How to Turn Customers Into Brand Ambassadors

How to Turn Customers Into Brand Ambassadors
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This story appears in the April 2013 issue of . Subscribe »

Last year Ryan Klarner, a member of his Illinois high school swim team, posted a plea on 's page. Employing a loose interpretation of English grammar, the 15-year-old asked: "Is there any way you guys could make me a customized speedo that says think outside the buns on the back of it?" Thirteen days later, Taco Bell posted a reply: "What size do you wear? And what's your address?"

More than 2,600 people liked Ryan's post, and more than 1,000 liked the reply. Ryan was already a regular customer--his post noted that he eats at Taco Bell "at least" five to seven times a week--but he is now a fan for life, or what's known in the marketing world as a ambassador.

To Raquel Smith, marketing manager at Oneupweb, a Traverse City, Mich., agency, Taco Bell's handling of the request was a textbook lesson in how entrepreneurs can inspire customers. "It's a great example of listening to your fans, providing value for them and creating a really strong ambassadorship," she says.

Businesses routinely rely on loyal customers to serve as ambassadors--prized patrons who can be counted on to spread the word about a company's products or services or general wholesome goodness. Some companies offer something in return, such as exclusive access to or product launches. But marketing experts insist that entrepreneurs don't need million-dollar budgets to cultivate . "It's a matter of being able to find and activate those consumers to see who you are," says Perry Fair, a chief creative officer at global ad agency JWT. "That doesn't necessarily take a lot of money. It does take a lot of effort."

Much of the process of building ambassadors occurs on social networks (though experts stress that face-to-face interaction should never be discounted). The key is to engage customers in conversation and let them know you're interested in what they say. "It's really all about dialogue--listening--and if these people are carrying your torch, thanking them for that and rewarding them in some way that makes them feel good," says Karen Post, president of Tampa, Fla.-based Brain Tattoo Branding.

Fair cites the recent case of . When a customer complained on Facebook that a new box of crayons contained an unsharpened Carnation Pink, the company responded by mailing a replacement. The customer went on Facebook again and posted: "Guess who has a new crayon?"

Fair says Crayola's small gesture spoke volumes about a willingness to listen--and respond--to customers. "When so much is happening online, brand ambassadorship is built off of ," he says. "At the end of the day, that's really what it is."

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