Social Media Brand ambassadors. They Matter.

A message from your friendly social media manager: One of the most valuable programs you can create with your social media strategy is a community of brand ambassadors.

I feel like an idiot for calling people “brand ambassadors,” but it’s the kind of thing bosses like to hear. And, you’ll only be given the flexibility to create social media programs if it generates revenue and contributes to the overall health of the business.

So who are brand ambassadors? And how do they help out your brand?

Social media brand ambassadors are customers who identify with your brand as a part of their online persona. You’ll recognize them as people who put your brand in their “about me” descriptions, share links about your brand, post photos related to your brand, or even include your brand’s logo on their profile or blog page.

I learned firsthand about the power of brand ambassadors while working at the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye. My colleague, Scott Kleinberg, had already developed an extensive social media program, and I wanted to reward those customers who were out there supporting our brand and his work. To do so, I created a “RedEye Royalty” brand ambassador network. It was, hands down, one of the most fun and rewarding things I did at RedEye.

But before I share my story — what’s in it for you? Why do “brand ambassadors” matter? And how can you justify creating one to your boss?

1. Brand ambassadors amplify your online voice
While you, the social media manager, could spend all day tweeting and Facebooking about your brand, having 10, 20, or even 500 brand ambassadors helping spread the message multiplies your impact and reach exponentially.

2. Voices and opinions of customers are influential
According to a 2009 study by Nielsen, people trust personal recommendations more than any other form of advertising. That makes perfect sense in the age of Yelp reviews, iTunes ratings and Amazon product reviews. We trust our friends. Brand ambassadors are “real people” (not paid, not employees) that rave about your brand to their friends. They are also often the first people to comment on and review your products on various social outlets.

3. Your brand’s first line of defense
If people are attacking your brand in online threads, the first people to notify you will be your brand ambassadors. They are also often the first people to jump in and defend your brand — which is almost always better than a corporate representative coming in and trying to triage the situation.

4. They make your brand human
Southwest Airlines reaps rewards by convincing you that they are the non-corporate, customer-friendly brand. They achieve this by attaching ‘real people’ to everything — including their corporate blog, which is maintained by real employees from all walks of life. The blog receives 75,000+ unique visitors a month.

Your brand ambassadors — who attend events, hang out with each other, post photos about their events and buzz about your brand — also give your brand a human, non-corporate spin. Your customers will see real people populating your Facebook and Twitter feeds, as well as your event photos. These diverse faces are people that your customers can easily identify with.

5. You’ve gathered best focus group in the world
Are you launching a new product? Looking for fresh ideas for your website?Ambassadors who love your brand love to help you make your product better. They know your product through and through, and give you quick, honest feedback from a customer’s perspective. I used to send out short email blasts as a “gut check” about tweaks I was making to the RedEye website — and always got great ideas and responses because our brand ambassadors cared about our product and wanted to make it better.

You work in the social media business because you love communicating with others. Brand ambassadors make your work ridiculously fun. You’ll have new, fun people to chat with on Facebook and Twitter. You’ll see them out at your events. You’ll see them hang out with each other and build a fantastic community of fans. You’ll become friends with them. You’ll be surprised and impressed with their great ideas. You might even hire some of them. And best of all, you make a ton of new friends.

All right, so where do I find me some brand ambassadors?

To be totally honest, they’ll find you. As you go about your social media manager duties — hosting events, contests, Facebooking, Tweeting, etc., you’ll begin to see familiar faces. These are the people who are excited about your brand, excited to interact with you, and are just genuinely great people.

Your job, as a facilitator, is to build a community of these excited, great brand ambassadors. The key: to make sure they meet each other. That’s it.

See, all of your brand ambassadors have something in common — they love your product. All you need to do is help facilitate a connection by creating the right social framework, associated with your brand. That in itself is powerful — and it helps develop relationships and communities.

At RedEye, we kept our brand ambassador group small because building relationships were important to us. We only invited about 6-8 members a month. Here’s how it worked:

#1. Once someone was invited to the group, they were introduced to other “RedEye Royalty” at monthly events, which helped people connect faces to names (or Twitter handles) and develop social connections with the group.

#2. Brand ambassadors want to engage with a product they love. RedEye Royalty gained access to the brand through a monthly newsroom tour, and were given the ability to write for a reader blog.

#3. RedEye Royalty could opt to proudly display the RedEye logo on his or her Twitter avatar. It was a point of pride for ambassadors to display, and at RedEye we loved that people wanted to display our logo to their profiles.

#4. Ambassadors were never required to do anything as part of RedEye Royalty. We also never told ambassadors what they could or could not say. Being a brand ambassador is not supposed to be work. It’s a fun, social program that people could participate in — as much or as little as they liked.

Once you have assembled a core group of ambassadors, your community will grow organically over time, as long as you continue to facilitate events and programs. The most involved members will begin assuming leadership positions (i.e., event planner, Facebook coordinator), just like any other community.

As the group begins to take on a life of its own, make sure you establish a ground rules, especially around the topic of etiquette, respect, and honesty. Sure, we ran into problems here and there — mostly with online etiquette — but because we had an open communication channel with all of our ambassadors, it was easy to put out the fire with a quick phone or face-to-face conversation.

RedEye Royalty’s 1-year anniversary was yesterday, and today we have 50+ amazing, interesting, fun, loud, friendly brand ambassadors.

We had snowball fights:

We got brunches on the weekend:

We made “lunch tweetups” in Millennium Park:

We partied out at bars (and sang karaoke!):

We simultaneously checked in on Foursquare to try to get a “swarm badge” — and we also raced across Chicago checking in at famous movie spots:

We helped ring in new Goose Island beers:

We tried dim sum:

We wore facepaint:

And we supported own own “RedEye Royalty” when they ran the marathon:

Needless to say, none of this could have been possible without the amazing folks in the “RedEye Royalty” community. Not only are they an asset to the RedEye brand, but they are my friends and inspiring people with a serious love for exploring Chicago, making new friends and having fun.

So, what are some other brand ambassador programs out there? Well, no two are alike, but here are some that have inspired me:

Amazon Vine – Amazon allows a select community of dedicated commenters to receive pre-release items and review them before anyone else does.

Dunkin’ Donuts – Dunkin’ encourages fans to post photos of themselves celebrating the brand, which in turn can be featured as Dunkin’s Facebook profile pic.

Coca Cola – Two non-Coke employees started the company’s Facebook page, and it quickly became one of the #1 Fb pages. Coke reached out to them, made them into Coke ambassadors, and churned out an amazing marketing/viral video.

Microsoft MVP – Microsoft spotlights experts in the technology field, and by giving them an award and inviting them to a community, they build a powerful network that is tied to the Microsoft brand.

Walmart Moms – Walmart empowered a community of 20 moms by giving them access to a Walmart blog. Their gig: to blog, as moms, about topics ranging from food to money-saving, while interacting with customers.