While customer acquisition is very important to brands (CMOs rank customer acquisition as their top priority), it seems that methods for customer acquisition might be lacking. Notabley, CMO's budget usage doesn't correspond to this proclaimed priority. Instead of spending significantly on customer acquisition, customer retention budgets outpace customer acquisition budgets 2:1 and one in every six dollars CMOs spend is on innovation. This seems to imply that, although CMOs want to be able to spend their budget on customer acquisition, they are unable to find effective tactics to invest in. However, a combination of consumer advocacy and dark social might just be the approach they've been looking for.

One reason CMOs are struggling to connect with consumers is the trust crisis that has escalated in the last few years. In general, consumers are more disillusioned than they used to be, with 42% indicating that they don't trust brands and 70% reporting that that they don't trust advertising. Because of this reduced level of trust, company messaging becomes less effective. CMOs respond to this lack of effectiveness by moving budgets away from customer acquisition and into more reliable channels.

There are, however, sources that consumers do trust. Nielsen, for example, found that 83% of us trust our friends and family, and 88% of people trust stranger's reviews online as much as a friend. Therefore, customer advocacy is an exciting and relevant way to acquire new customers. In fact, it may be the perfect solution for a brand looking for alternative means of customer acquisition.

One of the most important aspects of customer advocacy is social sharing, as one positive brand experience can reach enormous numbers of potential customers. While social sharing as a new channel is attractive, many brands have failed to drive growth through customer-sharing online. Why do some brands succeed with this channel while others fail? New research sheds some light on why this may be the case.

Attitude Isn't Enough

Many CMOs assume that customers will share brand content if they feel positively towards a brand. However, positive brand attitudes are rarely enough to prompt social media sharing. In fact, to share online, consumers need to feel a 1-to-1 connection between the brand and their own sense of identity. David Bradbury, a consumer psychologist, advocacy expert, and consultant for the Customer Advocacy Marketing platform Duel, explains the psychological background of a consumer when they share online:

"An individual's social media presence is essentially a public projection of their desired self-concept, that is, the persona of themselves they want others to see. This means sharing brand content on social media is much more than a trivial act; it's a statement by the individual who shares it about themselves. Consumers feel that advocating openly for a brand explicitly links the brand's image to their own public persona. So, to do it, they need to feel like the brand is a positive representation of their desired identity."

The authors of Don't Just "Like" Me, Promote Me, VanMeter, Syrdal, Powell-Mantel, Grisaffe, and Nesson, found that the likelihood of a social media share was dependent on the strength of connection between a brand and the sharer's identity, not merely a positive attitude about a brand. In simple terms, an individual would need to feel a deep connection with a brand in order to share their content, not just feel vaguely positive.

This could explain why some campaigns are highly successful and some are not. For example, Under Armour was traditionally seen as a "testosterone-driven" brand. Then, the company launched a campaign that focused specifically on female high performance. For the first time, through its "I will what I want" campaign, Under Armour tapped into a relevant customer identity that they had never previously connected with. And, as the research would suggest, it was a highly effective approach. Under Armour received $35M in "free earned media" for the campaign, which is a good surrogate measure of social sharing. This sort of success shows how aligning a brand with a customer's identity just may be the key to social sharing success.

Aligning your Brand

To align a customer's identity and a brand's identity (which will, in turn, inspire the customer to share), brand marketers need to start by examining their brand's positioning. This means researching  the areas where their brand is aligned with customer's identity and doubling down on that association.

For example, if many of your customers hold veganism as a strong part of their identity, but your brand has no clear stance on veganism, they may be less likely to share content, coupons, referral codes, etc. than they would if the brand specifically endorsed it. This is because they may feel that they do not align directly with the brand's image. Even if the misalignment is marginal, it can result in a significant impact in a consumer behavior. By starting with understanding your customers values - and correlating that to those of your brand - you can create content, offers, and messaging that they will feel better about sharing.

While it might seem risky to drill down on specific stances, it can be even more risky not to.

Many companies try and create a generally inclusive brand. However, by creating brand for everybody, they actually create a brand for nobody. Consider the Dave Dye cartoon which asked you to choose which shoes you'd prefer given two taglines: "'Browns, shoes for the few" or "Blacks, shoes for the masses." Which one would you prefer?

It might sound counterintuitive, but developing a strong identity that may leave some customers out, but that your core constituents will feel strong affinity with, increases your customer connection. That strong connection may mean excluding some potential customers, but it will help turn your core customers into your greatest advocates.

The Untapped Alternative

While the research found that brand attitude was not enough to promote public social media sharing, it was enough to promote word of mouth. According to Bradbury, that's because there's significantly more "psychological effort" involved in a social media share than the traditional sort of word of mouth. So, while superficial emotions might prompt a casual comment, social sharing - which is more public and permanent - has a higher bar. Bradbury suggests that it's likely that "dark social" (such as messaging apps) would fall somewhere in between, as there is an aspect of permanence, but not the same aspect of public involvement.

This last point is significant. For some brands, focusing more on dark social might be the most effective approach. For example, many brands choose to leave Call-to-Actions (CTAs) on checkout pages and on content pages that are aimed at traditional social media. Instead of focussing on this approach, brands could push customers to share purchases, referral codes, or coupons via dark social channels. Many customers will enjoy this approach, which lets them share discounts with friends. Highly effective sharing strategies, like Uber's referral scheme, encourage sharing across any social media, which contributes to its success.

Tactics to Tackle

There are few customer acquisition approaches as effective as content shared by an engaged customer. This new research shows that there's a psychological hurdle that marketers must overcome if they want to increase the shareability of their content. Remember that social is intimately connected to consumers' sense of self.

Brands that want to increase their odds of success need to build a strong customer connection, create content that aligns with consumer passions and values, and enable them to share it in the channels they are most comfortable with. In particular, Bradbury encourages brands to take a closer look at dark social as a "happy medium." So-called dark social (such as messaging apps) offers a channel where consumers are already comfortable and already sharing a lot. So, combined with a positive brand connection, this could create the kind of sharable content strategy that offers a customer acquisition tactic worth investing in.