Turn your customers into brand ambassadors

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Despite the best intentions of Madison Avenue, a company’s brand is elevated primarily through two areas: social media, and customer reviews. This reality takes control of brand value at least one step away from the marketer, pushing control closer to the customer, who has become the ultimate arbiter of whether a company’s products, services, and very existence is worthy of attention.

Brands leveraging social engagement need to understand the engagement value of individual influencers through metrics such as the Klout Score, which ranks how much influence an individual has, as well as the Geosocial Index, which ranks social activity at specific locations. The latter ranks venues based on public social media activity. The Geosocial Index serves as a benchmark when testing new engagement strategies – a successful strategy should translate into an increase in the Index score. In addition, since the index is standardized, it can also be used to rank against competitors, for example, a hotel brand can compare its own index against the index of competing hotels in the same area.

The guidance provided by such indices, together with an active campaign of direct engagement, is rapidly replacing the often inaccurate strategy of close management of user reviews. While it remains essential for brands to monitor and respond to reviews, review platforms often suffer from inaccuracies, and sometimes a “mob mentality” can take over and cause irreparable harm. “Astroturfing” – the practice of writing and placing fake reviews – is also prevalent, and algorithms often require a relatively small number of positive recent reviews to boost rank. Also, since only a small percentage of patrons actually leave reviews, the representative sample size tends to skew the results.

Most recently, the ease with which review sites can be gamed was seen when a VICE reporter created a fake restaurant, and successfully positioned his non-existent restaurant as the top-rated venue in London.

Getting key influencers to be brand champions is key, but this can be difficult to achieve. Encouraging a customer to leave a positive review is straightforward and legitimate, but paying them to do so crosses a line, and the FTC has taken aggressive action to force influencers to disclose any relationships they have to the brands they may be endorsing on social media. Furthermore, the disclosure has to be conspicuous: In an FTC letter to several influencers, the agency said, “Consumers viewing posts in their Instagram streams on mobile devices typically see only the first three lines of a longer post unless they click ‘more,’ and many consumers may not click ‘more.’ Therefore, you should disclose any material connection above the ‘more’ button.”

Potentially even more dangerous than crossing the FTC, is finding that your brand ambassador has crossed a line. Most informal ambassadors simply want to relate their experiences, and this can be a very positive benefit to a brand – but some ambassadors’ main goal is simply to generate as many clicks as possible so they can derive ad money and sponsorships, and do so by engaging in increasingly offensive activities which could reflect poorly on your brand. Real customers, as opposed to the Internet buffoons who make bizarre posts and videos, are the best type of ambassador.

“In the hospitality industry, hotel brands have put social media at the front of their marketing campaigns,” said Chris Rivett, travel expert at HotelsCombined.com. “But simple posting of updates, deals and pictures is only a small part of that – the greatest success comes when those brands use social media as a means to communicate directly with their guests, and monitor what’s being said online.”

That sort of monitoring tends to be labor-intensive, but worthwhile. Those venues with the highest geosocial index, which reflects a multiplier of social activity measured against similar venues, do take the time required to engage. In a recent measure of venues with the highest geosocial indices in the country, the Bellagio (Las Vegas), The Beverly Hilton (Beverly Hills), and The Venetian (Las Vegas) were the top three, and all have personnel actively responding to online reviews.

Marriott’s corporate headquarters for example, has a control room with a dozen employees, doing nothing but reading social media posts and joining the social conversation when it is appropriate. The hotel chain uses a platform called HYP3R, a real-time engagement platform that gathers all social activity from a location. Managers can then answer the question, “Who’s talking about us right now?” And knowing that, they can engage in almost real time.

Cultivating brand ambassadors is by design, more complicated and more time-consuming than simply engaging Madison Avenue to create and place television commercials, and the process is rife with minefields – but the potential rewards are tremendous, and the process has become a must-have for almost any brand’s marketing campaign.

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