In order to get your customers talking, you have to give them something to talk about.
Call them advocates, evangelists, ambassadors, or something else, these vocal consumers are perhaps the most compelling reason that brands invest in social media. Finding that small percentage of the population that loves your product, service, or brand; is inclined to talk about it within their various social channels; and has some influence online is no mean trick. When you do find them, you want to cultivate them and equip them fully to do what they do best - talk you up! In order to get them talking, you have to give them something to talk about.
Give them product. Sharing existing or new products with a devoted fan is a surefire way to get (usually) positive product, company, or brand comments. Make sure you have mechanisms in place to leverage those comments and get them widely distributed. Make very sure that your bloggers follow guidelines to disclose any relationships or gifts.
Give them product to give to their readers/fans/followers. You've further ingratiated the brand with the primary influencer with your generosity, and those products become a wonderful third-party endorsement from a trusted source when they give them away. The odds are good that those that are gifted are likely to thank the source and praise the gift. If your product is too costly to give away in volume, say a car, then use a contest to give away one but surround it with a lot of media support and social attention to get the contest spread widely. You could also give away less costly but unique, desirable promotional items that appeal to those committed consumers or give away experiences like a chance to test drive the newest wheels.
Showcase them. Highlight and feature users' personal stories/photos/videos/testimonials. Let them know that this will be recurring and collect content. "Bob is our Greatest Fan in the World in the month of February."
Validate and empower them. Consider making an elite group of fans your semi-official spokespeople. Making someone a small time celebrity by naming them to "Team Brand" will certainly give them something to talk about. You can also give these users a specific task to complete and report on. That approach gives them a structured way to contribute to the ongoing dialogue that surrounds your brand and guides the conversation in a constructive direction.
Pit them against each other in a positive way. Hold a contest to find the biggest brand fan or the most committed or longest running customer. Highlight these users or find them by asking direct questions; for instance, posting on your Facebook wall a question like "Who remembers way back when our product X was first launched?" or "Does anyone have a picture of the special edition packaging for [event] in 1995?"
Hand them the reins. Allow your audience to submit content for the brand for your social channels. Solicit user photos or stories or ask them "If you were [insert brand spokesperson] what would you tell your followers today?" Showcase their creativity as it relates to the brand by asking "Would love to see your favorite recipes using [brand]!" or "What is the last thing you built using [brand] or [brand packaging]?" Pinterest is a great vehicle for this approach.
Ask their opinion. Make these valuable relationships work harder for you by soliciting input. Use the various polling and voting mechanisms available to ask about the best/next/new products, services, or features, or even what they'd like to see next. Real-time R&D at a heck of a cost savings but remember that you are talking to those already connected to your brand in some way and so this will not be a representative sample. No two people will ever have the same opinion, so this is a great way to start a dialogue online.
Test market. Use your social community to collect feedback with sampling and previews before doing a mass launch. This not only gets important, in-market reaction to new products but may create demand in advance of launch as word spreads.
Listen to them. Listening in through social media tracking devices is a must and is probably how you identified your influencers to begin with, but also consider moving the relationship into the real world. Invite select brand advocates to headquarters or have them do an in-person or online focus group. We're excited to see how brands use Google+ in this capacity in the near future. You could also schedule a meet-and-greet with the brand team or any brand spokespeople.
Encourage a dialogue within the community. By giving them access to each other, you provide value and you get the listening benefit. Be prepared with conversation starters.
Be relevant. Your brand advocates don't sit around in a bubble all day thinking about your products. By connecting with the real world, you encourage dialogue that is engaging and makes you more relevant to their world. Stay away from politics and other dangerous topics.
Thank them. Sometimes simple acknowledgement is enough. A company can be a cold entity. It is a warm and human thing to thank someone for their patronage and support. It's also the nice thing to do.
What techniques do you use to identify or activate your brand ambassadors?
Robin is the CEO and cofounder of NetPlus Marketing Inc., a top 50 interactive agency established in 1996 to focus exclusively on online marketing and advertising best practices. Robin brings innovative strategy and a depth and breadth of marketing experience to the agency's practice and management. As one of the industry's pioneers, she is a driving force behind NetPlus Marketing's ongoing success with a diverse and discerning client base that considers online results critical to their business success.
Robin is a frequent speaker at national industry events, including ClickZ, internet.com, OMMA, Ad:Tech, SES, Online Marketing Summit, and Thunder Lizard conferences and is a sought-after resource for industry and business publications for her insight and advice on such topics as digital strategy, social media marketing, and behavioral targeting.