Ambassador programs vs Influencer programs – which model makes sense for your brand
GRIN also recommends this Quick Guide: Influencer Types: Which is best for your brand?
Influencer marketing is a relatively new marketing approach. As such, there is terminology overlap between influencers and ambassadors. Still, differences exist between these two word-of-mouth marketing approaches and understanding those differences will allow you to scale your program with more intentionality.
Word-of-mouth Marketing Models in 2020
Earned media, otherwise known as word-of-mouth marketing, is easier to track in this day and age thanks to social media and open source analytics tools. Consumers can contribute to other consumers’ purchasing decisions with insightful reviews, popular hashtags, and brand tags.
These features create what is known as a “digital footprint.” All digital footprint data is trackable, and as such, it’s far easier to track word-of-mouth through online engagement.
More than ever before, brands can search, follow, and track word-of-mouth. Additionally, brands can nurture word-of-mouth marketing by partnering with influencers and brand ambassadors.
Influence of Word-of-mouth Marketing
Non-branded voices give consumers a non-biased impression of a company’s products or services. That’s why consumers enjoy consulting product reviews online.
Celebrity endorsement is a word-of-mouth marketing approach that can also add credibility to a brand, particularly those brands that consumers hadn’t heard of before.
Brand ambassadors and influencers combine the trustworthiness of informative online reviews with the credibility of celebrity endorsements. These social media personalities (most of whom are not celebrities) build trust with large audiences using their authentic and creative voices to guide consumers.
This form of word-of-mouth advertising is wildly successful. And as brands learn how to nurture long-term relationships with these individuals, consumers are increasingly appreciative of authentic product reviews and recommendations from their favorite influencers.
What’s the Difference Between an Ambassador Program and an Influencer Program?
It is not uncommon for an ambassador program to include influencers, or for an influencer program to include brand ambassadors. These terms – brand ambassador and influencer – are easy to confuse because there is some overlap between the two.
For example, both primarily use social media to build online communities of like-minded consumers. Additionally, each will take intentional steps to build a personal brand and grow their audience. And finally, both do what they do professionally, even though they may only partner with brands “on the side” or on top of their day job.
But there are also key differences. Some brands that have mastered long-term influencer relationships are converting their influencer programs into ambassador programs. Brand ambassadors are distinct in the following ways:
- Brand ambassadorships are long-term relationships exclusively.
- Ambassadors are more inclined to partner with a relatively short list of brands.
- They are members of a brand ambassador community.
- They are happy to promote your brand with or without compensation.
- While creative and appealing, they usually prioritize a certain kind of lifestyle over crowd-pleasing posts.
By contrast, influencers may embody some of the characteristics above but are different in the following ways:
- Influencers nearly always have 1,000 followers on social media at a minimum.
- They place a priority on creating compelling content for their audience.
- Influencer-brand relationships may be short or long-term.
- Influencer compensation is campaign-based and structured.
By looking at both groups more closely, you will begin to see how each is unique and why both are essential in today’s social media marketing landscape.
Brand ambassadors spend years building a particular lifestyle and online community. These creators are very niche, meaning they can be particular about which products and services they promote to their audience. That’s why they don’t usually promote a lot of brands – only their favorites.
This “pickiness” that is common among ambassadors can be an attractive trait to you and your brand. Ambassadors will promote brands they love without being asked, and they’ve spent a lot of time getting to know that brand before they promote it.
“The strength of working with ambassadors is that the affection between the ambassador and your brand runs deep. Ambassadors are working with you for deeper reasons than just financial gain.” GRIN, Ambassadors, Influencers and KOLs
When you find a social media personality that naturally and authentically promotes your products or services, you may have found a brand ambassador that can take your brand to the next level.
Who Are Ambassadors?
Ambassadors are online creatives that typically possess an authoritative role within their industry. They can be athletes, serious hobbyists, or thought leaders.
Using social media, blogs, and video, brand ambassadors select their brand partnerships carefully. As a result, their online content is both genuine and flattering for the brands that they showcase.
Your brand ambassadors will put significant effort into the partnership and find ways to promote your brand with or without incentives. These promoters deserve the same level of care and loyalty from your brand.
How Do They Reach Consumers?
In most cases, ambassador audiences don’t expect the ambassador to constantly promote products and services. These individuals nurture followers based on lifestyle or topic-specific content.
For example, brand ambassadors in the travel space deliver value to their followers by sharing breathtaking photos, helpful tips, and endearing moments.
Ambassadors delicately weave their brand endorsements into the rest of their content. As a result, product recommendations feel more natural to consumers and the ambassador posts more authentic.
How Do They Impact Sales?
Because ambassadors typically enjoy higher engagement rates, audiences are more likely to take action on discount codes or special promotions. Brands equip ambassadors with unique discount codes and affiliate links to track sales and overall performance.
That said, many brand ambassadors have smaller audiences (as low as 200 followers) than do most influencers. As such, it’s in the brand’s best interest to work with a large team of ambassadors to increase brand awareness and sales.
Thanks to social media and the role that it plays among groups and subcultures, certain individuals develop a voice that generates more attention than the average social media user. These social media power users make great candidates for brand ambassadors because they understand the power of online communities and word-of-mouth.
What Is It?
Ambassador marketing is arguably the most effective form of word-of-mouth advertising.
Brands leveraging brand ambassadors seek the highest level of authentic connections with audiences. This approach to digital marketing is not for everyone. But those D2C brands that take pride in the quality of their products and services can grow exponentially with the help of brand ambassadors.
What Makes It Different?
Compared to traditional influencer marketing, brand ambassadorships are less transactional and more relationship-based.
While influencer marketing is generally considered an authentic way to promote your products and services, ambassador marketing is even more so. This approach to influencer marketing takes more brand effort but also yields high rewards.
How and When to Use It
When your products are audience and lifestyle-specific, brand ambassadors can connect you to your ideal customers. Also, if your products or services are unique, complicated, and/or have higher price points, then brand ambassadors can tell a story with your brand in ways that the brand may not be able to accomplish on its own.
Ambassador programs are online communities of industry authorities that genuinely love your products and services. Building an ambassador program requires brands to track details about and nurture relationships with social media users who’ve developed a loyal following within a niche market.
How an Ambassador Program Works
Brands must be selective of their partnerships when scaling their ambassador programs. As such, the ambassador vetting process is usually more intensive.
Some brands allow ambassadors to reach out first, while others build their ambassador team by invitation only. Many merge both approaches to find the best ambassadors for their program.
Unlike influencer marketing, ambassador programs don’t always establish campaigns with rigid start and end times. Most ambassador participation is ongoing, casual (at times), and tracked by the brand.
But in order for these “ongoing, causal” campaigns to work, brands need to know that their ambassadors can remain dependable and consistent in their posts and product endorsements. When it seems that a particular ambassador is performing lower than normal, marketers must reach out to that ambassador to find out if they are okay or to troubleshoot issues with the partnership or product.
How to Manage an Ambassador Program
Every marketing approach requires performance tracking. But an ambassador program requires an even higher level of data management.
Successful ambassador programs keep close tabs on their ambassador relationships. Program managers must know at all times who their ambassadors are, as well as their performance metrics.
Tracking ambassador performance requires managers to find the right tools that will help them maintain a robust program and scale it for increased ROI. Young ambassador programs can use spreadsheets to keep track of their ambassadors. But as the program matures, marketers need a more intuitive set of automation tools to help them maintain their ambassador relationships.
When is an Ambassador Program Right for Your Brand?
Ambassador marketing is ideal for niche markets and premium quality products and services. Because ambassadors exert more effort to become expert users of your products or services, they are in a better position to showcase your brand.
Additionally, these ambassadors naturally guide their followers toward ideal purchases for specific uses and problems. Audiences gain a better understanding of all the ways that a high-quality product or service can enhance their way of life.
Brand ambassadors are often influencers, but not all influencers qualify as brand ambassadors. As such, brands that utilize influencer marketing rather than ambassador marketing have slightly different priorities and objectives.
Who are Influencers?
Influencers are social media power users that are experts at creative, compelling content. While influencers are still industry-specific, they often appeal to broader audiences than do brand ambassadors.
Like brand ambassadors, influencers nurture engaged online communities and intentionally build a personal brand in the same way that one would build a business. That said, not every influencer is a full-time influencer. But most influencers treat their social media presence with a high standard of professionalism.
How Do They Reach Consumers?
Influencers build their audience by creating compelling content. In general, influencers are often more interested in creating a larger audience than are brand ambassadors.
But that’s not to say that influencers don’t care about engagement, because they do. Audience engagement metrics show influencers what kind of posts generate the most follower excitement. A significant portion of an influencer’s content is product recommendations and sponsored posts.
How do Influencers Impact Sales?
Like brand ambassadors, influencers are great at generating sales for your brand. Influencers with larger audiences can generate wider brand awareness to increase sales now and in the future.
That said, fake influencers do occasionally infiltrate the influencer space. These “wanna-be” influencers manufacture high follower counts and engagement metrics. Brands that closely examine influencer posts can spot these fake influencers easily.
Influencer marketing can benefit both niche and non-niche brands alike. D2C brands and distributors make frequent use of influencers to promote products, services, and special events.
What is It?
Many aspects of ambassador marketing are also true of influencer marketing. Influencers nurture trust with their followers and can promote brands with remarkable authenticity.
Influencer marketing is the process of recruiting social media influencers and managing them for influencer campaigns. Also like ambassador marketing, influencer marketing requires managers to track critical metrics for each influencer and campaign to achieve maximum ROI.
What Makes It Different?
Influencer marketing is a broader approach to word-of-mouth marketing and is growing rapidly. Because more players are entering the influencer space, it’s increasingly important that influencers and their brand partners collaborate toward authentic content.
Brands will partner with influencers for both one-off campaigns and long-term ambassador relationships. Influencers generally focus more on creative content over becoming an industry authority. That said, many influencers are also key opinion leaders, industry authorities, and thought leaders.
Influencer marketing focuses on social media personalities with at least 1,000 followers. Most marketers distinguish types of influencers by their follower size. These types range from Nano influencers (1,000-10,000 followers) to Mega influencers (1 million or more followers). The most popular influencer is the Micro influencer (10,000-100,000 followers).
As a general rule, the larger the influencer’s audience, the lower their engagement but the greater their ability to increase brand awareness. In contrast, smaller influencer and ambassador audiences tend to be more engaged, but the smaller audiences limit brand exposure.
Lastly, influencers with large followings are more expensive than ambassadors, nano influencers, and micro influencers.
How and When to Use Influencer Marketing
Since ambassadors can be influencers, there will be some overlap between the two. However, you will gain more impressions and engagements with those influencers that have large audiences.
It is also popular to use influencer short-term relationships as a vetting process for brand ambassadors. From your initial research, certain influencers may look like a good fit for your brand, but you’ll know for certain once you’ve partnered with them for a campaign.
Additionally, influencer marketing is great for campaigns with specific timelines and expectations. More involved influencer techniques like Instagram takeovers and whitelisting can also generate a particular set of results over a set period of time.
That said, many long-term influencer relationships look and function very similar to brand ambassador relationships. In fact, influencers can transition to brand ambassadors if the brand utilizes a long-term relationship management approach.
Particularly for new influencer programs, it’s not uncommon for there to be a “revolving door” of influencers that promote your brand for a set of campaigns. These influencer programs can accommodate many different marketing objectives, to include sales, brand awareness, event promotion, and even increased search engine optimization.
How an Influencer Program Works
Once again, there will be many similarities between an influencer and ambassador program. Many recruiting tactics are the same, as well as influencer or ambassador relationship management.
However, an influencer program will uniquely equip brands to promote certain products, services, and/or events for specific periods of time. Marketers can also structure their influencer campaigns with greater specificity – such as the number of posts, campaign timeline, types of posts, etc. – than they would for an ambassador program.
How to Manage an Influencer Program
Performance tracking is just as critical in an influencer program as it is for an ambassador program. Even when managing a roster of active and inactive influencers, relationships are key for best results.
While some brands put enormous effort into creating long-term influencer communities that act and feel much like ambassador communities, it’s not necessary for your brand to do so to maintain a successful influencer program. But it’s still important to invest in your influencer relationships to retain authenticity, collaboration, and performance.
To do this effectively, you’ll need to track influencer data, to include engagement and campaign performance metrics. As you scale your influencer program, you’ll need the right tools to manage your influencer relationships effectively.
When is an Influencer Program Right for Your Brand?
If you like to run marketing campaigns around certain times of the year or are new to the world of influencers and brand ambassadors, an influencer program is a great place to start.
You can use an influencer program to try different types of influencers and expand your audience. Once you feel comfortable managing your influencer relationships, you may want to continue to scale your influencer program or convert it to an ambassador program.
How to Decide Which Relationship is Best for Your Brand
When examining your own marketing approach, asking yourself a few questions will help you determine which relationship – ambassador or influencer – is the right fit:
- What are your marketing goals?
- What is your target audience?
- What is your offering (products/services)?
- Which social channels work for your brand?
- Has your brand partnered with influencers or ambassadors before?
What are Your Marketing Goals?
Based on your industry and business model, your marketing goals should have the first say in whether or not to establish an ambassador or influencer program. Additionally, your marketing goals are going to shift as you scale your business.
When examining influencers and ambassadors relevant to your brand, identify your marketing goals first. Based on those goals, you can find influencers/ambassadors that are a great fit for your brand.
What is Your Target Audience?
Niche audiences are the “bread-and-butter” of brand ambassadors. But influencers can serve niche audiences and more general audiences. The types of products/services you offer will appeal to certain audience segments.
Using this consumer information to build your program will help you identify audience alignment among influencers and/or ambassadors.
What is Your Offering or Product?
Securing an influencer partnership in a highly competitive industry can do wonders for your brand. But if your products or services are specialized, you may want to take a closer look at brand ambassadors.
Some influencers may not take the time to understand complex products, particularly if they are creating content for large audiences. Ambassadors, on the other hand, usually invest effort into your product or service’s optimal performance before agreeing to partner with your brand.
Which Social Channels Work for Your Brand?
Influencers and ambassadors exist on nearly every social media platform. But your brand may not perform the same on every channel. Test different influencers and ambassadors on various channels to see which channels are ideal for your product offering and audience.
Has Your Brand Partnered with Influencers or Ambassadors Before?
This last question is arguably the most important. Brand ambassador programs generally require more time and resources. That said, a mature brand ambassador program easily produces some the highest ROI of any digital marketing strategy.
If your brand has never worked with influencers or ambassadors before, influencer marketing is often the best place to start. Most experts recommend working with micro influencers and then expanding your influencer search as you and your team get more experience.
Once you find influencers that are top performers and have great synergy with your brand, you can launch your own brand ambassador program if you choose.
Conclusion: Build an Ambassador or Influencer Program that Reaches Your Brand Vision and Goals
Whichever approach you adopt, you’ll know whether or not your program is a success by measuring influencer and ambassador performance.
Both ambassador and influencer programs require marketers to track key performance indicators (KPIs) to become successful. You can break down your brand vision and goals into KPIs and use those KPIs to identify the best influencers or ambassadors for your brand.
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