My husband Brian, who knows firsthand how much I eat, drink, and sleep social media, pointed me to an interesting critique by ExpertCruiser on a 2007 social media marketing campaign by Royal Caribbean. That year, the cruise line launched a brand ambassador program. Using market intelligence, Royal Caribbean identified supporters of the cruise line via social networking sites and took the opportunity to give fifty of the most ardent supporters, called Royal Champions, special privileges, including free paid cruises and invitations to special events with company executives.
In my upcoming book, The New Community Rules: Marketing on the Social Web (Amazon link), which is slated to be released in late Spring, I talk about the importance of brand evangelism as part of an effective community management strategy. Individuals who are passionate and who have never been previously incentivized to promote your product are already talking positively about you on the web. If they’re already raving about your awesome product and promoting your service for free, why not show them that you appreciate all they are doing and offer them additional perks? Why not encourage the spread of goodwill?
This is exactly the process of the Royal Caribbean marketing team, a move that in 2007 was seen as virtually unheard of. Only recently, however, this story has become widely critiqued, with bloggers calling the practice a “vicious … royal mess” that “crossed the line.” In fact, ExpertCruiser made a scathing comment at the end of the article that suggests that this is a filthy manipulative practice:
Like them or not, online cruise message boards are now part of the pool of intelligence gathering and rumor swapping used (and manipulated) by travel agents, cruise line employees, rabid cruise fans, investors, media and the curious to track the performance of a cruise line.
Perhaps this is a “take heed” call to community participants who engage on the social web, but while ExpertCruiser warns its readers that this is a scummy practice, in reality, scouring social sites for mentions of your product, service, and even your competitors is nothing new. The effective practice of social media marketing requires monitoring all channels, from online cruise message boards to social networking sites like Facebook or LinkedIn. If you are not tapping into the online message boards for your own industry or niche, you’re not doing a thorough job at monitoring the successes or failures of your product. You are missing out on tremendous opportunity for growth and performance of competitive analysis. If a forum exists for your industry, you should very well be active: you should participate and follow the discussion closely to know exactly what is being said and what kind of feedback you can take back to your executive and development team to enhance your product and to make it better than your competition.
Touching upon the original concern as expressed by the ExperCruiser bloggers, the sheer existence of brand evangelism and the utilization of related programs do not cross the line. In Royal Caribbean’s case, they simply tapped into the minds of individuals who already loved the cruise line and expressed themselves as supporters on social networking forums. Using the same individuals who were already respected in these communities to speak of how much they enjoyed their cruise experience and subsequently by following up with free rewards is not a deceptive practice. Loyalty programs such as the Royal Champions encourage people to maintain a positive outlook about the company and may further influence them to talk more positively about the same company in the future. These individuals didn’t have to be paid to do it before, after all, but the nice unexpected perks are certainly not unappreciated.
Because this critical post of Royal Caribbean disappointed me, I polled my Twitter followers for feedback. I asked to see if anyone disagreed with this promotional tactic, and if not, what kind of incentives they’d offer to their constituents if they chose to engage in a brand ambassador program. Responses from participants were unanimously in favor of brand evangelism and encouraged offering small perks such as free customer service and a nice dinner to large rewards such as in the case of Royal Caribbean’s free cruise.
@tamar Brand evangelism is a good thing, as long as the brand is worth evangelizing. You need to live up to the brand.
@tamar In my opinion brand evangelism is not a bad thing at all. If anything it makes your brand sound different and stand out.
@tamar why would brand evangelism be a bad thing? Bribery=bad; but there is a fine line
@tamar Maybe you’d offer a brand ambassador free customer service, free promotion in return, things like that.
@tamar Any type of evangelism is a bad thing if it’s too pushy; it’s a good thing if it is “helpful”…just like a salesperson.
@tamar Brand evang is a great thing. Incentives depend on brand type – how can u satisfy evang’s wants/needs, stroke their ego, incr recog?
@tamar I think it’s a good thing. Offer pre-release access to new products/services. Send free stuff. Say thank you a lot.
@tamar Sometimes all people want or need is recognition & acknowledgment to be good brand ambassadors
@tamar While others disagree I would support brand evangelists financially were I the vendor. But they usually will do it for schwag
The right kind of brand ambassador program does not necessarily demand forum participation thereafter, though they encourage it with a full disclosure of the participation. However, chances are in many cases that you were already saying such nice things about that company and you’re likely to continue. Because of your past participation, the company wanted to give a token of thanks to show their gratitude for your support. A brand evangelism program encourages the commentary to be kept positive in the future. Any company employing such an incentive program is certainly not participating in anything that is manipulative, questionable, or immoral in nature.
Do you think that Royal Caribbean crossed the line? Or were they just smart enough to start something brilliant that aroused jealousy among those who were not picked for the program? I’m compelled to suggest that Royal Caribbean has been on the right track throughout this entire ordeal in their innovative marketing tactic that they launched two years ago. In fact, I recommend that other companies follow suit to encourage positive discourse and interactions. They, too, should consider instituting a loyalty program that positively reinforces really good feedback about their own products and services. What do you say, and how would you execute the program?