Rise of the Brand Ambassador

This might be my first personal blog that talks about work. Or sort of about work. It’s also about triathlon. But only sort of. (Reader rolls eyes and awaits another disjointed blog post. Or stops reading altogether.)

My work specialty is text analytics (a combination of computational linguistics and business intelligence), mostly applied to social media these days. What that means is that we at Attensity analyze the content of what people say on social media along with all of the other “social graph” data: e.g., how influential people are, how things get retweeted, liked, +1d, etc. The critical part is how to accurately map random human language into structures that correspond to meaning, so that they can be counted, tracked and trended in useful ways. Oh, and do that on many thousands of posts per second without falling behind.

What’s come out of that work, besides a lot of variety (I’ve worked with the Fortune 500, the intelligence community and major media and entertainment companies) is a rapid-fire introduction to the business side of social media. We’ve applied our technology to everything from following the U.S. presidential elections (starting with the GOP primaries) and Arab Spring to who’s getting voted off each week on American Idol or The Voice. There’s a lot of subtlety to what goes on; it’s not just about identifying positive and negative sentiment. Particularly important is the role of influence.

Influence is harder to measure than it might seem — it’s way more complicated than how many followers you have on Twitter or friends on Facebook. Entire companies (e.g., Klout) have been built around the attempt to quantify influence, but even their presumably sophisticated metrics don’t ring entirely true to many. What’s clear is that influence is topic specific — if you look at the most-mentioned celebrities on Twitter at any given moment, for example, you’ll almost always find Justin Bieber at the top. However, on election day, if you looked at election-specific tweets, as we did for Bloomberg, the top celebrity aside from the candidates was Jay Z. (You can watch the video to find out why.)

(The reader is wondering when we’re going to talk swim, bike and run. Patience!) Topic-specific influence has created novel new ways for companies to market their products and brands: among them, the brand ambassador. If you think about traditional advertising, celebrities are often used as brand ambassadors, but celebrities are expensive. The social brand ambassador, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be a celebrity per se; they just need to influence a sufficiently large network of people on a particular topic.

Which brings me around to triathlon. I’ve found myself, quite unexpectedly, in the position of having become a brand ambassador. Not once, but twice already, and I’m likely to pull the trigger on a third. Why is that? There are many faster guys out there than I, though I’m reasonably quick for a 50-year-old age grouper. I can think of a few reasons:

  • I’m part of a community. I am very active on my triathlon team, and I race within my local community in addition to bigger races elsewhere.
  • I’m active on social media, but not overactive. I try to be interesting and honest, without oversharing. Hopefully I succeed more than I fail.
  • I am a gearhead. I will try almost any new product if I think it will give me an edge. I would never endorse a product just because I got it for free or heavily discounted — my litmus test is would I use this if I had to pay full price for it? Actually, in the case of TrainingPeaks and many of Wattie Ink’s sponsors, I am and already was a customer and avid user.
  • I work with other athletes to help them improve. I am eager to share what I’ve learned — which tools to use, which training sessions are most effective for a particular end goal — and to see my advice through to implementation. I think I’m most proud of the level I got my “Garage of Pain” training buddy Mike to this past year, even compared to my own results.

What’s ironic for my day job is that — so I’m told, anyway — one of my company’s investors at one point laid a bunch of printouts of various of my Facebook posts down during a board meeting and opined that it seemed that all I did was train and race. (If that were true, btw, I should have much better results than I’ve had.) Notwithstanding potential jealousy (he’s…um…not exactly the fittest individual on the planet) and probable violation of European privacy laws (he’s not a Facebook friend, so had no right to access any of my posts), he was missing the point on one of the central themes of a company he’s invested a lot of money in: social influence.

Becoming an influencer isn’t hard: write about what you know, be passionate, interesting and real, and connect your social presence back to a community of people at least some of whom you know in real life. Oh, and occasionally kick some ass in a triathlon or two. 🙂

An interesting side note on the confluence of work and hobby: the evening before the Wattie Ink Elite Team selection was announced, I got the following DM on Twitter:

wattie dmWhat was funny about that was that I had been on set at The Voice a couple of nights before, thanks to our work in media. While I had made a couple of random references to it on Twitter, I had mostly posted about it to my Facebook friends. So anyway, Wattie did his homework.

Maybe I’ll get him to be my lead investor next time. 🙂

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