It's a speech we've heard time and time again: A corporate CEO or entrepreneur will take the stage and proclaim "Our greatest asset is not in our inventory or our sales or our products—but in our people."
True, but times have changed. In order to fully realize—and leverage—an employee's full value, a successful company needs to find creative ways to tap into its employees' networks (both online and offline). Brand ambassadors, or employee evangelists, are becoming an increasingly common way for brands to leverage their biggest asset—their workforce, of course—to reach new markets, generate buzz, and put a real face on the company. They can be tweeters, bloggers, Facebookers—or they could just be the people you send to corporate events. More than your firm's logo or an actor in your company's commercial, your customers will come to know your ambassadors as true representatives for your business's mission.
"The use of workers to humanize corporate entities has been a time-honored marketing tradition, of course," writes in AdWeek. "But in an era of Web 2.0 transparency, their visibility takes on greater meaning, signaling the higher importance of customer service in the marketing mix...staffers offer a kind of peer credibility as corporate advocates."
But who are the right people within an organization to represent the brand?
Often, the biggest challenge for a manager will be finding these cohesive, workable units that "get" the objective of the brand, and are able to communicate that message to the world. Once those employee ambassadors are found and selected, the organization must then worry about keeping the message consistent, factually accurate, current, interesting, and appropriate. (You want to avoid, for instance, "ambassadors" like the employee who tweeted "Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of 's Midas Touch beer.... when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd." Oops.)
Despite the risks and challenges of granting your employees carte blanche in representing the company (a PR anxiety attack in the making) branding strategists contend that to compete in the cutthroat world of social media marketing, brand ambassadors are crucial to extending the visibility of a company.
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In today's social-media landscape, face it: Your employees have a voice. Twenty years ago, your employees may have been kept at a distance from your customers. Social media, however, gives your employees the ability—and sometimes the credibility—to be the voice of your brand.
This point was noted by , the former director of social media and consumer innovations at Humana, a health care company, at a panel titled "Slaying the Four Horsemen of the Social-Media Apocalypse" at March's festival in Austin. Matthews noted that out of 30,000 Humana employees, nearly 1,000 were also amateur bloggers. In a survey of those 1,000 bloggers, the company found that 10 percent blogged about health—making them, however indirectly or informally—potential brand ambassadors for Humana.
"It became a question for the executive team, not so much do you want to be in social media—but that you are in social media," he said. "This company is in social media, there are people discussing you, and do you want to be part of the conversation or not?"
From there, Matthews hand-picked 16 people based "not on authority," but on their passion for social media.
Social-media experts say this is a crucial element of finding brand ambassadors: that while your company's executives might understand the mission of the company, going outside the C-suite is important, so long as everyone in the unit is aligned with the mission of the company.
"The customer experience is media right now," , vice president of corporate communications at , told . "How customers engage with your employees and with your brand—that plays out for everybody to see. What that means is that it's important first and foremost to really be aligned. If you've got employees saying different things and acting different ways, that's not in the shadows anymore."
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How to Identify Your Company's Brand Ambassadors: Finding the Right People and Getting Started
There is no standardized method for finding the right people within your organization to become brand ambassadors or social media contributors. Certainly, they can be your marketing department. But they can also be your communications department, your IT department, or even your accounting department. The point is that the people representing your brand have the passion—and personality—that enhances your brand's image.
"The first thing you want to know is if they're passionate, and give them information that they need," says , an author and speaker on word-of-mouth and buzz-marketing strategies and how they relate to small business. McDaniels says a manager should ask: "Who are your power players, and how do we tell them more stories?" By giving employees access to information (within reason), the employee is able to report on a variety of news and events that are happening within the company.
Trust is also imperative—on both sides of the equation. The brand ambassador must feel that they can trust the brand, and therefore be willing to promote it. "First, it is essential to establish a positive two-way dialogue with employees so they feel involved in the process of promoting the company," writes in The Blogger's Bulletin. "They need to know management is listening to them and that they are important to the company's success. The key is trust—companies can't control what employees say but companies that have good relations with employees can trust they will represent the company well."
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"I equate it to starting a cult," says , a digital marketing strategist based in . "How do you create people so enamored that they can't stop talking about it?"
Balwani explains that companies with a strong culture are well positioned for all-star brand ambassadors because the employees already have a strong sense of mission. The culture creates the context for the message; a positive culture, then, will yield positive messages.
But what's also important in the selection of brand ambassadors is that those employees have a sizable built-in network of loyal followers.
For example, , a healthy-snack manufacturer based in San Francisco, launched a quirky campaign to find a "vice president of pop culture," to report directly to the company's "President of Pop Culture," none other than .
"Employees are becoming more engaged as company influencers," notes Popchips's publicity company, in a blog post. "Although many are not as high-profile as Ashton Kutcher, they are the 'stars' of their own social graphs—and smart, well-thought-out campaigns created by their companies are prompting them to proactively engage their online network and drive customer advocacy."
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How to Identify Your Company's Brand Ambassadors: Ensuring Top Quality
One of the main concerns in finding the best brand ambassadors is ensuring that the employee doesn't offend any potential customers, or offer too much information about clients. Ron McDaniels says that a company must have a firm set of guidelines set in place before giving an employee the green light to "officially" represent the company. "You can afford to take a little more chance on people's personality, as long as you set these guidelines," he says.
David Beigie of T-mobile would agree. "Today the social media landscape is a little wild west, so it's important to set up a clear and consice policy," he said. "Take a look at your company's culture, and use that to inform your social media policy."
There will be hiccups along the road. Inevitably, anointing brand ambassadors is a leap of faith for many managers.
"By its nature, social media is an unwieldy beast," Beige says. "If you think you're ever going to get it perfect, you just won't. So go into it eyes wide open and realistic—old rules apply to new media sensibility. You don't need to rewrite the rule book...going back to basics is OK."
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