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The Value of Social Media Brand Ambassadors in the Outdoor Industry

As social media continues to encompass a large part of our lives, outdoor brands have incorporated innovative ways to capitalize on the trend. It’s apparent in the high-quality content videos produced by the likes of Yeti, Columbia, REI and Mathews Inc., among many others, that are shared by thousands across the web. While those big-production projects certainly reach many consumers, it’s the smaller, everyday content that fosters a group of followers. One of the fastest ways to do so is by establishing brand ambassadors.

A brand ambassador isn’t a new concept. Traditionally, they were paid to associate their image with a particular brand (think Michael Jordan and Nike) and its products. These days, while athletes and professional hunters or anglers are still the face of many outdoor brands, these companies are also tapping into your average Joe who holds a day job, but has amassed a reputable following through social media, a blog or both. These are your weekend warriors who are in the field every Saturday and Sunday creating incredible content to tell a story. They inhabit all walks of life, and are photographers, bloggers, backpackers, ski bums, hunting guides and backcountry anglers. Often, partnering with these folks on social media is a more cost effective and simpler way to reach a broader group of people, as well as a way to humanize a brand.

Before choosing an influencer, your brand needs to establish a few key points: target audience, expectations of the ambassadors, and a desired public perception of the brand. This relationship between brand and ambassador should positively impact both parties. When you have clear goals and it’s a good fit for both, it’s easier to reach your target audience.

Choosing a Brand Ambassador

Who is your brand’s ambassador? Is it someone who will simply generate positive content about your brand? Is it a high-level athlete capable of pushing your products to extremes? It’s alright to have a mix of the two and anyone in between. An eclectic group of ambassadors helps to increase your reach to varying segments of your target demographic and provide distinct content.

While diversity is important, what your ambassadors represent is even more so. According to Yeti’s Director of Community Marketing, Bill Neff, it’s best to seek those that will not just increase visibility of the brand, but embody its core missions. “There’s definitely a spirit in the people we ultimately align with,” Neff said in an interview with the Outdoor Industry Association. “There are very popular people who could get you tons of [eyeballs] but it would be confusing to our consumers if the spirit wasn’t there. It’s about the spirit.”

Yeti has built an entire lifestyle around its cooler products with the help of athletes, hunters and anglers that embody its “spirit.” This strategy projects an authentic and consistent message to consumers, no matter if content comes directly from the brand or through an ambassador.

While a major brand can easily secure (and afford) a big-name influencer, that may not be possible for smaller companies or niche brands. In this case, start the search with your social media audience. Search hashtags that are relevant to your brand to find users with a loyal following who are producing quality content. If followers are tagging your brand with compelling content during their weekend adventures, investigate their page to determine if they are plugged in to and able to access your target audience. While accounts garnering hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers seem most worthwhile (and they are), don’t shy away from those with less. Studies have shown that Instagram users with between 10,000 and 100,000 followers, considered a micro-influencer, have highest engagement rates, according to Digiday.

“We see micro-influencers get an average of two-to-five times more organic engagement per Instagram post, compared to those with more than 100,000 followers,” Chris Gonzalez, CEO of Gnack, an advertising platform, said in an interview with Digiday. “Their content will be organically performing better on the platform due to the inherent superior engagement.”

With an established set of ambassadors, consider creating a dedicated page on your website displaying them with links to their content or blogs. Yeti displays both sponsored athletes, hunters, and anglers on the same page as other influencers, who they’ve dubbed the “Wild Ones.” This section of your site can also serve as an information hub for those interested in joining your program.

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Yeti displays brand ambassadors on its page, featuring professional hunters, anglers and athletes.

The incentives you provide your ambassadors will vary depending on who they are. For some fans and casual outdoor enthusiasts, free gear and some exposure may be enough. However, most often brands provide their influencers payment per post. Be sure to predetermine those rates, and how much each person is expected to contribute and when.

Strategies

There are several ways to strategically use brand ambassadors. A simple and straightforward approach is to have them post on their social media accounts while using your products, which allows you control of the message. Another commonly used strategy is a social media “takeover,” which is when an influencer posts directly on your brand’s account. Both avenues have the potential to reach new audiences, increase engagement and drive web traffic.

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However, some outdoor brands are experimenting with different variations of these tactics. Most notably, Columbia Sportswear and its OmniTen ambassador program. In 2012, Columbia invited 10 everyday folks to partake in a program to test its products. Columbia Senior Manager of PR Scott Trepanier said they wanted to connect with super fans who “had an outside view of the brand and had strong opinions.”

“We didn’t necessarily look for people with the biggest fan count,” Trepanier said in an interview with BizBash. “We looked for people who were good content developers, maybe they took really good photos or great videos, which we could then re-share. In front of our community it has a lot more weight because it is a third-party perspective.”

Every year since, a new set of ambassadors is whisked away to different parts of the world to test products and tout Columbia’s new gear. When Columbia re-shares a post from one of its 10 influencers, it always includes the #omniten hashtag, which has garnered more than 11,000 photos and videos since the program began. Today, the tag is used not only by the current ambassadors and alumni, but by outdoor enthusiasts on weekend adventures - a recruiting tool for Columbia. “Join Columbia on the next epic adventure,” its website states. “Just tag your photos, videos and tweets with #omniten. We’ll find you.”

Eddie Bauer follows a similar path, yet takes it a step further by employing ambassadors for developing products for its Guide-Built series. “We handpicked a select crew of world-class, hard-working guides and athletes to tap their deep knowledge of what works in the harshest environments and most remote locations,” its website states. “Then we integrated each member of the team into the development process from the brainstorming and prototyping phases to the first field tests and the final, conclusive expedition testing.”

Eddie Bauer routinely features outdoor guides as a part of their social media strategy. They also write blogs and are listed prominently on the brand’s website, which projects a level of authenticity that helps consumers feel they’re getting a product that’s tough, well-designed and will hold up outdoors.

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To further increase brand visibility on Instagram and Facebook, Eddie Bauer incorporates #LiveYourAdventure on its posts (guides use it too). The tag has amassed almost 300,000 photographs and videos, and has come to embody outdoor adventure. It provides Eddie Bauer with the chance to broaden its reach.

Measure Success

It’s important to be able to measure the success of your brand ambassador program. You should be able to answer the question: How does it support the goals of the brand and business as a whole? We track traffic, engagement and revenue in detail by taking a deep dive into our analytics accounts to collect and record website interaction data. In keeping track of these KPIs, we are able to gain valuable feedback by determining how the audience is responding to content marketing efforts by ambassadors. Record these for individual campaigns and posts, as well as for the overall program. By doing so, we are able to set benchmarks and outline future plans based on these results.

Jonathan Olivier