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What Advocacy Really Means (To Marketers, Just Like Everyone Else)

By Augie Ray | July 05, 2016 | 3 Comments

MarketingCustomer Experience

Marketers cannot open their inbox or browser without being bombarded by articles and pitches about advocacy. It’s a hot topic, and for good reason—in an age of social media and always-on information, brands’ reputations and financial results increasingly depend on what people say and share. But despite all the articles and the trend towards deploying employee and customer advocacy platforms, marketers continue to be disappointed with their word of mouth outcomes. The problem is not just one of execution or even of strategy but of definition.

Marketers have a habit of redefining words to suit their needs. A couple of months ago, I explored how marketers redefine loyalty so as to make it easy to measure, but in so doing, marketers impair their ability to assess genuine loyalty. By equating repetitive purchase behavior as a sign of loyalty, marketers substitute an important and valuable metric of affinity and future purchase intent with weak signals. People regularly purchase for all sorts of reasons that do not include loyalty, such as price, convenience or a desire to avoid the time and costs of switching. You likely open your banking application and visit your bank’s ATMs regularly, but how loyal to you are to your financial institution?

In the same manner, many marketers hamper their advocacy programs from the start because of a poor understanding of what advocacy is and how it ought to be measured.  I have seen dozens of social media and advocacy dashboards that count things such as likes, retweets, pins, and shares as evidence of advocacy. Certainly, it is helpful when customers extend the reach of your brand’s posts, but do those actions truly represent advocacy?

The dictionary says advocacy is “public support for or recommendation.” In other words, advocacy is intentional—people are advocates only when they intend to change others’ attitudes or actions.  A brand advocate is not someone who likes or even shares a funny or entertaining social media post but an individual who wants others to learn about, try or buy a product or service.

For example, in spring 2013, Kmart launched a viral hit on YouTube with its tongue-in-cheek ad, “Ship My Pants.” It spread like wildfire, and in just the first week, 8 million people viewed the video. Bloggers and marketing media raved about the advocacy Kmart created, but did the people who shared that video intend to advocate on behalf of Kmart? Were they endorsing the brand and hoping to impact their friends’ shopping behaviors? Of course not; it was a just a video that people found amusing, which is why the number of people who shop at Kmart was unaffected and the retailer continued to see a declining number of customers.

Intentional advocacy that aims to change others’ awareness, consideration or purchase habits comes from great customer experiences, not funny videos, social sweepstakes or witty posts. Think of the brands that you recommend to others. Do you do so because the brand creates great content and social media posts?  (“That brand’s products disappoint me, but I think you should purchase them because they are so funny on Facebook,” said no one ever.) Or are you an advocate because the brand provides you a great value, offers memorable experiences, is incredibly dependable or otherwise furnishes a product or service experience that exceeds your expectations?

While advocacy platforms, social media strategies, and other marketing programs can unleash advocacy, your brand’s customer (or employee) experience first must create advocates to be unleashed. Implementing an advocacy platform when your brand fails to foster advocates is like putting a powerful engine in a car without any gasoline.  (Gartner clients who wish to learn more about where social fits into the end-to-end customer journey can access the report, “Use Social Media to Power the Entire Customer Experience.”)

Most brands don’t fail to generate customer and employee advocacy because they lack a platform or strategy to unleash it. They lack advocacy because they have not sufficiently created advocates. Solving that problem begins by reclaiming the correct definition of advocacy, reconsidering the accuracy and relevance of your word of mouth metrics, and creating customer experiences that get people talking, sharing their positive experiences and endorsing your brand.

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  • I think there is a balance with advocacy. All talk and no action = nothing. Less talk and more action seems to be the way to go.

  • Advertising goes a long way, but everything starts with brand experience.

    That is precisely why I believe advertising agencies have to be more interested and proactive when it comes to their clients’ strategic needs.

    It is a new form of relationship that calls for communication companies with a more heterogeneous array of experiences and skills.

    If they insist on playing by the old rules they will be extinct sooner than later.

    • Augie Ray says:

      I certainly agree, Maurilo. Agencies need to be more like consultancies (since consultancies are beginning to look more like agencies.)