By Melissa Russom, a communications strategist who helps nonprofit organizations clarify their brand and message to engage more meaningfully with the people who matter most to them.

We trust people more than we trust companies. It’s that simple. 

In fact, according to Nielson, 92% of people claim they trust personal recommendations and other earned media, while just over half trust messages found on a company’s website or sent via email.

The business world has recognized the power of word-of-mouth testimonials, turning them into an almost $10 billion industry known as influencer marketing. This is where companies turn to people with large social media followings and niche credibility to advertise their product, paying as much as $1 million per post from Kylie Jenner.

No, you don’t need an advertising budget in the millions to get in the game. As a beloved cause to many, you can find willing and effective influencers among your own ranks and volunteers. These are people who want to help amplify your message to increase your impact, share their passion, and recruit others to join the cause. 

These are your social media ambassadors. 

Social media aims to connect people with people. Facebook doesn’t try to hide its overwhelming favor for personal posts over branded content. No wonder brand messages are shared 24 times more frequently when coming from employees (real people) compared to when posted by the company. 

While your organization accounts work to build an authentic community, share your story, and advance your brand strategy, playing the game as it was intended (person-to-person) can drive even more meaningful engagement with your cause. 

But, wait – before you go recruiting your most outspoken supporters to shout about you in their Instagram stories, make sure you know these 7 keys to an effective social media ambassador program: 

7 Keys to an Effective Social Media Ambassador Program

1) Determine your social media objectives

What role does social media play in your overall communications plan? 

Maybe you’re using Twitter to establish your organization as a thought leader in your space, Facebook to recruit program participants and Instagram to share inspiring stories of donor impact that move others to join your mailing list…

You’re not dedicating staff resources and recruiting volunteers to add to the cacophony of social media noise, right? Nah. So set objectives and let them guide you.

2) Choose the right people

Social media isn’t for everyone. Some supporters may jump at the chance to be a social media ambassador for an organization they care about, but do you really want messages about your initiatives intermingling with political rants or drinking memes?

Your ideal social media ambassador is someone with a passion for your cause who naturally emanates your brand. This person also has at least a basic handle of how to use social media. You can help bring them from casual poster to effective influencer, but you’re not looking to start your training at “this is how to share a post.” 

Finally, your social media ambassadors will enjoy some influence with a particular group of people you are targeting as a current or desired audience. Veterinarians to help reach pet-owners, hip trend-setters to connect with recent graduates, entrepreneurs to tap into the start-up scene in your community… 

To find the right people, be curious and open. See what your board or staff members, donors and volunteers are up to on social media. Do any of them fit the bill? How about interested parties already following you on social media or visiting your website? Follow the lead of organizations like the Austin Public Library who have a sign-up form for those interested in participating. I especially love how the library messages the program as one about the volunteers, not the organization.

3) Share your objectives in a clear and inspiring way

Share the why with your ambassadors. Skipping right to how or what you’re looking for turns an exciting opportunity into a potentially drab set of tasks. You’ve determined your objectives based on where your organization looks to go and how social media helps to get it there. Share that. Treat your ambassadors as insiders who are doing much more than growing vanity metrics – they are helping to steer a movement. 

I’m not saying you skip the tactical discussions, just don’t jump right there as step #1. Once you have laid the foundation for what you’re hoping to achieve together, then you need to tell your ambassadors exactly how they can help you get there. 

Are you expecting them to share stories related to your organization’s brand and use a set hashtag, like how the Bob Woodruff Foundation does it? Or, maybe you’re looking for more of an amplification of what you’re already posting, as is the University of Chicago’s Alumni Association

Be direct with your expectations.

4) Clarify your brand, but don’t expect 100% alignment

Provide your social media ambassadors with your brand and messaging standards – not as a document attached to an email – but as a discussion of how and why your organization communicates the way it does.

You have put some serious thought into your messaging standards, but that doesn’t mean your social media ambassadors necessarily have. Do you use “they” in the singular to avoid binary language? Could the term “shelter” be a derogatory way to describe your animal protective sanctuaries? Do you say homeless people or individuals experiencing homelessness?… Be open and clear about why this matters. After all, people are volunteering to help your cause – if there is a way they can be more effective in helping you – or more importantly, avoid a PR fail – they’ll want to know. 

These are guides you’re providing – not mandates. This is not the time for brand policing. You want individuals with personalities. You want your ambassadors to be themselves, not a scripted version that resembles themselves and strips away the authenticity that made their relationship as an ambassador so powerful, to begin with.

5) Provide the necessary tools

People are volunteering their time to help you better engage your targeted audiences and share your brand more widely. They are lending their time and influence and deserve an easy-as-possible process in return.

There are numerous examples of Giving Tuesday or other campaign-specific toolkits you can find online. Check out: Tahirih Justice Center, Northern Illinois Foodbank, or The Homer Fund for some ideas. 

In addition, dedicate a webpage (a resource hub) with what your ambassadors will need: images sized for various social platforms, graphics, statistics, quotes from leadership and industry thought-leaders and important dates. 

Then, communicate with your social media ambassadors regularly – every two weeks or monthly – to say thank you, share impactful posts as both inspiration and kudos, and highlight the fresh content and information you’ve added to the webpage. 

You may also want to consider using an engagement tool to help push out messages to your team that they can share with just the click of a button. Here’s a list of 10 programs you may find useful.

6) Provide a fun and supportive community

A sense of belonging to something with a larger purpose will make your social media ambassadors even more sincere, excited and engaging. Turn your ambassador program into a club they’re proud to join. 

Sure, the digital groups help make this possible – a Facebook or LinkedIn group or ambassador hashtag on Twitter is a must. But, take it offline, too. 

In a society plagued by a “loneliness epidemic,” bring people together IRL (in real life). Big brands do it with immersive experiences like skateparks in retail stores, but you don’t have to go that big. Try a coffee chat, pub night, or brainstorming wingfest – whatever fits the culture of your organization and your team. Bonus points if you can provide exclusive members-only perks like the Austin Public Library does with sneak peeks to new program developments or behind-the-scenes looks at sold-out events.

7) Engage with your ambassadors

Keep an eye on your team’s posts and be ready to like, comment or share when applicable. Don’t like every. single. post. as then you’re degrading the authenticity of the ambassadors and making them seem like an arm of the organization. 

Instead, look for moments when you can further connect people, or add some insight. Look how Selfies With AEDs saw their social media ambassador was posting from the city where a partner organization is located and took the opportunity to tag the partner (and share their advocacy campaign in the process).

Summing up:

An effective social media ambassador program is not just a numbers game. Sure, plenty of organizations take that tack, but they’re missing the opportunity to send the startegic message they want to their audiences. Instead, they’re at best, putting their name in front of some new people without much deeper engagement, and at worst, confusing potential supporters who don’t understand how this content is relevant to them. 

Put some thought into who, why and how you’re engaging and then you can pull together a savvy and influential team to advance your cause. 

About the author: Melissa Russom empowers organizations to communicate in a way that engages, and doesn’t confuse, the people they need. A strategist, writer and storyteller, Melissa focuses on clear messaging and brand strategy to assist teams in engaging their audiences and motivating them to take action. She has more than ten years of experience directing communications within and alongside nonprofit organizations of all sizes, including founding a heart disease awareness organization in upstate New York that has raised more than $165,000 through volunteer efforts.