Multichannel marketing online through brand advocates

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Word of mouth advertising isn't what it used to be. Today, shoppers who seek personalized advice don't need to rely on their limited circle of family and friends.

The advent of online communities has allowed consumers to easily exchange advice with anyone eager to share their brand and product experiences.

Although this advice often comes from complete strangers, shoppers trust this information in the same manner as advice from their friends and family, and have actually learned to depend on it to feel more secure in their purchase decisions.

Retailers who recognize the importance of peer sharing are increasingly adding user reviews to their online stores.

But the power of people who give opinions reaches far past onsite reviews.

There's an increasing likelihood these opinion leaders participate in online communities where they have a larger reach, better connected circles, and the ability to instantly share knowledge.

Affinity sites, such as MySpace, Yahoo Answers, and many of the blogging communities represent new megaphones empowering consumers to reach and influence exponentially larger groups of consumers far beyond their immediate friends and family.

A marketer's challenge is to first identify and then effectively reach these important customers. In a recent study titled, "Engaging Advocates through Search and Social Media," Yahoo and comScore

Networks found the Internet has changed how consumers talk about and recommend brands. In the study, a particular group of people emerged, called brand advocates, whose affinity for openly sharing their experiences online makes them of particular interest to marketers.

The study showed 60 percent of brand advocates believe good brands are worth talking about versus 25 percent of people that are not advocates. Brand advocates also tell twice as many people about their purchases compared to non-advocates, and 90 percent will say something positive.

They are also avid researchers, with 76 percent of brand advocates using search engines for research prior to a purchase.

Through an aggressive search campaign, retailers can engage these valuable brand advocates during the search and research cycle when their minds are open to influence. How is this possible?

Retailers need to provide the information search customers seek and allow them to purchase in any channel they choose.

Give them as much product information as you have, keep your promotions consistent across all channels, and make buying easy with in-store pick-up whenever possible. Additionally, retailers should enable consumers to share their opinions with their peers through reviews, e-mail or instant messenger.

An effective search strategy is aligned with the longer buying cycle and goes beyond a click-to-purchase message or ROI strategy. It also includes both general terms - such as cashmere sweatersá- and trademark terms, and tests landing pages that include product reviews.

Marketers who win over online brand advocates will find their brand and product message will be magnified exponentially when they tap into this whole new world of word of mouth.

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