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Brand Ambassadors, Brand Advocates: These Programs Aren’t Easy!

Don’t Let The Plethora of Blog Posts Fool You

Brand Ambassador & Brand Advocate ProgramsIt’s easy to tout the benefits of brand advocate programs – of which there are many – but there isn’t enough discussion around just how difficult it is to create and sustain one.

What is the difference between a brand ambassadors, brand advocates and just an online community?

Communities are a collection of people passionate about something, who are gathered into a social media community around that passion. It can be an industry, a career field, a product or service or just an idea. Sometimes a marketing tool to build awareness, communities are typically created and supported by a manufacturer, company or association who wants to reach that audience.

Brand ambassadors and brand advocates are often used interchangeably and incorrectly, but they are a difference of paid versus unpaid. Even Wikipedia incorrectly redirects a search for “brand advocate” to the “brand ambassador” page. Whoops.

A brand ambassador is someone who supports an organization or business and builds awareness, loyalty and conversation around its brand. It’s their online spokesperson(s). Often the moderator of a community, that person (or persons) embodies brand attributes and represents the brand online. They are hired by the company and have a paid role to grow the brand.

A brand advocate is similar to a brand ambassador, but typically NOT paid. Brand advocates are most often customers passionate about the brand who support and promote it online because of their loyalty and enthusiasm for the brand.

Many consumer bloggers who do product reviews, for example,  are brand ambassadors because they are paid in money or product, not unpaid brand advocates.

Brand advocate programs and brand ambassador programs have much in common, but for the purposes of this article we’ll focus on unpaid brand advocates. I consider brand ambassadors a marketing tactic (advertising) and brand advocates a public relations tactic (awareness).

As an agency and consultant, I often find client expectations around the goals, purpose and potential for success of a brand advocate program are completely unrealistic. There are gazillions of posts touting their benefits – yet so few talk about just HOW HARD AND COMPLICATED this kind of program is to build and maintain successfully.

[Tweet “Launching a brand advocate program? Set conservative expectations.”]

It’s not easy, and some products and services make it a more feasible tactic than others.

For example, a software solution with hundreds of thousands of users might find it simple to successfully launch a social media program with enough brand advocates to create a vibrant community, but does that mean it’s a fit for every brand? NOPE.

What a Brand Advocate Program Needs

This may be a bit controversial, but in my opinion, brand advocate programs require these things to be in place:

  1. A product – have you seen many successful brand advocate programs that revolve around a service? I haven’t. (Share the link in a comment if you know of one)
  2. An existing audience of product enthusiasts. A start-up company can’t have brand advocates until someone is actually USING the product. Even paid bloggers need product, and most consumer bloggers are more focused on product reviews for revenue than honest product enthusiasm.
  3. Money to promote the new community. Sponsored posts and tweets, AdWords, Email campaigns to customers – there has to be a mechanism in place to create awareness. Just mentioning it on social media isn’t enough.
  4. A full-time community manager to keep it humming. Every successful brand advocate program with a sizable, active community has a focused cheerleader in place to move things along. Even if that community manager isn’t full-time, someone does have to be monitoring it continually using email and/or text alert tools, and highly responsive to their community.
  5. Enough budget resources to make it work. Without money to provide ready access to staff, images, video, graphic design, advertising and other things, even the best brand advocate program will be DOA. You’ll also need access to and relationships with customer service to handle customer- and product-related issues within the community and, ideally, a bit of time invested in crisis prevention planning. Just in case.

Should you not even try to create a brand advocate program without these five elements in place? I wouldn’t say that. However, I would definitely tamper expectations to be realistic about how successful it can be, what the goals are and how it will be handled.

[Tweet “Creating your brand advocate program is simple. Sustaining it? VERY DIFFICULT.”]

Creating the program idea is the simple part – executing and sustaining it is hard. Very, very hard.

Fiskateers Falls Apart

A great example of a successful brand advocate program run amok is Fiskars “Fiskateers” community – a fantastic site for scrapbooking. The idea was brilliant – I learned of it in Mack Collier’s book, Think Like A Rock Star (2013). A scissor manufacturer, Fiskars launched the program in 2005 for women passionate about scrapbooking and crafting.

Targeting their ideal audience of potential and current customers, the site included a community website, social sharing and robust conversations – even events and road trips. It was fabulously executed lively community because it had the right resources behind it, and the idea blended with the interests and passions of their audience.

Today, it’s a stagnant, mostly dead community.

What happened? It’s hard to say, but judging by their lack of history past 2012 on the “About Fiskateers” page and a post in March of this year stating they will no longer be updating the Fiskateers Facebook page, redirecting them to the Fiskars page, the program clearly fell apart. I suspect they lost critical staff to handle it, since a 2012 blurb on their “About Fiskateers” page mentions they are hiring. Perhaps they also lost budget or c-suite support for the community. Even for successful communities, it can be difficult to connect even a thriving social media community directly to sales goals or other key business metrics.

It’s hard to say without actually asking Fiskars. What a shame, though! It was fabulous while it lasted.

Moral of the story? Think through the logistics, invest enough budget and other resources, and be realistic about whether it’s a solid tactic for what you want to accomplish. You don’t want it to become a PR nightmare.


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