The Running Event is an annual trade show for the running industry which takes place in Austin, TX at the end of every year. It is a great way to see what the running industry in the U.S. is planning for the future as well as talking about what the past year has brought. Once again this year Freestak CEO Simon made the trip across the Pond for a few days talking to brands there.

Texas in December is also a pretty good place to enjoy a change from the depths of winter in London and get back to running in shorts and a t-shirt. Although naturally Simon claims that the trip was all work, work, work …

The Rise of the Ambassador

Over two days at The Running Event, I had the opportunity to speak to dozens of brands – from huge multinational footwear and technology brands to start-ups launching unique and innovative products. As you would expect, each brand had its own focus and challenges. But one thing that came up time and time again, was the brands’ interest in ambassadors and long-term influencer programmes.

Many of the brands I spoke to mentioned that they recognise that investing in a relationship with a content creator or influencers is likely to yield much better results – in terms of the amount and quality of the content, the variety and frequency of the content being produced and the authenticity that comes with a content creator endorsing a brand longer term.

Where to Get Started

For many of the brands I spoke to, one of the biggest challenges was knowing how to start an ambassador programme. Very few brands have someone lurking around in the marketing department without enough to do, someone who can take on the heavy lifting of finding the right people and convincing them to dedicate themselves to a brand.

Another problem that many brands expressed is how to manage the brand ambassadors they already have. In many cases the first people that a brand engages with in this way are those that they serendipitously bump into. But that is not a way to build a scalable ambassador programme.

This friction means that many brands put off launching or developing their ambassador programme. But in the mean time, the best content creators are being snapped up by rivals.

Of course, those rivals then discover a different set of problems …

Running the Race

Whilst at TRE, I spoke to a large number of brands that had started an ambassador programme. I told them that they were doing well already having content creators posting about their brand and supplying content for the brand to use.

But then the marketers started talking about the issues they faced.

The most common problem was simply one of management. A quick (and non-scientific) poll suggested that most brands had between 20 and 50 ambassadors. One key factor dictating how many ambassadors a brand recruited, seemed to be how much the brand had to invest. Big brands have the budgets to include far more creators in their programmes than smaller brands. However whether a brand had a dozen or a hundred ambassadors, they shared a common challenge: how to manage and monitor those they were collaborating with.

Commonly, especially amongst the smaller brands, the management and monitoring fell to a junior member of the team who used common tools such as the native social media apps or a social media tool like Hootsuite to try to see what their ambassadors were doing. That is time consuming and not very accurate.

For bigger brands, the answer seemed to be outsourcing the management of ambassadors to a social media or PR agency. Obviously that isn’t very time consuming for the marketer. But it is for the agency – and that means an ambassador programme can get very expensive, very fast.

Measuring Impact

The final challenge that almost everyone I spoke to at TRE about influencer marketing expressed is the difficulty of measuring the impact of their ambassador programme.

In some cases that was simply a matter of not knowing which ambassadors were posting, when and the reach or engagement of their posts. It was a case for a couple of brands of knowing that some of the ambassadors were great, others were OK and some were totally useless, but not easily being able to identify who was in which group, let alone communicate efficiently with them.

And time and time again, the question of how to justify the investment came up. That is certainly not an easy thing to do. But without visibility of who is posting content, what that content is and how many people are seeing it and engaging with it … well the job of working out whether an ambassador programme is working is nigh impossible (so many brands I spoke to don’t even try).

Fixin’ to Fix Ambassador Programmes

So what are my conclusions from talking to running brands at TRE?

  • Brands of all types and sizes are setting up or developing ambassador programmes – being small is no barrier (and in fact it can sometimes be a benefit)
  • There is a lot of friction when it comes to starting or scaling an ambassador set-up – which leaves room for those that do have the vision and put in the effort
  • Brands that have started early and are working on ambassador programmes now are getting the pick of the content creators (and good ones are a finite resource)
  • Getting started is just the start – once ambassador programmes are created they need to be tended to. If they aren’t managed well the best ambassadors will leave
  • Brands value the fact that ambassadors are loyal to the brand and that they take the time to really understand what the brand makes or does (which massively increases their ability to inform the target customer)
  • Without data and insight it is hard for a marketer to justify the investment in an ambassador programme. But if they don’t have one they risk being left behind

If any of the issues that Simon talked to brands about at TRE ring a bell for you, we’d be happy to talk to you about your specific challenges. Just drop us a line and we’ll get right back to you.


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