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Survey: How to Get the Most Out of Brand Advocates


With the increasing importance of peer referrals and reviews in the business-to-business (B2B) space, it’s more important than ever that businesses organize their most passionate customers into an active corps of advocates to trumpet their brand—a practice known as “advocacy marketing.”

According to Research Director Hank Barnes at Gartner, advocacy marketing should be a top priority when it comes to marketing investments. And as expert Craig Rosenberg told us, referrals and testimonials are among the best asks you can make of advocates, because they generate quality leads and build trust.

The question then becomes: What are the most effective tactics to encourage advocates to actually go out and do these things? To find out, Software Advice conducted an online survey. We also shared the findings with Jim Williams, vice president of marketing at Influitive, an advocacy-marketing software vendor. His insights are integrated into the findings below.

Incentives Make Advocates More Likely to Give Referrals

To begin, we examined which of the following core tactics would most successfully encourage customers to refer a friend or colleague to use the product or service of a “brand they love”:

  1. Direct, monetary or material incentives such as discounts, free swag or gift cards.
  2. Social recognition (e.g., the company thanking the customer or sharing their posts on social media).
  3. Inclusion in a customer loyalty or VIP program, offering perks such as product previews and the chance to give the company direct feedback.

Of those respondents who were willing to give referrals at all (74 percent of the total sample), over half said that they would be at least “somewhat more likely” to refer a friend or colleague in response to any of those three enticements.

Customers’ Likeliness to Give a Referral for IncentivesTactics to Encourage Advocate Referrals

The results also suggest that material or monetary incentives have the most direct impact on customers’ likeliness to give a referral, with 39 percent of customers saying they’d be “much more likely” to refer a friend or colleague. So if companies had to choose a single method to drive a spike in referrals, offering discounts or gift cards is an effective, low-effort choice.

Respondents were slightly less enticed by the promises of receiving social recognition or being included in a loyalty program, with 30 percent saying they’d be “much more likely” to refer a friend in response to the former, and 26 percent saying the same in response to the latter. But considering these tactics have little cost and offer less tangible rewards, these are still very encouraging numbers.

Williams agrees, saying that the results should prompt marketers to consider a more sophisticated, multi-pronged approach.

“Most B2B companies’ referral programs are not very organized,” he says. These programs are usually run out of the sales department, he explains, and building their numbers often “comes down to an end-of-quarter scramble.”

He argues that the most successful companies combine elements of all the aforementioned tactics into a more comprehensive program, because “different rewards (recognition, etc.) impact people in different ways.”

Direct Incentives Make Advocates Most Likely to Write Reviews

Next we looked at how the same three tactics (direct incentives, social recognition and loyalty-group membership) affected respondents’ willingness to write a review, testimonial or blog post for the product or service of a “brand they love.”

Among those who were willing to write a review at all (63 percent), all three enticements increased customers’ likelihood of writing a review to a very similar extent that they increased their likelihood to give a referral. Forty-two percent said direct incentives would greatly increase their likelihood, 30 percent said the same about social recognition and 28 percent said the same about loyalty programs.

Customers’ Likeliness to Write a Review for IncentivesTactics to Encourage Advocate Reviews

While the results again reflect that material incentives most directly entice customers to advocate, Williams argues that the most successful advocate marketing programs use them as a “baseline” tactic in a more comprehensive strategy. Most often, this is done through a loyalty program that combines direct incentives with various methods of recognition and company involvement.

For instance, when an advocate writes a thoughtful, honest review, the company may offer them points to redeem for incentives, such as raffle tickets for an iPad. But they may also send them an automatic, personalized thank-you email. And in this same email, the company might suggest other review outlets where the advocate can post, and include a copy of the original review so the advocate can easily reuse their own comments.

Notably, significantly more customers said they would never write a testimonial under any circumstances (37 percent) compared to the number who said they would never consider referring a friend (26 percent). According to Williams, this may reflect the fact that requesting customers to write a review or testimonial—especially for an in-depth B2B review outlet, such as Software Advice—is a much bigger ask.

Customer Willingness to Give a Referral or Write a ReviewCustomer Willingness to Advocate

Finally, Williams notes that our survey underrepresents the potential strategic effectiveness of loyalty programs for getting customers to write reviews or refer friends—because respondents likely associated these programs with consumer programs such as credit card points that may have “a connotation of being boring and uncompelling.”

Unlike those consumer programs, however, self-branded B2B loyalty programs, such as Marketo’s Champion program or Act-On’s ALUV program, can be very successful. These programs offer opportunities to intimately involve customers in the company’s operations, through rewards such as access to executive decision-makers, product roadmaps and input on new features.

As Williams puts it, “the best advocates want to feel like part of the organization they’re advocating for.”

Social Recognition More Likely to Entice Younger Advocates

Digging into the data supports Williams’s prior claim that different customers might respond to different types of incentives in different ways. For instance, when we broke down how much social recognition impacted customers’ willingness to give a referral by age demographics, we found that younger customers responded much differently than older customers.

Impact of Recognition on Likelihood to Refer by Customer AgeImpact of Social Recognition on Referrals

Nearly half of respondents between ages 18 and 34 (44 percent) said they’d be “much more likely” to refer someone to a brand they love after receiving recognition from the company over social media, compared to just 16 percent of respondents over 55. In fact, for those older customers, this tactic was more likely to backfire than to succeed at all: 27 percent said it would actually make them less likely to refer.

Breaking down the responses about how social recognition incentivizes reviews yielded similar results, with 44 percent of the youngest demographic group saying it would make them “much more likely” to write one, compared to 18 percent of respondents over age 55.

Impact of Recognition on Likelihood to Write a Review by Customer AgeImpact of Recognition on Reviews

These discrepancies emphasize just how important it is to really think about who your advocates are and put yourself in their shoes, says Williams. For instance, B2B marketers who sell to mid-level buyers in industries that typically have a younger customer base (such as IT) need to think carefully about rewards that will appeal to that audience.

And as our data shows, in the case of younger customers, offering recognition online (e.g., replying to their comments or thanking them for their referral or testimonial on social media) is a particularly easy, effective way to encourage continued advocacy. Companies selling to buyers in their 40s and 50s, however, might want to lean more on other types of enticements.


We found that all three of the tactics we asked about (direct incentives, social recognition and involvement in loyalty programs) had a significant, positive impact on potential brand advocates’ likelihood to give referrals or write reviews, testimonials or blog posts.

Although direct monetary or material incentives had the largest influence, breaking down the data by demographics suggests that different types of advocates (e.g., younger customers vs. older customers) will respond differently to different types of enticements. So, it’s important to segment your advocate base, and tailor a combination of these incentives to most effectively entice each group. Williams suggests going so far as to create “brand advocate personas,” similar to buyer personas, to help with this.

He argues that the most sophisticated, successful advocate marketing programs use tools such as Influitive to structure rewards and gamified recognition (such as leaderboards and badges viewable by other customers), allowing advocates to build points they can spend on the incentives they like best—including both direct incentives, such as gift cards, and opportunities to have more intimate access to the company.

“When you combine all these things, you don’t get just one or two referrals a year out of someone,” says Williams. “You start to get four or five or six.”

Social Media 01 created by Rosaura Ochoa used under CC BY 2.0.

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Jay Ivey

About the Author

Jay Ivey joined Software Advice in 2014. He conducts research and reports on business-to-business (B2B) marketing technologies, topics, and trends, with an emphasis on the practical applications of CRM software with sales force and marketing automation capabilities. 

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