Awakening the Force: How to Use Brand Jedi to Harness 'Dark Social'

Three Steps to Identify and Train Your Army of Brand Advocates

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If there's one thing marketers should know, it's that their campaign results are largely driven not by the masses, but by a smaller audience of the brand's true believers -- its Jedi force.

Most actions your Jedi take fall into the social sharing zone known informally as "dark social." It sounds as nefarious as the Empire, but it isn't. It's called "dark" just because it's hard to track; it includes link-sharing in email, online word-of-mouth, and all the other informal ways people talk online.

"Dark social" promotion is really valuable -- almost magical -- because it works better than almost any other kind of promotion; people really respond well to personal appeals. So, how do you find your brand Jedi and harness their "dark social" power?

Step 1: Identification

Thirty years ago, marketers would study demographics and flood specific zones with ads or direct mail. Now, they run online ads to identify targets. But most marketers stop there. To find your Jedi, you must use smart targeting -- monitor activity across social channels and use algorithms that suggest other friends to share with based on details like location or shared interests.

Ford knows firsthand the value of identifying brand Jedi. Its Team Detroit agency recently developed ConnectFord, a hub for self-identified brand advocates to share their experiences and ideas through stories, product ideas and photos. In return, fans are granted priority access to the latest news and updates. Today, hundreds of influencers have registered for ConnectFord and play a key role in connecting the brand to an audience of 6.3 million people. Using the site's data, Ford can target audience segments with personalized email based on specific interests and provide even more customized benefits to its highest-value influencers.

Step 2: Activation

Once you've found your Jedi, empower them to share in their own way while tracking their behavior. Be sure to encourage light engagement (sharing or liking a post) in addition to actions that require heavier commitment. Light actions generate volume, while heavy actions help identify your most loyal Jedi -- you need both.

You should also give influencers the tools to "take it offline" -- downloadable talking points, printable car window signs or flyers that advocates can bring to an event. These tactics started with politics but are increasingly finding ways into the commercial sphere. Almond milk, for example, has carved out a niche in the dairy market by arming evangelists with facts about its health benefits.

Introducing trackable actions like downloads into the process will help you better monitor engagement. Even if you can't track down every post, the actions that you can track offer a proxy measure of participation. Likewise, using A/B testing will help you understand which of your tactics are working.

Step 3: Upgrade influencers

As your brand Jedi gain experience and confidence, give them opportunities to hone their craft and expand their relationship with you. Encourage frequent participation by keeping it short and simple, to keep them coming back as often as possible.

The Hunger Site, a site run by charitable community network GreaterGood, encourages participation by tracking "Click to Give" clickthroughs on a daily basis. The site pits its visitors in a competition against themselves to beat the previous day, week or month's record. This in turn inspires donors to up the ante -- a win-win for both sides. Similarly, the small-dollar giving site Good St. makes it easy for donors to vote every day on how part of their gift should be spent, helping them stay top of mind for supporters.

You can also reward brand Jedi by directly acknowledging their participation or actions. For example, people who frequently review products on Amazon are badged, and those whose reviews get high ratings are featured, creating a positive feedback loop that encourages reviewers to return frequently and review thoughtfully. Another way to upgrade influencers is by giving them exclusive benefits, such as early access to products, like Bonobos.com does.

The brand awakens

As martech continues to evolve, marketers should constantly reevaluate the way they engage their followers. To truly get value out of "dark social," marketers need to identify influencers, activate them to reach a wider audience, and keep them coming back with personalized content and opportunities.

Most companies get this formula wrong by accepting churn as a fact of life and constantly spending to acquire new customers, rather than investing in building a community. But given that one brand evangelist is worth a hundred or a thousand weak supporters, marketers have everything to gain by exploring "dark social."

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