Five Ways Endurance Brands with Ambassador Programs Can Do Better

The number of endurance sport brands that have established Ambassador programs has increased exponentially in just the last few years. Mostly on Facebook and to a lesser extent on Twitter, these brands are asking for their most loyal customers to apply to be ambassadors to carry their banner to the masses.  They seek loyalists who will post selfies on Instagram, tweet about their success with “Brand X,” share product info on Facebook, and carry the company banner in exchange for some swag, a discount or two, and the opportunity to be part of something big.

Such programs make a lot of sense and are cost effective.  Really, think about the amount of free advertising a brand can get from a dozen or so zealous ambassadors who are well connected on social media and who use the products and will talk about their use?  No doubt, if you think about it, one or more ambassadors actually know Kevin Bacon.

Some endurance brands have been at this for a while.  My first ambassador experience came in 2011 with the San Francisco Marathon. I was fortunate to be chosen an ambassador for that race.  I blogged about my training.  I gave away race swag at other marathons.  I tweeted about it and posted on facebook.  I ran the race and had the time of my life in a place I might never have visited had it not been for the program. To this day, I remain a big fan of that race and the way they run their social media presence. And I let people know about them. They do it right.

Two years later I was an ambassador for Training Peaks, the online training tool for multisport athletes.  I learned a lot about the TP software and tried to show that TP was for every athlete not just well-heeled triathletes or expensive coaches.  TP remains active and responsive on social media and quick to answer emails. Read their twitter feed and you’ll see a nice level of engagement from TP.

I’ve applied to other brands and found less success.  These are brands I am fond of.   I love their products and though I’m not an ambassador, I still try to spread the word about their stuff and how it works for me. Word of mouth (WOM) can go a long way.  Some brands don’t have official ambassador programs but they try to get word out through samples.  Endurance nutrition companies, most often.  “We will send you sample of ‘super mega fuel bar’ and maybe you’ll tweet about how good it is.”  It works if you do it right.  It backfires if you don’t.  Don’t make it hard. One brand wanted me to complete an application for one of their bars.  AN APPLICATION?! For a sample the size of what one might pick up at Costco for free on a Saturday? No thanks.

With all this in mind, here are my tips for brands with ambassador programs to win friends and keep loyal users, and see a return on investment above and beyond what they expected when they established their ambassador programs. Oh.  Before you ask the inevitable “what do you know about marketing, college history professor?”  My first degree was in Marketing.  I wanted to be THAT ad guy–Don Draper without all his baggage and booze issues.  It’s an avocation for me, a hobby, if you will, to critique ad campaigns and to try and devise alternative approaches. So I know SOMETHING about this; not much, but something.  And I’m also a consumer.  I’ve been treated we’ll and I’ve been treated badly.  Experience goes a long way.

1) Acknowledgement

This may seem a forgone conclusion, but some brands fail to even acknowledge an application.  On three separate occasions my application, which took upwards of 45 minutes to complete, was never acknowledged.  No “thank you” email. No “when to expect a decision” information. Nothing other than a notice on the application page that the process was completed.  At least let an applicant know that you have received the application.  And for goodness sakes, give a contact email address so that an applicant can ask a question.  It’s also not a good idea to send an applicant the same invitation to apply email several times AFTER they’ve applied.  This shows you’re out of touch.  If you want enthusiastic brand loyalists to carry out your advertising for yoiu, give them some indication that you care enough about their application to let them know you have received it. Or that you are willing to spend a little time answering questions. One brand actually goes so far as to say: “do not contact anyone” at the brand. Really!? You want loyal users to apply but you can’t be bothered to answer an email?

2) Criteria for success

What are you looking for in an ambassador?  Simply saying “enthusiastic users” or “passionate users” or seeking people who “want to challenge themselves” isn’t enough.  What are you looking for in an application?  Social media numbers?  If so, let’s be REALLY honest here.  Don’t downplay social media numbers if that is a firm criteria in YOUR selection process.  I won’t waste my time if you want a blog that has an impact of 10,000 hits a day.  You want someone with a Twitter feed of 4,000 followers?  Say so. Do you want “sub-elite” athletes?  Be honest.  Us mid- and -back-of-the-packers will not apply.  You want attractive looking people with hair and great bodies?  Say so. We won’t clog your email spam folders with our applications.  You have criteria for selection.  Give it to your applicants.  Transparency here goes a very long way.  If you have clearly stated criteria you won’t be flooded with applications that fail to measure up. And we won’t waste our time on a futile process.

3) A Decision

If you want loyal users to apply to pimp your brand,  at the very least you owe the ones not selected a nice email thanking them for applying.  Yet few do this.  I know, the number of submissions to popular brands is likely to be huge, but when one considers the amount of free advertising in social media circles and the great potential for exponential return on a minimal investment, then a “sorry, you weren’t selected” email is a small price to pay. And incredibly easy to do, given the modern wonders of the mass email technology offered by these crazy modern internets and computers. (Did you know we can even watch TV on the computer nowadays!?) Geez.  I still have no idea who was chosen for a brand ambassador program that I applied for almost 5 months ago.

4) A Bone

Throw unsuccessful applicants a bone.  They took 45 minutes to an hour or more completing an application to represent you.  Give them a discount on their next order.  Free shipping.  Automatically enter them in the next round of ambassador applications so they don’t have to do this all over again.  Do a little work for the massive amount of representation they have offered you.  Show those who asked to represent you some appreciation for their loyalty.  Show them that you do really care about them. And show them in such a way that they believe it.  Establish a forum for brand loyalists to meet.  Mizuno does a great job of this with their forums. Loyal users, veteran runners, rookie runners, runners of all stripes can gather and discuss the shoes or ask questions about design or seek model recommendations.  If you do this, then you won’t have to worry about number 5.

5) Know that WOM goes both ways

WOM (word of mouth) advertising is a double -edged sword.  How many of us ask our friends where the best auto shop is in our town? Or the best hair stylist (for those of you with hair)? Research shows that brand advocacy can be a huge boost to a brand.  It can also hurt. Remember my story above about the brand that wanted an application for a sample bar?  Guess how many times I tell that story as an example of out of creating negative WOM?  Yah. Every time that brand is mentioned, I say “you wanna hear something crazy?!”

By cultivating a good relationship with those who have NOT been selected to be “official” ambassadors, a brand can increase WOM advocacy above and beyond that from an official group of a dozen or so ambassadors.  Treat unsuccessful applicants like an afterthought and you damage the relationship they have with your brand as well as risk negative word of mouth on social media.

Friends listen to friends–good and bad. Research shows that brand loyalists are more often than not quick to share a NEGATIVE experience with their favorite brand: Interestingly, loyal consumers are even more likely than the general population to sour on brands: 31% of ‘WOM Champions,’ consumers who are active promoters for the brands they love, say they are more likely to share a bad experience with a brand than a good one.” (click quote for link to full article) The web of influence on social media is never-ending. Use it in your favor. Brands owe it to themselves and their most loyal custorers to take a little extra effort in cultivating good feelings with not only those the selected to be “ambassadors” but especially with those they do not choose.  If a brand is too buy to stay in touch, they might learn that their customers are too busy to buy or advocate their product.

Next: Tips for Applicants to Ambassador programs

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