I'm sure you already know the rapidly fluctuating story of exercise equipment company Peloton, the fictional Mr. Big, and actor Chris Noth. Mr. Big, Noth's character in the reboot of "Sex and the City," died after using a Peloton, and Peloton's stock took a hit. Then, in just 48 hours, Peloton produced a parody ad resurrecting Noth, and Peloton was praised widely for its agility and marketing acumen. Then days later, sexual assault accusations surfaced against Noth, and #JustLikeThat (which happens to be the name of the SITC reboot), the ad disappeared from Peloton properties.
In a single paragraph, there lies a lesson in the benefits and dangers of influencers. After the shocking episode, Peleton sought to protect their brand and redirect the conversation by leveraging Noth's considerable popularity and influence, but in so doing, they tied their brand to Noth's, a decision that rapidly backfired. Luckily, Peloton has an army of engaged advocates at its disposal.
Many marketers struggle to understand and act on the differences between influencers and advocates, which is understandable since influencers advocate for your brand, and advocates influence others to know and consider your brand. Still, the fact influencers and advocates are often lumped together by marketers is a problem because it obscures their distinct strategies, opportunities, and risks.
Advocates are fostered with authentic experiences and produce safer, lasting brand benefit
You create advocates by improving your customer experience (CX) and rousing customers to become raving fans of your brand. Advocates do a host of things that help to improve your brand's inbound marketing, reputation, and word of mouth. These include providing positive ratings for your company and product, sharing their strong product or service experiences with others, and referring prospects to your brand.
Advocacy can come organically or through a marketing program. Organic advocacy occurs when customers, without encouragement, lift your brand because they're happy and think others will benefit from the experiences you provide. Marketing programs can also boost advocacy, such as branded communities where advocates convene, loyalty programs that reward online sharing, or referral programs that compensate the referrer for providing a newly acquired customer. The more you reward your advocates for their behaviors, the less authentic it becomes (and, at some point, ethical brands will enforce rules to ensure their advocates disclose material benefits that accrue when they help your brand.) Compared to influencers, advocates are harder to create, have a longer-term impact, and present lower risks to your brand.
Advocates are nurtured, not created. You don't simply snap your fingers and produce advocates-it takes work to improve your CX and earn strong feelings of loyalty and advocacy from your customers. The brands we recognize with the largest body of customer advocates have dedicated years to improving their CX and building those strong relationships.
The benefit of investing in and building that sort of advocacy is that, long after an influencer or ad campaign concludes and is forgotten, your strong CX can still generate new advocates and advocacy. And, since an advocate is not officially tied to your brand, you are protected from your advocates' embarrassing, criminal, or unethical behaviors.
Advocates are not without their challenges beyond the fact they take time and CX commitment to foster. One is that their content and influence are less controllable by the brand. The things they say and produce come from the advocate and are generally not subject to the brand's review, guidance, or instruction. Smart brands with advocate programs can seed content and influence the things advocates share, but compared to influencer programs, encouraging advocacy requires a more gentle approach with less direct authority and leverage from the brand.
Another challenge is that your brand needs a lot of advocates to move the needle-each advocate has a small voice, but within their tighter network, they can be very influential. Gartner's research shows that while advocates may have a smaller share of interactions than influencers, they have higher engagement within their networks (see How to Build Referral and Affiliate Marketing Programs That Consumers Want to Share, subscription required).
Influencers are created with marketing programs and offer riskier and more ephemeral brand benefits
While advocates take time, care, and a robust customer experience to create, influencers can be engaged and unleashed in short periods of time with the right influencer strategy (see Build an Influencer Social Marketing Program That Delivers Results, subscription required).
Influencers could theoretically be customers, but what makes them influencers is your efforts to identify those with more significant influence, engage them, and encourage positive sharing about your brand. Influencers may be compensated for their posts and shares, but influencer strategies can reward participants in softer ways, such as access to company executives, exclusive content, or free products. (Once again, ethical marketers will ensure their influencers disclose any material relationships to their audience.)
The activities of influencers can take a variety of shapes and sizes. You can reward them for posting about your brand to their networks, sponsor their content, feature them in your advertising and promotion, or make influencers official spokespeople for your brand.
One benefit of influencers is that they can be activated more quickly and create positive engagement rapidly. You also have more control over the content and influence they produce compared to advocates. Influencer programs usually provide templates or guidelines, may cocreate content with the influencer, and frequently require prior approval before an influencer broadcasts a message about the brand.
The downside is that, once your influencer program ends, so does your positive influence. Unlike great CX, which continuously produces a stream of new advocates, influencers typically stop influencing once your program concludes.
Also, influencer programs create a more formal association between your brand and the influencer, which is one of the lessons of Peloton's experiences with Noth. The actor wasn't merely an advocate with an arms-length relationship to the brand. Peloton made him an explicit part of their brand, and thus as headlines revealed troubling accusations, the brand was forced to act as quickly to sever the relationship as it did to create it.
This example is hardly isolated-many brands have struggled to distance themselves from a variety of unpalatable, off-brand behavior and content from influencers, not the least of which is an influencer formerly associated with one brand suddenly promoting another brand. Advocates loyal to your brand and its CX are not likely to abruptly switch sides, but influencers earning money to leverage their social graphs and popularity will go to the highest bidder.
Advocates and Influencers are not mutually exclusive
In the end, a brand need not choose between advocates and influencers. Both can happily coexist under your marketing umbrella. But it is vital to recognize that, despite their similarities, advocates and influencers are quite different.
Advocates take work, but the benefits they accrue are long-lasting and substantial. Customer advocates don't just post or share about your brand-they also are loyal to your brand. The same efforts that create your advocates also create loyal customers with greater lifetime value (See Use Gartner's Buy/Own/Advocate Framework to Map Customer Journeys and Deliver Better Customer Experiences, subscription required.) Advocates are brand gifts that keep on giving, provided your customer experience stays sound.
Influencers can be deployed quickly, but the association with your brand increases risks. Peloton looked like a marketing genius for rapidly deploying a campaign with Noth, but within days he went from a top-tier influencer for Peloton to PR disaster. The goodwill the brand created with its agile marketing program was almost immediately diminished or lost. It turned into a costly exercise in the benefits and risks of leveraging the influence of others to benefit your brand.
In the end, Peloton will not just survive but thrive, not because of its influencers but because of its advocates. Have you met someone with a Peloton? Because if you have, then you know they have a Peloton. Such is the experience provided by the brand that its customers become raving fans. Chances are, what you know about Peloton is due far more to friends, family, and coworkers who extoll the virtues of the Peloton experience than it is the company's advertising and marketing.
Influencers come and go, but your customer experience and the advocates it creates are forever-provided you stay committed to listening to customers, evolving your customer experience, empowering employees to do the right thing, and deploying powerful, innovative experiences that foster strong brand relationships.