The concept of “brand ambassadors” intrigues and delights business communicators. It’s a fact that people trust peers more than any other source, so what better marketing channel than one in which ordinary consumers do the marketing for you?
There have been hundreds of successful examples of companies enlisting customers to promote their products. My favorite is Fiskars, the Finnish maker of fine cutting tools that has used a private network of crafting enthusiasts called the Fiskateers (below) to focus product development, generate instant feedback and help sell products into specialty stores.
Brand ambassador programs have been around since before the bumper sticker, but what’s got communicators so energized these days is the capacity for social media to amplify the voice of an individual enthusiast and reach a much larger audience. That’s an opportunity, but also a risk. You shouldn’t try to control brand ambassadors, and the outcome of these programs is always uncertain. You can buy yourself some peace of mind by enlisting professionals like BzzAgent to manage your campaign. If you want to do it yourself, keep these five basic rules in mind:
- Take a bottom-up approach. Only a tiny percentage of your customers are qualified to be brand ambassadors. These enthusiasts are probably already telling others about your company, and with a little personal attention and some guidance they can be relied upon to deliver a consistent message. You probably already know these people; they’re the ones who participate in your online forums, post positive blog or Twitter messages and send you fan letters. Any successful program begins with leveraging the positive energy that already exists, so let your ambassadors select themselves.
- Open up your company. The good news about brand ambassador programs is that they don’t have to cost much. Fans mostly just want contact with you and a little insight that isn’t available to everybody else. Send them some free samples and maybe a few T-shirts and they’ll be overjoyed. The real cost to you is in time and attention. You need to genuinely make these people feel special, and that means giving them some TLC from your executives, product managers and marketers. This attention has to be genuine; if you pretend you’re listening but don’t follow up on their feedback and input, you look disingenuous.
- Be transparent. Brand ambassadors need to disclose their relationship with you in every public forum in which they discuss your company or products. This is particularly true if they have received compensation or gifts of any kind. On the matter of gifts, restrain your generosity. If it looks like you’re trying to buy the loyalty of customers, the whole program could blow up in your face.
- Offer support, but don’t give orders. Equip unpaid ambassadors with the tools they need to promote you, such as flyers, samples, tchotchkes, discount codes and Web site banners. Provide them with lots of ideas for using these devices. Then get out of the way. If you hover over them and micromanage their activities, their enthusiasm will quickly fade. Some ambassadors may take your largess and do nothing. Those are the breaks; accept the fact that your program will have a few failures.
- Celebrate achievement. For those ambassadors who deliver, reward them with a trip to headquarters, a certificate, or maybe a plaque and a round of applause at your annual sales conference. This won’t be seen as violating rule number #3 because you’ll be showing appreciation rather than buying their loyalty.
BzzAgent is a word-of-mouth marketing agency that has built a successful business managing brand ambassador programs. CEO Dave Balter and I will be at the PRSA 2010 Digital Impact Conference to talk about the ins and outs of managing such programs. Come and share your questions and experience. And please comment in the section below.
Paul Gillin, online marketing consultant, is author of the award-winning books “The New Influencers” and “Secrets of Social Media Marketing.” Follow Paul on his blog, “Social Media and the Open Enterprise,” on Twitter @pgillin and connect on LinkedIn!
Join Paul, along with Dave Balter, for their co-presentation, “Are Brand Ambassadors For Me?: How to Get Customers and Clients to Spread Your Marketing Message,” at the PRSA 2010 Digital Impact Conferemce, May 6–7, in New York, NY