How to foster customer advocacy in the era of dark social

Luis Jiménez Penick

27 November 2017

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In Ancient Rome, it was very common to make written recommendations for a job, a task or other types of agreement. In a message recovered from Ancient Rome, an architect (whose full name could not be retrieved) wrote in faultless latin to the roman attorney Tiberius Claudius Hermeros a recommendation about a slave in his ownership, thereby putting his own credibility in jeopardy. Since the existence of human beings, recommendations between people have formed a natural part of our lives and today, 2000 years after that letter, we have incorporated numerous channels through which we transfer opinions about our experiences with brands’ products and services.

According to McKinsey, the Word of Mouth has a direct influence on purchase decisions of around 30-50%. Nielsen, in their Global Trust in Advertising Survey, discovered that 92% of people trust the recommendations of friends, but this reduces to 70% in the case of opinions of other online consumers. With such significant data, why do brands seem to give more attention to their large media campaigns than to Advocacy strategies? The main reason could be the lack of control and real information that brands have about the conversations that are actually taking place.

Far from solving the problem, the consolidation of Dark Social – through which already 84% of editors and marketers’ web content is shared, according to RadiumOne – does nothing but aggravate the feeling of missing out which brands experience.

If we think of generating trust in our brand solely through its corporate communications or media campaigns, traditional or digital, we will tread a dangerous path: a study by Trinity Mirror in the UK concluded that consumers have practically no trust in advertising (69% of those questioned) and, 42% actually distrust the brands themselves (probably due to the reputational legacy of recent financial scandals and advertising overexposure).

It neither seems the solution to resort to strategies with Influencers. Although they should form part of the brand promotion strategy, especially in sectors like fashion and beauty, they serve more to achieve reach and awareness than for the recommendation effect itself, due to their low credibility as it is in practice a more remunerated means which has low engagement rates (between 1-2%)…

Therefore, how can we build trust within a brand and achieve that consumers recommend their products and services?

Firstly, we ought to fully understand the meaning of Advocacy and its real implications. There are many definitions of Advocacy Marketing; WOMMA (Word of Mouth Marketing Association) defines it as any act that generates the consumer’s recommendation of a brand, product or service. Gartner emphasizes the exponential concept that brand ambassadors can create through the social Web. The majority of traditional definitions were focused on public recommendation, but in this new era of social darkness it is evident that they fall short. In this digital advocacy update, the following elements are key:

  • There must be an unmistakable intention of the advocate to ensure that other people discover, test or acquire the product or service of a trademark;
  • This intention to recommend should be sincere, non remunerated and responding to a rational and emotional link with the brand which goes beyond that of a mere regular customer;
  • It is not essential that it be exposed in public channels, it can also be orchestrated through numerous private connection nodes with other consumers that are not monitored by the brands;

A brand advocate is not someone who simply shares original or funny content of a brand in social networks (measuring advocacy based on like or share rates is ridiculous). Neither is it a client who helps to spread a member get member promotion of a brand (where there exists a rational component of self-benefit without any greater emotional attachment). Neither is it a loyal customer, who repeatedly uses our products or services, if they do not have that intention to produce actions or changes in other people (the funnel of marketing Advocacy is a subsequent stage to Loyalty).

Once the concept of advocacy has been defined, how do we manage to build this army of brand ambassadors? Even if it’s obvious, the first thing is to offer clients memorable experiences that consistently exceed their expectations, if we don’t, it doesn’t make sense to start any advocacy program without having everything in order first. Perhaps that’s why more than 80% of companies in the United States don’t have advocacy programs in their marketing strategies and 58% don’t even know who their ambassadors are (JitBit). That is why, the main challenge currently brands are facing, and which we all know, is to create a customer-centric culture.

From Good Rebels we have been maintaining, with the boom of the conscious consumer, that brands must take an additional step from the stage of customer centric culture to the era of the citizen: companies adopting people-centred strategies, and taking care of the worker and citizen journey. This will create a better world, whilst also allowing companies to return value to their shareholders.

What is the framework for building an Advocacy strategy? Discarding the usual channels of brand communication and strategies with influencers, the framework we are left with is to rely on our brand client-ambassadors, who will develop their activity in public or private channels, with lower rates of reach but with greater credibility and influence capacity.


How should we address consumer recommendations in Dark Social? The bad news is that, today, there is no way to rigorously measure or monitor these conversations. Also, the reality is that users have no need or interest to be constantly interacting with brands. As long as brands invade messaging apps, conversations will move to more private environments.

Our recommendation is to bet on building a wide network of constantly growing ambassadors, who have significant presence in social media. They can serve as influential nodes where the conversation is taking place, mostly in private networks. It is about creating a network of ambassadors-microinfluencers with a sincere and emotional link to the brand, not based on gifts or the offer of exclusive experiences as a form of reward (although they can be part of a compensation or gratitude program). The scale will not be achieved with “from few to many” strategies but will require “from many to many”. To achieve this, we can complete the following steps:


  • Identify your ambassadors.
    The first step is to identify potential brand ambassadors in the client database, some of whom are already being active but we may not even know it. For this we can combine surveys with monitoring systems in social networks (for example looking for social recommendations or reviews on the web). Surveys will inform us of the degree of interest in participating in our program; surveys used to develop the NPS can be a good source of choice among clients who rate us 9 or 10. Finally, it is essential to have a selection of the employees themselves who are involved and act as points of reference for the ambassadors.


  • Engage them.
    We have concluded that the relationship with our network of microinfluencers cannot be based on financial remuneration, but as a brand we must offer them a relationship in which they feel useful and valued. In this way, brands can offer their ambassadors a series of benefits that compensate their dedication, such as for example:


  • Access to more advanced and detailed information about products and services.
  • Participation in cocreation processes (new products, improving services and client experiences, etc.)
  • Serve as a beta tester in new launches of the brands.
  • Connections with brand managers and employees that help them get to know first-hand information and share the company’s vision, strategy, processes and plans.
  • The ability to have products, discounts or other promotions to offer to other consumers..
  • Access to the brand’s digital resources to help them create their own content (photographs, videos, technical data sheets,…)
  • Enjoy experiential actions from the brand to inspire them.
  • Emotional acknowledgments (i. e. the recognition to use an exclusive brand ambassador label on their social profiles).


In short, it’s about making them feel like part of the brand.

Given that in order to generate scale you must have a large network of ambassadors, one-to-one communication will be practically impossible. Therefore, it is necessary to offer technological solutions in the form of digital platforms that help us to manage the relationship with them (i. e. community software such as Lithium, Jive or ad hoc developed solutions).


  • Measure their impact where possible.
    The final objective is that ambassadors encourage the purchase of brand products and services through both public and private digital channels. Therefore, we must try to measure whether this is happening despite it being challenging. In addition to using common digital analytics systems with specific parameters and filters, we can start using specific Dark Social tools such as GetSocial, Po. st or ShareThis. It is also very important to train digital ambassadors to use traceable actions to help us measure their impact, such as: Url tracketed, downloads in the process, personalized promotional codes, etc.

In short, there is no marketing message more powerful in terms of credibility and influence than from a person known to the consumer. Most digital conversations are taking place on Dark Social, and brands cannot access them unless it is through well-organized customer-ambassador networks.