Internet empowers brand advocates

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NEW YORK - The Internet alters how consumers talk about and even recommend brands, according to research Yahoo presented Dec. 12 at the New York Public Library.

Companies have used the Internet to market their brand and brand message and have gotten through to some of the most engaged and influential consumers, according to the research from Yahoo and comScore Networks titled "Engaging Advocates Through Search and Social Media."

"The purchase process is morphing from a funnel to a long, windy road," said Michele Medansky, vice president of corporate and sales research at Yahoo, Sunnyvale, CA. "The social Web impacts purchase decisions as well as post-purchase decisions."

The study reveals how consumers use social media, search and communication tools like e-mail and instant messaging to research and discuss brands, products or categories about which they are passionate.

"Influence has been democratized by the Internet," Ms. Medansky said. "The sphere of influence is exponentially amplified, and marketers need to understand and leverage the online influence."

Brand advocates have emerged online as primary influencers, with at least a 2-to-1 rate of converting a friend or family member to buy the same product or brand.

"Brand advocates are online and talking about your brand," Ms. Medansky said. "Reaching and connecting with brand advocates will efficiently extend your brand message."

Understanding their motivations for speaking about your brand helps increase relevancy of marketing communications. Advocates are valuable to marketers because they are better-connected consumers with a larger sphere of influence, the study found.

"Advocates tell twice as many people about their purchases, creating awareness," Ms. Medansky said. "They are more likely to make recommendations and get their friends to buy as well."

Word of mouth is a trusted source of information and is powerful enough to reach larger audiences. Advocates are connected opinion leaders, and they represent 40 percent of online category buyers. They are slightly younger, more educated and spend more time online. They are also heavier researchers.

"There are a few things to remember like understanding the synergy between search and display advertising," Ms. Medansky said. "Search and social media are interwoven into advocates' daily lives, and their purchases."

To enhance the user experience, marketers first must understand the tools and Web sites that advocates are leveraging.

"Sponsoring enthusiast sites or communities groups ... and directing traffic to landing pages with positive user reviews are good ways to enhance the user experience," Ms. Medansky said. "Include user reviews in your marketing communication and ensure search and social media are part of [a] long-term marketing plan. Advocacy marketing requires engagement metrics and experiment, test, measure and refine."

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