Brand ambassadors can help you grow your presence both online and offline, send new customers your way and increase your sales. By giving creative freedom to ambassadors who really fit with your brand, you can drip-feed your message to your target audience in a natural way that traditional advertising can’t.

By defining what you want to get from working with brand ambassadors, and your expectations of the relationship, you’ll be able to create a programme that suits both you and the individuals you work with. You should look to nurture these relationships over the long term, as they go beyond simply inviting a busy local journalist to come and review a meal – and it should be more exciting than that, too!

Here are the key ways independent restaurants can harness the power of brand ambassadors to grow their business:

1. Find the best brand ambassadors for your business

It all starts with identifying the best people for the job – if they already love your restaurant, they’ll be much more receptive to helping you to promote it. Begin by looking at people who are already familiar with your restaurant, from your staff to your repeat and regular diners.

Search for reviews online to find the people who are already talking about you and your local competitors. Finally, broaden your search by taking a look at food and travel blogging networks and niche sites for influencers who may be further afield but are still worth inviting to one-off events.

Note how these influencers go about reviewing restaurants and see how many people engage with them. The goal is to find influential people and then convince them to help you spread your message.

There’s no set number to how many people you need to have in a brand ambassador programme, but it’s better to focus on quality over quantity, identifying those who really believe in your brand and will put in the time and effort to generate great results.

This part of the process can be time-consuming, but having a solid grounding to work from will pay dividends once your programme takes off.

2. Have clear objectives

You’ll need data, metrics and analytics to measure how effective your brand ambassadors’ efforts are. Ask yourself what’s most important to you: do you want lots of new content being produced and shared, or is the impact on sales or number of ambassadors more important?

Then, use a platform to track these metrics. Start by tracking your brand ambassadors’ activities and the people who are interacting with them. For example, there is a wide selection of free and paid-for tools for tracking social media activity, depending on your budget and needs. You can use tools like Google’s URL builder to assign unique links to each of your brands ambassadors’ online activities.

Over time you’ll be able to measure the reach and effectiveness of your activities based on engagement and potentially link them back to sales with the right tools.

3. Decide what the programme will involve

Local restaurants could ask brand ambassadors for things like social media promotion and interaction, gauging community opinion, reviews on websites and blogs, help at events and around the community by handing out samples and other goodies, in return for complimentary meals and special offers.

Brand ambassadors are traditionally unpaid volunteers, though the best programmes give as much as they get when it comes to perks and ‘swag’. If we could convince Bill Wyman’s Rolling Stones memorabilia-adorned Sticky Fingers to start up a brand ambassador programme and get our mitts on the branded merch they sell in the restaurant, we’d be all over it!

So you might not be able to recreate the cult status of The Rolling Stones, or the Nando’s High Five Card with unofficial celebrity ambassadors like Ed Sheeran but handing out useful and relevant merchandise to your brand ambassadors will help you to stay front of mind when they’re in the kitchen – and your swag may even appear in their day-to-day recipe posts.

It needn’t be an expensive venture: think stylish oven mitts, digital timers or aprons. Your brand ambassadors could also help you to hand this swag out at local food festivals and other events.

Particularly in the case of bloggers and webmasters, give your ambassadors access to exclusive news and behind-the-scenes footage as well as promotion on your own online channels, to give you both fresh and unique content to work with.

Many bloggers have become hugely influential and now run their websites as their full-time job, so unlike traditional brand ambassadors they expect compensation for their time. Sponsoring their blog from time to time with a sidebar or banner ad is an affordable way to reinforce your partnership.

Your brand ambassadors will also love interacting with each other: consider creating a private online hub where they can socialise and swap tips. You should definitely host regular get-togethers in the form of VIP tasting events, previews and cooking masterclasses – you could even surprise them with a celebrity guest chef to add to the wow factor.

The cost of fancy websites and celeb guests can quickly rack up, but if you want to go all out and give your brand ambassadors some really meaty news to spread far and wide, you can get a merchant cash advance to cover those special one-off expenses.

4. Implement their feedback to keep growing

Finally, great brand ambassadors will not only tell you what they think of your brand ambassador programme, they will also feedback on how your potential customers think you’re shaping up in comparison to your competitors. Use their invaluable insights to improve your restaurant’s brand and stay one step ahead of the competition.

Summary

Credible brand ambassadors can help your independent restaurant to stand out among the many others in the local area by boosting your visibility and brand awareness as well as, ultimately, sales.

Implementing a great brand ambassador programme gives local restaurants the chance to benefit from natural recommendations made by trusted sources – something that will always trump a standard advertisement.

About the author: Paul Mildenstein is the CEO of Liberis, a company that provides revenue-based finance for independent restaurants and other small businesses.