Finding and curating your advocates can significantly improve your culture
Establishing a clear north star metric for your business is hard work.
When I earned my MBA in 2006, I was taught the Milton Friedman — Esque mantras of “Shareholder Value,” “Return on Investment,” and “Profit” as the core measures of success for any business. One of the first books I was asked to read was “The Goal” by Eliyahu Goldratt, a treatise to the “Theory of Constraints” theory of firm management.
In the software product world, our leadership literature is rife with attempts at explaining metrics for product success from the Google “HEART” metrics to Dave McClure’s Pirate Metrics “AARRR” to OKRs (“Objectives and Key Results.”)
We also see many organizations touting survey metrics like NPS as the north star metric we should all be chasing.
Each of the named metric solutions might work to solve a part of our problem for us, but none of them has proven to be a panacea. Our teams have been working to overcome and simplify this problem for decades and have found that metrics need to be crafted for each solution we build. We have also found no single perfect metric to solve this problem for every business or product. The metrics need to adapt with the product and the market over time. But you need them to keep your team aligned, give them confidence in their achievements and keep them committed to forward “momentum.”
However, for all firms and products, the work team needs to understand how they are earning advocates from the consumers of their work to maximize motivation. The north star, RPI (Relationship Performance Index), for your product, should be some combination of behaviors that you see from your consumers when they are acting as an advocate.
Advocacy, however, is not quite the right word to describe what is meant here. The legal community uses the word in a precise way, and if you use it without being clear what is meant by it, it might cause confusion. Other words like champion, promoter, or supporter don’t work because they are not comprehensive enough and don’t align with this concept. Terms like zealot, fanatic, or phrases like die-hard or raving fans don’t quite summarize it either, because they don’t include some of the more important behaviors that we see from advocates that are essential. The English language does not have a better way to describe the strategic purpose of every organization. The word advocate and the act of advocacy has been the closest proxy we could find to serve to represent this north star relationship metric for all organizations.
Every product or service does, however, solve a set of problems for a set of people. And the goal should be to derive a positive outcome for those people that we should be measuring. The best way that I have found to measure that outcome is through their behaviors. The most powerful forms of behaviors help us continuously build a better product, service, or firm. They come in the form of investments in our collective future.
I define an advocate and the act of advocacy, very specifically, in the following way:
Advocate: One who invests in our collective future.
The highest form of a relationship between an organization and the people that it serves can be described as “advocacy.” When an individual in the organization’s ecosystem invests in that organization's collective future and/or its people, you have strategic success. No organization can exist for very long without a group of people investing in its collective future.
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a world in which all of the people in your organization were authentically and powerfully behaving as advocates of the organization by investing their creative energy in its success. What would the culture of that organization feel like?
Keeping your eyes closed, now imagine a world in which all of the customers or benefactors of your organization’s work were authentically advocates of the products, services, and outcomes that your organization produces. They were out in the wild, promoting your products, referring new customers, and helping you build your next service offering through deep partnerships. What would that feel like for your organization?
It should be painfully obvious to you that this is an infinite goal. It is a goal that can never be fully achieved or optimized. But, it is also obvious that it a worthwhile and motivating strategic goal.
Advocacy is the ultimate strategic outcome for any organization that works with and works for people.
Advocacy behaviors come in the form of investments in our collective future. In our work and grounded research, we studied the phenomenon of “advocacy,” defined in this way, for more than two decades and have had the opportunity to survey hundreds of successful business leaders on this concept. One of the questions we always ask leaders in our workshops is: “What do you get from customers or employees who behave as advocates?” After collecting answers for decades, they fall into one of three broad categories, similar to trust. Authentic advocates invest in your collective future by giving you information, time, and their personal social capital. They move outside of their communications with you to share their story in the most powerful ways.
Here are a variety of specific examples that each includes a combination of these three elements:
- Introductions. Advocates are one of the best sources for the next potential customer or employee referral. Universally across successful and sustainable businesses, these people, who are investing in our collective future by making an introduction are coveted by organizations.
Why is this important? Imagine the marketing and sales cost savings you would have if 100% of your new customers came from advocates. Your advocates do the heavy lifting for you in the relationship-building process, and who better to know where your next potential advocate will be? In most ecosystems, birds of a feather literally flock together. In other words, your ideal customers are already talking to each other. When you solve problems and leave a resonating impact on your customers and employees, they will go out of their way to invest in your future by introducing you. Ask the same question of your talent base. Imagine the HR and recruiting savings if 100% of your new hires came from employee referrals. All of the same arguments apply.
- Credibility. Advocates are a powerful source of credibility. The form of credibility that comes from advocates is the fuel for an organization’s marketing and sales efforts. Universally across successful and sustainable businesses, advocates are leveraged in testimonials, case studies and become reference accounts.
Why is this important? Unsolicited testimonials might be the best possible form of credibility available. Imagine trying to market your products and services without any stories of authentic success. Your best advocates go out of their way to help you build more credibility. There have been times in my business history when I have authentically stated that ALL of my client accounts have one or more advocates within their ranks. This has allowed me to proudly proclaim that my prospects can feel free to choose from ANY of the case studies, testimonials, or client accounts that we have talked about, and I would be able to produce a reference for them to talk to. Imagine how much easier it is to earn confidence and trust from these prospects in this scenario.
- Promotion. Advocates will sometimes promote your products or services without prompting. It might come in the form of a subtle and benign social media like or, more powerfully, as a blatant public endorsement at a quintessential moment in front of an audience of prospects during your most important annual conference.
Why is this important? While a single Facebook like might not seem to do much for the organization today, those subtle behaviors, comments, and shares add up over time. They represent the collective goodwill for your organization and its outputs that are very public. Review sites exist for just about every industry today, and your advocates' comments and ratings speak volumes to your next prospects. Authentic public endorsement at the right time and in front of the right people is obviously valuable. They may be more powerful if you are not in the room when they occur! The market of social media influencers today proves the value of this market. However, when these behaviors are observed in the wild and are authentic, they might be the most potent form of advertising any organization can hope for. When your customers or employees put their personal brand on top of your brand, it represents the ultimate behavioral demonstration of the relationship you have crafted together. A clear example of this is the Harley Davidson fans who tattoo their bodies and wear the brand proudly and excessively wherever they go.
- Constructive Feedback. Someone who cares about your collective future will go out of their way and expend both creative energy and time to tell you when you suck at something or when you have screwed something up in their eyes. When customers or employees go out of their way to spend their valuable time to write a two-page diatribe about your dysfunctions while attempting to give you insights about how to improve, you know you have an advocate. This is much different from negativity and complaining that might come from unhappy customers who don’t care about your learning or future.
Why is this important? Constructive feedback is worth its weight in gold. It will give you access, and insight into your customer (or employee) frustrations and the importance of different aspects of the problem set you solve for them. Critical, useful feedback should not only be welcome, but it should also be celebrated, followed up on, and if it is valuable enough, gratefully rewarded. An organization can not grow, learn, and improve without an authentic and empathic understanding of what is frustrating to its customers and employees.
- Encouragement. Someone who cares about your collective future will also care about the people behind your organization's work. When customers invest in your future by describing how your work has positively impacted their lives, this demonstrates affective empathy toward your people. When employees do it for each other, we might call it recognition or praise.
Why is this important? Praise, kudos, congratulations, celebration, and word of encouragement are the fuel for your culture. They demonstrate to the workers the strategic value of the work they are doing.
- Insights. When your customers and employees care about your collective future and are exposed to something in your industry that might help you, they will invest in your future by providing these insights. It might be a nudge to look into what your competition is up to, or it might be looking around the corner into the future of your industry. I have seen examples of the most staunch advocates providing direct insights into the relationship's future and even going one step further by providing analysis or data to help you succeed.
Why is this important? Insights lead to ideas that lead to innovations. The more information we have from the wild, the better informed and empowered we will be to craft our collective future together.
- Beta-Testing. When it comes time to implement a new feature or try out a new business line, where are we most likely to go? Our advocates are the most obvious crew to tap for feedback. I learned this in the context of building software products over the course of multiple decades. No great software products are built without a passionate group of people who understand the context and are willing to jump in and invest their time and creative energy in our new features.
Why is this important? Perfection, as we know, is the enemy of progress. We need to iterate, and we need early feedback to improve our products and services. We need the safe space to expand our products and service lines without fear of retribution or financial consequences. We need an objective, third party opinion to make progress. Without a group of advocates that are willing to help us get there, we will struggle to innovate. The best folks to try our new ideas on are our advocates, largely because of their proclivity for forgiveness.
- Forgiveness. What happens when we screw something up with our advocates? Our advocates are incredibly forgiving. Because we have earned our way into this relationship and have built up the “relationship equity” through trust and loyalty, it is our advocates who are most willing to forgive us. I believe this is one of the key ways to determine if you have an authentic advocate.
Why is this important? The world is full of surprises and change. We cannot predict the future. Additionally, we are all dealing with complicated and sometimes unpredictable people in our ecosystems. We need space for problems to occur as they inevitably do. Our advocates are the customers and employees that understand that problems will arise, and they have our backs.
- Co-Investment. When you have a new idea of innovation to try, it makes the most sense to partner up with an authentic advocate to get it started. Similar to “beta-testing,” it is your advocates who will be straight with you and will put their money and their time where their mouth is to invest in your collective future.
Why is this important? We need partners to help us work out the kinks and be our first source of credibility and goodwill when we move into new markets or solve new problems within our existing markets. Our advocates are our best source for partnerships and will maximize the odds of succeeding.
- Defense. I like to use a short thought experiment to explain this concept by asking three simple questions:
>> Raise your hand if you are an Apple person.
>> Raise your hand if you are an Android person.
>> Now, raise your hand if you have ever had that conversation with another person about why your choice is better?
100% of the hands typically go up. Your advocates will defend you, your products and services, even when you are not in the room.
Why is this important? This is essential for any business to grow and thrive because you will most likely not be in the room when you need to be defended. Advocates that defend you are critical to long term success.
- Celebration. Advocates are eager to celebrate successes with you. These are behaviors that feed your culture like no other. It could be as simple as inclusion in their existing celebrations that feel like encouragement, or it could be more overt. The ultimate celebrations may manifest as them nominating your people, products, or company for an award in your community or industry. Whatever the behavior, when you see it, you know you have an advocate.
Why is this important? Similar to encouragement, celebration, and overt recognition are essential fuel for building a positive culture. We talked about the importance of relatedness in the chapter on motivation, and this is possibly the most powerful way for your team to find meaning in their work.
- Innovation. Here are three simple truths:
>> Innovations only come from ideas.
>> Ideas only come from people.
>> Ideas that lead to innovations only come from people who care about our collective future.
Customers, vendors, and employees willing to expend their creativity, time, and intellect to expose you to ideas that might lead to innovations are some of your most valuable advocates.
Why is this important? Without a steady flow of ideas to experiment on that result in innovation, every business is on the path to irrelevance. We need ideas to feed our culture, improve our products and services, and maximize our profits. Without innovations, we will atrophy.
Your advocates are your organization’s most valuable strategic asset. They are the strategic north star that every organization strives to maximize. I have yet to find successful organizations that sustain themselves for long without a group of advocates, investing passionately in the organization's future.
THE PRIME ADVOCATE
This conversation about advocates does not exclude you. In theory, if you are leading an organization, it should naturally follow that you are the prime advocate. Hopefully, that means that your primary efforts all look like investments in your organization’s future. It stands to follow; then, if you are using your organization as a means to your personal ends and abusing your authority as the leader, you might be one of those sociopaths we occasionally read about in the news.
Advocacy only occurs when you have made significant investments in earning advocacy from the ecosystem of people your organization serves.
Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman
The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt
HEART Metrics by Rodden and Hutchinson
Pirate Metrics by Dave McClure
NPS Thoughts from Jared Spool
KPIs that Inspire by Sean Flaherty