What I Learned About Creating Advocates from Leading a Church


If someone asks me how they create advocates, I immediately point them to church.

For many years I was a minister, and everything I know about advocacy I learned during that time. In fact, it’s my contention that unless we understand advocacy in an offline, non-commercial context, we won’t get in an online or a commercial context.

When people join a church, they do so because of a central belief, and the desire to connect with people around that belief. I like to call this gathering around meaning, and it’s the driving force of engagement as an offering, where people connect with organisations not for their products but for the meaning they get from them.

You might say that connecting with brands or organisations based on meaning is nothing new, and you’d be absolutely correct! This has always been a driver for our connection, but today offering meaning is a competitive advantage because there are so many brands competing for our attention.

But one institution that has a head start on every brand is the church (and indeed other religious institutions). For thousands of years, they’ve been gathering people around meaning, and they know very well how to turn their ‘users’ into advcoates: it’s the only way they’ve been able to survive for so long!

So let’s look at how they’ve created advocates by examining three key elements:

1. Belief

The first element is to begin with belief. People won’t advocate something they don’t believe in.

However, it is not enough to say that we start with belief, and then move on. Belief is the life-force of advocacy: it is its beginning, the thread that runs through it, and the very definition of its end.

To return to my church experience, a central part of religious life is evangelism — telling others about your beliefs. As a minister I was entrusted with the task of getting the church’s congregation to evangelise, and I noticed there were two ways I could do this:

  1. I noticed that I could talk about evangelism and request people to do it,
  2. Or I could talk about our beliefs, and then mention evangelism as a response to those beliefs.

I always found the second tactic to be far more powerful. Response, I believe, is more powerful that request, because it is from internal motivation, not external.

So any advocacy, and any messaging about advocacy, must begin and end with belief, because that’s where the connection itself begins and ends. For instance, compare these two invitations to join an advocacy programme:

We are looking for members who wish to become advocates in order to help our community grow.


We believe in our community. This cause matters to us. We are committed to it. With that in mind, we’re looking for members who wish to advocate for our community.

It’s a simple example, but immediately you see why the second is more powerful. The first is a request, the second is a response.

I think the best phrase to explain this is comes from Simon Sinek, who observed that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” That’s belief.

2. Benefit

The second element is about benefit. Do I believe that telling others about my cause will benefit them, benefit me, and perhaps even benefit the world? Within my church context, the answer amongst the congregation was yes – religions themselves are necessarily founded upon the belief (notice that!) that they are beneficial to the world.

In the deceptively simple management book Gung Ho, Ken Blanchard talks about “the spirit of the squirrel”, in which he says people like to do work that is worthwhile. The squirrel hoards nuts for hibernation because it is worthwhile—nay, critical—work. Likewise, our community members need to know, what is it that makes their work (or in this case, their advocacy) worthwhile for the world?

Put another way: people are greater advovcates when they know that their advocacy is doing something beneficial.

I forget the study, but I once read that the simple act of telling someone why you are asking them to do something for you increases their chance of responding.

We spoke above about the importance of ‘why’ we do things, so in the case of advocacy, the answer to the question must be spelled out: why is this a beneficial thing to do?

Consider these two statements:

Please be an advocate because it’s fun.


Please be an advocate because it will benefit us, you and others.

Now the first is motivating, no doubt – having fun is fun! – but the second is more motivating. It says that being an advocate isn’t just in my interests, or in our community’s interests, it is in the interests of the person I’m advocating to.

3. Ability

Finally, the last element is ability. In their wonderful book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath write about shaping the path: the idea that often what seems to be a people issue is actually a situation issue.

I found that the biggest obstacle to people in my congregation sharing their faith wasn’t the strength of their belief, nor their understanding of the benefits, but in their ability to actually share it. What we’re talking about here is the practical how-to element, the tools, if you will, of advocacy.

Years ago I went on a sales course, where they led us very practically through how to make phone calls. Then at the end of the session, we picked up our phones, and we made those calls! And I was a lot better at it than before!

What had changed? It wasn’t my belief, nor my understanding of the benefits, it was simply that through some training I had improved my ability to communicate the beliefs and the benefits to someone else.

So when it comes to advocacy, I like to say that we can’t expect word of mouth unless we give words to their mouths. The question is, how we are training and empowering our advocates to advocate?

This needn’t be complex, and certainly doesn’t need to be delivered via a training webinar course or similar (although you can of course do one if you wish). It can be as simple as providing some sample tweets or emails, giving a few examples of an advocacy conversation, or even as simple as giving them a graphic to put on their Facebook profile.

Putting it all together

So the way that we empower people to be advocates consists of three parts:

  1. We start and end with the belief,
  2. We get clear about the benefits – why we are doing this, and how others will benefit
  3. We provide simple assets that help people share the message, such as examples and samples.

Now if you have been wondering up until now how we find and recruit these people, here’s the kicker: as we make the above three points a regular part of our messaging and conversation, a regular entry on our newsletter, with stories begin shared on a regular basis, talked about at our events, we create an environment where people naturally become advocates.

Think about it: anyone who joins a group or any kind has belief and already receives the benefits. They are half, if not two thirds of the way there. By clarifying the three elements on a regular basis, as part of your culture, you create an environment that is conducive to advocacy. You are encouraging a certain behaviour by making it the norm.

Recruiting super-advocates beyond that won’t be difficult either. Those who seem to ‘rise to the top’ in their response to your advocacy culture self-select themselves again, and you can cultivate their advocacy individually or in a smal group.

So there we have it: the three elements of advocacy, learned from the offline world, and now applied to the online world. All that’s left is you to to go forth and advocate!

The Definition of Engagement

For the last 8 years I have been studying engagement, although it’s for less than two years that have I actually used the word engagement to describe what it was I was thinking about. (Back in 2009 I was calling it ‘the social method’.)

Part of the problem with describing it back then, and indeed describing it now, is that what I am trying to reach at is quite simply relationship. It’s something so obvious, so naturally part of our lives, that I wonder does it even need a framework to explain it? Do we need to be told how to interact or engage with each other?

But then again, Simon Sinek’s profoundly influential rendering of the golden circle in his sublime three word phrase ‘start with why’ is something so obvious, yet so un-obvious until you realise how obvious it is!

Thus, I have been searching for quite sometime for a way to explain engagement — primarily to those who ask what it is that I do — but also for my own sense of understanding and even sanity (!)

I wanted to find a way to unite what I see as the four fields of engagement, as well as understanding that with engagement we are talking about relationships not just between people, but between people and objects, whether they be brands, ideas, film plots, lyrics, etc.


Thus, after much thinking and thought experiments (as to be honest, I’ve not sense checked this with anyone else, yet), I offer my attempt at a definition of engagement:

Engagement is the making of relational bonds between at least two parties or objects, and the maximising of those bonds.

To briefly explain: engagement is about making a bond (a strong connection, not a weak one) between two things (normally two people, or a person and an idea, film, etc).

The maximising part is due to engagement being about getting more out of existing relationships, versus hiring or marketing, which are about getting new relationships.

I’ve also got a stab at the nascent Engagement Economy as well:

The engagement economy is the exchange of meaning through relational bonds between parties or objects, and the means with which to realise meaningfulness.

Yeah, that’s pretty wordy. But what I’m getting at is that engagement provides meaning (what you bond over), and the means (utility, platform) to turn abstract meaning into personal meaningfulness.

I’ll get there!

Your thoughts and comments are much desired…

The 3 Stages of Engagement: An Introduction

Engagement is a big word in purpose-driven business. In fact, it’s a big word altogether: marketers speak of brand engagement, internally companies talk about employee engagement, while in membership organisations or local government they aim for community engagement.

Even consultants, such as I, get engaged to work on a project. That’s to say nothing of all the talk in any sphere about making things engaging, from movies to parenting, and from speeches to dates.

The versatility of engagement as a phrase isn’t because it’s merely a meaningless buzz word. Far from it. In fact, the reason why engagement as term is used so much is because it describes something that is so vital for the way we work as human beings: so vital in fact, it is an unchanging element of humanity.

This element is relationship. Engagement is the process of building a relationship — not just being acquaintances or categorising our customers by transitions — but connecting in a meaningful way that goes beyond transaction to transformation.

I call this a bond. It is relationship in its most honest sense: a two-way, participatory, meaningful bond.

When we think about engaged employees we think about people who are alive with their work. Engaged customers are passionate advocates. Engaged community members are those who build relationships around a common cause. The list goes on.

This isn’t just observational, it’s measurable. In a 2014 Rosetta report, they found that in the case of customer engagement:

Engaged consumers buy 90% more frequently, spend 60% more per transaction and are five times more likely to indicate it is the only brand they would purchase in the future. All of these factors lead to engaged customers delivering three times the value to the brand over the course of a year.

Where engagement gets relegated to a buzz word is in the implementation. Most people have a hit-and-miss approach to engagement, where they try different tactics in the hope that they will work, but lack the psychological understanding of how engagement actually happens in order to approach it in a strategic manner. The result is, as we’ve said, hit-and-miss, leading to up-and-down, hot-and-cold engagement, rather than a progressive, sustained increase of engagement over a period of time, and thus, the phrase is relegated to buzzwordery.

Engagement is not marketing. It is not HR. It is not branding. It is not corporate social responsibility. Engagement is an art and discipline in its own right, a unique take on the world with its own set of principles and nuances, as we shall see.

Thus, in this article we will solve the problem of implementation by looking at what the three stages of engagement are, and how we can follow them in a strategic manner.

A Story Before We Begin

However, before we get started, do you have time for a little story? Good. Get comfortable, and let’s begin:

Once upon a time a farmer sowed some seeds into a field. Some seed fell by the rocks, some was eaten by the birds, but some fell on good soil, and it grew roots, matured into a plant, and eventually it bore fruit. When the fruit was ripe, the farmer picked the fruit into a basket. Once all the fruit was in the basket together he took it to the market, and the fruit was used to feed the village. Many of the villagers, once they’d eaten their fruit, took the seeds from the middle and planted them in their own gardens, and so the story began again.

You’ve no doubt heard this story before. From being a kid who learned about what the seeds were in your apple core, to the lessons that religion teaches us about sowing and reaping (hat tip to Jesus, from whom the analogy is taken directly from), to those who grow their own fruit and veg today, this is a familiar story.

And in this familiar story we find the three irreducible ingredients of engagement. (Maybe you’ve already worked out what they are?) Let’s look at them one by one, and in doing so, discern how engagement works psychologically and strategically.

Stage 1: Scatter

The first stage of engagement, like we saw in our story, is that of scattering the seeds of our message. If we think about any form of engagement, whether it be a friendship, a company employing us, or a brand getting our attention, it begins with someone putting something out there, and giving us the chance to respond.

Scattering is an apt word for a few reasons. In the story we saw that some of the seed that went into the soil became plants and later on had fruit. But some seed didn’t get very far. In the same way, for instance, when we communicate an idea or ask someone to go on a date with us, there is always the chance that they might respond (get into the soil, become a plant), or they might not (get eaten by the birds or fall onto rocks).

Scattering understands that there is nothing wrong with a person not responding, because it will always be the case that some respond and others don’t. Perhaps your product isn’t what they need right now. Perhaps you aren’t their type. Perhaps your company isn’t right fit for the employee you’re trying to engage: but don’t worry, it will be the right fit for someone else.

So the lesson of scattering is to realise that you don’t know who will respond: but on the other hand, this often means those who we don’t think will respond often do. All of us have had times where we thought a business deal or arrangement would come from one source, but the person we expected to respond didn’t, and instead someone we didn’t expect responded to the opportunity.

In a public speech, not every point that you make will hit home for every person. The worst thing you can do then is keep trying to make the point fit for everyone. Rather, one scatters a few points, each one with the potential to reach different parts of the audience.

What about scattering in community management? It means then when you want to engage your community, know that everyone simply won’t respond to every message you put out, or every request to fill in an annual survey, or every invite to have a Skype call with you. And that doesn’t mean you’re wrong or bad, it just means it’s not right for them, at the moment.

The worst thing we can do is keep badgering people who don’t want to be engaged right now, and then end up forgetting those who do want to be engaged!

The imperative with scattering is that whilst we know everyone won’t respond, we still want to give our message the best shot, and so we need to prepare it to be a ‘good seed’, as it were. This is why scattering is about messaging: thinking deeply about what we are saying, how we are saying it, and why we are saying it.

For instance, if I want to start a conversation with someone I don’t know, I am best approaching them politely, and without any pressure for them to respond. If I go in rude and abrasive, I reduce my chances of engaging with them. It’s common sense, but not necessarily common practice. More on this in the participation section below.

One more note on the scatter stage. The best seeds (the best messages) are those that can spread easily. If you make your message spreadable, that is, easy to share, but also enticing to share, and even valuable to share, then you have begun to master the art of scattering.

Stage 2: Gather

The second stage relates to the second part of the story. After scattering the seeds, the ones that went into good soil begin to become plants, and they go on to bear fruit. At this point, the farmer gathers the fruit into a basket. This is the second stage of engagement: gathering.

To understand the gathering stage fully, let’s look at something called Stimulus and Response Theory. It’s a learning theory that quite simply states communcation works by one party providing a stimulus, and the other party responding to that stimulus.

Think of a conversation. You say something, and your friend responds based on the stimulus you provided (what you  said). It’s very obvious, yet it highlights two things for us:

1. The scatter stage is necessary for engagement! Someone can’t give a response without a stimulus – the scatter stage is the stimulus, and our best chances of a response are to make our message acceptable and easy to engage with.

2. The response signals interest, and the commitment of the second party to engage more. Based on this, we can engage a bit more with them, so watching for the signal is very important.

Therefore, when we scatter in engagement, we are providing an opportunity for someone to respond and engage with us. The gathering stage is where they actually do respond, and in the case of the story, this is signalled by bearing fruit.

Of all our engagement scenarios, however, most are not one-on-one, but rather group conversations. This is where engagement takes on a unique shape in contrast to its relatives of PR and Marketing.

In the instance of the farmer, he gathers all the fruit together into one basket. We can say that they are therefore gathered two ways: to the author of the message, and to the fellow responders to the message. When people respond to our message, we should not only gather them to ourselves, we should gather those people to one another.

The reason for this is about identity, undergirded by the two theories of Social Identity Theory and Social Proof. When one person responds to us, they are just one person. But when they see that others have responded too, it gives them a sense of identity as a ‘responder’, and thus a group has become. No longer are the respondents bonded only to the initiator of the engagement, but to each other, and like a triangle, this three sided shape is far stronger and more resilient that a single two-way line.

What does gathering look like in practice? For a retailer, gathering is what happens when a customer comes into the store and sees the other customers. For a community like a church, it’s when people attend service on Sunday. For a relationship, it’s when someone agrees to join you on a date. And in the case of community engagement, it’s when someone makes an act of participation. And that word, participation, is one very, very important word.

Detour: An exploration of participation

Participation is the currency of engagement. Anytime we are talking about engagement, we are talking about people participating with one another.

This is important to note, because the way to engage with someone is to provide an opportunity for them to participate with you, and then if / when they do participate, to participate a bit more with them again, which hopefully encourages them to participate back, and the cycle continues.

The offer of participation is something like a handshake: we stretch our arms out, and wait for the other party to take our hand. And if / when they do, we don’t just hold it, we shake it: a mutual participation with one another.

The mistakes that we normally find with participation are when people ask for too much participation, or too little. For instance, it is known that to get someone to signup to an online forum, you need to ask for minimal information, else the barrier to entry is too high and they won’t signup.

But it’s a problem if there’s too little information as you don’t know enough about them. The solution then is to scale the ask: ask for little when they first signup, more once they’ve completed their signup (onboarding) and more at key points in their journey from introductory to intermediate or advanced user. We can call this scaling the levels of participation.

What are these levels? The relational theorist Knapp created the Knapp Relationship Model (funnily enough!), in which he identified 6 levels of relationship-or participation-between two parties. You can see it in the image below.


We won’t go into it now, but this will no doubt give you some food for thought: what is experimenting for you, or bonding for you?

Anyway, enough on that, now back to our main programme…

Stage 3: Matter

Let us return to our story, where we find the farmer has now taken his fruit to the market and it is being used to feed people.

The third stage of engagement is to take what you have gathered, and turn that into a lasting resource that empowers people. For the farmer, this means using his fruit to feed people. For an event manager, this means turning the attendees for an event into a community that meets up regularly to discuss the themes. For Apple, it meant creating an App Store where people could sell apps that empower people.

We often know this stage of mattering as what many call platform, because it often means creating a platform that people can build their lives on (quite literally, like a platform!).

A platform matters to us: it enables us to do things we couldn’t do without it. For instance, Facebook enables people to connect with friends in a way they coudn’t before, and it enables businesses to offer their services to targeted groups in a way they coudn’t before. The point of a platform is that it elevates us above problems which it eliminates. As an example, Google Adwords eliminated the need to know where to market: they were all there on Google, you just needed to use the platform.

What some describe as the Engagement Economy is about users connecting with organisations based on their ability to provide meaning, connection and empowerment. It’s more than transactions, it’s transformations.

So mattering is where we seek to engage with users beyond what they can benefit from on the surface: we seek to engage on matters of purpose and meaning, the bigger narratives of life.

And then…

There’s one last part to our story. After the farmer had used his fruit to feed people, people took those seeds and started the process over again.

When we engage people to the level of mattering, they become advocates who take the messages and sow it onto others. Indeed, in the same Rosetta study, they found that engaged customers are 4 times more likely to advocate to colleagues and acquaintances than unengaged customers (those who stop at the transaction).

Engagement is noble work. It is empathetic, caring, and valuing. It requires servant leadership and mighty resilience. And it’s payoff is huge for all parties who get in on the engagement, because it is a transfer of something that’s more than money — meaning — in exchange for something that is all the more needed in our connected yet disconnected world — a bond.

The Difference Between Mentoring vs Coaching


I like knowing the precise differences betweens words and ideas, especially if I can put them into a framework.

Imagine my delight, then, when Andrew Holland clarified for me the difference between mentoring and coaching:

  • Mentoring is guiding someone along the same journey you’ve taken
  • Coaching is helping someone find their way on the journey they’re taking

Coaching is an incredible skill. I have great respect for it, and indeed I do some of it when consulting.

But mostly, I’m a mentor. I’m good at communicating where I’ve been and the things I’ve observed. That’s why I don’t do life coaching – I leave that to the pros, like Andrew.

Which are you?

How HMRC runs engaging webinars

DSC_0736In this article we will briefly look at the current state of webinars before we analyse a webinar run by HMRC (the UK tax office), and how you can replicate that on your own webinars.

We’ve all been on more webinars that we can remember, yet few of them were probably memorable. That’s because the format that most webinars run by is truly horrid. But in a recent experience that I had, I have discovered you can learn a good deal about running a highly engaging webinar from HMRC. Continue reading “How HMRC runs engaging webinars”

Review: The Slight Edge, by Jeff Olson

IMG_1254This is my review of The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson. I’ll be looking at it’s overall message, and picking out the points that were most relevant to me, in the hope that we can spark some discussion off of that.

In late 2015 my friend Robert Clay told the participants of the first Ampersand Club a story about a father who has two grownup children. He offers them both a choice: have a million dollars cash today (hey, he’s American), or have one penny, but the value of that sum will be doubled everyday.

As you can might guess, one child takes the million and it destroys him/her, whereas the other takes the one penny, and by day 30, they have become a millionaire many times over.

It turns out this story is from The Slight Edge, the book Robert recommended that evening that we go away and read. And I did go away and read it… 7 months later.

The Premise of The Slight Edge

In a nutshell, The Slight Edge is over a 250-page exhortation of the power of making small decisions that accumulate over time into a significant difference, just like the story above.

This is illustrated by the below illustration, that appears regularly throughout the book:


Olson makes this practical with the following examples:

  • Going to the gym everyday doesn’t make much difference at first, but over time, it will make a huge difference.
  • Saving doesn’t much difference at first, but over time…
  • And building your business doesn’t seem to be making much difference at first, but keep at it, and over time…

You get the point. Thus, the most basic application of this book can be summarised thus: “Keep doing what is good for you, day in, day out, even when you don’t see any difference, because it will eventually come in the end, and when it does, it will be significant.”

The time factor

The way this works is through time, and being consistent over time. He says “life is not a clickable link”, a very pertinent metaphor to a digital world that expects things to be immediate.

Normally, we see time passing as a bad thing, but Olson says,

There is a natural progression to success: plant, cultivate, harvest — and the central step, cultivate, can only happen over the course of time.

I like that. This has been one of my main takeaways. Normally I feel like time is against me, but this has flipped my mind into seeing time as my ally now.

For instance, as a consultant, I am always working on leads. It would be easy to see time as frustrating — “why won’t they get back to me” — however, now I can view time as an asset. While I waiting for this person to get back to me, I let time work on them, taking the material I have provided (and will continue to provide), and working it down into their thinking.

You can’t be static

Another idea Olson posits is that because the universe is in constant change, one cannot stand still. You are either progressing, or declining, but you are never just hovering in the middle.

Thus, the slight edge again is about that daily routine, quite literally, that slight amount of effort that sets you apart.

Personally, I’d rather have a day off every now and then, but I do recognise from my own life how great I feel when I am at the gym regularly, for instance, or eating well everyday.

Another point on not being static is that your goal will always end up being different to what you think it will be. So, given that you spend most of your time actually “off-target” for your goal in one sense, learn to be content with moving rather than perfecting.

Closing Thoughts

There’s a lot more in this book, although if you’ve read your fair share of self-help books, much of it won’t be new, and accordingly, I skim read much of this. However, when I slowed down to take in a section, I still found it enjoyable and a pertinent refresher if nothing else. If you are new to self-help / business books, this could quite change your life.

On the negative, there were some parts of the book I was uncomfortable with, but that is more to do with my aversion to gurus. Otherwise, I’d rate this book highly. It’s not as snappy as something like Eat That Frog, but it is enjoyable none the less, and does have some real nuggets that bring down the veneer of success some self-help books like to present.