Advocate marketing - real thing, or buzzword mischief? Influitive weighs in

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed July 29, 2015

When I was approached about Influitive's new funding round, I wasn't super-interested - VC funding ain't my beat. Instead, I issued a challenge to Influitive Founder and CEO to Mark Organ: let's get real about advocate marketing. He accepted - and we're off.

word-of-mouth
Organ is used to steering startups - prior to launching Influtive, Organ was a co-founder of Eloqua, a SaaS marketing automation company now part of Oracle's marketing cloud. Organ felt so strongly about advocacy marketing that he literally left Eloqua to do something about it. And that's where we start our conversation.

Jon Reed: By leaving Eloqua in 2007, you were taking a big chance. What were you thinking?

Mark Organ: David Skok from Matrix Partners, one of the smartest SaaS investors in the world, was looking to invest in Eloqua. It didn't end up happening, but one of the things he encouraged me to do was to take two weeks off of being a CEO to go and be an anthropologist - go really deep with my customers and why they bought my product and how they bought the product, and to go into a lot of depth with them.

Reed: And what did you learn?

Organ: One of the things we'd learned was that it really wasn't all the wonderful emails that we were sending to prospects that was making them move faster through the buying process. It was these special people we now call advocates. We might have called them references or something else back then, but these special people would provide very strong referrals and say, "You've got to try Eloqua, it's the best thing ever."

Reed: But don't you accomplish the same thing with case studies?

Organ: Not really. You can have all the relevant case studies on the website. But our advocates would tell us, "Have your prospects talk to two other happy customers like me, and those case studies would be really convincing." And you know what? They were right. Some of those prospects, after they talked with an advocate, they'd literally buy in four days instead of the usual four months. So we said, "Let's go get more of that - we need more of that advocate activity."

Reed: And?

Organ: There wasn't a lot that we could do to get more of it - at least not a big chunk. We could maybe get 20 percent more referrals by doing an ad hoc referral program. Nothing we did was able to systematically generate a lot more advocacy until we made this awards ceremony called The Markies. We got something very unexpected out of that. The Markies debuted in 2006, there was this explosion of advocacy. This is not why we did it, but that's when I really put two and two together.

We realized, "Wow, when you give these people the feelings they want, when you make them feel important and valued and recognized, and you give them social capital that's useful in their careers, then they respond. They end up giving us a lot more of what we want, which are the referrals and the stories and the case studies and all that."

Reed: And that was it for you and Eloqua.

Organ: Not quite - but I knew this was another business. This was not something I could really run at Eloqua. I wrote down in my black book, "We need to build an Eloqua for references," and that was a new company.

Reed: So you leave Eloqua in 2007 - what happens next?

Organ: It took me about three years before I was able to get the right team together. By then, social media has become a major factor, and so the need for advocates is way, way greater than it even was in 2005, when I first had the idea for an advocate marketing system. The demand for companies to have advocates is just enormous, so I think that the timing's right.

I challenge Organ to define advocate marketing - he accepts

Reed: We've been tossing the phrase advocacy marketing around - but what does it mean? And isn't it basically the same as word-of-mouth?

Organ:  Advocate marketing is the practice of being able to systematically mobilize advocates - meaning happy customers and other stakeholders - to generate social proof for buyers. The idea is to systematically mobilize these people, to generate the kind of messages that make buyers want to move through their process faster - because they're more confident. We distinguish between advocate marketing and advocacy marketing.

Reed: You've lost me there...

Organ: This may be a picky point, but it's actually something that's really important to me. Analysts talk a lot about advocacy marketing, and to me, advocacy marketing is is really around the idea of "How do we get more referrals, more references, more stories" - basically more, more, more. We're very interested in the "more", but the question is how do you do that? We think the way to do that is to provide an amazing experience for advocates. The way our advocates felt at these Markies awards, that's the way we want to make our advocates feel every day, and we want our customers to do that.

This whole idea of nurturing an advocate from being a raw recruit to being a super-reliable person who's always available to do lots of different kind of activities is really the goal that we're shooting for. The way to do that is to focus on the advocate's needs, not on the company's needs. That's something that's really quite, I think, unique about our company and our philosophy. The most important people in our ecosystem are these special people who make it happen for companies every day.

Reed: Let me take a crack: I think there's a growing awareness, precisely because of social channels, that if you can delight customers, then they're going to go out and spread the word for you in ways that are much more powerful than anything you can do. What you're really describing with advocate marketing is taking that one step further, in the sense of really providing more structure and incentive around that, as opposed to just trusting that people are going to go out and do it for you on their own.

Organ: That's it. Companies have been winging it for a while, but now you need it to be more systematic. The social web is driving this. Unlike ten years ago, when people still used to pay attention to what sales reps would say, and they would eagerly await the latest newsletter that came out of the marketing department, that whole idea is just silly today.

I don't think anyone's waiting around for a newsletter from a marketing department. They actually don't want to hear from marketing departments.  They want to get personalized information that is tailored for where they are in the buying process, and the best place to get that from is from their peers, not from marketing departments. They can't just pray that they're going to get all these case studies and referrals and references. They need a system around it. They need metrics, they need integration. They need dedicated people to go do this. They need... a mandate.

How companies put these principles into action

Reed: Tell us how companies are getting this done.

Organ:  One example is around content marketing, which is a big thing you've covered. We have a number of customers doing really interesting things that frankly came from their heads, not ours. I wish we'd thought of it. HP creates these ebooks every couple of months that are created entirely by their advocates.

Reed: How does that work?

Organ: HP will post an invite to their groups in our system saying, "Hey, would you like to be part of our content group," and people will sign up for that. Then one question might be, "What should we write about? What's important in your life that you want to hear from HP on?" People will put in topics that they care about, and then HP will put another challenge saying, "Here are the top ten topics that we've heard. Can you rate and rank these so we can prioritize them?" People will do that, and then you'll have other people who write outlines.

They'll say, "Hey, do you want to get a book chapter done? Write an outline. We'll help you write it. We'll get your face up there, we'll get your name out there," and people will do that. Others will take that outline and actually flesh it out, and put in their own data and stories. You've got this assembly-line format, and it's just worked really well.

Reed: Another other customer examples before we wrap?

Organ: We have one customer, Smart Technologies, that gets most of their marketing mileage from their advocates. Their blog is entirely done by advocates. They don't write any blog posts. Their blog posts are entirely written by advocates, who are teachers, so mind you, these are people who love to write for a living. But it's pretty remarkable that their blog is pretty much manned by their happy customers.

We think this is a big trend today. We call it open source marketing or crowdsourced marketing. It's really taking the four walls of your company, extending them around your customers and allowing them in, and making it fun and interesting for them to be kind of a part of your company. That's one of the ways that we're seeing content marketing change. The content is becoming more relevant because these customers are participating in the creation of it, but you're also saving a lot of money.

End note: we covered more useful ground in our discussion, including how to energize an advocate community, pitfalls to avoid, and quantifying motivations beyond incentives. I'll get to those in a separate installment.

Image credits: photo of Organ provided by Influitive.

Disclosure: Diginomica has no financial ties with Influitive. We were approached by their PR firm, and I found the content interesting.