Your Potential Brand Advocates

We live in an amazing time – access to information and people is unprecedented thanks to the Internet. This is amplified by social media, which allows us to connect with virtually anyone across the globe. For companies, this access to customers has allowed them to build massive communities of potential brand advocates.

Notice I said potential brand advocates.

There is a growing misconception that because someone follows you on Twitter or Likes you on Facebook that they are an instant advocate of your brand. This thinking is reinforced by executives who request and promote metrics like followers, Likes, or the size of a cumulative social network.

Community Through Crisis

Unfortunately, one of the most common ways to learn if you have a true community of brand advocates is through a crisis. Either you’ll get raked over the social media coals like Labatt experienced post reaction to Luka Magnotta holding their beer in a photo posted by the Montreal Gazette. Or your community will rally to your cause and defend you – which I have experienced a couple of times in my career.

When I led the Canadian Football League’s entry into social media in early 2009, we had a passionate fan base and a limited budget. I was able to get my hands dirty while enjoying a front row seat to the growth of an outstanding community that continues to thrive as ambassadors for the CFL today.

Hashtag Hijack

We used the hashtag #CFL on all of our posts. At the time, the Tea Party was on the rise and one passionate Tea Party supporter also used the hashtag #CFL along with several other hashtags to Tweet out tons of articles promoting the cause – and SPAM the feed. We discovered that #CFL, in his case, stood for ‘Campaign for Liberty’. Our fans became sick of their #CFL feed getting flooded by non-football content and they fought back. Over a few weeks – with a little nudge from the CFL social media team – we were able to get him to abandon his use of the #CFL hashtag and our fans had reclaimed their football feed.

At the time, I was regularly shuttling between CFL cities, which allowed me to gain valuable face time with many members of our community over breakfast or at the stadium during tailgate parties. Each November, we brought our passionate ambassadors together at the annual Grey Cup TweetUp. This offline interaction gave us a huge advantage when it came to community building.

The banking world didn’t present the same opportunity for face-to-face interaction – especially at Canada’s leading direct bank where we pride ourselves on enabling people to take control of their own financial situation.

When I made the jump to banking in early 2012, I recognized that the principles I had used to build a community at the CFL were similar to how I would need to go about building relationships for an ING DIRECT focused community. The biggest difference was that at ING DIRECT we were armed with a strong budget for online activities, but hampered by distance.

To overcome this challenge, we created the Orange Scarf Ambassador Program. The Orange Scarf is reserved for people who engage with ING DIRECT or our Clients in a social way. Only 365 scarves are produced each year. Potential ambassadors can earn this scarf by helping another Client on social media, sharing their savings story, writing a helpful blog post for our online community or by generally acting as a great ambassador for our brand. We don’t look at follower numbers or Klout scores when selecting Orange Scarf Ambassadors. We seek individuals who are true advocates of our brand and who will amplify our message in an honest and authentic way.

Professional Influencers

Too much emphasis is placed on follower numbers, hence the rise of the ‘professional influencer’ in recent years. This is the person who represents several brands and supposedly acts in an authentic manner. But there is nothing authentic about this scenario. These professional influencers are still valued by brands and agencies, but the tide is shifting and you’d better make sure you really know who is on your side when push comes to shove.

In our case at ING DIRECT, it was our Orange Scarf Ambassadors who came to our defence when we were acquired by Scotibank. They stood by our side and reminded any doubters why banking with ING DIRECT was a good decision in the past and why it will remain the best choice in the future.

The ties we create through social media are weak ties. We connect with exponentially more people, but these relationships lack the tried and tested characteristics that solidify a relationship. Ask yourself: Will these ambassadors come to my defence when the chips are down? Can I call an ambassador and ask her to do an interview with a reporter to discuss why she likes my brand? Do you know anything about him other than his screen name?

Community Building Essential Ingredient

There are many ways to build a community, but one ingredient that must exist is offline interaction – be it scarves or TweetUps or taking Clients out for breakfast or a coffee to get to know them better.

In my experience, companies dedicate the majority of their budgets and time to online interactions and activations – Facebook, Twitter, corporate blogs, and cheap contests that grow numbers. These tactics are important, but they only represent half of the equation.

Without a doubt, building scale for a community starts online, but the only way to strengthen the relationships is by solidifying them offline. The offline component sounds like hard work in comparison to online tactics. And it is. But putting in equal time and effort to building relationships online and offline will lead to success in the long run. Social media is not a short term play.

Building a community is one of my favourite topics to discuss. I could talk – or write – for hours on the importance of community building and how it can positively impact your business. For my full blueprint on how to build a successful community you’ll have to attend Social Media Camp!

Jaime Stein

Jaime is a digital media marketing strategist with expertise in social media and content marketing. He has experience leading social media strategy for two national brands. Jaime recently earned an MBA with a focus in Marketing and Strategy from the Rotman School of Management where he was selected valedictorian by the students of the Morning MBA Class of 2011. He is the former radio voice of the Toronto Argonauts and currently lives in Toronto with his wife and two sons.

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  • Chris Burdge

    Very insightful post from someone who has obviously walked the walk. It continues to boggle the mind how many “fortune 1000″ companies still haven’t got their stuff together when it comes to social media and brand/reputation management in particular. There is no substitute for a strong community. 

  • Anonymous

    Excellent comments that show critical importance of IRL eg in-person face to face Social. Looking forward to Jaime’s prezo in May!