The debate over brand zealots - with Joseph Jaffe

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed April 13, 2016
Joseph Jaffe gave an electric keynote at Influitive Advocamp about brand zealots, where he invoked some controversial political figures as examples of a "zero paid ad" model. During an on-site podcast, Jaffe and I dug into the implications of his ideas for advocate marketing - and beyond. Here's some highlights.

Joseph Jaffe, in zealot mode

I'm not a big fan of the enterprise keynote. Yes, I'm one of those miscreants plowing through email and goofing pontificating on Twitter. But sometimes the bloviated keynote does yield a result. In my case, Influitive Advocamp had an accelerated keynote format - no time for bloviating - which gave me the chance to see a crackling keynote by Joseph Jaffe, "Using Your Brand to Create an Army of Zealots."(replay here).

I was intrigued by Jaffe's pitch for Z.E.R.O. - which so happens to be a book title of his, but also a concept of "zero paid advertising." Jaffe asserts that's exactly what Donald Trump has pulled off, though he sees other politicians accomplishing similar aims (Sanders, and Obama before him).

Jaffe is an old school podcast fan, so he was good enough to join me for a live audio taping, ZERO ad budgets and the brand zealots debate, in which we take a harder look at brand zealots.  I'm not a big fan of zealotry as an emotional state. The cultural implications of a social herd rallying around media personas who exploit their passions doesn't thrill me either.

But it made for a memorable podcast. Jaffe did a good job of explaining why "brand zealots" matter, and how advocate marketing programs are vital to his "ZERO ad spend" thinking. Jaffe is aware that zero ad spend is unrealistic for most brands; it's more of an ideal that leads to a radical adjustment of marketing priorities. At least that's how I interpret it.

The podcast runs forty minutes. For your reading skim, I've pulled highlights that nail down Jaffe's points.

1. Retention is the new acquisition - use existing customers to win new ones. Jaffe:

In my third book, Flip the Funnel, I wrote about three case studies. One was USAA, one was Zappos, and one was Obama '08. The central premise behind Flip the Funnel is: retention becomes the new acquisition. How to use existing customers to gain new ones. At the time, presidential hopeful Obama mobilized his advocates, and activated them to volunteer, knock on doors, really take an active role and interest in creating that movement. In some respects, one might say that's what's been happening with Bernie Sanders.

2. If customers wave your brand flag on social platforms, why do you need paid media? By definition, employee and customer advocates should disrupt marketing spend priorities. Jaffe:

Then I realized, having written ZERO, [which is about] "zero paid media" as the new marketing model, in a perfect world, why would you need to spend a dime buying attention if you were paying attention? Also: this is the idea of earned media being the be-all, this incredible amplifier. Put differently, we rent media, but we own assets. ZERO becomes an acronym for Zealots, Entrepreneurship, Retention, and Owned Assets. Isn't it better to be a landlord versus a tenant? To own and monetize your own marketing?

3. Trump is the "quintessential case study" for zero paid media.  Jaffe: 

This is a quintessential case study for zero paid media as the new marketing model... Will Trump become the president? Most people still don't believe, but less people don't believe than at the beginning. I think we have to just - if not give credit where it's due - at least make the observation that this is zero paid media as the new marketing model in effect and in action.

4. Brand "zealots" need to be part of an advocate marketing program to be truly effective. Jaffe thinks advocate programs should start with zealots, those hardcore fans who are literally willing to put your brand's tattoo on their body, bumper sticker on their car, etc:

The "Z" of Zealots is really the cornerstone of Trump's marketing push. What I said in my keynote today is about zealotry, if you will, versus advocacy. The zealot is the spark that ignites, potentially, the raging forest fire. Advocacy is the vessel that contains the fire, that channels the fire, that focuses the fire, and that keeps the fire burning and ensures that the spark and the passion endures.

6. Brands should reckon with their zealots - there's a thin line between love and hate. If brands don't provide a satisfying outlet for zealots, they risk those folks turning against them:

There is a fine line between love and hate...  The zealot loves you until they don't. Then they hate you. The more they love you, the more you stand to lose if you betray them in a sense, if you let them down.

It's not about controlling zealots, but giving them a platform:

The takeaway here is: the zealot has to be housed and not controlled. The zealot has to be focused through something that is a little bit more mainstream, or more grounded, and that is advocacy itself.

7. This leads to an advocate program that has structure and scale:

The call to action - to make this grounded for people listening - is how do you activate the advocates? You do that by formalizing and scaling advocacy. You've got to create a program. You've got to have process. You've got to have some methodology. You've got to have community. It can be raw and unfiltered and unstructured to a point. [But] if it is not scalable and it is not sustainable, it cannot be focused and harnessed.

8. The real advocate winners will combine technology and humanity.  Jaffe sees a different type of company beyond these formal programs, one that connects people with a minimum of stifling red tape:

Every company is different. That's why the equation involves this customer-centric ecosystem and employee-centric ecosystem, powered by technology, is designed to connect the dots between employee and employee, between employee and customer, and ultimately between customer and customer. The real winners will be the ones that not only can do that, but can create these free, fluid, and loosely controlled conduits where people connect with other people - without being monitored or spanked if they get out of line, or penalized if they take too much time on a phone call to solve a problem, or moderated or censored, or whatever the case may be.

Those are the kinds of business systems that require equal amounts of technology and humanity. That was a big takeaway from this conference as well. Don't hide behind technology. How do you scale humanity? You don't do it by automating intimacy. You do it by finding the balance between humanity and automation, if you will.

The wrap - and points of contention

My colleague Den Howlett used my podcast with Jaffe to critique Jaffe's assertion that Trump is the definitive example of "no paid ads." Den asserts that Trump has exploited media as an entertainment vehicle, and that such media is not "earned", in the strict sense of how we understand "earned media" (Trump hasn’t earned a penny in media, it’s entertainment – lessons for enterprise). Howlett:

Whatever you think about the man politically, he’s great entertainment in the mold of Jerry Springer and the networks know that. The more outrageous Trump behaves, the more the networks believe it will drive an audience that advertisers are willing to pay for. That’s it, Nothing more, nothing less.

I suspect that Jaffe would counter that Trump is still a standout example of political personalities/campaigns that have punched well above their weight of the media coverage they pay for.

But where Howlett's point lingers is the dilemma enterprises face. Enterprises should also use "ZERO" as a model for diminishing paid advertising, for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is the rise of ad blockers. However, not all "earned" media is created equal. Yes, entertaining enterprise content is sorely needed, but the cult of personality of a Trump-like figure is flawed at best.

Enterprise are better off earning content through topic authority, and through entertainment that creatively expresses their expertise and culture, embedding it in stories that matter to their audience. As such, Trump is a poor enterprise media role model. The grassroots campaign of a Bernie Sanders type might be closer to the mark, if you replace political volunteers with vocal brand advocates, involved in a structured campaign with a lot of leeway on the ground.

Jaffe's notion of brand zealotry doesn't bother me as a corporate goal. Most enterprises have pathetically few genuinely passionate customer "fans," despite the massive amounts of  like" on their Facebook pages. Pulling in those "zealots" and sparking them to ignite others is a good place to start.

On a cultural level, my comfort with zealotry is zero. Charismatic leaders who can whip their followers into a social media frenzy and - perhaps - rise to power on that momentum, are more terrifying than inspiring. And that goes for leaders I agree with also. I want to see the democratitization of information foster critical thinking and informed citizens, not herds of social groupthink attack dogs.

The best part of my podcast with Jaffe was going off the rails a bit. We talked about the double edged aspect of social media, and how despicable terrorist organizations can also leverage these same tools and attempt to use zealotry in the worst way possible.

Jaffe was introspective on this point. I get the sense he is waiting to see how this political season unfolds. I don't think the presidential outcome will fundamentally change his views, but it would be interesting to revisit this conversation and see if more red flags are needed.

Anyhow, if you want more of that angle, the podcast covers it. For enterprises, we can stick with how to spark customer passion and what to do with it. That's a beast of a problem that should keep us busy for a long while.

End note: Jaffe is the founder of a nifty startup called Evol8tion, which "connects leading brands with early stage startups to solve business problems." We touched on this in the podcast also - it's worth a look.

You can also download the podcast, or get it on my Busting the Omnichannel iTunes feed.

Image credit - Photo of Joseph Jaffe is a screen shot from his Advocamp keynote.

Disclosure - Influitive paid the bulk of my travel expenses to attend Advocamp 2016. Diginomica has no financial ties to Influitive or Joseph Jaffe.