4 Steps For Leveraging Brand Advocates

If people are talking positively about your brand, you need to find them, friend them, and fully integrate these Brand Advocates into your marketing and sales efforts.

And, when I say “friend,” I don’t mean you actually have to become for-real BFFs, but you can’t just follow them on Twitter or like a few of their Facebook statuses. You really need to engage them, get to know about them, thank them, reward them, treat them like a part of the family. Nurture and care for these people, make them a part of your (company’s) life, and you will reap great dividends.

Previously, in my post If You Ain’t In It For The Customers, Get The Heck Out, I talked a little bit about why this is so important. Customers will talk about their experience with your brand; either as a response to a friend’s request for insight, or spontaneously, because they want to share their opinion. Negativity Bias tells us that “bad” experiences tend to be given more weight than “good” ones – people are much more ready to rush out and tell the world about a bad experience than to shout out a good one. With the new dominance of user generated content (UGC) and the opinions of one’s friends (whether it’s a weak-tie friend or a strong friend) as the go-to trusted arbiters of a product or service’s worth, the new reality is that your customer is now your salesperson.

I’m believe very strongly that over the next few years, we’re really going to see the Customer Experience (and/or the “Stakeholder Experience”) become the defining characteristic in the determination of a firm’s success or failure. Whether that happens or not, one thing has already happened and is already true: people are talking about your brand, your products & services. They’re talking about YOU. And they’re doing it everywhere, in real life and on the internet. Hopefully you are listening and are looking for the people who say nice things about you. Because…

No one can sell you like a happy repeat customer who is enthusiastic about you and your products and isn’t shy about sharing their opinions.

Believe it or not, this mythical beast – a person who loves you AND is willing to tell people so – really does exist. Whether they’re tastemakers, boundless extroverts, a little bit narcissistic, possibly afflicted with Choice Supportive Bias or just plain ol’ love the product you make, they’re out there somewhere. People latch on to and decide to love all kinds of things (what’s that line about “different strokes, for different folks”?). If you’re lucky enough to have some real Brand Advocates running loose in the public that you’ve identified, you need to put those people to work – quite literally. Here’s how:

To get started, you’re going to have to engage them directly, and you’re going to have to organize a team, give them a clear charter and some independence of action, and fund them. There are a number of great examples out there that you can use as models or benchmarks – one I’ll use as an example here is the Maker’s Mark Ambassador Program.

Step 1: The very first thing you have to do for your identified Brand Advocates is thank them. Make it clear that you know they love the product and share positive responses, and that it’s very helpful to you. Say thanks – on a personal level. Find a way to get in touch with them, and have the thanks be sincere, personal, and from someone important. Maker’s Mark sends, aside from regular but not obtrusive emails, the occasional postcard and letter – from Bill Samuels. Of course Bill’s not sitting down and writing ME a letter, but all the communications that come from Bill (and the Ambassador program manager, “Emily” who may or may not be an actual person!) are very well put together and definitely make you, the advocate, feel VERY liked and respected – you can tell the organization is thankful of your efforts, thankful that you’re enthusiastic about their mission. They’re glad that you love their Bourbon, and not just because it sells more bottles.

Step 2: Second, reward their loyalty and guide their enthusiasm. Give access to cool merch, early notice/access to new programs, invite them in to be product/service testers, commenters, crowdsource strategy & offering collaborators. Bring them IN to your organization; even though they’re not employees, they can bring a lot of value to your processes. Treat them kindly, hook them up with cool perks, show gratitude and make them understand: without THEM, you’d be nowhere. They’re part of your team. And most importantly, they are your street team for your new product/service offering. Make sure they get some before everyone else, understand the value prop, love it, and will go forth and tell all their pals about it.

An example of the first part here – rewarding the loyalty – to me is the root of the Ambassadors program. Maker’s Maker’s is famous for sending out Christmas Gifts – one year, I got some cool ceramic coasters – many of my friends have had their cocktails and beers sit on them, over the years. Last year, Maker’s sent out little Ugly Christmas Sweaters – ideally sized to fit over a bottle of Maker’s Mark, so you could have a cheesy-but-cute little decoration if you put it on the bottle and left it out. Clever conversation starter for the holiday party season. In my case, it actually pays out even greater dividends – one day, one of my daughters informed my wife that her Elmo doll was “cold”. My resourceful wife grabbed the Maker’s Mark sweater from the drawer, put it on Elmo, and we all had a good chuckle. And then…the sweater never came off. He’s still wearing it. Everyone who comes to my house (or who meets us at the park on the days Elmo comes in the stroller) gets to see Elmo’s bourbon sweater, have a bit of a laugh, and when they invariably ask why in god’s name Elmo has such a garment, they get the whole “Well, I’m a Maker’s Mark Ambassador…” story. The sweater cost them probably $5 after shipping, if that much. How many bottles has Elmo sold? A few, certainly.

The Ambassadors program is also focused on educating consumers through educating the Ambassadors, and it is quite common for Ambassadors to be invited to events where new products will be unveiled, where the finer points of bourbon crafting are explained, and the like. Ambassadors were also given a pre-view of Maker’s first TV ad ever; about a week or two before they started running on TV, Ambassadors received an email with a link to watch the ad streamed in a secure environment.

Step 3: Thirdly, keep them hooked and keep them interested. Gamify your engagement program. Let them earn “status” both within your company structure and in your customer community, and take the status seriously; taking it seriously sets a tone. You can be sure that if you do, your community members and Advocates will take the status pretty seriously, too. Make a bit of a fuss over it! When somebody gets to “Senior Ambassador” level, send em a t-shirt with your logo and “I’m Kind of A Big Deal” printed on it, something like that. I’m a hardened, bitter, cynical, jaded management consultant, and that kind of thing makes even ME smile. I’m not quite sure on how, if at all, they’re gamifying their program, but they definitely do have at least one “status” tool – a few years ago, Ambassadors were offered the opportunity to have their name put on a plaque on an aging barrel; when the barrel was ready for bottling, the Ambassador was contacted, invited to Loretto, Kentucky, and told they could buy two bottles from their barrel. Okay, so it’s not quite the same as getting to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom, but to a bourbon geek, that’s still pretty cool. By making judicious use of this kind of status-making offering, you can create a culture of pride in your advocate community.

Step 4: Fourth, you have to expand the program, to make sure you’ve got an advocate pipeline. Once you’ve got a core of people who not only love your product, but are cool, hip, and loaded with sweet merch because of it, start recruiting new members into the community, and using your advocates to recruit as well. Believe me, you probably have more brand advocates out there than you know of – give them a reason to come to your attention. Keep feeding the funnel. Brand Advocates are not forever – they age, move away, pick up different hobbies, or can just lose interest in your brand for any one of a dozen different reasons beyond your control – so you need to really actively expand your pool.

Your customers are your best salespeople. Everything you do should be geared towards making it easy, cool and rewarding for your customers to sell your product for you – and towards demonstrating gratitude for what they’re doing for you.

A brief note: I am a Maker’s Mark Ambassador. I received absolutely no compensation for using them as the example in this post, other than the sweet swag they’ve been sending me over the years. I love their brand, love their product and I respect & admire the heck out of the Ambassador program – wicked, wicked smart – which is why I used it here. I love Bourbon in general, and I thank Maker’s for being my entré into grown-up whiskies, lo those many years ago. Maker’s is a great gateway bourbon, a great all-around sipper or mixer. I also highly recommend Eagle Rare, Elmer T. Lee, Basil Hayden, Bookers, and the liquid gold that got me through college, Wild Turkey 101.

Seth F. Cargiuolo

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