Is Advocacy a Fundamental Human Need?

Her eyes flashed and eyebrows rose with the mental registration of new knowledge, a frequent occurrence in this sixth year of her life.  She was staring at a peg-board in a frozen yogurt shop filled with an outpouring of appreciation and creativity for Menchie’s, a remarkable franchise store where the young and young at heart create amazing, customized frozen confections.

It was an advocate board.  An exclusive club.  She wanted to join. She was driven to join.

“I can make better Menchie’s art than those other kids.”

And so my daughter Skye did, with her trademark screwball sense of humor.

I can make better Menchie's art than those kids!

Nobody exhorted her to spend her afternoon creating art for her favorite frozen yogurt shop, and there was no free dessert in it for her in return. She was inspired by the art of others for a place she identified with, a place that makes her smile and reflects her values. Inspiration is how you turn a customer into an advocate.

This was quite a revelation for me.  A major component of my model for why people advocate is that it provides “livelihood value” for people, helping them showcase their expertise and network with their peers … a means to “dig their well before they are thirsty.”  Yet here was a six year old who has presumably not thought much about her career, yet was driven to do this. At this stage of her life, this activity has got to be more about nature than nurture – a fundamental human drive or need.

My daughter was infected by an advocacy ideavirus, to use Seth Godin’s memorable bon mot for this phenomenon[1].  The act of seeing other art inspired her to make art – the key is that she didn’t think of it as advocacy, she just acted on her inspiration and advocacy was the result.

Since an ideavirus is itself an idea, behavior or style that spreads between people in a culture, is advocacy a meta-ideavirus – an ideavirus about an ideavirus?

Is there a link between human drives and susceptibility to ideaviruses?

My experience with advocacy when building my last company, Eloqua, may shed some light on these questions.  We noticed that referral leads were a lot more valuable than regular web inquiries – in some cases more than 10x more valuable.  They closed much faster, required less sales & service attention to close, had higher order sizes and profit margins.  But the largest component of value was that new customers that came through the referral channel were much more likely to become advocates themselves.

Company and product advocacy itself was radicalizing – almost like the advocate gene was switched on in the new customer.  Switched on by the advocacy meta-ideavirus, unlocked by the social proof in that particular culture that advocating was cool.

Is this phenomenon learned, or is it rooted in something deeper, something in our biology? Does advocacy improve our ability to survive and reproduce?

To answer this question, let’s take a look at Abraham Maslow’s Theory of Needs, which explores human motivation.

Once we get through the base layer of physiological security, effective advocacy appears to impact at every other layer, particularly in Belonging and Esteem:

  1. Effective advocacy builds bonds between people, providing security and stability.  Humans have evolved to be adept in social and political environments, and in the modern era having a powerful network is a tremendous advantage, as is having a reputation for exceptional knowledge and skill.
  2. Advocacy creates a sense of belonging and identity, which we see in the painted faces of our sports fans, and the identification of my daughter with the ideavirus of Menchie’s.
  3. Effective advocacy is an achievement, a valuable skill to be mastered.  It leads to recognition of one’s expertise and drives personal and professional respect.
  4. Apparently only 1% of humans achieve self-actualization, but one can make a case advocacy helped Skye pursue her inner talent, to create, to fulfill a desire to spread an exciting idea of self-made frozen yogurt perfection.

Is advocacy driven by nature or nurture?  While there may be a learned component here it feels like something rooted in the human condition.  Otherwise, it’s unclear that an ideavirus could be effective in spreading so effectively. Just like a real virus hijacks the body’s ancient cellular machinery for its own ends, the ideavirus also takes advantage of fundamental human drives, which are themselves rooted in the drive to survive and make the best possible copies of ourselves.


[1] The brilliant evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins had a similar concept, which he called memes.  Memes apply evolutionary thinking around survival and reproductive fitness to ideas.

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