With the death of passive audiences, age-old brands are seeing their lives flash before their eyes. Today, no outrageous claim goes unchallenged, no gaff remains unmocked, and no bad corporate behavior occurs without uproar. The protectors of corporate reputations feel bombarded on forums, Twitter, Facebook, and any other medium supporting online conversation. And their PR campaigns, poorly produced content and advertising fail to make a dent. Lately, many corporations have turned to their employees to represent their brand in places where only a human can. Some, like Starbucks, Taco Bell, and Delta have succeeded, giving their brand personality and providing customers with meaningful, realtime assistance. Others have misstepped, embroiling themselves in controversy through thoughtless opportunism (hijacking the hashtags of current events) or being blind to customer perceptions of their product (people may not associate your fast food chain with rainbows and sunshine).
For those who get it right, investing in an employee ambassador pays large dividends in the long-term. Ambassadors are the great communicators in a brand’s marketing presence — giving companies a human face. Ambassadors forge closer connections with target audiences than any other marketing strategy. They provide, as Joe Turner writes, the intimacy of a firm handshake at mass scale.
During crises, ambassadors are a simplified, human point-of-contact people can turn to. They can counter the rapid spread of misinformation, swat at fires and express counterpoints. If properly empowered, they can mitigate the impact of negative noise, eventually converting low trust audience members to high trust advocates.
Maximizing on this investment is no simple proposition, however. Here are 10 key actions to transform employees into ambassadors:
- Ditch social media guidelines for social media training – The internet changes everyday and with it, the norms, behaviors and destinations an ambassador must pay attention to. Static guidelines leave ambassadors with instructions that expire and little direction. The journey from employee to ambassador includes more than a set of rules, it includes the acquisition of skills. Those skills can only come from experience and training.
- Use game mechanics to incentivize participation – Building an organic audience is a long-term commitment. Not every ambassador will be energized by the prospect of daily production, reading, sharing and networking. To maintain momentum, break-down responsibilities into discrete and categorized actions. Weight each action by expected effort and reward accordingly. Make it all add up. Give ambassadors a set of quests that allow them to qualify for a particular specialty — set up a profile, make your first connection, unlock your newbie status. Design digital tools that monitor activities and allow constant feedback.
- Limit your audience to interest groups – The 'mass web' is an extremely competitive environment where the latest gossip, extraordinary news events and cat videos fight for attention. The size of the potential audience is huge, but the chance of being drowned out is even larger. Avoid irrelevance by engaging with interest groups. Focus on becoming a valued member of the community, not just a sponsor of it.
- Don't get caught up in audience size – 100 good friends online can often trump 100,000 acquaintances, especially if those 100 friends are well connected. With a smaller network, the content that you produce and things you have to say become more focused. That focus improves the likelihood of engagement and strong referral. Good friends don't just 'pass things along', they advocate for their circle of friends.
- Choose your speciality – There are many ways to become prominent online. Brands become obsessed with leading conversations and taking the authoritative role. But, not every brand has the qualities to lead audiences like a Seth Godin or Steven Colbert. There are other specialities. For example, Jason Kottke has won the attention of a large audience by exploring the fringe of internet and sharing links that would otherwise remain hidden. It’s not about what he says but, about what he finds.
- Give your audience a first-hand account – Show, don't tell. Marketing messages are less interesting than the cool things your company actually does. It doesn't really matter what the topic is, if you give audiences a level of access they have never experienced, they will be compelled to follow. A day in the life of an engineer will always be more engaging than a slogan about innovation.
- Arm ambassadors with the tools for storytelling – Many people have become internet famous with budgets a fraction of the size most corporations dedicate to display advertising. Redirect money toward tools that make ambassadors better story tellers.
- Know the difference between customer service and ambassadorship – Any brand property will receive customer service requests, regardless of its intended purpose. People are conditioned to speak to corporations in complaints, deals requests and questions. Set up specific accounts designed to handle this traffic. Don't reprimand people for complaining where they shouldn't.
- Begin with a pilot – Giving employees the permission to represent the brand is a risky proposition to many companies. One rogue ambassador could cause irrevocable damage to an established brand. Create your business case by demonstrating how one trusted employee can represent the brand in a particular interest group. Then, scale the program by entering more and more interest groups.
- Pay for a partnership, not a media buy – It is important to have allies online. Often, a partner with an established audience can fast-track your own growth. Find a partner who can assist in content creation and distribution.
- Give ambassadors time to do their job – Maintaining a presence online is a full time job for the most successful. Just like advertising, a person must repetitively demonstrate value to break into the attention set of others. This means daily activity separate to other job responsibilities.