This week, #CMGRclass learned about brand ambassador programs. In 10 Things to Remember When Creating a Brand Ambassador Program, Mack Collier outlines key considerations when establishing a brand ambassador program. I’ve paraphrased them here, grouping them into the themes of program planning, administration, and sustainability.
- Planning: up-front planning is key to a successful brand ambassador program. Identify brand ambassadors using both online and offline communications (#2). More does not equal better: a small number of passionate advocates is more powerful than a small number of fans (#3). Internal communication within the brand is as important as external communication to brand advocates (#1).
- Administration: brand ambassadors are motivated by access. “Make membership exclusive” (#4). Reward your advocates with exclusive perks (#6). Provide your ambassadors with access to high-level executives (#7).
- Sustainability: Facilitate connections with and between brand advocates (#5). “Create a feedback loop between the brand abmassadors and the brand” (#8). Empower ambassadors to identify other potential brand advocates (#9). Transfer ownership of the program from the brand to its ambassadors (#10).
One of the central themes of #CMGRclass has been “the who.” Just as considerable time should be devoted to identifying the audience of an online community, time must be invested in determining who a brand’s ambassadors should be.
Previously, I wrote about how Royal Caribbean cruise line could more effectively engage its customers online. Despite recent headlines (Carnival Triumph, anyone?), the cruise industry is growing and extremely competitive. While many repeat cruisers hop between different lines, others are extremely loyal, sticking to one cruise line or even a particular ship. Surely Royal Caribbean would benefit from developing and nurturing a brand ambassador program, right?
It turns out that Royal Caribbean has already done exactly that. In 2007, Royal Caribbean partnered with Nielsen Buzz Metrics to identify 50 frequent supporters in online communities. These individuals, dubbed Royal Champions, received exclusive benefits, including access to company executives and free cruises on pre-inaugural sailings. Here’s where subsequent reports and analysis seem to vary, though. Some sites applauded the move, applauding Royal Caribbean’s move to understand online sentiment and potentially influence online conversation. Others called foul, saying Royal Caribbean crossed the line by granting incentives in exchange for positive reviews.
This is sticky. As Tamar Weinberg writes in her positive post, When is Brand Evangelism a Crime? Exploring the Royal Caribbean Promotional Marketing Strategy, Royal Caribbean (most accurately, its consultant) did the work to monitor online channels, listening to supporters and detractors alike, identifying its most “ardent supporters.” However, as Anita Dunham-Potter explains in Paid cheerleaders: Does Royal Caribbean’s viral campaign cross the line?, there was significant backlash among online community members not tapped for the elite Royal Champions group, claiming the posts were planted by the cruise line.
Improving Royal Champions
Not knowing whether or not Royal Champions still exists (the most recent search results are dated 2009), Royal Caribbean could evolve the program based on the principles of loyalty and transparency.
- Loyalty. As Collier writes in 10 Things to Remember, one key to a brand ambassador program is exclusivity. Potential brand ambassadors should be identified not solely based on frequency of online posts, but completion of Royal Caribbean cruises. RCI’s Crown & Anchor program, comprised of repeat cruisers, would be an ideal starting point for identifying potential brand advocates. These cruisers have demonstrated loyalty to the brand with an important factor: their wallets.
- Transparency. The extension of benefits to ambassadors should not be predicated on positive endorsement. Royal Caribbean should want to hear positive and negative feedback from the perspective of their most loyal customers. As Collier writes, “make special note of the customers that go the extra mile … even if they sound negative.” To combat potential backlash from consumer sites, brand advocates should openly identify themselves as such in online posts to anticipate accusations of “pay-for-play.”
What do you think about Royal Caribbean’s Royal Champions program? Was it ahead of its time, as Weinberg suggests? Or, was the program too opaque, as Dunham-Potter argues?