The New Brand Ambassadors

SAN FRANCISCO Remember when citizen journalism was a novel idea? Now, average people armed with video cameras, laptops and mobile phones routinely cover everything from flood and fires to violence on the streets of Myanmar. Combine this do-it-yourself movement with the idea that every thought and personal event is Facebook-worthy, and it makes sense that citizen marketing is the newest form of consumer activism—one looked at by marketers as a potential holy grail.

Overall spending on citizen marketing is growing and is expected to top $1 billion in 2007, up from $980 million in 2006, according to PQ Media’s word-of-mouth marketing forecast. That number is expected to swell to almost $4 billion by 2011.

“Technology has leveled the marketing playing field for brands,” write Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba in their book, Creating Customer Evangelists. “In the new world of marketing, customer evangelists are the key influence on what consumers buy.”

People, of course, have always acted as brand ambassadors by sharing recommendations with friends and associates. And for decades, marketers have built buzz with preview parties and product samplings, albeit aimed mostly at influential, often celebrity, customers. (In today’s world, this has translated to junkets and freebies for popular bloggers.)

Now, however, these interactions have become supercharged thanks to a new breed of brand ambassadorship programs that formalize the relationship between marketers and average consumers passionate about their products. These programs “hire” consumers, via incentives and rewards, to act as part PR agents, part sales reps and part evangelists. They mix the spontaneity of buzz building with technology to instigate, guide and measure what repeat customers are saying to each other about their brands. Sony, Unilever, Microsoft, McDonald’s and JetBlue, among others, are incorporating such programs into their marketing mixes.

Consumers are selected based on their devotion to a product and the size of their social circles. They are expected to tap into friends, family, groups and resources through conversations, blogs, live events and online social media. These programs, which also provide marketing materials, sometimes ask these consumers to drum up local press coverage and coordinate brand sponsorships of community or charity events. Their activities are measured by things such as online traffic, number of blog posts, reader comments and e-mail responses, and how many people participate in real-world events.

Often, these reps create their own branding gimmicks. For instance, a Sony camera ambassador used the camera to film what was in her parent’s pantry at Thanksgiving as a way to explain her upbringing in her Sony blog, prompting others to take cameras along on their holiday trips home.

Ambassador rewards include product samples, gifts, discounts and token cash payments—anything from $700 worth of free electronics equipment to discounts at local golf courses. Plus, they get insider access to company information, such as new products or services in the works.

To avoid charges of deception, ambassadors are advised by marketers to openly reveal that they’re representatives. Also, ambassadors’ online conversations and activities are often branded. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association, a trade group of agencies and marketers who use word-of-mouth marketing, has instituted an informal, but largely unenforced, industry policy that brand reps must always disclose their relationship to the product or service when promoting it.

Ambassadors need not be 18 or over. Unilever’s “Go Green and Small With All,” which used in-classroom magazine and Web ads to recruit participants, targeted elementary school kids via a contest held in October and November that looked for the greenest grade school in the country. Its ambassadors were encouraged to get their families to make small, green changes at home (like using concentrated All detergent) and to spread branded, eco-friendly messages. The ambassadors and their parents submitted report cards on their progress, and the school with the highest percentage of report cards (not yet announced) will receive a $50,000 grant for eco-friendly school improvements, a solar-powered iPod Shuffle MP3 player for every student, a one-year supply of All and an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in January. More than 3,000 elementary schools entered.

Using young students as ambassadors “reaches our target audience of mothers of school-age children,” says Helayna Minsk, marketing director for All. Incorporating it into a contest “encourages … word of mouth and got kids involved collectively,” she adds.

Sony decided that selecting brand ambassadors who like to travel, take pictures and blog would jump-start the launch of its news GPS camera. “This is a product with emerging technology and we really need to let consumers see people using it,” says Koba Kobayashi, director of digital imaging accessories at Sony.

At least 2,000 applicants each filled out a detailed online form in August and September, and 25 ambassadors were picked based, among other things, on how much they planned on traveling and participating in sporting events in the fall, says a Sony rep. The winners were given a free camera and other equipment in October along with lessons on how to use them. Applicants who didn’t make the cut got a thank-you note and a 20 percent discount coupon for the camera. (Any sore losers? “No complaints that we know of,” says Sara Katz, Sony marketing manager for digital imaging.)

The Sony ambassadors are encouraged to hand out discount coupons, show the camera to anyone who asks and blog weekly about their adventures on a dedicated Sony microsite, which runs through Jan. 31.

Sony ambassador and blogger Cheryl Gillet, for instance, described a recent trip to Australia, adding a map of the journey juxtaposed with photos of beach scenes and tanned friends in swimsuits.

A traditionally fertile ground for ambassadors is the college campus, so it’s no surprise that colleges are giving brands a place to refine their citizen-marketing strategies. Marketing agency RepNation has jumped into the fray to facilitate such programs by identifying student ambassadors for companies including JetBlue, Microsoft and Macy’s. It then manages the ambassadors’ activities. (Students do not “work” for the brand, but for RepNation.)

The RepNation Web site is used to solicit people and to swap students’ marketing ideas. (RepNation also posts classifieds on sites like Craigslist.) Ambassadors are encouraged to create their own events and to build a campus-wide reputation as spokespeople for the brand, says Brandon Evans, managing director at RepNation. Cost to the marketer per program ranges from $300,000 to more than $1 million, he adds, and compensation for the student comes to about $10 an hour in free goods and gift cards, he says. (A program often includes several colleges with one or two ambassadors per campus.)

JetBlue’s BlueDay, now in its third year, is one of the more established college-style ambassador events. Held in the fall on 21 campuses on the East Coast and in Northern California, students wear blue costumes (and, on occasion, blue skin and hair) and those with the best costumes are each given a pair of free airline tickets. (See sidebar on previous page for more about RepNation and JetBlue.)

Tracy Sanford, director of advertising and promotions for JetBlue, says, “Students know what kinds of activities are important to other kids, what we should say to them in our marketing and how we should say it. The other side is that we have to not be surprised when they do something we would not have done, like put an amateur-looking version of our logo on a sheet cake. We have to give up some control of our image.”

Sanford adds that the ambassador program doubled in size in 2007 and has “made a big difference” in the brand’s strength in the young-adult demo.

On a smaller scale, Ocean City, Md., began a pilot brand ambassador program with marketing agency MGH in early 2007. More than 15 ambassadors from around the touristy town serve as PR representatives, pass out promotional materials to visitors and talk up the town online. As a thank you, they get previews of town events, gift packs with golf discounts and local goodies.

Visits to the city have gone up since the program started and attendance is higher at events the ambassadors have promoted, says Donna Abbott, Ocean City’s public relations director. In 2008, the program will expand to include an online social network for ambassadors.

While brand ambassadors are a good, inexpensive way to extend a brand’s reach, “ambassador programs require a good deal of supervision to ensure that the brand is being represented properly,” says Lara Bass, vp of client services at Renegade, an experiential marketing agency. To find appropriate ambassadors, she feels, marketers should search blogs and identify individuals who are already functioning as brand advocates. “Once selected they must be trained and well versed on the brand so they don’t come across as paid endorsers who lack real brand knowledge,” she adds.

The ambassador approach has its critics. Robert Kesten, a media activist and executive director of the Center for Screen-Time Awareness, which seeks to limit the time children spend with electronic screens, says these programs “reduce every relationship to a consumer transaction. It’s taking advantage of people, usually younger people, by teaching them that friendship is worth a compromise when something free is involved. It cheapens everything.”

Do brands privately worry their reps will be perceived as hucksters who promote products because they get free stuff—or, worse, as annoying evangelists best avoided?

RepNation’s Evans, for one, says, “To the contrary. Our brand ambassadors are seen by their college friends as entrepreneurial, creative people.” What they aren’t, he adds, are the super cool kids on campus. “We used to assume the best reps would be the cool kids in any given group. But we learned that most kids are not cool. If marketers want consumers to feel a connection to their ambassadors and to feel that an ambassador is accessible, they have to look beyond the cool customers” who are typical influentials. The best ambassadors, he says, are “friendly, everyday brand loyalists who love to talk to people.”

Should Friends Pitch Friends?

With a gold-rush stampede of advertisers recruiting citizen marketers, will people begin to resent acquaintances who pitch them goods? After all, Facebook’s Beacon quickly discovered there are lines to be drawn.

Experts, however, say paid brand ambassadorships are not likely to ruin too many friendships. When done well, these programs can be perceived as valuable. And when done badly, community members will more often than not tune out the pitches as nothing more than the new spam.

“Opt-in” social-network experiences “do work,” says Steve Rubel, the Micropersuasion blogger and a vp at Edelman Public Relations: “You [can] build groups and use the social network as a community and a platform for collaboration and action.”

According to Nancy F. Koehn, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of Brand New: How Entrepreneurs Earned Consumers’ Trust, an implicit pact underlies civic life: advertisers do their work openly. That same expectation, she notes, holds for “friends,” or members of online communities. “If I’m having a conversation with you as my friend and unbeknownst to me you’re a brand ambassador, that’s a very different animal. One’s about choice and free will, the other’s about deceit and manipulation,” she says. What consumers want, she adds, is a marketer who’s genuine, or seemingly so. An endorsement from Oprah, she points out, is a marketer’s dream because it appears heart felt, which is something money can’t buy.

What social-media users are having none of is deception. Members expect authenticity from each other, so they’re turned off, say experts, when someone doesn’t say they’re affiliated with a certain product yet are obvious evangelists.

“The crowd is always running toward the place with the least commercialism,” says Jennifer Laycock, editor and columnist at Search Engine Guide, a marketing Webzine.

To be credible, adds Dave Balter, CEO of marketing firm BzzAgent, citizen marketers need to be honest about opinions good and bad, open about their affiliation—and unpaid. But others say the reward system many marketers now have in place can be deemed acceptable if ambassadors are up front about them—and if others have a chance of reaping rewards as well.

Ultimately, abusive practices can backfire as members “de-friend” shills, says Jeff Beringer, vp of the Web relations group at GolinHarris, a telecom-marketing services firm. “It erodes trust if consumers feel like their personal relationships have been taken over by a company,” he notes. “And if you don’t trust a company, you’re certainly not going to go out and buy its products.”

—Jill Hamburg Coplan

Jill Hamburg Coplan is a freelance writer who has written for publications including The New York Times and BusinessWeek.

Rebecca Nelson: A Citizen Marketer Talks

I wasn’t looking for a job. But I love perusing the “gigs” section of Craigslist, which was where I saw an ad for JetBlue lovers. I do love the airline (unlimited snacks! low fares!)—and was intrigued by the idea of a flexible 10-15-hour work week and the possibility of training at JetBlue headquarters in New York City. I applied.

My two phone interviews were with RepNation (see main story). I talked about many things, including my enthusiasm for the brand, my life at the university I attend, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), my knowledge of the best venues for events, and my Facebook profile with its over 300 RIT “friends.” I also told them I knew sign language. As one of RIT’s eight colleges is the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, I’m sure this was a plus.

Within two weeks, I and another RIT applicant, Brenna Cammeron, were accepted and flown free to New York for one day of training with 41 other reps from 21 campuses. During training we covered the company’s history, the purpose of the CrewBlue program, the responsibilities of being a rep and compensation (travel vouchers and gift cards). We picked up some promotional gear, and then Brenna and I JetBlued it back to Rochester.

There are two parts to being a rep: physical and virtual. The former involves the creation of events, like JetBlue video game tournaments (it’s a tech school!). We also partnered with clubs to co-sponsor events (e.g., a 5k run for charity), which usually meant a larger turnout. Before any event we posted fliers and talked to students and then, during the event, set up a table with a branded tablecloth, pins, pens and enter-to-win forms for vouchers, hoping to get as many entries (e-mail addresses) as possible.

The job means being organized and professional enough to plan large events and call local media, and spontaneous enough to create a new event in case of, say, bad weather—and still make it to classes. Also, each event budget is only $50, so you need to be creative!

The virtual part of my job included managing RIT’s Facebook group of 1,900 with the creation of new contests and event invitations, and answering student questions. This group management, along with checking the RepNation portal—where reps share ideas, ask questions and offer tips—was a daily job. The portal is one way for our work to be monitored and to determine the awarding of incentives.

I plan to do mostly not-for-profit work upon graduation and know that my resume has been greatly enhanced by the program. The experience was also invaluable for me personally. How often do you get to hand someone a round-trip voucher because they painted themselves blue from head to toe?