Friends are great.

They are the people we want to talk to most, the ones we’ve selected to stay in touch with from the thousands we have met. Okay, so they may be the source of an occasional last minute-cancellation or inappropriately posted photograph, but these are also the people that can transform a weekend with one unexpected message, or make us laugh when we’re down. In most cases, somewhere along the evolution of a friendship, we start trusting our friends’ opinions, at least in the areas of interest we share in common.

Friends are also possibly your greatest potential source of influence to turn people onto (or away from) your brand. What might be a passing comment – a “don’t use so-and-so, they’re rubbish”, or “I had one of those, and it broke in a week” could undo all the hard work of an ad campaign to interest a potential user. In the same way however, a recommendation from a friend (“have you seen this? it’s amazing!”) is surely the most powerful support for advertising or direct communication, and for smaller brands could replace the need for that extra campaign spend.

At the simplest level, ask yourself who you would rather hear from- a company (albeit maybe in an attractive, glossy way), or your mate telling you that something is really worth the time of day? The liklihood is that it’s the latter, and when this is extended to ‘which of these communications would we be most likely to trust?’, the balance is likely to swing further in favour of the friendship. To throw in a statistic, earlier this year, Forrester research reported that in the EU, 61% of consumers trust brand recommendations from friends, but 11% trust emails from companies and only 8% trust online advertising such as banners. Though US consumers were less sceptical (each percentage was a little higher), the relationship between the figures remains the same.

Brands and companies have friends too. They’re called advocates

Luckily, practically all brands and companies have their own ‘friends’ – that is, the core customer base that doesn’t need convincing. These are people that already trust in the quality of what they’re getting.

These customer advocates aren’t a new breed- they’ve been around as long as companies have existed, and their enthusiasm is as valuable now as ever. So what can be done to encourage these people to spread the word? Well, we can make it easier for them right at the point when they’re engaging with the thing you want them to recommend. More and more sites are embracing the data afforded by socially ‘signing in’. This is because in a few clicks, we can see who a potential (or known) advocate’s friends are and delve into these friends’ interests- we are then able to tell the advocate who might like something (a piece of content or a product, say) including people they may not have thought of first.

Say I’m obsessed with a band, and I want to share my passion. If I’m buying tickets for a show (maybe for 1 other friend I already know is interested), I can now take it further- I log in with Facebook on the ticket site or even on the ticket page itself (taking all of 15 seconds) and now -without leaving the site- I can see straight away who else I know is the most likely to want to go too. Depending on the friendship, a recommendation to one or more  of these people could be a nice gesture, or the chance for a long-overdue reunion!  As a user being shown these relevant friends, it’s easy and it’s quick for me to spread that influence a little further than I might normally, and in a personal way. By sending a personal message or notification, my friend knows I picked them out in particular.

Nobody is pretending that even the most devoted advocate will convert every one of their friends, or even all the relevant ones, but every personal, trusted recommendation is a powerful endorsement, and one that can spread into new friendship groups very easily.

Why would people recommend to their friends?

It goes without saying that why someone might recommend a brand, product or piece of content will vary hugely by the individuals and what’s involved. While brand owners can strive for the highest quality to drive advocacy from their users, friendship also helps you out, as it provides validation. If you’re interested in something, it’s great to be reminded that you know people who might share your enthusiasm.

Does there need to be an incentive? Well ideally, whatever you want to be recommended will be compelling enough to make its advocates look good and make the recipients feel special. An incentive should be a thank you for something your advocates will be happy to recommend, not a bribe to convert indifference into action. Again, friendship helps put a filter on recommendations – if the advocate doesn’t mean it, friends are likely to know, and the wave of enthusiastic new users is more likely to be a trickle.

A friend’s recommendation isn’t a guarantee of new user conversions for a brand or company site. What it can do however is open the door to that site and put the friend in the best frame of mind for a visit – ‘my mate thinks this is brilliant, and I trust them on this subject, so it probably is’. Once they’re in, all the site or its content has to do is prove the assumption to be correct!

Written by: Ben Marnan, Account Team Leader
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