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Harnessing Brand Activism

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Every day, in some way, people promote brands or products to friends, family and co-workers. Not all promotion is created equal, however.

For millions of people, touting the brands they love is part of their daily lives and even their identities. Marketers always have understood that these people are the key to their marketing efforts. They are the alpha consumers who every retailer covets. But marketers have been slow to appreciate, or even recognize, that these brand activists can and would do more on their behalf. All the companies have to do is ask.

Traditional marketing attempts to reach the widest audience possible, catching a large group with a huge net. This model is rooted in inefficient media like the newspapers that fewer people read, billboards that can be seen only briefly and TV commercials that are bypassed thanks to time-shifting technology. These types of media are expensive, impersonal and work one way -- from seller to potential buyer.

Until the wide-scale adoption of the Web, traditional marketing was the best marketers could expect. But that has changed, and the value of personal endorsements from consumers has increased, as they have more ability to actively promote their favorite brands through online channels.

Brand activists -- those who feel compelled to convert others to goods or services -- are today's most valuable marketers. In an atmosphere where 78 percent of consumers trust peer recommendations -- compared with only 14 percent who trust advertisements -- the influence of brand activists in modern marketing must be understood.

Some brands have a deeper knowledge of this new reality and actively engage their fans via direct media. The fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, for example, has integrated direct media into many of its standing marketing campaigns, like Cow Appreciation Day, and has an active and responsive Twitter account.

Audi has an iPhone application and an accompanying website -- MyAudiLabs.com -- that lets drivers share performance and emissions data. The Gap used the deals offered by Facebook through its "Places" application to offer a free pair of jeans to the first 10,000 people who checked-in to a Gap store Nov. 5.

But real activism and recidivism components are missing from these examples. It is not enough for brands to merely be online; they must empower and reward their activists through a smarter use of technology.

An eager Chick-fil-A fan created the company's Facebook page and helped build a 25,000-person strong fan base. When Chick-fil-A assumed control, it kept the page's creator as a page administrator. But what about all of the other eager advocates who do not know what else they can do?

By using gaming mechanics, Chick-fil-A and other brands could harness the network of brand activists who already exist by giving them a platform to both deliver content to their online friends and reward them for doing so.

The so-called 1:9:90 principle in Internet culture says that significantly more users "lurk" in a virtual community than actively participate. The theory is that 1 percent of users actively engage on a regular basis, 9 percent contribute periodically, and 90 percent observe but don't participate in the conversation.

Brands could use gaming techniques to reverse that principle: Convincing 1 percent (the eager brand activists) could help engage another 9 percent who then would spread the message to the masses -- the 90 percent. But to get there brands must listen, identify top activists and reward them.

Brand loyalty motivates fans to tell others about their favorite products. As more people use direct media and their mobile devices to tell their stories, brands must harness, recognize and reward that activism to increase market share.

As a brand marketer you might ask, "Why should I spend time preaching to the choir?" Because that's how you get them to sing.

All is the chief creative officer of the David All Group and is a brand activist for Nike. He blogs about how brands could harness brand activism at OneNineNinety.com.

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