By what means should a company communicate a message to their target audience? Companies typically tackle this question by considering both influencer and advocacy outreach programs. Influencers possess the power of visibility. They have a fan base and following in the thousands (if not millions), which gives them the ability to sway consumer behavior by carrying your brand's message to a massive audience. It is important to note, however, that an influencer may or may not be an advocate, so to what extent can an influencer generate natural loyalty and support for your brand or product? This is where the advocate comes in. Advocates are individuals who are loyal and enthusiastic supporters of the brand or product within their communities, and they will passionately praise, support, and defend your brand, even when the company isn't there, without any expectation of an incentive. Through social media, brands can manage influencer and advocacy outreach programs to generate both visibility and loyalty among consumers.
As you might expect, influencers have used social media to identify and organize their fan base online to establish a digital presence. These individuals may have thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers, RSS subscribers, etc., and utilize their immediate access to a large audience to give visibility to a brand or product. The relationship between a brand and an influencer, however, is almost always built on incentives, such as free products for review, or some other good or service of value. The brand will provide this incentive in exchange for the influencer's support, hoping that the influencer can generate enough awareness and demand to increase sales.
While advocates may only have a few hundred Twitter followers and Facebook friends, they actively and voluntarily praise the brand (both on- and offline) to affect change among the people they have relationships with. Strong advocates typically support a brand or product based on the lifestyle they live and the interests they have. For instance, a local fisherman or the mother-next-door of two infants may loyally support a specific line of fishing rods and diapers, respectively, because it accommodates or enhances their lives.
The influencer may have an advantage over an advocate when it comes to communicating a message to a mass audience. However, a collective group or network of advocates can be just as powerful (if not more powerful) than an influencer: today's social media tools allow advocates to actually become influencers! Through platforms like Tumblr, Pinterest, and Facebook, people with similar lifestyles, interests, and values are able to connect like never before. Within these online networks of similar people, there almost always arises a "leader" who serves as (1) a representative of that community to the outside world, and (2) a gatherer and sharer of relevant information within the community. Using social media tools to stand out in fulfilling the two above roles, these leaders in turn become the influencers for their respective audience of fellow fisherman, housewives, video-gamers, and sports-fanatics who follow them on social media. One example is John Prolly, who turned his passion for cycling into a blog/digital epicenter, Prolly Is Not Probably, for fellow cycling enthusiasts and associated cycling brands. Another example is Kevin Ma, a lifelong sneaker-head and the founder of the fashion and lifestyle blog, Hypebeast. Hypebeast is a go-to resource for fellow enthusiasts of fashion, music, art, and creativity, and can make or break an underground fashion line or artist on the rise.
People may debate whether an advocacy or an influencer program is more important, but they are both vital in their own ways. Given the above dynamic, companies can use social media to identify the core values, interests, and lifestyles of their target audience, and in turn, empower them with the tools necessary to not only be advocates, but leaders, and thus, influencers amongst the rest of this audience--in essence, allowing these influencers to facilitate visibility and loyalty for your brand.
An example of this strategy is found in Kotex's Pinterest campaign. Using Pinterest, Kotex identified the most appreciated items from a select group of fifty women relative to their target audience, and made fifty personalized gifts comprised of these items. The fifty women were notified via a Pin on Pinterest that they each received a gift from Kotex, but would only receive it if they repinned the gift. Once the women did so, the gifts were sent, and almost 100% of them shared about their gift via Pinterest and other platforms, resulting in a robust conversation of about 700,000 impressions. In this case, Pinterest gave the power of influence to a select group of similar people, to bring visibility and advocacy/loyalty to the Kotex brand. The women selected were (1) representative of a larger body of people, and (2) collected valuable information (in this case, exclusive access to a gift) to share with other similar women.
Although it is a relatively common strategy to hire a cultural icon to provide visibility and be an influencer for a brand, it's best not to underestimate the power that advocates can have. In addition, it is not a good idea to only use influencers (who may not be advocates) to generate loyalty for your brand. Using social media, we can understand the desires of our target audience like never before, and use that information to identify and construct advocacy programs, by empowering these natural advocates with the tools necessary to spread awareness amongst other potential advocates. Thus, through awareness, creativity, and market generosity, your unheard advocates can be your biggest assets.