dedication. 

The Duel team has spent over a year researching over 200 brands as part of a major research project into what drives brand advocacy. We wanted to determine which brands have figured it out—and our team has distilled all of our knowledge into a step-by-step guide that will help marketers create effective advocacy programs. 

By the end of this guide, you will be able to create a structured advocacy program that helps fuel organic growth and turns one pound into five more.


The Foundations of Great Brand Advocacy

Before brands can harness the energy of their advocates, they must be a brand that customers believe in. The willingness of a customer to advocate on behalf of a brand to a person’s closest friends and family is dependent on how much trust and passion they hold towards the brand.

Our research has shown that great advocacy is only possible if brands engage in specific behaviour:

Authenticity - values and behaviour communicate trustworthiness and honesty to customers

Long termism - long-term gains and relationships are the priority (often at the cost of short-term sales)

Remarkable customer experience - products and experiences consistently deliver on lofty promises to customers 

Seeking feedback - feedback is consistently pursued to help improve a brand and its products

Give without expectation - seek to create value for all stakeholders, and be generous with whatever they have (e.g. time, content, information, store space, returns, repairs etc.)

Patagonia for example, engages in all of these behaviours and has found success because of it. The “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign launched by Patagonia urged customers to repair their clothing and buy pre-owned products instead of buying new from Patagonia. The initiative was taken to the next level when Patagonia opened marketplaces for pre-owned products and repair centers to help customers participate in the initiative.

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The approach was extremely counter-intuitive and clearly expressed a willingness to sacrifice immediate profits to uphold company values. The result was a 30% increase in sales soon after the campaign launched.

Every brand on Earth has the capability to be built upon, or retrospectively implement these principles, regardless of revenue, industry or size. At Duel, we believe holding these principles will be a minimum standard when it comes to customer expectations in the next decade.


The Anatomy of a Brand Advocacy Program

At its core, a brand advocacy program is a system used to segment a brand’s fans and reward them for behaviour that supports the brand. The actual structures may vary greatly, but the essence of a program is the notion that passionate customers are rewarded for their relationships with brands.

Some programs are informal agreements between passionate customers and brands while others can have deep technical systems and logic to dictate how a program operates.

The Duel method

This guide is designed to help marketers build advocacy programs regardless of whether you implement the Duel method or not.  However, at Duel, we opt for a structured but flexible system that feels natural to use for customers while giving much needed clarity to brands when operating an advocacy program. 

We do this by structuring them in the form of tasks, rewards and progression tiers. A customer is given the opportunity to complete specific tasks like taking photos or attending events in exchange for points. These points accumulate to move a customer through different progression tiers, and each tier leads to a highly anticipated reward for their efforts. 

Tiers are more effective than conventional cashback loyalty points because advocates can be rewarded for what they do and not only what they buy. Advocates get a sense of exclusivity and belonging as they contribute to the brand and reach higher tiers—the Adidas Creator’s Club is an obvious example of this, where advocates feel as if they’ve joined an exclusive club that is closer to the brand.

In this way, customers get the opportunity to choose the tasks they are excited by, and brands can get a wide range of benefits like reviews, user-generated content, referrals and more.  However, the main objective is ensuring customers drive their personal network to purchase, as well as repurchase themselves.

The end result is a customisable program that is engaging for customers and impactful to brands. If you would like us to build an advocacy program for you, get in touch here.

The ideal advocacy program will combine sentimental benefits such as exclusivity and experiential rewards with more transactional benefits like  discounts.



Building Your Program

Step 1 - Determine a marketing objective

The purpose of an advocacy program will define how it is structured and what types of behaviour it encourages. It’s important to consider this point in-depth before solidifying a program structure. 

Choose a primary marketing objective and -optionally- several secondary objectives. Be mindful that having many goals can potentially increase the complexity of a program. We recommend one primary objective and two secondary objectives maximum.

The following objectives are effectively solved by an advocacy program:

Increased referral revenue - referrals increased as advocates passionately recommend products to their networks
Increased user generated content - advocates create engaging content for marketing in the form of photos and videos
Increased social reach - advocates get others to become followers of a brand’s social channels
Stronger search engine rankings (SEO) - advocates create valuable written content with specific keywords that rank on search engines
More reviews - advocates leave more product and brand reviews online, with more depth and quality
More market research - advocates give ideas and feedback for specific products and experiences
Higher conversion rates - more potential customers go from consideration to sale as a brand’s sales experience becomes more engaging

Calculating return on investment

Advocacy programs are designed to create sustained returns in the long-term as it takes time to build trust and strong relationships between advocates and a brand. Short term gains are possible, but shouldn’t be the focus of brands who are launching an advocacy program. 

With that in mind, there are two ways to calculate the return on investment of a brand advocacy program.

Top down method

Calculating brand advocacy outcomes using a top down method requires tracking a ratio between 2 key figures:

Paid acquisition - Percentage of customers acquired through conventional paid acquisition
Organic acquisition - Percentage of customers acquired through organic traffic channel

The ratio between these two figures will determine the effectiveness of a brand advocacy campaign. If this ratio grows in favour of organic acquisition, your brand advocacy efforts are succeeding.

Note: There are caveats to this calculation method. Numbers used to calculate this ratio can be unreliable, especially as the impact of organic channels can be lost due to last click attribution errors in paid advertising. It’s important to take that into consideration when tracking with this method.

Bottom up method

The bottom up method of determining returns centers around the impact of a single advocate and extrapolates from there: 

Step 1 - Determine how many additional sales a single passionate advocate can generate (# of additional sales)

Step 2 - Multiply this number by the total number of advocates in the program (# of advocates)

Step 3 - Multiply this number by your Average Order Value (AOV

 

# of additional sales x # of advocates x AOV = Return

 

Here is that equation in motion:

4 additional sales x 2,300 advocates x  £40 AOV = £368,000 return

 

Step 2 - Determine target customer segment

Once the objective has been established and is agreed upon by leadership and relevant parties, brands need to understand which part of their customer base the program is targeted towards. For some, this means their entire customer base, for others, it will be a specific persona or segment. This could mean brand ambassadors,  superfans or simply customers who have purchased a certain product.

Choosing your target segment

It’s easier to build highly engaged programs when a narrower target segment is chosen. There are less behavioural patterns to consider and incentives can be locked in to appeal to a very specific customer profile. Brands often use narrow target segments in advocacy programs to target superfans that make up the top 20% of their sales and activity.

On the other hand, targeting a wider customer base can lead to a larger scale program with more advocates, which in turn can uncover new insights into what appeals to different types of customers. A wider customer base requires a more carefully developed program, but offers more potential impact and scale.

As a rule of thumb, look at the various segmentations you use for communications already.  For example, do you have a newsletter list? People with an ecommerce account? Ambassadors? VIP customers? While challenging, the best programs find ways to unite as many of these groups  as possible under one umbrella in the long run.

Note: For some brands, it might make sense to develop two independent advocacy programs for two highly contrasted customer types. Brands who have strong ambassador programs already for example, might benefit from having an exclusive program for them while also having an advocacy program for more transactional customers. 

Advocacy programs versus ambassador programs

It’s also important to note that advocacy programs are not the same as ambassador programs. 

Ambassador programs typically focus on a recognised and transactional relationship between a brand and an individual. This could mean that an ambassador is a paid influencer but has never used a product. Advocacy programs focus much more on authentic, passionate customers that have purchased and used a product or service. The authentic nature of the relationship is what fuels organic growth.

Step 3 - Establish desired customer behaviour

Now it’s time to determine what specific customer behaviour would help achieve marketing goals. These behaviours can be nearly anything, but they should be both helpful to the brand and exciting for customers to take part in. 

Social posting, leaving reviews, attending events, buying products and referring friends are just a few common behaviours that our team has seen in successful programs. 

The potential behaviour of a customer is only limited by a brand’s ability to properly moderate. This is why many brands turn to a brand advocacy platform to manage and automate much of the process.

Top tip: At Duel, our approach to defining behaviour is in the form of tasks. We create specific tasks for customers to complete, and we define them with as much detail as possible. Being specific helps improve clarity when it comes to defining incentives and determining how each task contributes to the larger goals of the advocacy program. 

 

Step 4 - Establish incentives that appeal to customers and encourage advocacy behaviour

Even passionate customers don’t simply alter or amplify their behaviour for brands they love—they need to be properly incentivised. Incentives should be relevant to your brand and industry. For example, do not give away socks if you are a technology company. Creating incentives is a crucial process that requires a lot of balance. Incentives need to be enticing enough to prompt customers to do tasks in the long term without being so generous as to cost brands more to run the program than they reap from it. 

Getting the right balance between behaviour and incentives is typically one of the most difficult components of program creation. This is the time to look back on any customer personas and market research you may have to determine how much incentive is required for specific behaviours.

Our approach to getting a great balance between behaviour and incentives is to use points and progression tiers. Each task is assigned points and a tier level. Customers must accumulate enough points to get into a new tier, which unlocks a new set of tasks and delivers a reward.  This works for Duel because the whole process is automated by the technology platform. However, if you’re using a CRM you may want to think about how you keep track of rewarding customers.

Determining whether the behaviour-incentive system is working isn’t easy. The most straightforward way to figure it out is to roll out your advocacy program to a small group of customers as a test and gather feedback from them throughout the process.  

Once you’re happy, release it to larger numbers of customers. As a rule of thumb, the more passionate they are as fans, the more feedback (and outright criticism) they will give you.  However, they’ll always take part.

 

Step 5 - Establish progression system (optional)

A progression system is optional but highly recommended. Much like new levels in traditional gaming, progression systems gradually increase the amount of challenge, status and reward a customer gets for interacting with a program. This keeps customers motivated as they anticipate getting greater rewards for their efforts in the future and avoids frustration early on in the experience. 

It also makes it much easier to segment customers within the program. More dedicated customers will progress further into the system and could be good candidates for ambassadorship or a deeper relationship with the brand. 

We use a tiered system at Duel because it’s an enjoyable user experience for customers as well as a useful way to segment data for brands. Customers gain exclusive status and a new title (i.e. rookie, pro, grandmaster) every time they upgrade to a new tier—which is only done after a certain amount of tasks and points are accumulated. 

 

Tier Bronze Silver Gold
Point Threshold: 500 Points 1,000 Points 10,000 Points
Reward: Free Shipping Free Product Invite to Team Retreat

 

Step 6 - Name your program

Once you have determined the nature of your program and who will be in it, it’s time to decide on a name for the program. Naming your program is an important step in defining its identity and its participants. Calling a program a “fan club” versus a “family” or a “rewards club” will all imply different meanings to your customers when communicating. 

Sustainable childrenswear brand Frugi, for example, calls their program “Frugi Fun” while the popular shaving brand King of Shaves calls their program “King of the Castle” and jewellery brand Monica Vinader calls their program the “MV Family.” A good name should be creative, on brand and inclusive to all the customer segments that are going to be involved in the program. 

 

Step 7 - Test your program

Testing a brand advocacy program before launch will help work out technical issues and user experience flaws that are present. A program should be tested internally but ideally with a small section of customers that represent your target segment as well.

Use the feedback -especially from customers- to tweak the user experience of your program. The overall experience from signup to activity should feel smooth and engaging—especially in the first fifteen minutes of a customer joining.

 

Step 8 - Launch and communicate 

Once an advocacy program has been tested and is ready for launch, the next step is to communicate its value and existence to target customers. 

This is the time to take note of which existing channels and communities can be tapped into to spread the message. The methods of getting the message across to your customers will vary, but should include some essential information:

  1. Value of the program for customers
  2. Signup information
  3. Expectations and rules

This can be done through multiple channels and touch points. An omni-channel approach is highly recommended—especially when physical touch points like shops and packaging can be combined with digital channels.

Potential recruitment channels

Communities, forums, groups Post-purchase emails Social media
In-store/receipts Inside product packaging Outbound communications (e-mail, advertising)
Blog posts, press releases Website Communications from brand partners

 

Step 9 - Moderate your program

Program moderation involves all the processes of managing program members, their behaviour, incentives, issues and any content or outcomes that come as a result. 

User-generated content -for example- needs to be screened to ensure it’s appropriate. Social posts will also have to be verified somehow as well in order to get points and rewards.

Moderating a program can be extremely manual—with individuals poring over content and customer messages. For smaller brands, this is doable but extremely difficult to scale. It is generally recommended to use a brand advocacy platform or arsenal of tools to manage program operations


Considerations and Tools

Brand advocacy programs are challenging to execute because of the multiple processes they involve—many platforms now exist to help brands deliver campaigns by streamlining these processes. 

Read our guide to brand advocacy platforms here.


A Novel Way to Drive Organic Growth

Brand advocacy programs are designed to help companies amplify their word-of-mouth marketing, reduce paid acquisition costs and build brands that stand the test of time. The process is complex and requires certain brand principles and operations to be in place—but there is plenty of help available.

Duel has built a platform that is designed to automate and manage much of the brand advocacy process, from program creation to implementation and moderation. If you’re interested in building your own brand advocacy program, maybe we can help. Get in touch with us by filling out the form below.

brand advocacy word-of-mouth organic growth