How Successful Brand Ambassador Programs Get Moving – Interview With the Pros

Successful brand ambassador programs take resources, commitment, and strong relationships with social media influencers

At a recent Digiday Agency Summit we sat down with Nick Kinports, Strategy Lead and partner at NOTICE, a creative agency recently recognized as a top social media phenomenon by Agency Spotter, to ask him about how influencers play into modern day marketing, and how brands can start and run successful programs. The following is a transcript of the interview.

Give us a quick sound bite about who you are and what you do.

Sure. I’m Nick Kinports, head of strategy at NOTICE. We’re a social content agency, and that means we work with influencers – or as we call them brand ambassadors – to create digital marketing campaigns and roll them out.

We work with some of the most respected brands in the world, typically in the fashion, luxury, and automotive spaces, though lately we have been expanding into software, education, and B2B as well. We recruit and manage everyone from household name celebrities to groups of smaller regional social media personalities.

What are influencers, or band ambassadors, and how do they work?

Influencers, or as we say brand ambassadors, are personalities with a large social following that brands tap into to build more engaging, authentic campaigns. Think of it as the new celebrity endorsement, but this time around it’s done through micro-celebrities that create trends and help brands capture the ephemeral cool factor.

Why are influencers the hottest topic marketers are talking about today?

At this point marketers are facing a growing number of problems. I’ll go over this quickly because I know most people listening are probably marketers and well aware. Nevertheless, we live in a time when more people Google things like how to become a fashion brand ambassador than how to become a doctor.

First, ad blockers are causing a huge issue with brands that relied on digital media to drive campaigns. It’s only getting worse so marketers need a way around it.

Second, consumers in every demographic are switching to smartphones for almost everything they do, and they are using a few apps instead of mobile websites. It’s another huge issue because you now have less screen real estate to get their attention and the infinite scroll dynamic from apps like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and others.

Third, use of social networks is being cut off for brands. They are all becoming pay to play so you can’t really own your audience anymore, or you get very little interest from customers, especially Gen Z and platforms like Snapchat.

And you think influencers, or brand ambassadors, are the solution?

There’s no silver bullet that’s for sure. A brand ambassador program isn’t necessarily what you should be doing instead of other types of marketing, but the biggest challenger brand successes of 2015 and 2016 used brand ambassadors as the core component of their campaigns and built everything else around that core.

These are people you know, but how does that relationship impact the business side of the equation – promoting products and services with those personal social media accounts?

It’s funny because so much is based on the relationship between brand and brand ambassador. I think a lot of companies have found it really difficult to go out and recruit brand ambassadors from scratch.

Usually what they get is the typical influencer response, “I’ll do an Instagram post for $10,000.” Most influencers now have rate cards, which is hilarious and ridiculous, but also a sign of the times. Too many brands are cold calling influencers and expecting them to swoon at the opportunity. We’re way past that in 2017.

So you think influencers shouldn’t charge for posting brand content?

I didn’t say that, it’s more about the leverage that brand has. The influencer knows for certain that the brand is only one opportunity, and that many more are knocking on the door every day.

If she’s smarter about her business, she is also calling on brands that she aspires to work with. Those brands get a deal, because the influencer has a reason to want to be in the relationship.

Does that mean brands that aren’t sexy or well known will just be left out?

Not at all and that’s why we call influencers ‘brand ambassadors’ at NOTICE. A couple of dynamics are at play. Firstly, when we call up a personality she knows who we are, and she knows if she does a great job – not just good but great – we’ll be calling her back again soon. And because we work with many brands, that means she’s always got a pipeline of very high quality opportunities that she doesn’t have to manage.

Secondly, we know her really well. That means we know what kinds of brands fit her personality, passions, and lifestyle. So now you’ve got this combination at play. The last ingredient is creating what we call ‘Guest Creative Director’ spots at our office. Now she’s also sitting down as one of the team to work on campaign planning. She’s fully invested, knows the team, and is a part of a bigger story.

How does a brand that wants to operate a brand ambassador program get started?

I think it’s really important to understand that the curation and management of relationships is a people business. There area  lot of influencer search engines popping up now, and those are promising some kind of shortcut for brands to tap into this amazing new channel.

The problem is every influencer in those listings is in it to churn and burn as many brands as possible. So you’re paying a premium to find them this way, and then again because they are charging you more since you are working through a sterile software platform. So the first thing I recommend when starting a brand ambassador program is to designate someone in your company who has the full time responsibility of meeting and forming relationships with social media influencers.

That seems inauthentic. You are saying you have someone in your company getting paid to make friends?

OK, I think that’s one way to look at it. Another way is you are paying for a skilled employee’s time. That person is a skilled communicator, both written and verbal, and is super savvy about social media platforms. Using Snapchat, Pinterest, Instagram, and others like House Party all the time.

Now your team member is traveling to conferences, hosting key events, and generally being a part of the influencer scene, using those skills to identify, meet, and learn about prospective influencers. The relationship has to start somewhere, and ultimately that’s a great way to do it.

I guess my point is if you are heading up a department or an entire company, you need to understand that even though this can be one of the most successful types of marketing and may actually be the most future-proof way to get your brand out there, it takes a lot of time and energy, and needs a dedicated team to address that reality. The authenticity of the content stems from the quality of the relationship with the brand and the match in personality and passion.

Can you share an example of what that looks like?

Sure. Lululemon is a great example because it’s a challenger brand that totally crushed much bigger, more established competitors with huge marketing budgets. And its worth noting lulu did it in just a few years. Part of the original assignment evolved from this insight that the best customers were avid yoga practitioners, and what I mean by that is these men and women lived yoga.

They traveled to exotic locations to learn from masters, they taught classes in their home towns, they engaged with others in their community, and they had websites and social media platforms covering that lifestyle. Essentially, their brand equity was borrowed methodically and brought into lululemon’s which at the time was relatively unknown outside of certain areas. So first it’s about knowing what your customers are up to, and then finding matches between those activities and your brand.

So the lululemon program started small and grew from there?

Yes and I think you have a piece of content I read that talks about lululemon in more detail. The basics were that we needed to onboard about 40 of the best yoga and fitness brand ambassadors in certain markets during the first year of the program. That meant a lot of face time, product education, and back and forth to get us there.

Negotiations, legal, and all the other details are all wrapped up in that process. We basically operate like a talent agency that you hire when you want your brand to be cool, known, and aspired to. But we also do the creative, strategy, and media that helps the integrated campaign work. This actually kicked off our entire practice area for brand ambassador programs because of what we learned and the unique relationships we started.

Any tips or advice for marketers that want to start a successful brand ambassador program?

Sure, and I apologize in advance for a little pitch but it’s absolutely true and I believe in it. Marketers should start with a partner agency that knows the space, pitfalls, and opportunities.

The actual cost you’ll pay when starting from scratch in time, resources, and payments to influencers is way more than just working with an agency to spin things up. Typically we can get a program running in a month or less, and we are able to bring brand ambassadors to the table that are genuinely excited about working with our clients.

We also educate the client on how to continue to extract value from their program, often times replacing redundant or unneeded expenses like the constant pressure brands feel to build engaging creative in social media. Check out our website for more examples.

That said, starting a program with only internal players can absolutely be done, but marketers should have support and resources from their team.

Don’t expect one person to run the entire brand ambassador program, and please don’t go into a program with an unquantified or zero dollar budget. It’s going to be a team effort from day 1 and it will be painful at times. The payoff comes as the program begins to weave into the fabric of the brand, which can take time depending on who you are and what you offer to customers.

Every platform roadmap we have looked at from Facebook to Snapchat tells us this may be the next staple part of modern brands, so I’m excited to be helping get us there as an industry.