Guest Blogger – Jim Sullivan

Fast and Furious: The rising role of consumer Madvocates

In ancient mythology, the Furies were three terrifying goddesses of vengeance from Hades, whose “hair” was formed from snakes and whose eyes dripped blood. Merciless, they would swiftly punish all criminals and constantly hound those guilty of injustice, especially in cases where the state had no laws to protect the powerless.

That was then; this is now.

Welcome to the new underworld of the socially connected, ever-demanding customer who has just suffered a negative service experience with an unresponsive brand. Not so long ago, such an experience might have triggered an innocuous and relatively isolated expression of aggravation across the backyard fence or over the phone. Today, such an event threatens to unleash a storm of hellfire and brimstone for unprepared marketers. In our age of networked social media, that same frustrated customer can dispatch the Furies far and wide to friends, family and colleagues—who pass them on to their friends, family and colleagues—in a flashpoint instant. Make no mistake: many such brands have already felt the withering heat from furious and well-connected customers.

COLLOQUY calls this phenomenon Madvocacy—negative word-of-mouth that can proliferate, even go viral, as consumers warn each other about disappointing brand experiences, ranging from faulty product performance to poor service. Madvocacy is the polar opposite of Advocacy, the willingness and intention to share positive news and opinions about products and services. If Advocacy is the bright pinnacle of authentic customer loyalty, Madvocacy is its muddy trench.

Word-of-Mouth Champions 

COLLOQUY research into consumer word-of-mouth (WOM) activity shows that 33% of the U.S. and 31% of the Canadian General Population fit our definition of what we call “WOM Champions,” consumers who describe themselves as often having conversations within their social networks of family and friends about their experiences with brands, and as being “extremely likely to recommend” those brands in the next 12 months. WOM Champions are those who are both “Connectors” (who stated that they often have brand-related communication with other consumers and who frequently recommend products and services to others) and “Advocates” (who stated that they are “extremely likely”—9 or 10 on a 10-point scale—to recommend the services and products of their favorite brands).

That research (conducted in late 2010 and published in the 2011 white paper Urban Legends: Word-of-Mouth Myths, Madvocates and Champions) reveals that over 90% of WOM Champions belong to at least one loyalty program (compared to 74% of WOM Champions in the General Population).

Angels and demons 

Of course, as the Furies of ancient times would confirm, there is a dark side of brand advocacy. The COLLOQUY 2011 Word-of-Mouth Study sought to identify a negative segment of turned-off consumers who are more likely to bad-mouth brands than to support them. We screened for what we called “Madvocates” by identifying respondents who indicated that they were willing to share bad experiences with family and friends and were “far more likely to spread news about a bad experience than a good one.” In the U.S., just over a quarter of the General Population met the screening criteria.

That’s the good news, believe it or not. The bad news? Fully 39% of Madvocates are also WOM Champions.

How could the two opposing attitudes overlap so much among the same people? Positive and negative word-of-mouth behavior for this group obviously depends on the situation. Most of us encounter bad brand experiences from time to time, and many of us reserve the right to share our opinions, glowing or furious. And needless to say, the implications for marketers are profound. Lurking beneath the surface of your most positive, engaged and vocal customers—your WOM Champions—lies an attitude of Madvocacy waiting to be triggered when those vocal Champions feel unjustly treated by your brand and service experience.

WOM Championship and Madvocacy are behaviors that are difficult to target. The research shows that of the major demographic segments studied, none exhibitsa high concentration of Madvocates, who represent roughly equal and statistically similar proportions of the Affluent, Young Adults, and Core Women segments, as shown in Exhibit 1. However, the Senior and Emerging Hispanic segments comprise statistically fewer Madvocates than the General Population. In fact, Seniors are less likely to be either WOM Champions or Madvocates, which suggests less engagement overall with word-of-mouth, positive or negative. Emerging Hispanics, on the other hand, are more likely to be WOM Champions than the General Population, and less likely to be Madvocates, suggesting an overall positive orientation to word-of-mouth marketing.

Source: 2011 COLLOQUY Word-of-Mouth Study, U.S. General Population Results -Statistically significant differences against General Population highlighted in orange -n = 3,295

Northern exposure

The pattern of Canadian Madvocates within the studied segments is similar to that of the U.S., but differs in one remarkable way. Canadian Madvocates compose 24% of the General Population, but are over-represented in one segment—38% of the Canadian Affluent (compared to 26% of the General Population and 30% of the Affluent in the U.S.). Also, it seems that the Canadian wealthy are statistically more engaged than the Canadian General Population, both positively and negatively, in that both Affluent WOM Champions and Madvocates out-score the General Population. In Canada, Core Women are also more likely to be WOM Champions, but are not statistically more likely to be Madvocates. Like Hispanics in the U.S., French-speaking Quebecers are significantly less likely to be Madvocates. Other segments are statistically no different than the Canadian General Population.

Overall, our study showed a remarkable similarity of attitudes between Canadians and Americans toward word-of-mouth, as demonstrated in Exhibit 2.

Source: 2011 COLLOQUY Word-of-Mouth Study

Yet, Canadians seem to be even more engaged in word-of-mouth than Americans, indicating they are significantly more likely to tell friends and family about new experiences than Americans—nearly three out of four Canadians feel this way versus two out of three Americans. And, Canadians are much more likely to be ready and willing when it comes to warning friends and family about disappointing brand experiences and encounters with brands: five of six Canadians will spread negative WOM versus three of four Americans.

Source: 2011 COLLOQUY Word-of-Mouth Study, U.S. and Canadian Results -Statistically significant differences against General Population highlighted in orange

“Pure Madvocates,” people who are more likely to spread negative WOM and, at the same time, be unwilling to share good experiences, is small overall (7% of the U.S. General Population). Again, it isn’t concentrated in any demographic segment. Hispanics come through again as more positive, having a statistically smaller presence of Pure Madvocacy than the General Population, as do Young Adults. All other segments show no statistical difference versus the General Population.

The key to successful marketing, then, is to promote positive word-of-mouth and limit the risk of your Champions “going Mad.” Given the high likelihood that your WOM Champions are members of your loyalty program, begin by focusing your attention there.

These primary strategies will help keep your brand insulated from the furious heat of a customer scorned and will help you build the positive customer engagement we all seek.

Transform spend into investment.

For your 2012 marketing plan, take a hard look at the return your company is getting from your advertising and promotional spending. Is it building your asset base, or reducing it? Could you redirect some of that spending to invest in your customers’ experience of your core product or service? Every dollar redirected from promising a great experience to actually delivering one is an investment in the long-term competitiveness of your business.

Think also about the relative return of marketing dollars applied to eliciting post-purchase word-of-mouth referral from your most loyal customers, including your WOM Champions, versus pre-purchase attempts to acquire distrusting and disinterested new customers.

Insurance giant USAA has built a profitable, growing business by creating an exceptional service experience for a tightly-defined target group of customers—armed services personnel and their families. The company has accomplished this mostly by investing in its people and the systems that support them in serving customers. Those same systems link current customers with family members who are not yet customers, and they encourage referral every time a satisfied customer contacts them.

Build your community’s “speaker’s corner.”

Because WOM Championship and Madvocacy are behavioral attributes among the segment of your most engaged customers, the best way—perhaps the only way—to identify the behaviors is to elicit them. Make it easy for those who want to talk about your brand to do so. Again, focus on your loyalty program members—who are three times as likely to be WOM Champions than non-members. Set up community discussion boards, top-customer research panels, and crowd-sourcing innovation panels. Create your own social media within the measurable confines of your loyalty program. Monitor how WOM Champions affect the ongoing purchase cycle of others who are exposed to their positive influence. Encourage delighted customers to invite their iNetwork to get in on your remarkable service, and measure that, too. Your CEO and CFO will love you for it.

Through their program, for example, Starbucks offers a platform for customers to offer opinions and ideas, and the company responds to those suggestions. On the site, Starbucks lists all the changes it has made as a result of customer feedback, including the name of the customer who suggested each idea. The platform encourages a conversation between the brand and the customer, creating a stronger sense of investment on both sides.

Know what you’re going to do when things go wrong.

Let’s face it: All brands make mistakes. They disappoint some of their best customers. But as in politics, the initial mistake hardly ever splashes the headlines. It’s the cover-up, or the failure to act on the initial faux pas, that poisons the news and ignites the fury. The most likely source of Madvocacy is failure to rectify a WOM Champion’s problem.

The antidote? An effective service recovery strategy can prevent WOM Champions from morphing into Madvocates. Planning for ways to immediately recognize and positively surprise a wounded WOM Champion might enable you to convert a potential firestorm into a positive word-of-mouth opportunity, transforming Madvocacy to Championship.

Ford Motor Company learned this lesson when, unbeknownst to the marketing folks, the lawyers slapped a lawsuit on a group of Champions who were members of an online community of Ford Ranger enthusiasts called The Ranger Station. (Seems they were selling unlicensed Ford logos. Horrors!) Quick action by Ford’s head of Social Media resolved the issue in real-time tweets that very day, heading off what could have been a titanic PR mess for the company.

Speak to WOM Champions and Madvocates within their preferred channels.

This is more than a matter of channel relevance, and getting the good word to people where they are. It’s a matter of leveraging their ability to share your communications. For example, as you see in Exhibit 4, email (eminently forwardable) continues to be a primary channel for WOM Champions engaging in word-of-mouth activity (surprisingly, a channel whose use is growing), while, to no one’s surprise, WOM Champion activity on social networks is exploding.

Source: 2009 and 2011 COLLOQUY Word-of-Mouth Studies, U.S. General Population Results Q: And overall, when recommending or discussing products or services, which communication method(s) do you use? Please select all that apply. -2010 Champion Members, n = 185; 2008 Champion Members, n = 374

Avoiding the Furies

Over the years, consumers have changed, never more so than within the past decade—they’re less trusting, more outspoken, better connected, and far tougher to reach through traditional marketing avenues. This trend is not just big—it is inexorable. The future belongs to those marketers who can enlist their best customers into the marketing mix itself. That requires marketers to transform marketing—seeing our role as far less about selling and far more about service; less about crafting a perfect message and more about engaging in a conversation; less about speaking and more about listening. By understanding that new role, we’ll beat the heat of Furious customers with Fast connections, and build our team of WOM Champions.

Jim Sullivan, Partner, COLLOQUY

Jim Sullivan will be leading the Retention and Loyalty Pre-Conference Workshop with his team from COLLOQUY. You can sign up for the Pre-con here, it takes place October 1 and October 2 and involves two full days of intensive learning. There are nine topics to choose from. Get $300 off your registration is you register using the keycode JH609!

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