This post was originally published by HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes on the LinkedIn Influencer blog. Follow Ryan on LinkedIn:
For the first three years of my company, HootSuite, we spent literally no money on marketing, PR or advertising. As a bootstrapping startup, we simply couldn’t afford it. A lot of you have asked me how we did this.
So recently, I wrote about one of the ways my company got five million customers with zero ad budget: by building a business on the freemium model.
In this post, I’ll share the second secret behind HootSuite’s early and explosive growth on a very tight budget: a successful global brand ambassador program. What is this? A brand ambassador program involves building up a global ‘army’ of people who are genuinely interested in your company and therefore willing to spread the word for you. It’s an incredibly effective way to increase global brand awareness on a shoestring.
Here are just a few key tactics behind this successful initiative, which helped us gain millions of users in our first three years:
Facilitate cost-effective but irresistibly fun grassroots campaigns.
As our user base quickly grew from thousands to millions, we discovered that a key secret to our rapid growth was organizing fun but small-scale, locally-driven campaigns around the world. Thanks to advancing technology (like social media, of course), this is surprisingly easy and manageable, even for a business with limited resources.
First we’d notice an emerging organic market and immediately start reaching out to locals in the region using networks like Facebook and Twitter. Then we’d engage with them further by doing translation projects together, sending them ‘swag’ (like stickers and owl masks), and organizing fun, casual community events. Finally, we would always celebrate what they were doing by posting their photos and stories on our own channels, like on a dedicated blog or our company Facebook page. We would also choose a few select industry events like SXSW to attend and come up with cost-efficient, enjoyable ways to stand out from the crowd.
In this way, we saw hundreds of people all over the world become brand ambassadors because they liked our product and they liked us. And they did it all for free, because they were having fun. Many of these ambassadors, it turned out, were bloggers, consultants, early adopters, and “digital influencers,” who really helped us spread the word in new markets.
Build authentic relationships with people.
In our early days, we quickly learned that building a successful brand isn’t just about ROI; it’s also about developing relationships with people.
The key to doing this—even with limited resources—is to really listen. Again, tools like social media are essential here. Even if just one enthusiastic fan in Iceland or Siberia reached out to us via a Tweet or Facebook update, we made sure our community and support teams were paying attention and engaging or responding.
Looking back now, what really differentiated our community programs from many others at the time and what certainly contributes to our continued growth today is that we always prioritized users first (even if they were non-paying) and spoke to them over all of our social media channels. For example, by our second year of business, HootSuite had dozens of active regional Twitter accounts to make sure no one reaching out to us went unheard. From the start, our community managers were on the front lines, connecting with people all around the world.