From gentle criticism to full-on trolls, every brand social media page or community sometimes faces pushback. Maybe you’ve seen it happen. Perhaps you’ve even laughed along as a corporation makes a condescending misstep or a local business publishes a glaring typo. It’s the type of thing that keeps social media and community managers up at night. Will I be by my phone to respond if someone needs customer service help? Will I know what to write if our brand comes under fire? Do we have a plan for dealing with this?
Advocates are a brand’s best friend
In my years of experience developing communities and creating social media content, I’ve certainly been there. I won’t try to sell you a magic elixir that makes that anxiety go away, but I’ve witnessed a phenomenon that can take the pressure off. Before you can even begin to frame a response as the brand, someone comes out of the woodwork and does it for you. Defending, opening up a conversation, or perhaps deflecting with humor, these individuals bring an authenticity to the response that no brand could hope to capture. They are true advocates, and they are perhaps the most valuable assets a company could have.
But how do you get them?
Having strong brand advocates can help insulate your brand from crisis, lead to referring links and positive media coverage, AND help you create sustainable, authentic content for your brand. In this blog post, I’ll explore a few case studies and strategies for developing these advocates, building user-generated content programs around them, and turning negative community perceptions into open dialogue.
Case study 1: Employee advocates can counter negative perceptions
To start, let’s talk about negative community perceptions. Almost every company deals with this to one degree or another.
In the trucking industry, companies deal with negative perceptions not just of their individual company, but also of the industry as a whole. You may not be aware of this, but our country needs approximately 3.5 million truck drivers to continue shipping daily supplies like food, medicine, deals from Amazon, and everything else you’ve come to expect in your local stores and on your doorstep. The industry regularly struggles to find enough drivers. Older drivers are retiring from the field, while younger individuals may be put off by a job that requires weeks away from home. Drivers that are committed to the industry may change jobs frequently, chasing the next hiring bonus or better pay rate.
How does a company counter these industry-wide challenges and also stand out as an employer from every other firm in the field?
Using video content, Facebook groups, and podcasts to create employee advocates
For one such company, we looked to current employees to become brand advocates in marketing materials and on social media. The HR and internal communications team had identified areas of potential for recruitment — e.g. separating military, women — and we worked with them to identify individuals that represented these niche characteristics, as well as the values that the company wanted to align themselves with: safety, long-term tenure with the company, affinity for the profession, etc. We then looked for opportunities to tell these individuals’ stories in a way that was authentic, reflected current organic social media trends, and provided opportunities for dialogue.
In one instance, we developed a GoPro-shot, vlog-style video program around two female drivers that featured real-life stories and advice from the road. By working behind the scenes with these drivers, we were able to coach them into being role models for our brand advocate program, modeling company values in media/PR coverage and at live company events.
One driver participated in an industry-media live video chat where she took questions from the audience, and later she participated in a Facebook Q&A on behalf of the brand as well. It was our most well-attended and most engaged Q&A to date. Other existing and potential drivers saw these individuals becoming the heroes of the brand’s stories and, feeling welcomed to the dialogue by one of their own, became more engaged with other marketing activities as a result. These activities included:
A monthly call-in/podcast show where drivers could ask questions directly of senior management. We found that once a driver had participated in this forum, they were much more likely to stay with the company — with a 90% retention rate!
A private Facebook group where very vocal and very socially active employees could have a direct line to the company’s driver advocate to express opinions and ask questions. In addition to giving these individuals a dedicated space to communicate, this often helped us identify trends and issues before they became larger problems.
A contest to nominate military veterans within the company to become a brand spokesperson in charge of driving a military-themed honorary truck. By allowing anyone to submit a nomination for a driver, this contest helped us discover and engage members of the audience that were perhaps less likely to put themselves forward out of modesty or lack of esteem for their own accomplishments. We also grew our email list, gained valuable insights about the individuals involved, and were able to better communicate with more of this “lurker” group.
By combining these social media activities with traditional PR pitching around the same themes, we continued to grow brand awareness as a whole and build an array of positive links back to the company.
When it comes to brand advocates, sometimes existing employees simply need to be invited in and engaged in a way that appeals to their own intrinsic motivations — perhaps a sense of belonging or achievement. For many employee-based audiences, social media engagement with company news or industry trends is already happening and simply needs to be harnessed and directed by the brand for better effect.
But what about when it comes to individuals that have no financial motivation to promote a brand? At the other end of the brand advocate spectrum from employees are those who affiliate themselves with a cause. They may donate money or volunteer for a specific organization, but when it comes down to it, they don’t have inherent loyalty to one group and can easily go from engaged to enraged.
Case study 2: UGC can turn volunteers into advocates
One nonprofit client that we have the privilege of working with dealt with this issue on a regular basis. Beyond misunderstandings about their funding sources or operations, they occasionally faced backlash about their core mission on social media. After all, for any nonprofit or cause out there, it’s easy to point to two or ten others that may be seen as “more worthy,” depending on your views. In addition, the nature of their cause tended to attract a lot of attention in the holiday giving period, with times of low engagement through the rest of the year.
Crowdsourcing user-generated content for better engagement
To counter this and better engage the audience year-round, we again looked for opportunities to put individual faces and stories at the forefront of marketing materials.
In this case, we began crowdsourcing user-generated content through monthly contesting programs during the organization’s “off” months. Photos submitted during the contests could be used as individual posts on social media or remixed across videos, blog posts, or as a starting point for further conversation and promotion development with the individuals. As Facebook was the primary promotion point for these contests, they attracted those who were already highly engaged with the organization and its page. During the initial two-month program, the Facebook page gained 16,660 new fans with no associated paid promotion, accounting for 55% of total page Likes in the first half of 2016.
Perhaps even more importantly, the organization was able to save on internal labor in responding to complaints or negative commentary on posts as even more individuals began adding their own positive comments. The organization’s community manager was able to institute a policy of waiting to respond after any negative post, allowing the brand advocates time to chime in with a more authentic, volunteer-driven voice.
By inviting their most passionate supporters more deeply into the fold and giving them the space and trust to communicate, the organization may have lost some measure of control over the details of the message, but they gained support and understanding on a deeper level. These individuals not only influenced others within the social media pages of the organization, but also frequently shared content and tagged friends, acting as influencers and bringing others into the fold.
How you can make it work for your audience
As you can see, regardless of industry, building a brand advocate program often starts with identifying your most passionate supporters and finding a way to appeal to their existing habits, interests, and motivations — then building content programs that put those goals at the forefront. Marketing campaigns featuring paid influencers can be fun and can certainly achieve rapid awareness and reach, but they will never be able to counter the lasting value of an authentic advocate, particularly when it comes to countering criticism or improving the perceived status of your brand or industry.
To get started, you can follow a few quick tips:
Understand your existing community.
Take a long look at your active social audience and try to understand who those people are: Employees? Customers?
Ask yourself what motivates them to participate in dialogue and how can you provide more of that.
Work behind the scenes.
Send private messages and emails, or pick up the phone and speak with a few audience members.
Getting a few one-on-one insights can be incredibly helpful in content planning and inspiring your strategy.
By reaching out individually, you really make people feel special. That’s a great step towards earning their advocacy.
Think: Where else can I use this?
Your advocates and their contributions are valuable. Make sure you take advantage of that value!
Reuse content in multiple formats or invite them to participate in new ways.
Someone who provides a testimonial might be able to act as a source for your PR team, as well.
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