What strategies can marketers learn from nonprofits about building brand advocacy? Successful nonprofits know what it takes to get people to rally behind a belief or cause. Brands that turn their best customers into advocates build brand loyalty and drive sales.
Today’s guest is Spencer Brooks from Brooks Digital, an agency that helps health-focused nonprofits grow a digital presence and turn patients into advocates.
Ben: Hey, Spencer, how are you doing this morning?
Spencer: Hey, Ben, I am doing amazing. Thank you for asking.
Ben: That’s awesome. It’s rare to hear such enthusiasm to that question these days, but I really appreciate that.
Spencer: Sometimes I do that at the grocery store and people just stop and think it’s amazing. You always get the I’m good, thanks. But sometimes it peps up someone’s day to be oh, you’re doing amazing. Has anyone asked you how you’re doing, Ben? How are you doing this morning?
Ben: I’m doing good. I’m hanging in there. Not riding too high or too low, but thank you for asking.
Spencer: There you go. Hopefully, in the end, we’ll take this from good to amazing. That’ll be my goal.
Ben: For sure. I think that’s a good goal. Before we get too sidetracked, would you mind just taking a moment to introduce yourself to our audience and explain what you do with Brooks Digital?
Spencer: Sure, I’d be happy to. My name is Spencer Brooks, and I run Brooks Digital which is a digital agency. We specialize specifically in helping health-focused nonprofits build out digital presence and a digital platform that improves the health and well-being of the people that they serve. I’m really excited today to just bring what I know in my experience in the profit sector and bring that perspective to bear on the conversation we’re going to have today.
Ben: For sure. I think this is a super interesting topical intersection because I do believe that there are a lot of things that nonprofits can learn from for-profit companies and that for-profit companies can learn from nonprofit companies. The specific thing that we’re going to be talking about is turning customers into brand advocates. I think that’s something for nonprofits, getting people to buy into a cause is bread and butter. But for B2B or B2C companies, that can maybe be a little more challenging, especially if you’re in a “boring” niche.
There’s no such thing as a boring industry. If you have a product that someone needs, it’s not boring for the person buying it. But actually getting people to care can be challenging. Before we get too far along, what does it mean to turn a customer into an advocate?
Spencer: The way that I think about this is that an advocate is this type of highly-engaged customer that’s doing some sort of work on your behalf. It’s usually marketing work. That might be telling their friends or family about your company. It could be gifting your products. Christmas is coming up when we’re recording this, it’s November. An advocate might be the person who is buying something that your company produces as a gift for their friends or family, it could be providing referrals, positive reviews. They’re doing some sort of action on your behalf.
I like to think about this in terms of maybe a spectrum. You have someone who could be just a passive consumer and bringing them, and turning them into an advocate is getting them into an active position and active promoter. It’s this push from passive to active that really represents turning a customer into an advocate.
Ben: Sure. That’s a really simple concrete way of thinking about it. Why are brand advocates important, how are they crucial for success? As a marketer, why do I need advocates versus just people who give me money?
Spencer: I think there is some sort of intuitive reasoning that many of us probably have. The advocates are important on some level. The way that I think about it is that advocates are important because they provide a leverage point. What I mean by that is they’re doing (a lot of times) free marketing for you.
If you think about spending money right now on content creation, on advertising, things like that, it’s a lot of time and money that you’re investing in those assets. If you have 10, 100, or 1000 advocates that are doing marketing work on your behalf, that’s a huge point of leverage.
The stats already back up what most of us already know. 92% of people trust the word of mouth recommendations. If you have a brand advocate, they’re spending twice what your average customer is going to spend. If you have a customer that’s referred by one of your brand advocates, they’re going to have a 37% higher retention. It confirms what you probably know inside—they’re important.
In terms of how crucial they are to success like I was saying before, it’s a continuum. I think you can be running a perfectly fine business and not have a ton of advocates. I don’t think it’s necessarily about you’ve got to have advocates or your business is going to tank. But I do think it is a huge growth lever that you can pull if you have high growth targets or you want to add a little bit more oomph to your marketing.
It’s a little bit more about maturity as opposed to this got to have it or you’re not going to be successful mindset. That’s the way that I think about it.
Ben: I think that’s a very realistic and a very clear-minded way of looking at it. We may all occasionally see anytime anyone’s hyping up any kind of tactic, I feel like sometimes, it can come off a little like if you don’t do this, you better be looking for your next job right now. I appreciate that you’re not bringing the doom and gloom with us. It’s good to think of it as a maturity thing, for sure.
Spencer: The space that I work in a lot—I think this is true not just nonprofits, but B2B, B2C—is that there’s only so much time that each of us has in our marketing to dedicate to any particular tactic. I’m sure, everyone listening knows, there are so many things that you can be choosing from because nonprofits, in particular, are very resource-constrained. That example of that phenomenon where I have to help them pick what are the top three, five tactics, channels, the things that you’re going to focus on. Because if you’re spread too thin and you just take everything but the kitchen sink approach, then you’re just not going to have the time and money to invest and actually succeed and compete in any particular tactic or channel.
That perspective has to be brought to this conversation that creating advocates is work, and you have to recognize when that is an inappropriate strategy to be using. When you can say, hey, you know what, this is going to be a good thing for us to maybe do down the line. But right now, we’re having a hard enough time as it is keeping up with our content calendar.
That’s why I did want to highlight, hey, if you’re having high growth targets or if you’re maybe a little more mature on your marketing continuum, then let’s be thinking about this. But I do think that even folks that might not be there yet can start having some of these things that we’re going to be talking about churning in their mind. And they can start laying some groundwork, which I think will help all of their marketing.
Ben: Certainly. I think a super interesting point that you touch on there is that nonprofits are used to operating under much tighter resource constraints than what probably most marketers are if they work in a for-profit type company. With everything that’s going on now in the economy and then the society as a result of the pandemic, it’s also certainly true that I think a lot of marketers who maybe were used to having a little bit more money or a few more team members, unfortunately, to get things done are now finding themselves in a somewhat similar situation. Where it’s like, we have to get the most out of every dollar we spend, more than ever.
It’s always true, but it’s a true thing that’s truer now for all of us. But nonprofits have to be good at this. Because their existence relies on it. What makes nonprofits, in your mind, particularly effective at turning donors into advocates? Do you think of them as donors or customers in nonprofits?
Spencer: The nonprofits would use maybe constituents. Some of them are donors, but there’s a wide variety of their audience. I think what makes them effective, I guess to your point, Ben, your observation, is that yes, nonprofits are forced by resource constraints to have to get the most out of their dollar. With advocates, they have to be effective at doing that because they can’t do their work by themselves.
If you’re a nonprofit and you’re trying to petition congress or something to lower the price of insulin or something, you’ve got to get a ton of people to buy into that so that you can get what you want to get done done. But to your question, nonprofits are really good about using emotional storytelling to turn people into advocates. What I mean by that is they’re working from a strong position of meaningful why.
From a B2B and B2C perspective that a good product or service may not be enough. I view this as the cost of entry. It’s easier to differentiate with a why, and that’s what nonprofits do really well is they tap into this emotional connection that they’re doing to get people to take action. I think that abstract missions don’t always motivate.
One of the things that a B2B or B2C organization can do to try to mimic that because the reality is that sometimes you’re right, Ben, there’s boring industries. No industry is boring. It’s not going to be the same as Save the Children. It’s very tangible. There’s probably not going to be pictures of starving children on your website and things like that. They’re these gut-wrenching things. But I do think, in every single industry, there is some kind of philosophical problem that your product or service is addressing.
The StoryBrand Framework is a great tool, it’s a book by Donald Miller. If you haven’t heard of it, it does a very good job of helping put the product or service that you provide inside the framework of your customer’s story. One of the things that he talks about in that book is a philosophical problem. As an example, Apple could solve the philosophical problem of technology should be easy to use. It’s those should statements that represent this is the way the world should be as it relates to my specific industry.
Every industry has those philosophical problems, and those are the things that brands can tap into and learn from how nonprofits do that same thing, just with a much more obvious philosophical, social issue that they’re trying to motivate people to take action on.
Ben: Yeah. That is a great way of explaining that. It’s certainly true, any company can apply that to what they do.
Spencer: Absolutely. It’s challenging to do that however because, by default, most companies (I would imagine) are not approaching this from the position of the philosophical problem when the company is founded. I think they see other problems, and maybe the more obvious stuff is, well, we help our customers do this or solve this very tangible problem. But underneath the layers of that, you can dig out a philosophical problem. I do think that getting clear on company values is a very good way to start by doing that. If you’re not sure about it, I want to uncover my philosophical problem but I’m having trouble doing that. Digging out on company values is a good way to start.
One of the resources that I really like is just one of many for the value setting exercise is Traction. It’s by Gino Wickman. An entrepreneurial operating system. In that book, he has a process where he asks, has some leadership. Go pick three people that if you could clone them, you would dominate your industry. Everyone comes back with that list of three people. And then you say, why did you choose these folks? What characteristics or qualities do they represent? And you can start distilling those into the stuff that you really care about in your values.
I really think that by doing that, you’ll start to pull out some philosophical problems that you’re solving. We’re going to choose this particular person because they’re not going to stop until the customer is happy—random example. Or they embody such hard work, discipline, or things like that. I think those represent—for your organization, for your company—the way that things should be when they’re done right and I think when you’re clear on your values. There’s a lot of value mumbo jumbo, but when it comes down to helping you define your philosophical problem, getting straight on your values is a good way to uncover the way that you think the world should be in your industry. You can market and message around that.
Ben: If you’re still wondering whether it’s worthwhile to focus on building brand advocacy, I’d refer to the statistics that Spencer mentioned how 92% of people trust the word of mouth recommendations, and brand advocates spend twice what the average customer does as well. Neither of those statistics is particularly hard to believe, but they do reaffirm what most people could probably already assume is true. That’s people trust recommendations from people that they know, and people who are passionate about a product will spend a lot of money on it.
If you’re in a conversation with your colleagues, your supervisor, your team, or whoever it is that you’re trying to convince that this is something that you should try to nurture among your customer base, then there are two numbers that you can use to support that argument. Now, back to Spencer.
It doesn’t have to be totally life-changing if what your industry does just doesn’t happen to be this grand mission. We’re not all saving the world. But I can certainly think of random products that I buy if anybody were to ask me for a recommendation on some random thing. There are definitely brands I can point to where I would be like, yeah, that’s the one you need for XYZ reason. I think you did a really good job of summarizing that. But I just want to touch on that point a little bit for our listeners.
In case anybody is listening to this and they’re like, I sell some obscure hardware component that one industry uses or something like that, something real niche.
Spencer: No, I think it’s a very valid point because it’s all relative. I think once you get into a niche, you don’t have to have this. I think it would honestly be a mistake to try and make your philosophical problem larger than it needs to be. It doesn’t have to be, we’re going to try to reduce carbon emissions. Too much and people are going to be like, wait a minute, I’m just here to buy this obscure hardware component.
In every niche, people know how that niche works. Here are some of the problems that we’re dealing with here. Here’s just the way that the industry works. There are just things that we like and don’t like. I think being able to understand your niche enough to pull out the inner dynamics of it and then frame your philosophical problem just around your pond, that’s I think the lesson to be learned, not so much that you need to try and match the grand mission of a nonprofit.
You just have to look inside your fence and say, what are the issues? Even if they’re nitty-gritty, that is actually impacting everyone else in my industry, and how can I use that to differentiate my product or service in a meaningful way?
Ben: For sure. Going beyond the basics, I think this is getting back to your point about maturity. Let’s say that I’m a marketer, I’ve got a decent grasp on what brand advocacy is and how to nurture it. What would be some advanced tactics that you would recommend? If I really want to take brand advocacy to the next level, I want to be at the forefront of companies. When people think of companies that are really good at brand advocacy, I want to be one of those companies. What would you recommend? Maybe that’s a big ask.
Spencer: I’ll give it my best shot here. A foundational concept to grasp—as we dive into that—is the idea of identity. Brand advocacy and identity go hand in hand. What I mean by that is I think the companies that do the best at turning their customers into advocates have a product or service that resonates strongly with a customer’s current or desired identity. So much so that that person feels compelled to share your product or your service in order to tell other people who they are in some way.
Honestly, the thing about social as well—I’ll make a small point here before moving on—is that people don’t always share who they are. They share who they want others to think that they are. As you consider making people into advocates, you not only have to look at who they actually are, but how they want to be perceived by other people. Usually, your product or your service represents them making a shift into that desired identity. They share that as almost a way of saying this is who I’m becoming.
With that framed, I actually think that that concept is one of the most important things that you could be understanding about the nuances of advocacy. Then going in and actually identifying and learning from your existing advocate, that’s doing customer research and interviews to dig in and say okay, who’s actually already doing this right now—being an advocate, I mean—and what can I learn from them about how they perceive their identity in terms of my product or service—the philosophical problems, the things that they care about? It’s nuanced, but to uncover some of the strongest drivers.
And then once you’re able to identify those big philosophical things—the identity issues—then I think you can create content that allows people to share that new identity with others. As an example, my brother is a huge brand advocate for Dr. Squatch, which is a men’s soap company. They’ve done a fantastic job of creating really funny video ads that people want to share, that my brother wants to share, but it also taps into this other philosophical problem there, which is you should be able to feel masculine while you’re using soap. I can be a manly man and also take care of my body.
I think they did that by understanding the desire of maybe a man that wants to be perceived as masculine, but to also say, hey, I want to be able to actually have some self-care and take care of my body and use these products but I’m afraid to do that. Here is a piece of content that I can share to now proclaim to other people, hey, you know what, I’m okay, I’m a little bit more secure in using soap. And it’s packaged in a humorous way so it’s not this super serious thing that a guy would feel awkward sharing.
Those are some maybe key points that I want to say. But I think it does start with actually doing first the research to recap. And then using that research to create pieces of content that are shareable in a way that allows people to express their desired identity as it relates to your product or service.
Ben: Love it, yeah. I think that’s super good advice. I love that example too, how people visualize what that research and execution actually look like. Yeah, I think that’s great. That does it for all the questions I had for you. But before I let you go, is there anything else on this topic or [...] topic that you haven’t touched on but you think might be important for people to know?
Spencer: I think that one that I wanted to bring up—it’s just an idea to leave someone with here—is that also, you can partner with related organizations when you have a clear why, a clear philosophical problem. One of the things that nonprofits do really well is that they understand their why and then they also understand that they can reach certain segments of the population that resonate with that, and they can do it by partnering with related organizations that have an audience that shares that why.
I think it’s very powerful for a B2B, B2C company that has defined their why in a way that might allow them to go then partner with a company that you would otherwise never really have an opportunity to get in front of their audience or share audiences with, and that you can use that as yet another way to grow your audience and boost your marketing. If I had to leave with any kind of closing thought around that, it really does come back to centering around a real differentiated why and that philosophical problem. Because I think if you don’t have that setup and tactical work that you’re going to try to do around building advocates is just going to fall flat because it’s not going to be centered around something that is a meaningful, philosophical problem for folks.
Ben: Sure. If our listeners want to dive deeper into this topic, what resources or things that people can easily find would you recommend they go check out next?
Spencer: Some of the things that I mentioned are great starting points—StoryBrand is a book, awesome resource, Traction. I think there’s a book called Lean Customer Interviews that goes into detail. I could be getting the name of that wrong. After this, I’ll find the name of that book and I’ll throw all these resources up on a page. You can just use brooks.digital/actionablemarketing and I’ll find the links to all the stuff. I’ll put it up for listeners so they can grab it.
There’s a book called Lean Customer Interviews (I think) and it goes into detail about the knots and bolts of doing a customer interview, how you phrase the questions and book all the appointments if you want to get started on that process as well. And then for nonprofits, I wrote a cheeky article titled Digital Marketing Tactics Are a Waste of Time, going through the process of how you would select and narrow down on the digital marketing tactics. For maybe those people who resonated—it doesn’t have to be nonprofits, but just for those folks that are saying, hey, I might be over-leveraged on my stuff.
I’ll throw all those resources up on that page I mentioned and people can access them there.
Ben was the Inbound Marketing Director at CoSchedule. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.