Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Social Media-Based Brand Ambassadors - Part 4

The Costs and Risks of Social Media Brand Ambassador Programs

[This post is part 4 in a series of posts related to Social Media-Based Brand Ambassadors.  This post focuses on the costs and risks associated with a brand ambassador program.]

Before an organization chooses to empower and unleash social media-enabled employee brand ambassadors to represent its brand and influence consumers, the organization should carefully consider the costs and risks associated with a social media-enabled brand ambassador program – or any social media effort.  

While social media accounts are generally free and can be created in less than 10 minutes, these accounts are of little use without the human capital (e.g., brand ambassadors) needed to add value to the organization’s social media efforts.  As such, every organization considering the use of social media-enabled brand ambassadors should conduct a risk assessment that will help to identify potential pitfalls which will ultimately protect the organization and ensure the success of the social media-based brand ambassador program.  The organization should use the results of the risk assessment in determining the appropriate strategy.

Bloomberg Businessweek writers Michelle Conlin and Douglas MacMillan address social media risks in their blog post, “Web 2.0: Managing Corporate Reputations.”  According to Conlin and MacMillan, “Social networking is a love-hate relationship.  On the one hand managers want their workers to experiment so they can cultivate new-world skills.  Employees as brand ambassadors!  Products virally transformed into overnight hits!  On the other hand, bosses are filled with foreboding about social networking’s dark side – losing secrets to rivals, the corporate embarrassment of errant employee tweets, becoming the latest victim of a venomous crowd.”

Regardless of the puffery taking place regarding the low- or no-cost features of social media implementations, organizations must not be fooled.  Social media properly implemented costs money.  As such, organizations must determine the social media strategy that best fits the organization’s risk appetite and budget.  In an effort to assist with this analysis the following section discusses the various risks and costs associated with social media implementations – including a social media-based brand ambassador program.

Commitment:  According to consultant Tony de Bree (www.TonydeBreeAdvies.nl), organizations have done a horrible job of taking care of their employees and customers.  “Clients nor employees believe those companies anymore. We are far from ‘how to turn your ex-employees into ambassadeors/promotors.’” 

Julie Arnsdorf, President of J. Arnsdorf & Company (jarnsdorf.blogspot.com), agrees with de Bree.  “It's similar to the proverbial tag of we have ‘quality products’ or ‘competitive rates’…it's just talk.  I've seen many marketing departments or ad agencies develop brilliant tag lines for an organization, but the organization never implements the tag line's sentiment throughout their business or bank.  It's simply a hollow statement.”

De Bree’s and Arnsdorf’s comments are not uncommon.  Over the course of the past several decades, organizations have lost credibility with their workers as a result of actions that have eliminated jobs and cut wages.  Most recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement brought to light society’s discontent with the widening gap between the have and have-nots.

As a result of the natural skepticism of employees and customers, organizations seeking to implement a brand ambassador program must be committed to making the long-term investment necessary to win over both employees and customers.  Lip service is no longer adequate and will surely result in failure.

Expenses:  Many publications, consultants, Web sites and other sources refer to social media as a “no cost” or “low cost” undertaking.  This advice has the effect of misleading many organizations into believing that the implementation and maintenance of a social media strategy, including a social media-based brand ambassador program, is a largely inexpensive undertaking.

In a interview with SmartBlog blogger Sam Taute (“A LookAt Social Media Costs And Returns With Erik Qualman”), Socialnomics author Erik Qualman stated regarding social media implementations that “Over 50 percent of businesses found it was more work than they expected.  The most overlooked cost for big and small businesses is the soft-cost in terms of the hours employees must commit to engage properly in the space.”

Blogger Mark W. Schaefer presents a compelling, though potentially discouraging, argument for employee social media ambassadors.  In his post “The Hidden Costs of Social Media Conversation” Schaefer states about social media-enabled employee brand ambassadors, “Certainly this interaction can humanize a brand.  But at the end of the day, is paying your employees to be a psychotherapist to a lonely widow in Pittsburgh going to sell hamburgers?  Is that the company’s core business?  And when does it end?  Do you keep adding people to have infinite conversations?”  Schafer’s comments were in reference to an interview by McDonald’s Social Media Director Rick Wion regarding McDonald’s goal of initiating social media conversations.

Providing a less severe analysis is Brand Infection blogger Nader Cserny who states that “Social Media is affordable and you don’t need large marketing budgets.  The only main cost is time while developing relationships.”  While Nader’s conclusion is largely true, as stated by Schaefer, organizations must invest time and money to develop the depth and range of online relationships that meet the organization’s expectations.

Heidi Cohen provides on her blog (“How To Calculate Social Media Costs”) 10 types of social media marketing expenses that every organization should take into consideration when developing a social media strategy.  Heidi’s list is not specific to brand ambassadors.  It is a list that addresses the costs necessary to develop an environment in which brand ambassadors can operate.

    1. Brand Monitoring:  This expense relates to the act of “listening” to conversations on the Internet.  Costs can range from the software used to “listen” to the employee time spent “listening” to the time spent analyzing the conversations to the time spent producing reports.  As previously stated, brand monitoring is a key activity for all organizations.  Regardless of the organization’s decision to enter into social media, every organization at a minimum should actively listen to comments made on the Internet in an effort to better serve customers and take proactive measures, if applicable.  As such, all organizations should realistically budget for this item.

     2. People:  A social media-enabled brand ambassador program requires people.  In small and mid-sized organizations most brand ambassadors will maintain other positions within the firm and will act as brand ambassadors as time and opportunity permits.  In large organizations, brand ambassadors may be dedicated social media-enabled brand ambassadors whose responsibility is to comb the social media universe for branding/influencing opportunities.  Regardless of the format used, people cost money.  As such, to the extent that brand ambassadors conduct their influencing while on the clock, the organization incurs a cost.

      3. Content:  Content is King!  According to the HR Management Guide blog (“SocialMedia Costs”), “The social media are about the interaction.  The dedicated employee has to find appealing information and has to publish information on a regular basis.”  The content used by brand ambassadors to engage with customers and potential customers must be created either internally or externally.  The nature, complexity and source of the content will determine the expense.

    4. Social Media Platforms:  As previously noted, most social media platforms are free to use.  However, there may be costs associated with their use such as the development of platform specific pages/screens (e.g., Facebook landing pages) that require resources to create.  Organizations must be aware of such costs as part of the planning stage of a social media strategy.

      5. Support Media:  The social media strategy will determine the extent to which support media will be necessary.  For example, organizations may create mailings, newspaper advertisements and other activities to drive traffic to the social media platform.

   6. Marketing:  Activities needed to convert social media prospects to buyers.  This includes the marketing campaigns that run on the social media platforms such as custom “apps.”

    7. Agencies:  Certain organizations may choose to outsource some or all of the social media activities.  These costs must be taken into consideration as part of the overall social media strategy.  Agencies costs may include consulting fees, social media outsourcing costs, and other associated expenses.

     8. Technology:  To the extent that technology support is needed to launch and maintain a social media-based brand ambassador program, these costs must be taken into consideration.  Such costs may include providing employees with social media enabled smart phones, upgrade of computers, and any other technology that may be needed.

     9. Analytics:  Every organization with a social media program should have in place a program to analyze the overall effectiveness of the organization’s social media strategy, including brand ambassadors.  The analytics provide the organization with the social media program’s return on investment.

   10. Complexity:  Organizations can spend very little on their social media efforts.  Likewise, organizations with large budgets can spend millions of dollars creating elaborate and complex social media strategies.  With social media there is something for every budget.  This amount must be taken into consideration as part of the planning process.

Code of Conduct:  Brand ambassador success requires that employees commit to the organization’s code of conduct (e.g., respectful tone, free of profanity, etc.) whenever they interact on a social media platform.  Brand ambassadors must understand that their personal social media activity may be interpreted as organization-sanctioned activity.  Therefore, whether on or off the clock, employees must be aware of the effect that their interactions on social media platforms may have on the organization.

A major challenge in developing a strong Brand Ambassador Program is that employees continue to become less loyal.  Back in 2004 Ronald J.Alsop had the following to say about the state of employee relations: “Employees are more cynical and less trusting because of all the recent cases of accounting abuse and executive greed.  What’s more, job insecurity, poor morale, and excessive workloads have eroded employees’ commitment to companies.”  In the post-Occupy Wall Street era it is very likely that these same issues continue to concern workers in 2012.

Blogger Linda Tucci describes in the TotalCIO blog at TechTarget.com (“SocialMedia Risks That Will Make Your Hair Stand on End”) an instance involving an executive at a public relations firm.  The seasoned public relations executive was flying to meet with a major client.  Upon arriving at the client’s hometown, the public relations executive tweeted that the client’s hometown was one of those places where he would rather die than have to live in.  An employee of the client’s firm read the tweet and passed it on to senior officials at the client and the public relations firm.  To say that the public relations executive had some explaining to do is an understatement.  The embarrassment caused to the public relations firm by its executive was further exacerbated by the fact that the public relations executive was meeting with the client to pitch, of all things, social media communications! 

The public relations executive story noted above is an example of a major concern with social media-enabled brand ambassadors.  For this reason it is crucial that organizations provide necessary guidance and training to brand ambassadors.  Ignoring this call to action may result in similarly embarrassing situations that may damage reputation and the bottom line.

Customer Service:  Rajib Kumar, blogger on Techncom.com, states that “When a consumer posts an issue online, he expects instant response which should be done promptly.  If the response drags, then it has a negative effect on the brand.  Don’t give the consumer time to start bad-mouthing.”

While a 24X7 response is not required for all social media programs, customers now expect to reach organizations via their social media platform of choice.  Further, customers expect prompt responses during business hours.  Their inability to resolve issues in that manner will go a long way in pushing them to organizations that do provide the expected service.

To the extent that the organization provides customer service through a call center, it is in the organizations best interest to equip the service center with the training and tools needed to provide the expected level of service.

Inconsistent Messaging:  Rajib Kumar emphasizes the importance of providing consistent messaging by stating that “If a query has been posted on different social platform, the response should be the same and consistent throughout so as not to confuse the customers.”  As such, “The staff managing the social media platforms needs to be organized and have a common vision and goal so that they do not speak in different voices on different platforms.”

Scale:  The HR Management Guide blog suggests that organizations should seek as large of a social media presence as possible to maximize use and investment in social media.  “The social media need a strong and constant presence.  The small presence means no influence, and it does not bring any benefits.  The organization has to build a strong and focused presence to be successful.”

Before developing a program to unleash the organization’s employees as brand ambassadors, the organization must ensure that it truly understands the costs and risks involved and is committed to the undertaking.  Without such a commitment the organization will ultimately fail in its attempt to leverage the advantages of social media.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Social Media-Based Brand Ambassadors - Part 3


[This post is part 3 in a series of posts related to Social Media-Based Brand Ambassadors.  This post focuses on the benefits associated with a brand ambassador program.]

According to Tom Blackett in Brands and Branding (Bloomberg Press, 2009), “When employees are excited by the proposition they will help to sustain it and communicate it to customers, suppliers and others through their enthusiasm and commitment.” 

Forrester Research, Inc.’s Cindy Commander states in the 2007 Report Brief: Transforming Employees Into Brand Advocates that “Employees who actively ‘live the brand’ create significant benefits for both the customer and the organization.  Customers of organizations with employee brand advocates enjoy better customer service, greater anticipation of and ability to have their needs met, and more attentiveness to their voice and feedback.  The organization enjoys the benefits of word-of-mouth marketing, greater profitability and financial results, and a more differentiated brand.”  Social media-enabled brand ambassadors provide benefits to the organization as a result of their efforts to humanize the organization.

Ability to Humanize the Organization:  AdWeek Magazine blogger Noreen O’Leary emphasizes (“Employee Benefits: Workers as BrandAmbassadors”) that “The use of workers to humanize corporate entities has been a time-honored marketing tradition, of course.  But in an era of Web 2.0 transparency, their visibility takes on greater meaning, signaling the higher importance of customer service in the marketing mix.  More subliminally, as America’s battered consumers have lost faith in the institutions they hold responsible for the current economic mess – and are angry with corporations behind massive layoffs – staffers offer a kind of peer credibility as corporate advocates.”

Social media-enabled employee brand ambassadors can play a major role in changing the public’s perception of the organization.  Brand ambassadors have the ability to transform cold and impersonal organizations into warm and friendly customer-friendly companies.  Instead of dealing with an abstract concept, logo, or the image of an ivory tower, social media-enabled employee brand ambassadors are able to transform transactions into human relations.  Social media platforms provide the “social” vehicle to connect with customers at a personal level – something that is not possible through static Web pages and advertising.

Organizations transform themselves by responding to social media inquiries as well as seeking out and creating “conversations” on social media platforms.  These interactions are perceived positively if the communication is determined to be honest, genuine, and transparent.  Through these activities brand ambassadors have the ability to transform customer interactions into rewarding personal experiences.

Brand Awareness:  Social media-enabled employee brand ambassadors can be very effective at creating brand awareness.  While the reach of a brand ambassador is generally not the same as a mass market advertisement, the quality of the social media interaction can produce a valuable word-of-mouth affect – the “viral” affect – that can create significant awareness and interest in the brand.

A sound Social Media-Based Employee Brand Ambassador Program turns employees into influencers.  As long as the brand ambassadors act in an honest and transparent manner and consistent with expectations, they can create a favorable impression of the brand.

Meet Customer Expectations:  Social media platforms act as convenient and easily accessible forums where customers and potential customers can reach out to organizations through their brand ambassadors.  Customers are able to use social media platforms to pose questions, make statements or generally express their feelings about the brand on their time and on their platform of choice (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, LinkedIn, etc.).

The use of social media-enabled employee brand ambassadors allows organizations to meet these customer expectations.  According to Top DogSocial Media blogger Melonie Dodaro, “More than one quarter of all the time people spend online is spent on social networks.  Regardless of what their needs happen to be, they are turning to sites like Twitter and Facebook in order to find what they are looking for.”

The result of widespread use of social media is the recently developed customer expectation that organizations should also reside on the social networks used by customers.  Social media-enabled brand ambassadors that monitor social media platforms allow organizations to not only react to demand but to also proactively create a social media presence.

Techncom.com blogger Rajib Kumar states that “Customers want immediate acknowledgement and resolution and are not willing to wait endlessly listening to call Centre hold tunes.  Consumers want instant gratification even in customer service.  Smart and savvy businesses have started using the social media space to get closer to their customers and increase their service levels up a notch vis-à-vis the competition.”

Brand Differentiation:  In today’s globally competitive marketplace it is not enough to be just as good as the next guy.  In today’s business environment it is important to be different.  Anyone can make a plain vanilla product.  And vanilla generally tastes the same regardless of the maker.  As such, unless the organization seeks to enter a price war over vanilla, the organization is better suited finding a way to differentiate its products or services.

Brand ambassadors provide the organization with a method of setting itself apart from the competition.  Relative to competitors that do not employ brand ambassadors the organization is able to set itself apart.  This differentiation not only assists the organization in avoiding vanilla product pricing but may also provide for the opportunity to create loyalty and charge premium prices.

Early Warning System:  Social media monitoring involves the use of applications such as Google Alerts, SocialMention.com and radian6 to locate comments that reside on social media platforms.  Identification of comments enables the organization to provide a timely response that is likely to be appreciated by the commenter.

According to Techncom’s Kumar, social media monitoring provides organizations with an early warning system.  Customers will generally give organizations an opportunity to “right the wrong” before unleashing their fury on social media platforms.  As such, organizations that utilize social media-enabled employee brand ambassadors to “listen” to social media conversations are able to proactively identify and address problems before they manifest into major public relations disasters. 

Top Dog SocialMedia blogger Dodaro says that “Using social media the right way means you’ll also have the ability to listen to your audience, find out what their needs are and offer them a solution.”  An additional benefit is derived from customers that share the positive experience via social media, turning themselves into a customer brand ambassadors.

Development of a Knowledgebase:  The use of social media to locate and answer organization-specific questions benefits not only the party asking the question but also others that may have similar questions.  It is not uncommon for customers and prospective customers to search the Internet for answers to product and/or service-related questions.  To the extent that the response to a question is addressed on a social media platform it is subject to search engine indexing that makes the response retrievable by others.  The availability of this information is likely to be viewed favorably by customers and prospective customers.

Techncom’s Kumar says about creating a public knowledgebase, “It can become a great resource for future reference and a guide point for other customers who will refer to the link or post.”  But the knowledgebase need not only include responses to questions.  It can also include proactive information provided through blog posts, tweets and other information.

Improved Financial Results:  It is no surprise that an increase in brand awareness results in improved financial results.  However, a Social Media-Based Employee Brand Ambassador Program will not in of itself create blockbuster financial success.  It will contribute to the bottom line along with the organization’s other revenue generating activities.  Regardless, its effect should not be minimized as it has the potential to become a significant contributor to the organization.

Dow Jones Media Lab blogger Diane Thieke (“Employeesas Brand Ambassadors: Enthusiasm is Infectious”) states, “Today, I don’t think there’s much question about whether there’s a benefit to having employees engaged as brand ambassadors in social media.”  Instead, Thieke believes that that key question is how to effectively manage a Brand Ambassador Program.

To the extent that an organization can establish a sound Social Media-Enabled Brand Ambassador Program and use it to motivate its employees, the organization can become incredibly effective at influencing stakeholders.  The consensus among the experts suggests that the maintenance of a cadre of brand ambassadors results in stronger branding, improved customer satisfaction, increased revenue and stronger overall financial results.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Social Media-Based Brand Ambassadors - Part 2


[This post is part 2 in a series of posts related to Social Media-Based Brand Ambassadors.  This post focuses on the concept of using employees as social media-enabled brand ambassadors.]

Brand ambassadors are what current and potential customers see when they interact with an organization.  Brand ambassadors provide customers and others with a real person with whom to interact when dealing with an organization.  Instead of visualizing an organization as an abstract concept, a logo, or the image of an ivory tower, the brand ambassador humanizes the exchange or transaction.  A social media-based employee brand ambassador program allows organizations to personalize the growing number of Web-based transactions into brand-enhancing experiences, resulting in improved reputation, increased sales, and other positive effects that strengthen the organization’s brand and provide benefits to customers, employees, shareholders and other stakeholders.

Ronald J. Alsop notes in The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation that “Employees’ behavior and comments outside business hours can carry significant weight.  In many cases, people’s only experience with a company is through its workers.  Word-of-mouth impressions gleaned from employees can be quite positive if they’re fiercely loyal to their companies – or deadly if they’re miserable in their jobs.” 

Prior to the social media explosion brand ambassadors conducted their influencing activities during face-to-face social and business functions such as community fairs, chamber of commerce gatherings, Rotary meetings and other activities.  An example of a successful “old school” brand ambassador program is the Oscar Mayer “Hotdogger” brand ambassador that has since 1936 travelled around the country in hot dog-shaped Wienermobiles.

While the Hotdogger brand ambassador served a purpose yesterday, and still today, social media has enabled brand ambassadors to use tools such as social networks, blogs, and other forms of social media to supplement traditional influencing activities.  It is important to clarify, however, that a social media-based employee brand ambassador program does not replace but only enhances traditional brand ambassador activities.  Social media merely provides brand ambassadors with an additional venue on which to conduct influencing activities.  Today’s Web 2.0 environment requires that brand ambassador programs include both traditional and social media components. 

Referring to today’s brand ambassadors, Inc. Magazine’s Markowitz says “They can be tweeters, bloggers, Facebookers – or they could just be the people you send to corporate events.  More than your firm’s logo or an actor in your company’s commercial, your customers will come to know your ambassadors as true representatives for your business’s mission.”

According to Smarp blogger Roope Heinila (“Employees As Brand Ambassadors In Social Media”) “Social media has changed the impact that company employees can have on their employers brand image.  While in the past only marketers, sales people and customer service have had controls over the brand image it has now become the responsibility of every employee with a presence in social media (at least to some extent).”  Heinila further cites a study that claims that “61% of employees are proud of their employer and would be willing to share this information with others over social media.” 

Evan Maier concurs on the Marketing Blog: FootPrints blog: “The key to successfully leveraging social media to boost a brand isn’t about targeted planning, million-dollar strategies, or figuring out some secret insiders’ trick; it’s about whoever has the loudest voice.  In traditional media, that means ad buys.  In social media, that means brand ambassadors regularly engaging your audience.”

So, do social media-enabled employee brand ambassadors differ from traditional brand ambassadors?  The answer is “yes” and “no.”  As noted above, social media is merely another venue for brand ambassadors to conduct their influencing activities.  What this means is that brand ambassadors now use social media as an additional venue to conduct their influencing activities which includes strategy implementation, community development, and reputation monitoring.

·       Strategy Implementation:  Every organization should maintain a plan, whether formal or informal, that identifies management’s strategy for introducing and/or broadening the organization’s brand within its target market.  In other words, brand awareness.  In the big picture this may include activities such as advertising, event sponsorships, in-store announcements, etc.  Social media-enabled employee brand ambassadors are responsible for converting the overall strategy into action through the use of social media platforms.  Such implementation may include the creation of a blog.  Other examples include the establishment of accounts on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.  It is the social media-enabled employee brand ambassador’s responsibility to implement actions that are consistent with the organization’s overall brand strategy.

·       Community Development:  Organizations that understand how to use social media in a business setting know that its best use is in the development of “communities.”  Wikipedia defines “community” as “A group of interacting people, living in some proximity (i.e., in space, time, or relationship).  Community usually refers to a social unit larger than a household that shares common values and has social cohesion.”

In the case of social media-enabled employee brand ambassadors, creating a community means creating a group of formally or informally connected individuals that have an interest in an organization’s products or services.  Such a community includes the collection of people that “friend” the organization’s Facebook page or that “follow” it on Twitter.  It can also include those that register to receive news feeds from its blog or any other activity that keeps people “in the know” relative to the organization.  It is the social media-enabled brand ambassador’s responsibility to engage these communities in activities that put a human face on the organization, thereby enhancing its brand value.

·         Social Media Monitoring/Listening:  One of the most important lessons of social media that every business must heed is to develop a social media monitoring or listening program.  Due to the ubiquity of social media use, customers and non-customers may be making reference to the organization in one form or another.  Without a social media monitoring program the organization is unaware of such activity.

Establishing a monitoring program can be as easy and inexpensive as utilizing Google Alerts or SocialMention.com.  Both of these applications provide the ability to establish reports based upon key terms, such as the organization’s name, found on Web pages, blogs, social networks and other social media platforms.  Larger and more complex organizations may opt for more robust and pricey options such as radian6 (www.radian6.com).

If good things are being said, it is always a good idea to have the brand ambassador recognize the compliment to demonstrate that the organization is listening and cares.  If the information posted is less than stellar, the brand ambassador must inquire about the negative experience in an effort to correct the problem.  At a minimum, even if there is no ability to repair the situation, the brand ambassador can offer an apology or at a minimum, acknowledge the situation.

In all instances, social media monitoring provides brand ambassadors with the ability to report the details to the appropriate individual or department within the organization in order for the organization to become aware of what works and what doesn’t work.  The organization should consider all such instances as learning opportunities and a way to improve customer relations.

In the post-Occupy Wall Street era, consumers are skeptical of everyone.  This is especially true of large organizations and financial services providers.  Through honest, transparent, and consistent attention to the communities and their needs, social media-enabled employee brand ambassadors provide organizations with an effective tool to enhance value and/or repair reputational damage.  They also act as proof positive for customers and potential customers seeking evidence of the organization’s brand promise.