Our Founder, CEO, and Community Powered Marketing pioneer Susan Frech shared how to build lasting bonds that create authentic brand advocacy in a recent article for Forbes. The following article was originally published here. 

Every brand has its best customers. The definition of ride-or-die buyers could look a little different depending on the organization. Most commonly it is the people who spend the most money or who are the most consistently loyal, but it should also be the people who share the brand with all their friends. Identifying your VIP brand ambassadors and interacting with them in an intentional way is an essential ingredient in not only new customer acquisition but also customer retention, which is the big objective right now.

A revitalized focus on your brand ambassadors in 2021 could be the key factor that maintains your wallet share and drives innovation, even in an unpredictable economy.

Here are three ways I’ve found to create a successful, sustainable and profitable brand ambassador marketing strategy.

1. Rally ambassadors in a dedicated engagement channel.

2020 required a paradigm shift in how brands approach building consumer relationships. Digital channels are no longer just communication channels, but rather connection channels. Consumers are seeking a sense of belonging. You are in a unique position to offer a nexus for like-minded people to connect, exchange ideas and interact on topics that are important to them.

Brand ambassador outreach is a familiar concept for most, but identifying them is often half the battle. Many ambassador efforts have been relegated to social media channels, where marketers play a game of hide-and-seek. They try to organize engagement efforts but are often stuck with manual and disjointed processes that ultimately are gated by third-party social media sites.

Sometimes brand ambassadors are parked inside traditional loyalty and rewards programs. Unfortunately, transactional programs often limit your ability to create a genuine connection, a critical component in fostering relationships with ambassadors. Corralling your ambassadors inside your loyalty program is not only a missed opportunity, but it could also eventually lead to them translating your brand’s value based solely on the incentives you offer.

Building an owned engagement channel — whether through an online community, support forum or rich content hub — can benefit you not only by solidifying emotional bonds with ambassadors, but also streamlining the grouping of them into a central place that’s not a behind-the-scenes database or an Excel spreadsheet but an online home alive with conversation.

When Microsoft had the goal of rewarding passionate Xbox gamers, it created an inclusive, community-led, positive ecosystem with its highly successful Xbox Ambassadors program. Today, the community services millions of gamers and saves the brand innumerably in support costs, and it fosters a sense of connection and emotional belonging to its users. Ambassadors are engaged with challenges and missions, surveys, new feature rollouts, and the opportunity to chat with like-minded gamers.

2. Ambassador engagement must be personalized for the consumer but scalable for the brand.

Marketers know personalization is important to consumers. For emotionally engaged consumers like brand ambassadors, it’s even more relevant. For example, to help differentiate itself from competitors, bourbon brand Maker’s Mark launched its Maker’s Mark Ambassador program, which rewards ambassadors through merch, exclusive invites, and tips and tricks around bourbon. But perhaps one of the best draws of the program is that all new ambassadors have a barrel named after them. Ambassadors are regularly updated on its maturation progress, and after seven years of Maker’s Mark ambassadorship, they can taste their own whiskey and buy a bottle of it. This type of long-term and personalized engagement makes the consumer feel special and invested, driving lasting emotional loyalty.

According to research, “Consumers with high emotional engagement have significantly higher expectations of the brands toward which they feel loyalty … 80% of consumers with high emotional engagement said they expect the brand to know their individual preferences on a personal level.” That’s compared to just over 20% for the less engaged.

Brand ambassadors often know that they are VIPs and expect to be treated as such. This can be a challenging feat for marketers in terms of scalability. Ambassadors can’t be lumped together and offered the same benefits. It is important to have a channel with a well-oiled machine of data collection, segmentation and relevant digital experiences.

My best advice for brands would be to collect firsthand data — such as motivations, preferences, beliefs and lifestyle behaviors — on your brand ambassadors. Based on this information, you can be proactive in offering brand experiences aligned with an ambassador’s emotions rather than demographics. Making this effort scalable also allows you to grow your base of ambassadors easily without the stress of spreadsheets and manual tracking.

3. Use brand ambassadors to derive actionable insights and attract new consumers. 

Unpredictability is likely to be a repeated theme for 2021. You can’t wait for time-consuming and expensive research panels to help navigate decisions. Having easy, quick access to engaged consumers with a vested interest offers a key market advantage. Brand ambassadors are great guinea pigs. They provide you with valuable feedback and are heavily invested, both emotionally and financially.

Your brand ambassador community can serve as an easy access point to deliver surveys, host online focus groups, cultivate member discussions, deliver quick polls, and much more. Ambassadors also like to feel like they are contributing to the brand’s success. Seeing their feedback be put into action and highlighting their contribution is an excellent way to make them feel valued and special without having to offer discounts or promo codes. Brand ambassador groups are also often rife with early adopters who are socially connected and primed to share about your brand. Nurturing them with exclusive experiences and prompting them to share will amplify their collective sharing power, driving awareness and new customer acquisition.