Customer advocacy programs are hot right now. And why shouldn't they be? Customers have the ability to be hyper-connected to the brands they love through social media, and they are gaining more influence over the buying process every day.

But advocacy is a fragile thing. Think about it: The customer's reward for endorsing a brand is emotional—a feel-good moment made possible because they've had repeatedly positive experiences with your brand and want others to enjoy the same.

Unfortunately, endorsements and warm-and-fuzzies don't pay bills, which is why some smart companies reward advocates with perks and other exchanges of tangible value as a way to reciprocate. Some examples:

  • Grandfathered pricing. The fitness and nutrition company Beachbody honored legacy pricing on its nutrition shake, Shakeology, when rising costs forced it to raise prices in 2013. Many SaaS companies and wireless carriers do the same: You can remain a customer at your current plan, but they don't offer that plan anymore; so, if you need to make a change, you'll have to choose from one of the new plans (which, in many cases, are more expensive).
  • Courtesy discounts. I had to ask for it, but Sprint gives me a 5% discount every month on my wireless plan because I've been a customer for over 15 years. I think I also get 10% off accessories at the store, but, well... Amazon Prime.
  • Upgrades. MarketingProfs hosts its annual B2B Forum at the Westin Waterfront in South Boston, so the MarketingProfs team frequently stays there during the year to plan the event. MarketingProfs Chief Content Officer Ann Handley is one of those frequent guests; and since the Westin is pet-friendly, Ann's King Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Abby, is often a guest, too. When the Westin met Abby and wanted to show its appreciation to Ann and MarketingProfs for their business, the hotel gave Abby a Heavenly Dog Bed, embroidered with her name and the #abbythecavalier hashtag Ann uses when sharing Abby pics on Instagram.

However, the challenge of limiting your customer advocacy program to items of tangible value is that at some point those items become expected and no longer have the same value to your customer as they once did. In other words, the exchange becomes uneven again.

That statement isn't meant to infer that people are greedy and unappreciative. Rather, it's meant to demonstrate that there's a diminishing return to perks, swag, and discounts, and that all relationships need to evolve if they're to remain valuable to both parties. (We'll come back to this point later in the article.)

Now if you think about Dunbar's number and how it could relate to the customers highly engaged with your brand, it's easy to see that at some point you will max out on the number of customers with whom you are capable of maintaining a certain level of advocate relationship. And that means you have two options: let those customer relationships churn at the same level, or roll them into a deeper fold to make room for new customer advocates.

If you choose the latter, you are going to need to map out what that might look like, so let's start now by exploring the five stages of customer advocacy so you can create a plan that makes sense for your company.

Stage 1: The Engaged Customer

Customers in this stage have had multiple positive experiences with your company, evidenced by repeat purchases, positive outcomes with customer support, and a relationship that spans a reasonable length of time.

The specific metrics your company could use to measure your customers' level of engagement will vary by business and industry, so you'll need to define them.

Tip: They won't all be revenue-based metrics, but customer lifetime value is a good revenue-based starting point to identify engaged customers. Also, Net Promoter Score and contact scoring are two easy, non-revenue ways to start measuring engagement with your brand.

Stage 2: The Enthusiast

Customers move to the Enthusiast stage once the value exchanged between you two becomes uneven (in their favor) so that they feel the need to share their experience with their friends and colleagues in an effort to balance the uneven value exchange. You're going to want to use social listening tools to seek out (and respond to) those conversations.

Keep in mind that we aren't all wired the same, so not everybody will take the initiative to share their enthusiasm about your company with their network. But you can give them a nudge to see whether they are the type who could make a good advocate:

Introduce them to your affiliate or customer loyalty program that offers the enthusiast something tangible (typically money or store credit) in exchange for basically becoming a salesperson.

Send them some company swag or a free product sample. Consider including a special hashtag and your social media handles on the note in the event they share the perks on social media, then use your social media monitoring tools to say thanks!

Use recency, frequency, and monetary (RFM) analysis to find a segment of "best customers" who have spent at least $X across multiple purchases, then send them a gift certificate that would equate to a significant discount off a higher ticket item.

Tip: If you're using contact scoring to help you identify customer advocates, remember to let those points expire, and also to tag customers who don't show interest in the nudges you give them at this stage, so that you don't inundate them with the wrong messaging (email, ads, etc.). There's nothing wrong with having lots and lots of highly engaged customers who aren't ready to become advocates.

Stage 3: The Early-Stage Advocate

Customers entering this stage have started to become more vocal about your brand. They may blog about you, leave reviews, and mention you in online conversations. If part of your "nudge" program in the above stage included "swag," then early-stage advocates might be seen sharing photos of that swag online.

One thing will be certain: Early stage advocates will have become very comfortable interacting with your brand, whether in support channels or via a public venue such as social media.

You would do well to have a way to identify these people online, and place a priority on responding to them in brand-related conversations, as well as engage with them in off-brand conversations. Your support and social teams will be the ones building relationships with these people, so look to them for insights.

This is a critical stage in the customer advocacy relationship, so show your appreciation beyond just having them as a customer:

  • The Westin in South Boston knew from interacting with Ann Handley off-brand that her daughter was headed not only to college in 2015 but also abroad for a semester, so it had cupcakes made with Northeastern University's logo and gave her daughter a guidebook to London.
  • After hosting a member of Sprout Social's marketing team on a Google Hangout, one of them sent me a swag package that included a Nutella cookbook, because we had been talking offline about how my daughters love the stuff.
  • Softlayer (an IBM company) hosts my Web servers and once used customer location data to send me an invite to meet two of their executives in Boston when they were in town attending a conference. No agenda or formal reception, just drinks at a bar near the conference venue to spend time with local customers and say thanks for the continued business.

Tip: Don't underestimate the value of creating personal relationships between your customers and employees.

Stage 4: The Transitioning Advocate

Customers entering this stage have been advocates for a while, and they are getting to the point I talked about above, where the value exchange between you and them is becoming uneven again.

Your company is going to need a way to fold Transitioning Advocates more deeply into your company. Motivations and needs will be different and more personalized. You might need a few different programs, depending on what your customer will find valuable at this stage of their relationship with your company. Here are some ideas:

  • VIP or "inner circle" programs that open lines of communication between your advocates and senior employees for the purposes of feedback. Power users and industry influencers might like this; it gives them the ability to speak with confidence about your company, because they're not only "in the know" but also the "first to know."
  • Showcase or appreciation programs that highlight customers and make them feel like part of the brand. Let them take over one of your social channels for the day, or feature them somewhere on your website.
  • Co-creation programs for customers whose professional expertise (or customer success story) can be beneficial to your audience. Case studies, webinars, presentations at conferences, guest blogging, etc. are some of the options here. Just be sure to understand that although the value exchange is typically intangible... it still requires quite a bit of work to put together. If the customer's time is money, you might need to beef up your side of the offer.
  • Partner programs for customers and companies when such programs are appropriate. Here, you create mechanisms beyond just an affiliate program to actively seek out new business opportunities that are a fit for the customer. Given the investment you are prepared to make in them, I don't think it's unreasonable to charge a fee for this type of program, especially if it's a public-facing program that anybody could apply to. Although you should also be willing to extend a heavy discount or complete waiver of the fee for certain advocates, especially if they ask for the consideration.

Tip: In tandem with advocates who might fit the partner or co-creation programs, your team should try to share those advocates' content with your social networks. Doing so shows your audience that you care about that person enough to endorse them outside the brand relationship, which then makes that a more loyal and influential advocate.

Stage 5: The Full-Blown Advocate

At some point, the customer advocate may make the decision that aligning themselves fully with your brand is the right option for them, and they'll go all out to advocate your company as a "superfan," brand champion, or whatever else you want to call it.

You're left with one of two options: "put a ring on it" and hire or partner up with them, or be prepared to extend yourself in whatever way necessary to ensure the advocates have the tools they need to represent you as if they worked at your company.

That support could be dedicated training, access to execs when they're in the advocate's area, high-value perks like invitations to sporting events and concerts—or any number of other things, depending on your business, that equate to the highest level of appreciation and value to that advocate. Here are a few stories:

  • Social media management software company Sprout Social announced a customer advocacy program called Sprout All Stars in January 2016. All Stars have dedicated access to staff for feedback, insider info, basically everything from Stage 4 above.
  • Social media engagement app Post Planner elevated social media marketer Rebekah Radice from highly engaged customer to a brand ambassador in April 2015 (and, according to Rebekah, the role continues to evolve today).
  • Landing page software company Unbounce hired customer and industry peer Michael Aagaard to be its director of conversion optimization in July 2015.

Don't Forget the Secret Sauce!

The key to successful customer loyalty and advocacy—you can see it in the examples above—is to delight and to be unexpected with whatever you're doing to show your genuine appreciation for your advocates.

Delighting. Unexpected. Genuine. Those three words are at the core of how to build and nurture customer loyalty and advocacy.

So use the ideas in this article to create your plan for identifying and nurturing your customer advocates, but in the end be sure that whatever you do comes from a genuine place.

More Resources on Customer Advocacy and Loyalty

Five Ways to Successfully Promote Your Loyalty Rewards Program 

Five Steps to Winning Back Lost Customers by Using Targeted Content

Five Rules for Growing Customer Loyalty Even as Coronavirus Disrupts Supply Chains

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image of Stephan Hovnanian

Stephan Hovnanian is a content solutions architect at Bambu, an advocacy platform by Sprout Social. He has spent most of his professional career as an email marketer and business owner focused on helping companies build stronger relationships with their audiences.

Twitter: @stephanhov

LinkedIn: Stephan Hovnanian