Your family owns 5 bakeries across the northern part of your state. The bakeries have developed a reputation for creating delicious cakes and pastries, speedy deliveries, and exceptional customer service. Which has resulted in a lot of happy customers!
You manage the social media presences for the five bakeries. You are monitoring the Facebook page for your bakeries today, and as usual you have several new comments from customers. These comments are almost always positive, and today’s mentions are consistent with a typical day:
Sarah: “The birthday cake we bought for my son’s 10th birthday party was delicious! It made the party, I had three moms come up later and ask for the recipe, and I was tempted to claim I made it, but gave them your address in the end (ha!). So expect Tina, Jess and Kym to show up soon!”
Tom: “You guys saved our Thanksgiving! As always, we were too ambitious in our dinner-planning and just didn’t have time in the end to bake the pumpkin and pecan pies we needed to finish off desert. You guys came through at the last-minute for us, even delivering on the day before Thanksgiving! As an added bonus, our out-of-town relatives loved both pies and said they would be stopping by as they leave town in a few days to take another home with them!”
Amber: “Have been a happy customer for the last 5 years, your double chocolate cakes and blueberry streusel muffins are my favorites, they always make our meals special. Are you planning on opening a location in Lancaster? All my friends have heard about how delicious your cakes and muffins are, so you have a ready customer base if you do!”
In reading these comments, a light bulb goes off: These customers have taken ownership of the sales, customer service, marketing and promotion processes for your bakeries. Without guidance, these customers have taken it upon themselves to help grow your business.
But what if you could give these customers guidance in how to better promote your business and grow your customer base? What if you had a way to work directly with these customers to give them the tools they need and WANT to help share why they love your business with their friends, family, and other customers?
That’s where a Brand Ambassador Program comes in. Over the last few years, companies have begun to realize the benefits of having a way to connect directly with their most passionate customers to drive business growth. While customers as a whole don’t trust brands, they do trust other customers. Especially passionate customers that love their favorite brands. While a marketing message from a brand will likely be ignored, a passionate recommendation from a fellow customer will be taken far more seriously.
This has a lot of companies researching how to create a successful brand ambassador program, and how to work with brand ambassadors. Let’s start with some definitions:
What is a Brand Ambassador? A brand ambassador is a person who works to promote and represent a brand in its marketplace. Brand ambassadors are often current customers who were already advocating for brands before they started working with them, but some brand ambassadors are chosen because they have a large following or are viewed as influencers. Brand ambassadors have a working relationship with the brands they represent, and are given instruction on how to interact with customers in the marketplace, based on the business goals for that brand.
What is a Brand Ambassador Program? A brand ambassador program is a business program that organizes brand ambassadors and creates an ongoing, working relationship between the brand and its ambassadors. A brand ambassador program is used to manage the ongoing, working relationship between the brand and its ambassadors, and provide ongoing training and instruction for its ambassadors, as well as support. Most brand ambassador programs work closely with other areas of the business, such as marketing, sales, customer service, and product design.
So if your company is considering launching a brand ambassador program to connect with your brand advocates and ambassadors, here’s 10 things to remember:
1 – Spread the word internally as well as externally. Getting internal buy-in is just as important, if not moreso, than getting customers excited about your efforts. If your brand advocacy program doesn’t have INTERNAL advocates pushing it along, its chances of success are going to be greatly reduced. Launching a brand ambassador program takes time and energy. Immediate ROI will be very hard to prove, it’s a long-term process. Which is why it pays to have a team of people that are pushing for patience.
2 – Research, research, research. You’ll have to invest a lot of time in discovering WHO your brand advocates are. You might think you know who they are, but there’s rarely a ‘one-size-fits-all’ view. You’ll also have to monitor ALL conversations with your customers. Not just online conversations, not just offline ones either. Look at both. Also, make special note of the customers that go the extra mile to connect with you, the ones that write you letters, even if they sound negative. Companies often confuse passion for the brand with negativity aimed at the brand.
Whenever I talk to companies who are curious about launching a brand ambassador program, one of the first questions is “How do we find our brand ambassadors?” The good news is, potential brand ambassadors will often find you! Customers who are good candidates to be ambassadors for your brand will often proactively reach out to your company. They will email you with feedback on your brand, they will respond to you on social media, they will call your customer service department with feedback. Ideally, you can select enough qualified ambassadors for your brand by simply cataloging the customers who are already connecting with your brand proactively.
3 – Start small, grow big. You don’t have to have a million members in your brand ambassador program. In fact, I’d rather have 10 truly passionate brand advocates than 10,000 members that are merely ‘meh’ toward the brand. If you start small and select those that are truly passionate about your brand and its vision, the growth will come organically as these passionate people will help you identify others just like them.
Additionally, it simply makes good business sense to start small with your brand ambassador program, especially if this is your company’s first attempt at such a program. Whenever you take on any new initiative like this, especially when working directly with your customers, there will be mistakes made. This is why I advise my clients that if possible, start with a small group, nail down the process, then you can expand the scope of the program after you’ve worked the kinks out. In other words, start small, nail the process, then grow.
Here’s an example of how this could work. Let’s say your company has fitness centers across the United States, your company has 425 centers and operates in 23 states, but you have the most locations in the Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta markets. Instead of rolling out a comprehensive, nationwide brand ambassador program with 500 members, it might make more business and logistical sense to launch a 10-person brand ambassador program for just the Chicago market. After spending the first year perfecting the program and process for the Chicago market, in the second year you could launch brand ambassador programs for the Los Angeles and Atlanta markets. After nailing down the processes for these markets, your company can then roll out a comprehensive, and nationwide, brand ambassador program.
4 – Make membership exclusive. This ties into the previous point, but you don’t want ALL your customers to be members of your brand ambassador program. You want to give them hurdles to jump, obstacles to overcome. In other words, you want to weed out the customers that aren’t committed to the brand, or the program. The true advocates for your brand will already be doing much if not all of what you would require of them as members of the program. It also pays to cap membership, and to give the existing members a huge say in who the future members are.
5 – Connect with your advocates and create ways for them to connect with each other. Your advocates are special people, you don’t want them on an island, you want them connected. Create a central ‘homebase’ for the current members of your program, but also stay connected to other advocates that aren’t yet members. And make your existing ambassadors aware of these advocates, and have them ‘vet’ them for possible membership in your formal ambassador program.
6 – Pay your ambassadors. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about brand ambassadors. They DO want to be compensated but most do NOT want to be given money. Sure, we all love money, but for a true brand advocate they usually want other things. Like access, empowerment, and acknowledgement. A few years ago when I worked with Dell on its #DellCAP events, the customers weren’t paid to come (travel was covered), but they were given access. For example, they got to tour Dell’s Social Media Listening Center, then they got to spend 30 minutes talking to CEO Michael Dell. That’s pretty heady stuff for a Dell advocate. When they go back home, their friend might brag about having the latest and greatest Dell laptop, while they can respond with ‘Oh yeah, well Dell invited me to their world headquarters and I got to chat with Michael Dell himself!’ That’s a great example of rewarding your advocates.
Here’s another example: I once worked with a software company to design a brand ambassador program for its users. The majority of the users of this software were small business owners. After surveying its users, the software company discovered that these small business owners were desperate for social media and content marketing advice. So we created a series of webinars just for members of the brand ambassador program that would have a different expert deliver a webinar on a different marketing topic to brand ambassadors. This benefit had nothing to do with the software company, it was completely focused on what would be valuable to brand ambassadors. If you’re brainstorming ideas for possible benefits you could give your brand ambassadors, check out this exhaustive list of benefits that Harley-Davidson offers members of its HOG group.
7 – Give your advocates direct access to the brand. The members of your brand ambassador program should be given direct contact with multiple key executives within the brand. In fact, I would suggest making 1 or more of the ‘top’ members of your brand ambassador program part of the team that’s responsible for reporting on the progress of the program to the C-Suite. The idea here is to make sure that the voice of your brand’s biggest defenders and advocates is always heard at the company, from the top down.
8 – Create a feedback loop between the brand ambassadors, and the brand. I outlined the process for this loop in this post. You need to have a way to let your ambassadors have direct access to the brand, as mentioned above. But at the same time, the brand needs to respond to the brand ambassadors and give them feedback on their feedback. Additionally, the brand needs to take the feedback from its ambassadors and distribute that feedback internally and not just silo it among the employees that are working directly on the brand ambassador program.
9 – Give your ambassadors the tools to create something amazing. Again, you want to start small and grow organically. And you want that growth to be fueled by your existing advocates. You want to embrace and empower your existing advocates, thus the creation of the brand ambassador program. But you also want your existing ambassadors to have the tools to embrace and empower other advocates that aren’t yet members. And tying back to the earlier points about giving ambassadors direct access to the brand, when your existing ambassadors find other advocates, they can immediately bring them to the brand’s attention.
10 – Transfer ownership of the program from the brand, to its ambassadors. When you create a brand ambassador program, you need to realize that long-term, this will belong to your advocates. You’ll always be there, and you’ll always have a voice, but the idea is that you want your most passionate customers to eventually take over this program. Maybe you’ll start out with a ‘board’ over the program made up of 5 key brand executives, and 5 brand ambassadors. But over time, as your ambassadors become familiar with the program and its function and goals, you need to let them have control. Again, you don’t want the voice of your company to dominate this effort, you want the voice of your most passionate customers to have control, because those customers are going to be connecting with other customers.
But perhaps the most important thing to remember when creating a brand ambassador program is who you will be working with:
Every single day you’ll be working with customers that love you. Customers that love your brand as if it were their own, and who will work with you every day to see it grow and prosper. Let’s be honest, it’s pretty awesome to work every day with people that love you and believe in you. That’s exactly what happens when you create and launch a brand ambassador program.
BONUS: When you are ready to pitch your idea for a brand ambassador program to the C-Suite, make a plan that details exactly how the program will benefit the brand, and exactly how it will benefit the ambassadors who participate. Carefully and clearly spell out all the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that will be measured and tracked, as well as an explanation of why it is important to do so. Also, give a thorough timeline of the roll-out of the brand ambassador program, for at least the first 6 months of the program, 12 months is better. Assume that there will be a healthy amount of skepticism from upper management about the success of a brand ambassador program (since your brand has likely never launched one), so the eventual signoff by the CEO or CMO will greatly depend on how well you address these concerns head on.
So there’s some ideas to consider when you get ready to create and launch an official brand ambassador program. This won’t be easy, and it will take a lot of time, but if you are committed to connecting with your most passionate customers and willing to empower them, the results will make program a huge success. If you need help getting started, let’s explore how we can work together to create an ambassador program for your brand.
DOUBLE BONUS: Want to see a great example of an employee brand ambassador program?