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Originally published on ClickZ

Traditional marketing channels don’t do advocacy, but the partnership channel does. Though we at Impact view the partnership opportunity as large enough to stand on its own, on par with the sales and marketing channels, many organizations still group affiliates and partnerships as a marketing channel.

With that lens, many businesses recognize that their affiliate and partnership channel is their only marketing channel that does advocacy – and that’s a very big deal. Advocacy is simply the most significant attribute in influencing the consumer’s purchase decision, and the partnership channel does it far better than traditional marketing ever could.

An advocacy gap in sales and marketing 

The reason that traditional sales and marketing channels fail to do advocacy is because, by definition, advocacy is performed by a third-party, and sales and marketing are mostly reliant on what a company wishes to say about itself. Sure, marketing messages may be about how well a company helps its customers solve their problems, or what amazing benefits their customers receive from the company’s product, but all in all, it’s still not as credible as hearing those words from a third-party individual or entity. When a fellow customer makes a referral, or when a trusted brand recommends another company’s products and services, it carries a degree of authenticity that paid media cannot match. 

Yes, brands can get creative and place client testimonials in display advertising, or have a pre-roll of their best customers advocating for a product. The trouble is that this is not as credible as true third-party advocacy. A client may always wonder if those testimonials were staged, if those happy consumers were actors, or if the brand picked the best from a pile of bad reviews. 

These are also not long-lasting forms of advocacy, as this advocacy only lasts as long as a brand continues to pay the advertising toll. Even if it’s effective, it means doling out more CPMs for display and video inventory, or more dollars for paid search ads. In other words, even if brands can overcome the credibility challenge, this form of advocacy is hardly sustainable in the long term.

Authentic advocacy

The very best kind of advocacy comes from entities that have already built out an authentic, trustworthy relationship with their audience. One whose brand reputation (business or personal) is on the line if they make a series of poor product recommendations. These entities have to be selective in which products they choose to advocate so that they don’t squander the trust that they’ve spent years developing with their audience.

“Our partners and affiliates advocate for us,” said Aldo Bukit, Associate Director of Marketing, Affiliates & APIs of Walmart in a recent interview. “They talk about us. They are for us. They’re closer to the customer and users.”

Even the perfect marketing mix of SEO, SEM, and display can still feel impersonal, because it doesn’t deliver any advocacy, according to Bukit. For Walmart, advocacy comes in many forms. It might come from an influencer talking about the company, an article on a content site, or even a coupon on the homepage of a deal site.

Here’s how these entities, as well as several others, can provide this kind of advocacy through partnership models.

Influencers

The influencer partnership space has exploded lately, and eyes are increasingly on nano-influencers and micro-influencers – influencers with smaller, but just as dedicated followings. These nano and micro-influencers are attractive to brands because they’ve often developed their audience through category expertise, and their audience of followers really care about what they think.

These influencers can be extremely effective in shaping the consumer journey by introducing new brands and products and then credibly advocating for them. As long as the brand or product they are advocating is close enough to their category expertise, they can tap into their knowledge base and dedicated following.

Content partnerships

Content commerce, or content partnerships, are an increasing draw as well because consumers place a great deal of trust in the media outlets that they turn to regularly. A media house can’t afford to squander its reputation with its audience by advocating for products that its editorial team could not stand behind.

In fact, with many media houses, there is a strict separation of church and state between the editorial team and the commercial partnerships team. Most media builds its audiences out of a particular affinity (such as lifestyle, demographic attribute) or interest area (jobs, hobbies, research pastimes) that will dictate their approach to content commerce.

Whether it’s an editorial team writing a gift guide, regular buyers’ guides, or a series of reviews, media outlets do extensive research around the products they are willing to stand behind so that these recommendations don’t tarnish the reputation of their media property.

Affiliates

Similar to content commerce, affiliates built trusted audiences of their own through blogs or niche sites, and they can’t recommend products unless they truly believe in them. That means that products or brands written about on their sites are given advocacy in a way that paid media can never deliver.  

Some affiliates on coupons, deals, and rewards, and though these types of offers can be viewed as a form of advertising, many affiliate sites have also come to recognize the value that comes in advocacy, and offer partnerships that aren’t “advertising.” A large number of affiliate sites have elevated themselves beyond the traditional coupon or deals model to fully embrace original content. This can take the form of shopping guides, collections, or other write-ups that point the audience toward conversion opportunities.

Like influencers and media houses, affiliates have cultivated a relationship with their audience – they are trusted sources of information. That makes a big difference between an affiliate writing about a product or service and including an affiliate link as opposed to a banner ad at the top of the page.

Take finserv for example. When a trusted site that focuses on savings and credit card recommendations ranks a particular card offer as among the very best, that advocacy is incredibly valuable. At the very least, it goes much further than the brand running a paid media campaign where it calls its own card among the best offers.

B2B

Brands in pursuit of advocacy may find it advantageous to partner with brands that have accrued a great deal of brand equity and built goodwill and trusted relationships with their customers. When a brand with great brand equity advocates on behalf of another brand, it imparts that trust. 

This kind of strategic business-to-business partnership helps both companies. There’s a clear benefit to the brand receiving the advocacy because it reaches a new audience with what amounts to an endorsement. Meanwhile, the advocating brand (the one with all that brand equity) finds a new revenue stream. Of course, it’s critical that if the advocating brand is going to leverage the trust it’s built to promote another brand, then it must actually believe in that brand.

Here’s an example of how these B2B partnerships provide advocacy. Recently we saw a high-quality meat purveyor that usually worked with restaurants and hotels explore growing its direct-to-consumer business because they had to widen their client base amid the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, one of the meat purveyor’s existing clients, a meal preparation and delivery service, was getting requests from customers who wanted to purchase meats outside of their meal kits, so that they could fire up the grill and cook something quick. 

The two companies partnered together so that the meat purveyor could tap into the meal kit company’s fervent customer base. With an introduction to these new customers as a “trusted meat supplier,” the meat purveyor watched its DTC customer base grow rapidly. At the same time, the meal prep company gave its customers something they’d been clamoring for while earning a commission from its meat supplier. 

Ambassadors

There is perhaps no greater way to showcase advocacy than to have regular customers share their love of a particular brand. But as we discussed, testimonials tied to paid media don’t always come off as credible. Ambassador partnerships are different because these programs activate customer referrals to spread interest in a brand via word of mouth rather than in paid campaigns.

These programs can take many forms, but at a high level, they reward consumers for driving purchases among their friends and family. Customers can sign up with the brand, receive a custom link, and then share that link with friends and family. Whenever someone uses that link to make a purchase, the brand ambassador receives rewards, often in the form of discounts or gift cards.

Mobile apps

Mobile app partnerships operate similarly to strategic B2B partnerships, so the advocacy component works much the same way. There are some exceptions, namely that the referral partner in this case is advocating consumers to download a brand’s app or perform some revenue-generating activity within the app, rather than encouraging a purchase on their website. Other than that, it still works much the same way, in that one company or brand advocates on behalf of another, often driving consumers directly to an app store, encouraging a download, and then deep linking the customer to the relevant portion of the app to maximize an audience’s propensity to convert. Partnerships are truly one of the most effective “growth marketing”  strategies for apps.


Finding advocacy opportunities

Traditional sales and marketing have already lost a great deal of power in terms of spreading brand messages. A crowded market means it is incredibly hard to stand out, and the shifting consumer purchase journey means that traditional, “buy this” messages no longer have the same impact. Advocacy, and the halo effect that trusted companies and partners can lend to a brand, can make all the difference in a crowded, competitive market.

Fortunately, advocacy can be found across all different forms of partnerships. Leveraging the trust that comes from influencers, other brands, media groups, affiliates, or even from your customers, via brand ambassador programs, can go a long way towards building advocacy for brands at a time when it can make all the difference.

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