In parts 1 and 2 of this discussion of how to motivate and reward brand advocates, I covered topics related to brand advocate needs and performance-based segmentation of fans. But you might be a little frustrated with me by this point, because I haven’t yet answered the question that is the title of this series: “Should you pay brand advocates?”. Now we’re ready to answer that question.
Several other social media marketing solution providers have made their opinion known: “never pay brand advocates”. They have worked this position into the advisory and education that they provide to brand clients, so that it has already almost become dogma in this industry.
Their argument goes something like this. First, they assert that this is earned media we’re talking about, not paid media, so by definition, you can’t go around paying people to mention and recommend your brand. Second, they argue that the presence of money and other material rewards damages the brand advocacy process with perverse incentives – fans and influencers should want to tell other people about your brand simply because they adore you, not because they have an “ulterior motive”. Third, they cite compliance considerations, which are increasingly top of mind since the recent advent of new FTC rules.
Though I think these arguments have merit, I disagree with the blanket conclusion. I do think that it’s smart to grant performance-based material rewards to certain brand advocates.
Reward your high-level advocates for real! If you have put in place a system of levels as discussed in my previous post, and you have run a series of brand advocacy campaigns (without material rewards) involving your chosen mix of fans and influencers, then you already know who your MVPs are. They have distinguished themselves over time by demonstrating their strong affinity to your brand, creatively achieving the goals of your social campaigns, and reflecting the values of your company. They have ascended to the highest levels in your community of advocates, and you are regularly communicating with them to get their feedback and advice on a variety of strategically important topics.
So the value of these MVPs has become clear to you, and you know they are smart people whose time is valuable. So why wouldn’t you make it worth their while to continue advocating for your brand? You will be rewarding them for their time. The distinction between earned media and paid media is not very important – more important is the distinction between social marketing efforts that succeed and those that fail.
“Reward” can mean several things, depending on what works best for your company. It can mean free products from your company. It can mean special experiences that only your brand can provide, such as meeting your CEO, or cutting the ribbon at one of your new store openings. It can mean special expense-paid opportunities to advise your marketing team on campaigns you’re considering, or advise your product team on their latest prototypes. And yes, it can mean cash payments for successful completion of a collaboration with your brand. Regardless of the form of the reward, it is important to calculate the positive impact an individual advocate is having for your brand, compare their impact with other ways you could spend your marketing dollars, and reward them in a way that brings you a strong ROI.
Your MVPs will understand how important transparency and disclosure is. It will have been ingrained in them from the start of working with you, because you have baked relationship disclosure right into the way you conduct advocacy campaigns. Compliance will never be an issue if disclosure is simply part of the way you and your advocates do business.
Social has been a mere experiment, an afterthought, for many brands in the past few years. For the leading brands that are getting serious about social, it’s also time to get serious about rewarding brand advocates.