Building a Powerful Brand Ambassador Program Featuring Sylvia Choi of Yakima Racks
Editor’s note: Community is central to everything at Pixlee. And luckily, we’ve got a great community of experts to share thoughts with. To close out this year, we took the time to chat with Sylvia Choi, Digital Marketing Manager at Yakima Racks, on growing and scaling an ambassador program. In our chat, she shares the nuances of ambassadors, what makes a good brand community, and how to measure the success of your community-driven marketing platforms. We hope you enjoy the read as much as we enjoyed the interview!
Haley Fraser: I’d love to start with your career journey, what led you to your current role, and also what gets you excited about what you're doing now?
SylviaChoi: Sure, of course. I had interned at ABC my last year of college, which led me to my first job working for the newly launched FOX Interactive Media company in Beverly Hills. I started out managing ad placement for their large accounts like Coca-Cola and Ford, on the various FOX Entertainment show sites, such as 24, Hell’s Kitchen, and American Idol. I shifted gears when I moved back to Oregon and began to work with startups and nonprofits, which required me to wear a lot of hats and figure out how to build things from the ground-up. This allowed me to learn things quickly, experiment, build and iterate, and gain experience in different industries. My background has spanned email marketing automation, CRM management, leading customer experience, digital ad planning/account management, as well as other social and digital marketing activations. I joined the Yakima Racks team in 2017, where I started in brand marketing as a social media specialist acting as a social media manager on our lean team. I, officially, became the lead after a couple years and have now shifted over to the digital team as the digital marketing manager overseeing our website and e-commerce experience. Throughout my time at Yakima, we’ve really been able to capitalize on the user-generated content (UGC) features from Pixlee. A large part of our social strategy is leveraging UGC for our social media, as well as featuring partner and customer photos on some parts of our website. And we're hoping to build that out with our emails and expand to more areas on our site.Working with our ambassadors has always been exciting to me. Since launching our ambassador program, the RackPack, in 2018, we have continued to develop more strategic partnerships for elevated content creation, authentic storytelling, launching product collections in new markets, and building brand awareness and authority. I'm really invested, because I've worked hard to build relationships with our partners and lay strong groundwork for next year, with a focus on inclusion, equity, and diversity - things that have always been important to our brand and community. My approach has always been to lead with relationships. While I was working from home this year, I probably took more calls than I ever have with ambassadors and nonprofits and had time to get to know them better. Although this means frontloading the work, it helps to ensure that we're bringing the right person on-board and a greater rate of success. When it’s a natural fit for both parties, everything is so much easier. When my peers say that they don't like to work with influencers, I agree, I don't work with influencers. I work with ambassadors. The difference, to me, is that an influencer is someone that may work with you on a campaign, but if one of our competitors provides a higher bid next season they may switch and work with someone else. And that's not what we're about. We want people who are an extension of our brand, who either have already been using our products and really love it, or they find that it makes their life easier and it fits really well with their lifestyle. And so it's a really natural integration, nothing has to be forced, and we never work with anyone we don't want to. It’s fantastic, and I’m definitely proud of that....of all the work I've been able to do with the partnerships here. And as I pass on the mantle of social media, I know we have a solid foundation for the most diverse and innovative content creator, ambassador, and nonprofit partnerships for 2021.
HF: That's very fascinating that you’ve designated such a clear distinction with ambassadors, and perhaps customers and also influencers. Do you have some sort of criteria that you sort of use for that? And how are you finding these people?
SC: Yeah, we're lucky, we get a lot of people who reach out to us and want to work with us. So that's a credit to the strength of the brand and how trusted we are in the outdoor industry. However, we also do go out and look for folks, especially when we're launching in new spaces. For example, last year, in the fall, we brought a whole new collection of fishing rod carriers to the market. Although we're a new player in that field, we leveraged the fact that Yakima Racks is a well-known and established brand in the cargo space, and we partnered with professional anglers as well as local flyfishers to give us credibility as well as create authentic content for our website, for our social, and all of our marketing. To find those right partners, you can utilize the CRM in Pixlee, you can tap into Listening tools, and you can approach it manually via spreadsheets; there are tons of ways to do it. I was a one-woman team. And we have very, very lean teams here. Making your tools or software platforms work for you is really important. I would say, if you're not a brand that is getting a lot of incoming requests and inquiries, then part of your process will be to do that exploration. I would start with your superfans or those who are interacting with you on social and see if those folks would be a good fit, and you can even turn to your employees or retail partners if it makes sense. Consider:
- Do they fit your brand values?
- Who is their following? Do they speak to the audience or personas you’re targeting?
- Do they have the reach or engagement that you want?
- Are they reliable? And are they enthusiastic about the partnership?
- Would it feel natural/make sense having your products integrated into their feed/Stories?
Even if they're not the biggest “influencer” in a space, I think that's totally fine. I would rather have someone that's authentic, and that is stoked about the brand and the products because you can grow with them. Right? Especially if they align with your voice and values. While we do have criteria, we also have bent the rules if we felt there was potential or if we knew it was important to have a certain community represented. After a while, you get a pretty good feel for who would be a good partner, and I’d say it varies based on the industry or what you’re trying to achieve. For Yakima, many of our ambassadors are also content creators, which eliminates the need to hire an additional photographer/videographer or to do separate licenses for assets, and this allows us to optimize the partnership not only on social, but for print, website, and email marketing.When you're starting out, create some clear objectives and then make a list of how your ideal partner will help you attain those goals, whether it's reach, level of followership, engagement rates, specific personas or audiences you’re going after, strengths, unique abilities, take a look at all that. And if you don’t know, look at what’s worked for you in the past, what your competitors are doing, what are the brands you aspire to be like doing and don’t just copy, but look for those areas where you can differentiate your brand. Tell a story that isn’t being told.Feel free to experiment and try new things. The best way to hone in your strategy and refine your eye is to just start. Don’t look for the perfect first partner, view it as a learning experience so you can get a better idea of what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what you need to look for in the next partnership. To get your feet wet, I recommend bringing an influencer into an upcoming campaign rather than launching a full influencer program. This will allow you to start with a smaller budget, and see how this sort of partnership moves the needle for your brand.On a personal note, as an Asian-American woman, when I came into this position three-plus years ago, I was very aware that ‘The outdoor industry is very male-dominated, and it's very white. There's not much representation of other groups, so how can we create content and also tell these stories that may not be told, in a really down-to-earth and true way?' When those things are your guiding principles, you can approach it in a way that's very much open-handed. So, when I start talking with someone, like a content creator or an ambassador, I always ask them, what are projects they have coming up, what are they excited about, what would we bring that’s of value to them, and how do they see our product really fitting into that. Come to the discussion with ideas, but defer to them, remember that you are talking to them for a reason. They're an expert in their space, they're doing something well. The last thing that you want to do is impose a plan onto that. You can give them guidelines, absolutely, especially around photography or the branding or that kind of thing. But I think when you allow them to lead, you get the best stuff.
HF: I think you made a really great point about how a lot of creators, especially in your space, can be very homogenous, and you're looking to diversify that really well. How is that resonating with the audience? Do you find that it resonates better?
SC: Yeah, that's a great question. Let me start by sharing that our brand values diversity, but we also recognize that we have a long way to go. This means we will continue to take steps, where we can, and we know this isn’t a sprint - we want lasting change and want to pursue true equity in an authentic way. Earlier this year, our leadership was supportive of making a statement on our social channels after the George Floyd killing, so we made a statement against anti-blackness specifically, as well as racism and social justice. When we did that, we saw a little bit of a dip in our Instagram followers. But it wasn't very big, it was maybe 100 people more than usual. We lost some folks, but honestly, I was okay with that. And our team was okay with that. People have the choice to curate their feed, and if we're not the right brand for you, we're not the right brand for you. I get that. For some people, it's not even that they don't align with our stance, maybe they're just using social to escape, and they just want to have a fun feed, I understand that. But it was also important for us to speak into that space and time as an ally and co-conspirator. Be aware that when you try new things, whether it's taking a stance or launching into a new space, there's always going to be some growing pains, and that's normal. You can learn and adapt. The good and bad thing about social is that people will tell you if they have strong feelings very quickly through comments, DMs, story replies, following, unfollowing, liking, all those interactions, pay attention to that. I think if you know what your baselines are, you can tell what the sentiment is. We’re fortunate that our followers tend to be people who are reasonable and open to conversation, but we’ve also worked hard to earn their trust by showing them how we treat people, being responsive on social, and supporting causes that align with our values - they know we’re trying to do good in the world. From my experience at Yakima, we have and always will try to diversify our audience, but being intentional can be a somewhat slower approach to building relationships versus just paying people to use their likenesses. Because it’s not as dramatic a shift, your audience has time to adjust or get familiar with newer types of content, even if they’re not engaging much with it. For example, in 2018, our brand director at the time wanted us to focus on expanding our reach to women. And so we did that, and we did it in some ways that didn't scale. And in order to reach a different audience, we did have to pivot a little bit in terms of content or messaging, and that may not appeal to everyone in your base. Don't alienate anyone, necessarily, but know what you stand for, know what your brand differentiators are, and then be really intentional as you seek out those new audiences. Make it a good mix. I think if you look at it like 80% things that work well, tried and true type of stuff, and then 20% experimental, that tends to work out pretty well.
HF:I think that's a great breakdown. Do you have any campaigns from this year or specific ambassadors you've worked with that you're particularly proud of in terms of results and how things have gone?
SC: Diego Huerta is a travel photographer. He's one of our RackPack ambassadors. He does his thing, like no one else. He travels for weeks in his red Jeep, often going down to Mexico, and he tells the stories of indigenous native communities. He's a fantastic visual storyteller. For us, we've grown that partnership over the years. It started just with product support, and now we're moving to more of a compensation structure as he works on video series and documentaries. Two months ago, he tagged us in a post, which I thought was one of his usual travel posts featuring his cargo boxes on the road. But actually, he was sharing that he’s only able to travel and work, because of people who support him, like his assistant photographers or his parents for taking care of his dog and having them hold down the fort so he can travel. And while we play a small part in his story, I was certainly grateful that he included us in his list. This was not a sponsored post, it was completely unsolicited and when you see that sort of thing, you know you're doing something right.
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A post shared by Diego Huerta (@diegohuertaphoto)
All of our partners had smaller followings when we started with them, but we saw potential in each one. We knew they had a compelling story or point-of-view. Find those people and grow together. Even if you're a smaller brand and you have a smaller budget - we tend to have small budgets even though we're more established - you can do a lot with that. Don't go for the biggest YouTube channel, you don't necessarily have to do that to gain success. In 2018, as I mentioned, we wanted to reach more women and expand our audience. So we did that strategically, with a few ambassadors, as well as being present at women-specific events and creating content that spoke directly to women. We were able to see via our Facebook and Instagram insights that women followers grew by 10%! You can define growth and success beyond just follower growth on social. Keep the whole customer lifecycle and journey in mind. What are your goals with influencer marketing? Brand awareness, brand credibility, brand recall or lift, engagement rate, shifts in audience demographics, more polished branding, a repository of engaging content marketing, etc.. and when measuring if you’re successful, take a look at: are people using a branded hashtag, saving your posts, clicking through your link, engaging with your posts, downloading your app, sharing your content, using custom promo codes, coming to your site, purchasing, etc... There's so many different ways to define success per campaign, so I would say, take a look at what moves the needle for your brand, and then build that campaign with your ambassadors in line.
HF:Shifting gears a bit, but if you were to give advice to somebody who is trying to become a creator, or trying to become an ambassador, and maybe trying to work with brands, what sort of things would you say?
SC: I was actually going to do a webinar on this, because I feel like there are a lot of people right now who want to be an influencer or a content creator, and there's such talented people out there. Every brand is different. My peers and I have joked about the influencer marketing space as being very murky, because it's still relatively new. It's not brand new, but it's still new enough that it's not baked in stone. It's not like a TV ad buy or some of your traditional outlets so depending on the industry and on the brand, it can vary widely in terms of what a brand is either looking for or what they can do for compensation. Be willing to prove yourself and show value first. If you're starting out as a content creator, earn trust and impress the brand. If you think about partnership as an ongoing relationship, then stay patient, enjoy the back-and-forth, be genuine, and only partner up, when it makes sense.On the brand side of things, knowing who you are and who you aren’t are important. Likewise, for influencers and content creators, know what your style aesthetic is, what’s your voice, what makes you special, who is your audience, and which brands do you naturally align with? Take time to figure those key pillars and do your research to show us that you understand our brand, what our objectives are, our areas of growth, and where you think you can contribute. Folks in my position have a pretty good gauge and can tell if you're just sending a canned message to every single person in our industry to get free product. Only reach out to brands that you already use or really would use, and when you do, lay out a very clear vision of what you can provide. I would also recommend interacting with brands before you ask for anything. Be a follower, try to build some kind of rapport, comment, share, do all the things that you normally would do when you're networking. We get it, you're in it to either make a living or carve out a career, and that's important and it's good to be honest about that, but go in with the mindset where if things don’t align this time, no hard feelings. Especially if you're brand like ours, we get inundated with requests, so don’t take it personally if you don't get an answer or if the answer is ‘no.’ If you really want to catch our attention, make our work easy for us. We’re always looking for great content we can share. If you already own the products and are using them, create a Reel or post, don't wait for a project or a contract, go ahead. Even if we weren’t in the market for new content, if we see something that catches our eye and you were able to create this mini photo session without our input or direction, it shows us how easy you’ll be to work with. So, first, do the work, create the content, be creative, pay attention to what the brand's doing and where you could add value, and then reach out. If the brand wants to repost on social, you know you’re onto something. And if you impress the brand and they want to send you more products, figure out what’s reasonable and you’ve started to build a portfolio of brand work, which lends credibility and may help you get more brands to work with. I think that's one of the best ways to approach a brand. For Yakima, we’re all about road trips and taking it easy! If you own our racks or products, while you're driving around, take some photos around the vehicle base camp as people are relaxing and enjoying their down time. Pay attention to what we're posting - you’ll notice that while we do post vehicle-only hero shots, most of our images try to include some sort of “human” element - and mirror that. Don’t forget to share the image/video with us, or tag us and use one of our hashtags #yakimaracks. If we ask for permission to re-share, you know you’re on the right track and now that you’ve got some visibility, instead of asking for a fee right away, I’d start with, 'I'm so glad that you want to share this. Please tag me for photo credit. I’m a fan of your brand, I like….and I'm actually a photographer. Here’s a link to other photos you may be interested in.' Approach it in a really smart way, where there’s room to grow.
HF: This year has been different, but digital marketing has played such a critical role and how 2020 is sort of developed. How would you say that ambassadors can fit into the strategy for brands for this year, next year? How would you recommend other brands kind of get that going for the next year?
SC: Start small. Start with a campaign and a couple potential ambassadors to test things out. If you're a small team like me, and you can't be on-site directing a photoshoot or creating the content, using content creators, influencers, and ambassadors can be the best way to leverage these partnerships. Create a brief outlining:
- Purpose / Goal / Objectives
- Brand guidelines
- Prospective audience
- Shot list (including format, photo orientation, if you need white space for text overlay)
- Type of Content
- How you’re planning on using the content created
Your partners can create content in a way that you can't, and it'll speak and resonate with your audience with more authenticity and credibility than you can. Really, it's in your best interest to do it, and it can be relatively cost-effective.In terms of figuring out compensation, look at what you have: what’s your budget or what is your product trade availability? Have a good grasp of what you can offer, and then look at the folks that you want to work with before having a conversation. You can start it on DM/email, but I like to have a phone call or zoom session. Having a conversation over the phone or through video will give you a good sense of whether that person is a good fit for your brand, and vice-versa. Also realize that each person is different; the most important thing may not be that big paycheck. Sometimes what they value is having your brand support a cause or nonprofit that they're a part of. Other times, it's the brand credibility and the fact that they have a sponsorship to elevate their work and to link to their page or channel. Maybe they want to be in a publication or invited to an exclusive event, or it could even be the access to select media or brand partners. Every single person has some key things that they are looking for, so allow them to speak into that and then you can craft your compensation package or the agreement in a way that makes sense. For us, there's no formula. Each ambassador contract looks very different, and it takes a bit more work upfront. If you'd rather stick with one value proposition or cut and paste, you certainly can do that, but it's one of the areas where if you spend time, you'll get a lot more back. But if you’re starting up and need to save time, sticking with a general template can be helpful. Just keep in mind that if you're a generous partner and you show them that you want to do right by them, I've found that 100% of the time, our content creation partners and our ambassadors are willing to go outside of their contracts for us. Especially if you're on a quick turnaround or something comes up unexpectedly, or perhaps there's a photo or piece of content they posted that you really like that wasn't a part of the contract, many times they're willing to help you out for the sake of the long-time partnership. So, look at it that way as well.
HF: The last one on that to wrap it up with, zooming out again, what would you say is most important for marketers to be successful today?
SC: First, prioritize your health, mental health, and well-being. As marketers, especially working in social media, we are “on” 24/7, but make time to disconnect and reset so you can be creative, learn new things, and engage with your team and customers with compassion. This year has been rough for all of us who have had to face uncertainty. If your whole team can take off the holidays and create a post letting your followers know that you’ll be back online after, that would be best. Although our company never expected me to be on all-hours, if you’re a social media manager, you realize it’s really non-stop because you want to be timely when checking DMs, sharing Stories, and replying to comments during holidays or even on PTO. If you can’t fully disconnect, then at least carve out a chunk out time for yourself each day. Lastly, what's been invaluable is finding a community of peers. You're going to learn from each other, and you get a sense of what other brands are doing. It also helps to normalize what’s happening in social media since you have multiple sounding boards. There are a lot of good Facebook groups you can join. I’m in a few different groups with digital marketers, social media marketers, and entrepreneurs, where I can ask questions, commiserate, follow along with threads, find out about new trends or features, identify if there are gaps in my own skill set, and get advice. TLDR: Find your community and disconnect for your own peace of mind.