There have been numerous questions about ambassadors or community champions over the last year, so I chased down the amazing @rebeccabraglio who has designed and implemented several successful programs. She has shared some great lessons learned, tips and best of all – templates!
Hawk: Can you give us a brief bio and history of your community career?
RB: I majored in psychology and practiced as a criminal defense attorney specializing in people with mental illness who were accused of major felony offenses. I did that for about 12 years, but I burned out early…but I resigned myself to the fact that this was the path I’d chosen and I’d probably never be able to switch careers.
Then I got a dog named Dash - who changed everything. He had some behavioral issues, and it inspired me to build a community for dog owners in my city. For the first time in years, I felt energized and my gut told me this could be my way out of the legal field. I read everything I could get my hands on about social media, community, grass-roots marketing, html, etc. About three years later, I stopped practicing law and began building a branded online community for Pet360, Inc.
After I got my feet wet at Pet360, I moved on to the Project Management Institute and was charged with integrating a global member community with a smaller American-based community. This was an incredible challenge as 1) the online communities had incredibly different cultures and 2) I only had a month to create a communication plan for over 500,000 members. It was also daunting to help manage a community where I was not a subject matter expert. During my time at PMI I created a community functionality recommendation list, a content calendar, recommended CHI metrics, and a skeleton outline for an ambassador program.
I’m now with Health-Union.com and will be launching two new health communities. I am currently reviewing our community communications/email marketing system, creating a new community/content engagement calendar, and reviewing the way we currently track engagement.
Hawk: What prompted you to first implement an ambassador program?
RB: I was first prompted to implement an ambassador program because I was facing technical barriers that made it difficult to participate in the community. In a start up, you can’t wait for IT to fix your problems - they already have too much on their plate. You have to figure out what you can do with what you have. In this case, I had some technically savvy members who weren’t dissuaded by the technical issues. So, I decided to get these members to help other members use the site. Not only were they able to give me a fresh perspective on the user experience, they were better able to communicate to new members how to work around the glitches.
I had also participated as a blogger ambassador for The Honest Kitchen, a pet food company, so I knew an ambassador program had a lot of potential. However, I had never created one from scratch. I did a ton of research and reviewed several different programs to see how they were set up (Evernote, Spotify, ).
Hawk: How do you determine the ROI of an ambassador program (both for the company and the community)?
RB: It depends on so many things – company goals, community goals….The ROI for the Pet360 program was entirely focused on the company – it came down to profits and community activity. At the time of program launch, I already had about a year’s worth of data for engagement (the standard vanity metrics, # posts, shares, etc.) We were on a Lithium community and had integrated Omniture (now Adobe), so I could get any kind of data I wanted because I tracked/tagged everything - from first community visit, to posting, to buying, to cart abandonment. We followed the entire user journey and always noted when marketing campaigns launched and/or site functionality changed.
Since I already had a dashboard, I just set higher goals for MOM increases in activity for once the program launched. I added in the metrics of time to first response and rate of resolution– if questions weren’t getting answered before the 24 hour mark then I knew that my ambassadors weren’t participating enough.
I also wanted to know if active (posting at least 1x a month) community members were more likely to buy from us. We were able to track this through Adobe.
Overall, the program was definitely a success. While I lost almost half of my ambassadors due to fatigue, the ones who soldiered on helped to increase activity by 35% across all metrics. The discussions were livelier, more authentic, and more UGC was created. It got to the point where we were using community member photos in our marketing campaigns.
Most surprising was that our lurkers were the most loyal community members AND most loyal customers. The lurkers who joined the community at the beginning were still regularly visiting 2 years later. The lurkers bought more than any other customer and/or community member. In fact, our most active users were the least likely to buy from us – not one of my ambassadors ever shopped with us. I theorized that our most active users were the type of pet owners who bought from pet boutiques and supported local business.
On a deeper note, the final ambassadors continue to stay in contact with one another (we are all friends on Facebook, too). To me, that’s the ultimate sign of success.
Hawk: How do you go about identifying and recruiting Ambassadors/Advocates/Champions?
RB: It depends on the culture of the community. One way is to gather as much data on activity as you can and create an application to the program. An application gives you the opportunity to ask pointed questions to determine interest level. Also, I think if a person takes the time to fill out an application it demonstrates potential commitment
However, I prefer to organically grow an ambassador program and see how it develops naturally. I look to the history and patterns of activity by the members, the quality of their profiles and posts or comments. Who are the members who are providing the most valuable content/activity on a consistent basis? Or on a consistent basis (such as every Winter and Fall, but not during Spring or Summer)?
Once I select a first list of members, I then see if there are any naturally occurring segments of these potential ambassadors based on the type of activity the member seems to prefer (how-to questions, debating topics, subject matter experts, sharing/cheerleader). I prefer to focus more on what the community needs rather than the organizational goals (such as profit). If I can get the community needs met, then I’ll look to see how I can tie what is currently being achieved to meeting company goals.
Hawk: Do you look at data or go with your gut?
RB: I think these days I’d be more likely to go with my gut. When I started I was almost entirely data focused. While I do want to see that they have a consistent rate of participation/visits, I wouldn’t draw any hard lines. In fact, the most active members in my first program were the ones who ended up falling off of the radar. One of the applicants was a member who had joined a month prior and only posted once – I took a chance on her and she ended up being one of the best participants.
I place a heavy emphasis on disposition and an overall willingness to help. I’m more likely to select someone who has a positive nature over the subject matter expert who gets testy. Discussions can get heated quite quickly, and I need to know that I have members who can moderate appropriate and champion for the company.
Hawk: Once you’ve identified potential candidates, what does the vetting/communication process look like?
RB: It depends on what type of selection process used and the goal is of your program. If it’s hand-picked, I usually send an email telling them that we are looking to create an ambassador program and was wondering if they might be interested/or would like to learn more. If so, I then set an informal telephone call. I’ll give them a general overview of why we are creating the program, how it will work, what we are hoping it will do, and then how it will benefit them as a member (WIIFM). I always end the conversation asking them to take a few days to think about it before letting me know. I don’t want them agreeing in the phone call – especially since it’s harder to say no than it is in email and I don’t want anyone agreeing because they are too afraid to say no.
If it’s an application process, communication would depend on how long it takes to vet applicants. I usually give a recommended member list to the team in an excel doc, with links to their profile, date of join, total # posts/comments, and then a note on the quality of their participation. I’ll also comment on whether I think a member has potential to turn on the company or go rogue, and whether they could be high-maintenance. I think it’s important to know this going in to be able to allocate the amount of time you’ll spend managing the members.
Finally, it’s helpful to have a cut-off to be able to answer questions regarding why/how someone gets picked. For example, requiring all applicants to have achieved a minimum ranking in the community to be considered for the program.
Hawk: What kinds of reward or incentive systems have you tried? What worked best?
RB: The best incentive, by far, was creating a personal relationship with and between the ambassadors. Giving them special access to team members (a direct line for questions). While they all appreciated the company gear, what really motivated them to continue was they became friends and began depending on one another. Every card was handwritten. Besides, I sent them plenty of stuff from the company – product samples, toys, t-shirt etc. There’s only so much swag you can send.
To create this type of relationship I did google hangouts with them and created a separate forum board for them. I gathered questions from other company departments and asked for their feedback (such as – which products should we sell this fall?). I asked for their help a lot – and really showed them how they were helping the community. I shared selected monthly metrics with them so they could actually see that the numbers were increasing – mostly due to their efforts. I also made sure to talk about non-community topics with them as a group and individually on the phone.
Hawk: How do you deal with people that don’t fulfil their prescribed duties or drop off the radar?
RB: First, expect it to happen. In the first program I created, I required way, way too much of my ambassadors the first time around. Some of them went above and beyond – but about half of them ended up dropping out or falling short.
This got awkward – especially because the other ambassadors didn’t know/understand why their colleague wasn’t holding up to their end of the bargain.
When I saw that I was losing an ambassador, I reached out via email – just regular conversation. I said nothing about their lack of activity. I usually waited to bring that up after they replied (although, more often than not, they would apologize in their reply for their absence and give me a reason why).
Every single one felt that they just couldn’t keep up with the requirements. Real life got in the way and they felt a bit pressured. Then they felt bad because they weren’t as active as they had agreed to be. I always offered them to take a break and see how they felt once things settled down. Only one took me up on this offer. The others just felt that they couldn’t follow through. Fortunately, I didn’t lose them as members but they did post much less frequently than before they had become ambassadors.
For the ones who fell completely off of the radar, if I couldn’t get any response from them I mentioned it to the core group and let it be. I did not remove them, but I stopped sending swag, etc. The program was only 6 months anyway, so it was easy to remove them.
Hawk: Are there any mistakes you can share, or things that you’d do differently?
RB: So, so many mistakes. So much I would have done differently:
Start small. As small as possible – until you get things rolling and have a process of how you are managing them. Gradually add more ambassadors and the more experienced ones can help with onboarding.
Whether you hand pick or use an application process, make sure you have an end date. In addition to setting rules for what are grounds for removal, I recommend having a hard end date (6 months, 1 year, etc.). That way if an ambassador starts turning rogue or falls off the radar, there is a natural end of their ambassadorship.
Lower your expectations. And then lower them a little more. If you can, have no expectations. See how it grows organically. When you see a trend in how members are naturally participating in an informal program, you can tailor a formal program around what you already see is working. I expected way too much my first time around – I wanted them logging in 3x a week and posting at least 2x. And, some of them did that – and did an amazing job. But almost half of them ended up dropping out because it was too much of a commitment.
Select twice as many as you think you need. This will help with attrition. People will drop out or vanish. Expect it and be prepared for it.
Remember – this is supposed to be fun for the ambassadors. While incentives like exclusive access, featured members, etc. are a given, I wanted them to really feel like a special part of the community. Each month I created an activity just for them to participate in with one another. For example, we did a Secret Santa exchange (company provided the gifts, but the ambassadors chose which gift their person would get). We did a “Traveling Scrapbook” similar to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants – except each ambassador would put in a picture of their pet and share a story. I reached out to a brand and asked if they would send samples of their dog treat baking mixes. The ambassadors were given the task to bake a treat, share the pics, and give feedback. The best pic won a free box of treats.
Use less email, use more telephones. I absolutely hate talking on the telephone. But I forced myself to and I truly believe it helped me get to know them better
Don’t go overboard. True story: one of our ambassadors was local and I asked her if she would be interested in grabbing lunch and visiting headquarters. She was thrilled – we had a really nice lunch…until the check came (which I picked up – of course). She became profoundly uncomfortable. I’m not sure what she had expected.
We then headed over to the office. I was so excited to introduce her to my CMO. When we walked into her office, I could see my ambassador actually physically stiffen I didn’t realize that while I perceived her as a peer, she perceived me/us as a corporation.
I then made matters worse when I presented her with a gift basket of toys/treats/etc. I had such a fun time creating it and was so excited to give it to her. But it just embarrassed her even more – she literally wanted to bolt. She commented that I had spent too much money (not knowing that we had a plethora of products at our disposal). Fortunately, it didn’t affect her participation, but I realized that I had gone too far.
Hawk: And finally, who do you think would win in a fight to the death between a mouse and a sparrow?
RB: Sparrow. 100%. Those little beaks pack a punch.
Templates and Resources
AmbassadorTimeline.docx (8.8 KB)
AmbassadorAgreeement.Sample.docx (148.8 KB)
AmbassadorWorkbook.xlsx (29.8 KB)
Separation Anxiety eBook
(The last file is an ebook that Rebecca put together to show member appreciation. She gathered stories from super users to create it. It’s a good example of how to show some member love.)