Ignite Passion and Word of Mouth: Connect Your Customers!

Buoyed by eagerness to reach customers on the social web, many businesses have endeavored to build personable, direct relationships with customers and other stakeholder groups using social media. Businesses realize the potential to create deeper connections and loyalty, which should ultimately lead to sales over the longer term customer life cycle. However, many businesses are uncertain how to participate and consequently, in my opinion, few truly take full advantage of the business potential associated with social media.

One key is to create a strong and vibrant online community of ambassadors for your brand. It’s true that the web has made building individual relationships cheaper and faster than what was previously possible. However, scaling such deep relationships over a broad base of stakeholders is, in most cases, neither feasible not effective.

Alternatively, companies that focus on building brand loyalty with a small subset of customers might find that their efforts have an exponential impact.

Here are several companies that have done this successfully:

Maker’s Mark

Maker’s Mark is a small batch bourbon whiskey that is distilled in Loretto, Kentucky by Fortune Brands. For a number of years now, they’ve been running an ambassador program that is all about passion for their brand of bourbon. Maker’s Mark ambassadors receive access to a private online community, appropriately named “The Embassy”, through which they can receive a number of perks – including personalized business cards (ideal for handing out in bars), as well as having their name engraved on an actual barrel of Maker’s Mark bourbon. How cool is that? Additionally, amongst other things, ambassadors receive access to VIP tasting events and exclusive gift shop access.

Yelp

Recently, while on a group hike near Toronto, I asked a fellow hiker if she had any recommendations on Toronto events and restaurants I should consider checking out. Immediately, she provided a few thoughts and strongly suggested that I create a profile on Yelp – a social networking, user review and local search website for members to post reviews and get user feedback on local businesses and restaurants. She’s actually a member of Yelp’s Elite Squad – a program through which Yelp rewards it’s top users, providing them with exclusive offers and access to members-only events. In addition to rewarding loyal users, the program provides a great incentive for other members to post additional reviews, making the site content stronger while keeping the broader community active and engaged.

Fiskars

In an earlier post on Community Management Best Practices, I referred to Fiskateers.com. Fiskars, a well-known brand of scissors, created a vibrant online community by focusing on a shared passion for many of it’s customers – scrapbooking. The company started by recruiting some of its most loyal customers to the community – branding them as Fiskateers. Fiskateer ambassadors receive a number of benefits, including access to exclusive meetup events and the opportunity to share their passion for scrapbooking with others in the private online community.

So, what did these companies do right? They built strong connections with the most passionate segment of their customer base. In doing so, they essentially put their customers to work for them – spreading word of mouth through their personal networks, inspiring new customers and spurring community growth.

Building connections with customers takes both commitment and recognition that social media can be a great tool for achieving businesses goals. In oder to attain a tangible return, business must be willing to make an investment – online and offline – as Maker’s Mark, Yelp and Fiskars all did. They didn’t just focus on counting Facebook Fans, they created social communities that generated value – for themselves, the ambassadors, and other customers.

Do you know any companies that have connected their most loyal customers through innovative brand ambassador programs? If so, please share!

Nike+ – A Great Example of What Collaboration Can Accomplish

Today, I completed my longest run in about a year. Actually, it was my longest run since April 3rd, 2010 – when I ran 18.96km in 2 hours, 5 minutes and 29 seconds, at an average pace of 6 minutes and 37 seconds per kilometer.

How the heck do I know that? Well, I record my runs using the Nike+iPod sports kit, the ingenious collaboration between Nike and Apple that has benefited runners worldwide since its launch in 2006.

There are two main reasons why I marvel at Nike+:

1. An innovative product from a unique collaboration

I believe that over the coming years we are going to see more instances of companies – sometimes even competitors – joining forces in unique collaborations.  There are many potential benefits to be gained, including shared knowledge and data, shared resources, and opportunity to develop new and innovative products and services by leveraging and combining strengths.

2. It’s social and community-driven

The Nike+ experience extends well beyond the runs, thanks to a fantastic website and online community that has been cultivated. Not only can Nike+ users record and track runs using the website, they can share their experiences with runners worldwide while also benefiting from some rich content – including a training tips blog.

Recently, Nike+ also added a “Challenges” section, through which individual users can create running challenges and invite community members to participate. Sample challenges include “365 miles in 2011”, in which all participants are challenged to run 365 miles, and “Fastest 5km in 2011”. Each challenge includes a leader board, adding some incentive for participants to compete against one another.