How advocate marketing can work for start-ups

5 minute read


In the earliest stages of setting up your business, it’s easy to think of marketing as a challenge for the future. But there are marketing and communication tactics that can work for start-ups, getting important messages out to key audiences.

This is where advocate marketing comes in. It’s a reasonably fluid technique, and further down the line of your business it could be something that you put more resources into. For now though, you could develop an advocate marketing strategy that doesn’t require any financial investment – just a savvy use of your time.

What is advocate marketing?

First and foremost, advocate marketing does not involve paid influencers. Instead, key stakeholders are encouraged to organically share messages about your company to their own networks. In many ways it’s the purest form of marketing, based on reputation and word of mouth.

By contrast, influencer marketing involves paying individuals to promote your product to their own network, often on social media. It’s under increasing scrutiny by regulators, and has met with scepticism from consumers too – the backlash against Fyre Festival’s promoters is a case in point.

Advocate marketing is altogether more authentic and effective. If a person close to you recommends a product or business because they have genuinely had a good experience of it, you are far more likely to trust them more than you would a paid influencer.

Advocate marketing can also involve individuals building awareness of your product or business as a by-product of their activity. That’s what Apple did with its ‘Shot on an iPhone’ campaign in which users were asked to share photos on social with the company taking the 77 best ones and turning them into ads.

Cisco took a more direct approach and empowered advocates for its tech solutions by creating the Cisco Champions initiative. This gave a platform for a community of experts to network and share their experience and skills across social media and specially created video and podcast series.

How does trust come into it?

This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer1 shows that ‘the employer’ is one of the most trusted public figures or entities, even more so than non-government organisations (NGOs). The survey concluded that 75% see their employer as a trustworthy source of information.

They also expect employers, especially CEOs, to lead on change. Businesses are rewarded for their efforts, with those who contribute to the community seen as more trustworthy by their employees.

Indeed, for start-ups employees are often your key advocates. They will regularly be in touch with exactly the people that your business needs in its early stages: think about the kind of message and resources that you can provide them with for those conversations. What can you put on your social feeds that they will be happy to share and be of interest to their networks?

Employees will be happy to post about positive experiences that they are proud of. This puts the onus on founders to create and communicate a vision for the business that is supported by its staff.

A story to tell

A strong Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy that results in actions is a great way to express the values of an organisation and create a story that employees and other stakeholders are willing to share.

Social media is vital for start-ups, and an engaging campaign with a strong, on-trend narrative could be picked up and shared organically no matter the size of the business.

Identify and activate your advocates

Employees make great advocates but there are many other groups that can help share your messages and reach different audiences. Potential or actual investors, board members, mentors and advisors are all likely to have influential pools of contacts. Identify what sort of content that could benefit them if shared. For some it may be a humble tweet, for others it could be a report that uses data or insight from your business (that you’re happy to make public). Identify an opinion leader in an industry and quote them in a report or presentation and they may be more likely to act as an advocate.

Industry bodies and business networks are always looking for good news to share. Understand the angle they need and provide the content that suits their channels then let them act as advocates on your behalf.

On a more personal scale, consider how to identify and activate advocates in any networking you do. The creation of long-term relationships is key to successful advocate marketing, so make sure you’re working openly and considering how you can help connections in your own network, thus creating a virtuous circle of advocacy.

Customers are king

The most powerful advocates are your customers. Start-ups that have gone to market should identify clients and customers who are supporters of the business and look for ways in which they could share their positive experiences. Show them some love on social media and it may be returned, potentially getting your name out to much larger audiences. Once again, keep it honest and mutually beneficial and always put the relationship first. The advocacy will follow.

Quality over quantity

Advocate marketing works at its best when the quality of the message is emphasised over quantity. It’s at the opposite extreme to pay-per-click (PPC) marketing with a key message being developed and deployed carefully, for customers and employees to share organically on their own networks.

It is so effective because it is based on trust but it can only be used if trust has first been built between your business and its stakeholders, whether they be employees, the community, investors or customers. Start-ups can start thinking about advocate marketing from Day 1, looking for opportunities to enable and encourage advocates to help share your story.



1 Edelman

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