So, you’ve hired a social media liason, you have a Facebook page, you tweet, and maybe you’ve even done a Groupon. You are all over Pinterest and engage with GOOGLE+. You have thousands of Facebook “likes”, but have you really earned any more business? Anyone can click a button, especially if you offer them a gift for the click. But how do you really engage those Facebook fans and Twitter followers? How do you turn those interested fans into your brand advocates, people who really value your product and would tell their friends about it?

A brand advocate isn’t passive. She doesn’t scroll through Facebook notifications looking for “Click ‘Like’ and enter to win an iPad.” She doesn’t accept every company’s friend invite so she can drive her numbers into the thousands. A brand advocate is engaged with your product and loves it. Loves it enough, in fact, to tell people about it—not just the public but friends or family. Loves it enough, that they want to be a “maven” and know all about your product. Brand advocate “mavens” want to both know and share.

You probably have brand advocates out there, perhaps you don’t know it. To find them, learn from them, and enable them to work even harder for your brand, you need to know who they are, how to reach them, what they need to be an even louder voice and cultivate them. (Your casual fans are great too – more later on the potential for fans to be customer advisory panels).

How can you get started with a brand advocate program? First, learn from great examples of successful, established advocate programs. The case studies below show how brands have successfully engaged advocates and enabled their voice. Each company took a different tack, ranging from cultivating technical expertise to rewarding passion to just spreading around some fun. Some of the efforts were more complex (and expensive) than others, but all of the case studies can teach valuable lessons.

Who are your advocates and how can you reach them? Once you’ve read the case studies, think about how you might identify your brand advocates. When you want to know what’s new, you don’t talk— you listen, right? So if you already have social media strategies in place, start there—surveying your existing Facebook fans (the ones who clicked “Like”) is a simple way to find people who are willing to champion your product or service. Don’t ever forget this is a relation-ship. These are friends. Treat them as friends.

Before you initiate contact, listen. Follow posts on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, blogs and comments, product reviews, shopping sites and so forth, taking note of who’s posting the most and what they’re saying. Read it all, positive and negative. Get a sense of what’s important or valuable to your fans, for your product and their lifestyle, what kinds of questions they’re asking, wishes they seem to be expressing. Social media is a treasure trove of information for any business that wants to understand a customer base and their brand advocates.

Develop a survey to understand your fans (who might become potential customer advisory panelists or advocates). Find out as much about what they think of your brand and product (and perhaps potential products), what they use in your category and about them. The feedback on what existing fans think about your product and category, how they use products, what they like and what they would change is invaluable. Find out about these fans: do they post online, create product reviews, rate products, recommend products (doesn’t have to be yours). You are seeking to find online talkers with large bases of fans or followers. Find out which fans read blogs, comment, forward, tweet and otherwise engage with others.

Ask them to become part of a customer advisory panel. From these responses, separate the fans from a potential customer advisory panel and from this panel, find your smaller “maven” advocate group. Listen a little more to these special fans (you’re getting the hang of this relationship thing now .) Customer Advisory Panels can advise you on products, packaging, competitors, pricing and more. These panels will talk to you, but they usually don’t talk (as much) to others, as your “maven” brand advocates. These panels are interested in your product, and can provide you with thoughtful advice, but don’t necessarily aspire to be a “maven” with special information.

From this panel, find your brand advocate “mavens” who want to advise you and share with others. From this customer advisory panel, separate out those who are information seekers and sharers. This is your “maven” advocate group and will likely be 5-10% of your advisory panel. Understand what is valuable to these “mavens”, what do they believe, and what do they want to know. Remember they usually value “being in the know”, being the first to know about a new product, first to see or critique a new campaign. They love to share, and usually want to give away samples to friends?

(Customer advisory panels will try a sample, but usually don’t share samples. Ask each group. Do your research on this; it might be different for your category or product.) Sometimes advisory panels make better product testers as you don’t want too much sharing about early ideas. Mavens are better with new information.

How can you make it easy for them to talk about it? Part II to this article.

Don’t ever forget this is a relationship. These are friends.
Treat them as friends.
Appreciate them.
(Two words, lots of work, and worth all the effort).

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Mary Kate Scott is the Principal of Scott & Company, a management consulting firm that creates strategies and executes projects for healthcare organizations.

She can be reached at mks@MaryKateScott. com