Brand Advocates VS. Influencers - Who Wins In the Long Run?

October 06, 2017
by Silke Holsbeek

Although often intertwined in the minds of marketers, the terms ‘brand advocate’ and ‘brand influencer’ have several distinct differences that make both strategies very unique.

Of course, they both hinge on the fact that someone else is referring your business to the masses but how and why they do it matters a lot.

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If you don’t know why it matters and what each strategy brings to the table, you’re going to have a tough time choosing the one that will benefit your brand the most.

Personally, I was very surprised to see that eMarketer predicts that brands will be investing even more in influencer marketing during 2017. Even with a perceived ROI of 960% (extremely difficult to measure, but that’s a subject for a different post), influencer marketing frequently backfires and can hurt your brand more than help it, especially when you’re in a mismatch with an influencer.

I’m inclined to chalk down this trust in influencer marketing to two things. Primarily, brands are still woefully unaware of the fact that influencer marketing campaigns can be devastating to their image when done wrong, causing them to bleed money and alienating their core customers.

Secondly, they are on the fence with advocacy marketing, still not fully grasping the numerous benefits they can reap with an expertly executed advocacy campaign.

For me, it’s been advocacy marketing all the way for a very long time.

Why is that?

Allow me to break down the pros and cons of both strategies so you can get a clearer picture of the position I’m coming from.


Influencers - A Postmodern Version of Celebrity Endorsements

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Who are influencers?

Brand influencers are content creators who are partnering up with big brands in order to promote branded content to their audience.

Defining characteristics of influencers are:

  • They are popular and present on social media platforms
  • They have a huge reach (usually numbers in millions of followers)
  • Influencers partner with big brands and work as brand promoters
  • They get compensated for their actions

 

Think in terms of PewDiePie, Tyler Oakley, Lilly Singh, Kiersten Rich, and others - all managed to build their own million-dollars worth empires hawking wares left and right. All their commercial actions were (and are) driven by two things: growing their audience and making more money.

Of course, those two things are interconnected - a bigger audience means that they can charge more for their influencer marketing activities.

That’s exactly where the problem lies with influencer marketing - it’s perceived as ‘pay to play’, with only 46% of consumers actually trusting anything that social media influencers have to say, according to Nielsen’s Global Trust Report.

Since we all keep reading about how much these people earn and about the multimillion dollar deals they sign, it’s kind of difficult to take anything they say or promote without a grain of salt (or a fistful, in some cases).

I have yet to read that an influencer signed an endorsement deal with a brand for a flat $0 fee, and you?

I’m not saying that influencer marketing doesn’t have its upsides:

  • Businesses get more eyeballs to their content because of expanded reach
  • They get a temporary awareness boost
  • Engagement increases in the short-term
  • Brands get content from the creators


However, it also has its downsides:

  • It’s a short-term strategy with campaigns that quickly fade from the memory
  • A mismatch between a business and an influencer can hurt the credibility of both
  • The message is perceived as disingenuous because compensation is always involved


Even micro-influencers (
influencers with a smaller following who specialize in specific verticals) can have serious issues with trust and authenticity. Once their followers figure out that they are getting compensated for their posts and shares, their credibility plummets.

Now, let’s dive a bit deeper into brand advocacy.

 

Brand Advocates -  Word of Mouth On Steroids

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A brand advocate can be anybody who has dealt with a business and was blown away by the quality of the product/service, excellent customer support, spot on personalization, or something else.

Unlike brand influencers, brand advocates are regular Joes and Janes who are motivated to help others by recommending what they believe to be a superior brand.


Defining characteristics of brand advocates are:

  • Brand advocates have no claim to fame and are mostly just satisfied customers, business partners, or employees
  • They don’t have an audience to speak of - they participate in online conversations and have genuine interactions with other social media users
  • Advocates are driven by brand loyalty and don’t form partnerships to endorse brands
  • They complete brand-focused actions without monetary compensation

 

Because advocate recommendations and actions are not driven by greed and monetary compensation, they are trusted by 84% of consumers (as opposed to 46% trust rate for influencers).

In fact, the only people consumers trust more are close friends and relatives.

Brand advocates can generate content, leave reviews, write up testimonials, drive social media engagement - you name it - and will do so even when not approached by the brand.

However, to harness the full power of advocacy marketing, it pays off to manage and direct their efforts. The truth is,
close to 70% of customers are willing to leave a review for a brand if asked and expect nothing in return for it. If they do that, they’ve made the first step towards becoming brand advocates.

How many influencers are willing to do the same (for free)? That’s right - not a single one.

 

So, to recap: upsides of advocacy marketing are:

  • Digitally amplified word of mouth
  • Boost in awareness (the one that matters)
  • Advocates are truly connected with the brand
  • Long-term engagement boost (online reviews are here to stay)
  • Brands have access to curated content through advocacy campaigns
  • Positive impact on lead generation and sales
  • Most of the time, advocates are not compensated for their activities

 

As for the downsides, there’s really only one:

  • Smaller reach (due to the fact that advocates are not in the business of building online audiences)

 

However, even that one downside is up for debate.

Would you rather invest in a message seen by a dozen of people who are at the end of their decision-making process (that decision being the choice between you and your competitors), or in a message seen by thousands who might or might not need your products/services at one point in their life?

When you crunch the numbers, what benefits your business more - short-term awareness or long-term relationships?

It’s a question that shouldn’t be too difficult to answer.

 

Two key takeaways here are:

  1. Opinions of brand advocates weigh more because they are genuine. Even though it’s difficult to measure their exact impact, they deliver more than brand awareness - they generate leads and drive sales by influencing purchasing behaviors.

  2. Advocate messages don’t suffer from lack of credibility. If managed correctly, they won’t hurt your brand by making it appear insincere or giving an impression that you’re a sellout interested only in partnering with big online names for the sake of promotion.

 

It’s a Matter of Priorities But It Pays Off to Play the Long Game

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I want to make it clear that I don’t think that every brand should stop doing influencer marketing. It still has its merits, especially for big brands primarily looking for a short-term boost in brand awareness.

However, if you’re looking to play the long game, it’s brand advocates you should invest in, not influencers. Although their overall reach is smaller, brand advocates will not only help with awareness but their online activities will also contribute to lead generation and sales.

Since their messages are not perceived as paid ads, they are far more likely to influence purchasing decisions than influencers (who are exclusively in it for the money alone).

I’m curious to know where you stand on brand advocates vs. brand influencers?

Do you think that spending more on influencer marketing is the way to go (which, clearly, I don’t) or do you believe that the money would be more wisely spent on advocates and other activities?

 

Other blog posts that might interest you:

Advocacy Marketing Game Plan

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