In the world of social marketing, digital influence is akin to saying holy water. It is sacred, mysterious, and purportedly carries with it healing properties. Influencers speak and the world stops to listen. Almost as prestigious in the new world of conversational marketing is the word advocacy. Advocates are the disciples of brands. They are customers or fans and they live to join branded communities and also go out of their way to tell everyone they know why the brand is so special.

I am exaggerating, of course. What is not an exaggeration, however, is the importance marketers place on influencers and advocates without understanding the role each can play in word of mouth or engagement programs. If you were to spend any time in a conference room full of brands, agencies or social software vendors, you would quickly realize that the words influence and advocacy would be used interchangeably.

What’s the difference between influence and advocacy? The differences are quite notable but the answers aren’t often sought.

Influencers are individuals who’ve earned authority on any given topic and have built a community or series of communities around their body of ideas or work. They have the capacity to cause an effect on the character, actions or behavior of someone or something.

Advocates are champions (and/or enthusiastic customers) who align with or embody the tenets or the mission of a thing (in this case a brand) or a cause. Advocates may or may not carry influence individually. When advocates unite, the concerted group can wield influence.

On the subject of influence, Technorati recently released its 2013 Digital Influence Report. In it, I discovered some interesting stats about the various ways that brands are approaching influence.

Influencers become part of the mix

For years, I’ve studied the art and science of digital influence, especially what it is, what it isn’t, and how it works (and can work for you.) As a long time blogger, I found it fascinating that “influencers” are most active on blogs with the likes of Facebook and Twitter supporting their efforts according to Technorati.

Their efforts don’t go unnoticed. Not only are they building audiences and communities, brands are actively seeking to work with them. Technorati learned that 65% of brands participate in influencer targeting as part of its digital marketing mix.

 

 

I was equally fascinated by how brands measured the elements of “influence.” In an interesting twist of cyber fate, brands appeared to calculate influence, or at least the semblance of it, using a myriad of popularity-based metrics rather than studying impact or the capacity to cause effect or change behavior. Ironically however, Likes, followers, friends, audience size, and views ranked higher in terms of weight than those very platforms designed to measure “influence,” i.e. Klout, Peer Index, Kred and even Technorati Authority.

 

 

Is it quantity or quality? In this case, when it comes to influence, less can be more. Similar to an influence study I conducted a few years ago with Vocus, Technorati Media found that most brands, in this case 54%, believe that individuals or groups that boast concentrated communities carry greater influence. Please repeat, influence is not popularity and popularity is not influence.

Influence is relative, however, if it can’t be attributed to cause and effect.  Technorati learned something quite profound. When it comes to decision-making, consumers turned to blogs in droves when making a purchase. Blogs were found to be the third most influential digital resource at 31% behind retail sites (56%) and brand sites (34%).

When it comes to services most used, blogs ranked in the top 5, ahead of noteworthy destinations and networks such as Twitter, news sites, Pinterest and even brand sites. YouTube and Facebook respectively ranked as the first and second most used online services.

 

 

Which online services are most trusted by consumers? Technorati’s study revealed that news sites are by far the most trusted followed by Facebook. YouTube and blogs also made the top 5.

 

 

The report overall makes it clear that brands will miss important consumer touch points if they do not employ either new media influencer and/or advocacy programs as part of the greater marketing mix.  As consumers research products to make informed decisions, published experiences and impressions in social networks and blogs become the peer-driven digital equivalent to Consumer Reports.

3 strategies for cultivating advocacy programs

To succeed here requires distinct strategies aimed at cultivating influence and advocacy programs over time.

1) Identify, learn, brief, and support influencers based on what’s important to them, not what’s just important to you. It’s important to build relationships before you need them.

2) Recognize advocates and what it is they love about the brand. Develop online and social programs that allow them to connect with other consumers where touch points and decision-making intersect.

3) Reward advocates for asking and answering questions and for sharing experiences and passions.

Genuine influence and advocacy initiatives will only help your customers discover your value in key moments of truth. How are you using advocates and influencers in your overall strategy?

 

Brian Solis is the author of the book, What’s The Future of Business. He is also a principal analyst at Altimeter Group. AT&T has sponsored this blog post.