09/11/2011 09:08 GMT | Updated 07/01/2012 05:12 GMT

'Badvocates' and Advocacy Marketing

Badvocates are passionate consumers who employ social forums to criticise or detract from companies, brands or products that they have either had a bad experience of, or whose behaviour they disapprove of.

Last week I outlined what I believe brand advocacy to be and how some brands have already started enjoying the benefits of advocacy campaigns. However, brands must remember that 'advocacy' is a double-edged sword. The relationship between brand and consumer mirrors normal human relationships; a breach of trust results in negative consequences. Brands that fail to put their house in order before attempting an advocacy programme face the very real threat of 'badvocates'. Badvocates have the potential to damage a brand's reputation and sales figures as much as advocates can enhance them.

Badvocates are passionate consumers who employ social forums to criticise or detract from companies, brands or products that they have either had a bad experience of, or whose behaviour they disapprove of. Their influence reaches far and wide. On average, they tell 14 other people about the negative experiences they have had.

For anyone unconvinced by the power of badvocates, Jeff Jarvis' interaction with Dell in 2005 is a cautionary tale. Mr Jarvis purchased a malfunctioning Dell laptop and despite paying extra for 'at-home' service, he was required to spend several hours on the phone to customer services. Every time he called the Dell helpline he was forced to restart the process. Finally, having lost patience altogether, he began a blog entitled "Dell Sucks" to vent his frustrations.

The blog soon gained prominence as other consumers began adding their own negative experiences to Mr Jarvis' until the blog became the second result on Google search, after Dell's own home page.

Dell suffered declining customer satisfaction scores, revenues and share price until they took steps to rectify the situation employing Mr Jarvis' advice. Examples of badvocates are everywhere. I'm sure I don't have to remind anyone about David Meerman Scott, the blogger from who caused such damage to GM during the company's difficulties this year.

Brands must accept that badvocates are intrinsic to the process of creating advocates. Creating transparent and honest forums for discussion about a brand must allow negative sentiment to be aired. Relinquishing control is scary, but brands that do as they say have little to fear.

Consider Ben & Jerry's, the popular ice-cream brand. In 2006, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, an American consumer-advocacy group, urged the brand to remove the title "all-natural" from its frozen yoghurt and ice-cream products because of the presence of chemical ingredients in their recipes. The brand reacted to the comments and dropped the 'all natural' label, demonstrating the ability to respond to public criticism and limit the damaging impact of badvocates. It's a pity though that they didn't remove the chemicals.

The research conducted by global PR firm Weber Shandwick states that 20% of the online population are badvocates and they can have a tangible, negative impact on a brand's bottom line. Towards the end of the 1990's McDonalds was under attack and consumers were increasingly airing their concerns about their role in the obesity crisis, labour practices, impact on the environment and the quality of ingredients used in their recipes. The impact of these complaints and the desire among consumers for increasing social responsibility was felt in 2002 when McDonalds reported its first ever loss. I would argue that McDonalds' recovery directly correlates to their ability to listen to, and then act upon, consumer badvocacy.

45% of adults take one week or less to complain publically about their dissatisfaction with a brand and four out of ten global CEOs are concerned that a dissatisfied customer will launch a campaign about the brand. Brands are well aware of the potentially damaging impact of negative publicity from informed and influential members of the public. Brands looking to minimise the impact of badvocacy (or prevent people from becoming badvocates) should be aware of the increased range of issues that matter to consumers.

Brands that let down the customers who value them most are in a considerably more dangerous position. We feel most aggrieved when we have deeply invested ourselves in something or someone who we perceive as letting us down. Mr Jarvis, who chose Dell above a host of rivals and paid extra for the security of Dell's 'at-home' service, clearly felt his disappointment more keenly than most, keenly enough to start his blog. Brands must remain acutely aware of their most prominent supporters and acknowledge that aggravating them can have lasting consequences.

In this respect badvocates are not too dissimilar to failed relationships. Brands that operate in accordance with their consumers' desires have little to fear. In contrast brands that fail to meet their customers' expectations and cause the trust between consumer and brand to deteriorate, face the very real threat of badvocates.

For anyone desiring more information on badvocates Weber Shandwick's the Good Book of Badvocacy is an excellent place to start ( Next time I'm going to talk about something completely different; UK music festivals.