Turn Your Top Customers Into Social-Media Advocates

You’ve seen brands partner with dance celebrities who have a strong social-media following. Why not tap into the trend and use your best (and most talented) customers as brand advocates for your store?

Three Nathalie & Co Dancewear brand ambassadors posing for photos in a black tutu, a white leotard, and in leggings and dance sneakers.
A photo shoot for Nathalie & Co. Dancewear’s brand ambassador and model program. Illuminate AZ, Amy Weir; courtesy of the retailer

Using loyal customers as brand advocates for your store can be a great way to connect with local dance students and their parents. When you create a social media brand ambassador program, the endorsement of a local dancer can increase the trust other customers have in your store and make them more inclined to buy. Ninety-two percent of people trust recommendations from friends and family over any other type of advertising, Nielsen has found. That’s why word-of-mouth marketing is such a powerful tool.

Nathalie Velasquez has seen its positive effects firsthand. The owner of Nathalie & Co. Dancewear in Phoenix, AZ, officially launched the NatCo brand ambassador and model program in 2018. At least twice a year, models attend photo shoots to showcase store merchandise; brand ambassadors post six times or more a month on social media and also attend two or more photo shoots a year. When the program began, Velasquez watched her store’s social-media engagement grow 200 percent almost immediately. “It really makes a difference when you are using your customers as models because they are recognized in their communities,” Velasquez says. “Our Facebook and Instagram accounts literally got thousands of new followers overnight.” 

A brand advocate program may seem pretty straightforward—perhaps even easy—when you look at it on paper. However, it turns out that navigating and finessing the details can take some trial and error until you find the right balance for your store, your participants and your customers. Here are some thoughts from three dance retailers who have tested their own programs.

Establish Guidelines and Incentives for Brand Ambassadors

Do you want a rolling roster of advocates during the school year, or do you want a dedicated star each semester? Do you want students from one or two age groups? Or do you want to focus on a specific dance genre? Before you start accepting applications, define your program goals and expectations. 

“We were constantly asked by customers if we could sponsor them or if they could be an ambassador for us, so we decided to give it a try,” says Molly Ellis, communications director for Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique, which has two locations in Maryland and one in Virginia. Footlights ran its brand ambassador program for two years.

Instagram post with Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique brand ambassador Kylie Miller wearing tap shoes and twirling an umbrella
Kylie Miller, Footlights’ youngest ambassador, having fun for one of her posts. Instagram, courtesy of Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique

In 2018 Footlights used three local dancers who did giveaways on their social pages with free Footlights items (ballet shoes, tights or a leotard), posted four times monthly, and either did in-store social-media takeovers or a photo shoot with products four times a year. Each visit, they received a pair of ballet slippers, tights or a leotard for their time. Two moved away from the area midyear, however. 

Instagram post with Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique brand ambassador Ellie Moser announcing she's been picked up by Houston Ballet Academy and thanking Footlights for "all the things I need this year."
Ellie Moser, Footlights brand ambassador, moved away when she was picked up by Houston Ballet Academy. Instagram, courtesy of Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique

In 2019, Footlights decided instead to focus on a professional dancer based in Salt Lake City who grew up shopping at Footlights.

Instagram post with Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique brand ambassador Jazz Bynum
Brand ambassador Jazz Bynum, member of Ballet West II, grew up shopping at Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique. Instagram, courtesy of the retailer

She posted four times a month in exchange for receiving a small number of pointe shoes through the year, although the incentive meant less once her company began providing her with the shoes she needed. “Needless to say, our ideals for the program and the realistic results shifted,” Ellis says, noting that Footlights decided not to continue the brand ambassador program for 2020. “Overall, the only benefit we gained was a little more traffic to our social media.” 

Ellis’ advice: Make your goals easy and choose ambassadors who are already dedicated customers. “There are many ways to run a program like this,” she says. But she points out that while ambassadors are easy to attract with free gifts, you need to decide whether it’s worth it for your business.

Cara Milo, owner of Beam & Barre in Cos Cob, CT, thinks it can be. She launched a brand ambassador program a year ago featuring 7 to 10 new “Beam & Barre Beauty” ambassadors every six months. They post at least twice a month with Beam & Barre products, share the brand in their personal dance communities and model for some of the store’s posts. In exchange, Milo offers them a 20 percent discount on items and holds random challenges or giveaways for a free leotard or other merchandise.

Two dancers posing; one outside, one inside Beam & Barre dance store, in front of a pink floral wall.
Photos of Beam & Barre ambassadors taken outdoors and in the store. Courtesy of Beam & Barre

Offering a discount to aspiring dancers goes a long way toward spreading goodwill and retaining ambassadors’ loyalty. Velasquez’s brand ambassadors get $50 in monthly store credit, and both the models and brand ambassadors get a 20 to 30 percent discount on the items they wear during a photo shoot. “They personally wouldn’t choose some of the items that we’ve set out for them to wear, so a lot of the dancers are pleasantly surprised by the style and how good it looks on them,” she says. “And, in terms of sales, offering a discount has given us a lot of ROI.”

Nathalie & Co. Dancewear is also trying a new referral program for 2020. Each ambassador will get an exclusive code they can use in their social posts, and if a customer makes a purchase using the code, the ambassador will accumulate points that convert to store credit. 

Be Choosy When Picking Talent

A dancer might have a beautiful portfolio, have extraordinary talent and a healthy Instagram following, but don’t be swayed just by that. “We look at applicants’ followers and who comments on their photos, so we can see if the people they’re interacting with are people we want to reach,” Milo says. “It’s not necessarily about the number of people or followers they might have in their community, but whether they’re the right people for your store.”

You’ll also be working with more than just the child or teen: “Make sure you have a good relationship with their parents, because they’re the ones who are going to be doing a lot of the posting,” Velasquez says. “I do a callback, like auditions for a theater show, so I can also ensure parents are vetted.”

Ellis agrees, noting that Footlights had underage applicants get parental approval—and parents were required to be on-site whenever the dancers participated in a store photo shoot.

Make Sure You Have Time to Commit

Combing through applications, organizing the ongoing game plan, editing and scheduling social-media posts and putting together photo shoots take time—a lot of time. Decide how much you’re able to commit each month.

Velasquez spends two to three hours every day on her store’s Facebook and Instagram pages, which include special pages just for her NatCo dancers. She has plans to develop a YouTube channel this year, too.

“In a perfect world,” Ellis says, “I would dedicate approximately 48 to 72 hours monthly toward the program. That’s including the time to edit photos, post and interact with social—and so that there’s time to really flesh out the ideas we want featured, the setups and the overall approach.” 

Milo, on the other hand, says she manages her program in just a couple hours a week. 

Whatever the level of intensity for your brand advocate program, the main focus should be on positive brand awareness and making sure everyone involved is having fun. Ellis doesn’t see a downside to Footlights’ experiments with using ambassadors. “If it doesn’t meet your initial expectations,” she says, “at least you made some lucky dancers happy!”

Hannah Maria Hayes is a freelance journalist who has been writing for Dance Media publications for a decade.