Influencers vs. advocates, part 1 — who?

Here in 2015, few marketers still need to be convinced of the value of word of mouth and earned media. But knowing that consumers should be talking about your brand still leaves a lot of questions on the table: are some conversations more valuable than others? Who starts the best conversations? And how can you help them start more of them?

For this three-part series, we’re looking at two important groups in the word-of-mouth ecosystem: INFLUENCERS and ADVOCATES. We plan to define who they are, convince you that they’re important and offer some insights into how you can best engage them.

Our choice of these two terms — influencers and advocates — may seem somewhat arbitrary. After all, there are a lot of concepts that overlap with these two in various ways; a quick glance through recent writings on word of mouth will reveal myriad labels for people out there talking about brands:

Evangelists; Hubs; Cheerleaders; Opinion leaders; Mavens; Connectors; Social broadcasters; Ambassadors; Agents; MVPs; Champions; Conversation catalysts; Influentials

But, as we hope to show, thinking about these two groups — and the differences and similarities between them — offers the clearest insights into some of the key questions that all marketers should be asking and answering.

So who are they?

Influencers are defined by their reach; they have an established audience. They might be broadly influential — think celebrities — or they might be bloggers or thought leaders or Instagrammers influential within a specific niche (like fashion or tech).

For marketers, working with influencers is valuable because they can get your message in front of their audience and, because that message isn’t coming straight from a brand, it’s likely to be more trusted and well received.

Advocates, meanwhile, are typically regular people who simply love your brand and are naturally inclined to talk about it. What they lack in reach, they make up for in authenticity; if your friend is always reminding you about how much she loves her favorite doodad or whatzit, you can reasonably assume it’s because of the real value it offers, not because she’s signed a lucrative promotional deal.

Being an advocate is more conditional than being an influencer. Some people are just influential in general — no matter what Oprah recommends, you can count on people buying it — but whether someone is an advocate depends on the product in question. Most of us are advocates for something. The challenge for brands is to:

1. Identify the advocates who are already out there and find continuous ways to reward and encourage them
2. Find and convert potential new advocates

People might talk about a brand for various reasons: they think others will appreciate the information; they want to be seen as knowledgeable and in-the-know; they want insider access or recognition from the brand; or they’re so in love with a product that they just have to shout it from the rooftops. (Or maybe they work for the brand; don't forget that your employees can be some of your most valuable spokespeople.) It’s crucial for marketers to understand these natural motivations and how to harness them.

There are two things worth mentioning about the relationship between influencers and advocates. First, when we said earlier that what differentiates influencers from advocates is their reach, that wasn’t entirely accurate. An individual influencer is certainly likely to have more reach than an individual advocate, but an advocacy campaign can have at least as much total reach as an influencer campaign, because it’s likely to engage hundreds or thousands of advocates (whereas an influencer campaign likely activates far fewer individuals). So if anyone tells you that working with influencers offers greater reach than working with advocates, you should perhaps question their math.

Second, influencers and advocates aren’t mutually exclusive; there are probably people out there who both love your brand and have an audience of some sort. You should try hard to find these people, show them appreciation and work to deepen the relationship. But an influencer who’s new to your brand or an advocate without a large audience can still be incredibly valuable — for reasons we’ll discuss here next week.

You can check out Parts 2 and 3 of this series here and here.