Marketing

Weaponizing Word of Mouth: Creating a Brand Ambassador Program

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Phil Grossman

10 Jan, 2020

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If you’re a seasoned business owner with an established customer base and a mature marketing program, you may be considering rolling out a brand ambassador program as a way to expand your promotional efforts and leverage the buzz that’s already surrounding your product. 

At its heart, a brand ambassador program is word of mouth, weaponized. It’s a powerful and effective strategy to add to your marketing arsenal, but it’s not right for every stage of the growth process. This article should help you clarify whether or not you’re ready to institute a brand ambassador program.

In this guide, you’ll learn: 

  1. What is a brand ambassador program?
  2. What are the benefits of a brand ambassador program?
  3. How to know if it’s right for your business — are you ready?
  4. How to create a program (plus a brand ambassador program template)

By the end of this article, you should have a basic knowledge of brand ambassador programs and an outline of how to move forward if you decide it’s a strategy worth pursuing for your business.

What is a brand ambassador program?

Put simply, a brand ambassador program actively structures word-of-mouth marketing by rewarding existing customers for promoting your product. For example: if you run a cosmetics brand, you might pay one of your most passionate customers to post about how they use your products on social media, or you might give them free products for referring new customers. 

Ambassadors vs. influences — what’s the difference?

You’re probably thinking that the above description sounds a lot like influencer marketing. And you’d be right — sort of. While the two marketing strategies do share a lot of similarities, the difference lies in the fact that ambassadors are typically already customers (or fans) who are posting about your products before you get in contact them (that’s often how you’ll find them), and ideally, you’ll end up forming a long-term partnership with them.

Influencers, on the other hand, are more like hired guns — they aren’t usually big fans of your products before you approach them, and the relationship is typically shorter in duration. You might pay them for one or two posts, for example, whereas a brand ambassador will be on your side for the long haul. In fact, some brand ambassadors may not even ask for any compensation at all. For some, simply seeing your brand succeed is reward enough.

Furthermore, brand ambassadors don’t stick to a script, unlike influencers. Because they’re already well-acquainted with and passionate about your product, they can discuss its benefits off the cuff. This helps build a deeper feeling of trust than traditional advertisements or even influencer ads can foster. 

What are the benefits of starting a brand ambassador program?

It’s an old adage that the best marketing is organic, word-of-mouth buzz.  Most consumers find advertising annoying, but hearing a recommendation from a friend, teacher, doctor, etc. doesn’t register as advertising to them, even if it technically is.

Indeed, despite all the marketing hatred out there, consumers tend to have a soft spot for advertising that comes from real customers. And no, not the “real customers” you’ll see on a car commercial, but the real customers that are organically engaging and spreading the word about a product because they truly believe in it. 

Brands attempted to hack that organic process with influencer marketing, but its effectiveness has been on the decline over the past few years. In fact, only 8% of consumers in a 2018 study said that influencer content had a significant impact on their purchase decisions, which represents a 23% decrease compared to the previous year. However, user-generated content, or content that is made by actual customers and users of a product, performs significantly better than influencer marketing — 9.8 times better, to be precise. 

The key here is authenticity.  90% of respondents to a 2018 survey said that authenticity plays a major role in which brands they like and support, so what better way to engage in authentic advertising than to let your marketing naturally come from the bottom up than from the top down?

And of course, besides simply reaching new customers, brand ambassador programs help you strengthen your connections with the customers you already have. When a customer loves a product and gets rewarded for telling others how much they love it, they’re more likely to become a lifelong customer. 

Ideally, a brand ambassador program is a way to both expand your reach to new prospects and strengthen the connections you have to existing fans, followers, and customers. 

Is your company ready for a brand ambassador program

Ambassador programs are typically not an early growth stage strategy. For the most part, that’s because a successful brand ambassador program needs to leverage the passion of an existing customer base, and businesses that are just starting out don’t have a large enough pool to draw from. 

So, here are a few questions to ask yourself to get a better idea of whether a brand ambassador program is right for your business in its current growth stage. 

1. Do you have an established customer base?

If your email list is made up of a whopping 10 people, your brand ambassador program should probably stay on the backburner for a while. A successful brand ambassador program doesn’t create buzz out of thin air — it takes a buzz that’s already there and grows it through the strategic use of rewards and incentives. 

2. Are your customers already promoting your products?

Again, ambassador programs only reach their fullest potential if customers are already actively engaged in promoting your brand on their own free will, similarly to how they might recommend a restaurant, music album, or TV show to a friend. If your business hasn’t reached this stage yet, you may want to hold off until your program starts taking shape on its own. 

3. Do your products become a part of people’s identity?

There are certain products that users willingly make a part of their identity — think Mac vs. PC users, iPhone vs. Android users, Coke vs. Pepsi drinkers, and Subaru drivers, for example. If you sell a product like this, a brand ambassador program is a perfect fit for your business.

4. What are your sales figures?

Strong sales figures are usually a prerequisite for a “yes” to questions 1 and 2, so if your answer is “not good”, then once again, you’ll likely want to hold off on ambassador programs. However, it is possible to have good sales numbers, but because you answered “no” to question 3, you have an unengaged customer base which is making it hard to get that word-of-mouth buzz started. In cases like these, you may be able to use a brand ambassador program to start generating some hubbub around your products and services. 

If your product is selling like hotcakes but is the type of item that people rarely get excited about (take batteries as an example), you may be able to get some of your satisfied customers to come out of the woodwork and start becoming more vocal by offering rewards for their help.

5. Are people asking to become ambassadors?

This one is the real kicker. Even if all other signs point to “not ready,” if you have a few satisfied customers asking to become ambassadors, you don’t really have much to lose. Just make sure you choose rewards that are within your budget, and you don’t go overboard trying to add too many ambassadors too quickly, and you should be fine. 

Types of ambassador programs

Once you’ve decided that it’s time to kick off an ambassador program, you’ll need to choose what type is right for you. Here are a few options:

College ambassador programs

College ambassador programs reward college and university students for promoting your product around campus. Their promotional efforts could be as minimal as wearing branded clothing or as extensive as hosting an event and plastering branded images all around. 

Pepsi currently has a brand ambassador program that employs students who are active on campus and deeply involved in their college’s social scene. The program is a great example of a typical college ambassador program as it seeks students who know the ins and outs of the social scene, are willing to set up and market sponsored events, post on social media, and report data on how their efforts are going.

Influencer and action-oriented programs

We said there’s a difference between influencers and brand ambassadors, and that’s true, but they’re not always mutually exclusive. Sometimes one of your most passionate customers will happen to be an influencer, or what was supposed to be a one-off promotion turns into a longstanding partnership after the influencer gives your product a try and falls in love. 

Here’s an example of an Instagram user that used a piece of exercise equipment from Rx Smart Gear and liked it so much that he began to promote it:

In this case, you’ll usually reward your ambassadors for specific actions that you set, such as making a post on Instagram, hosting an event, etc. 

Affiliate programs

Affiliate brand ambassador programs function like any other affiliate program: your customer, usually a blogger, vlogger, or another content creator, will promote your product in their content. When they do, they’ll include a referral link, and for every purchase that comes from that link, you’ll provide them with a commission. 

Mvmt Watches uses an affiliate ambassador program to promote their products. To participate in the program, influencers and enthusiastic customers need to apply, and if accepted, they can begin promoting the brand’s products on social media and blogs to earn a commission and free products.

Informal referral programs

While many brands handpick their ambassadors, this isn’t always the case. Some brands implement ambassador programs that are open to anyone. You can see a classic example of this from Robinhood, which provides its users with a free stock if they refer a friend who ends up joining as well (more details below). 

A brand ambassador program template

When you’re ready to get your motor running, here are some steps to follow. 

1. Evaluate your market position and decide on a program

Decide whether or not you’re actually ready to begin an ambassador program, and if so, take a look at how you’re positioned in the market to help figure out which type of program to run. College ambassador and influencer programs tend to work particularly well for clothing items, for example, while an app may be more amenable to an informal referral program. 

2. Set your reward structure

While not all ambassador programs have tangible rewards, the majority do. These will usually come in the form of monetary compensation or free products, but it’s also possible to reward your ambassadors by making them feel like an important part of the brand’s growth and highlighting their work — a promotional partnership in a way. 

3. Find your ambassadors

If you’re lucky, your brand ambassadors will find you. But if not, you’ll have to do some digging. Searching through posts that have your brand tagged and contacting bloggers who’ve given your products favorable reviews are both good places to start. 

If you’re going for an informal program, you won’t need to find individual ambassadors, but rather get the word out so that customers can start on their own. Your email list is a great place to start, so make sure all your subscribers know that your program is launching. After that, use all your other established marketing channels to spread the word. 

4. Analyze the data

Like all marketing efforts, you’re going to need to look at how your program is performing to know whether to fish or cut bait. This is easiest for affiliate and referral programs, but it can be done for ambassador programs that focus on in-person interactions as well. In this case, you’ll want to ask customers how they heard about you whenever they make a purchase to help keep track of how your program is working. Self-reported data will never be as reliable as data from affiliate links and the like, but it’s a starting point.

Once you have the data in front of you, take a critical look at whether your program is boosting your sales and reputation, or if it’s costing you more than it’s worth. Don’t be afraid to shut down your ambassador programs if they’re not working, or expand them if they’re doing well.

Prominent examples

Now that you’ve got a base, let’s take a quick look at how some of the pros are building out their programs. 

Robinhood

Investing company Robinhood has a popular ambassador program that offers users a free stock if they refer a friend who signs up. The cherry on top: both the referrer and the referee get a free stock!

Yelp

Yelp runs an interesting ambassador program in that the reward they give their ambassadors is intangible: status. Yelp users who craft well-written and informative reviews are recognized as members of the Yelp Elite Squad, which gives them a badge on their profile. 

Lululemon

Lululemon’s ambassador program throws traditional athletic advertising conventions to the wind. Instead of employing world-famous athletes as their ambassadors, they focus on a mix of elite athletes and local instructors. As a reward for spreading the good word, ambassadors get financial help with their own philanthropic projects. 

While brand ambassador programs can definitely take your business’s marketing to the next level, they aren’t right for every business. Now that you’ve read this guide, you should have a basic idea of what’s involved in an ambassador program and whether it’s right for you. 

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