Sarah Fletcher, Community Engagement Co-ordinator & Marketing Assistant at Vancouver Symphony Orchestra tells us about her ambassador programme and answers some questions:
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra introduced its first Ambassador programme in September 2008 with the ‘Student Ambassador Programme’. We decided to focus on Students because despite the VSO’s $10 student ticket deal known as the Student Access Pass, very few students were taking advantage of it. We felt as though we needed a new approach in order to reach out to this demographic and we couldn’t think of a better way for students to learn about it than via their own social circles and through the power of word of mouth.
Things got going in September 2008 about a month prior to the start of VSO’s 08/09 season and when all the Universities and Colleges in Greater Vancouver were starting their new year. I sent out a mass e-mail to University and College department heads and secretaries with a friendly tone explaining the Student Access Pass and the Student Ambassador programme. Thankfully of those I contacted a good deal reacted very positively and told me they will forward the e-mail onto their students. Out of that I must have received about twenty or so e-mails from students interested in the Ambassador Programme. I responded by inviting them individually to our first special event in which they could see for themselves what the programme entails.
I also went to orientation days at various Universities and Colleges in Greater Vancouver. I manned several tables for the VSO advertising the Access Pass and the Student Ambassador Programme. This was a great way to meet potential Student Ambassadors as having a physical presence helped to break down any negative misconceptions and with friendly conversation students could see for themselves what the Ambassador Programme might actually be like.
Our aim was to discover anyone with a keen interest in music, regardless of their background or education and to get them to simply try the programme. Their role would be to spread the word about the VSO and the Student Access Pass in any way possible: put up posters, hand out flyers, e-mail their friends, professors and peers and suggest they go to the Symphony by telling them why they think they should go, from their own perspective.
I reminded them about the power of word of mouth, how talking to friends and suggesting they go, even just once is tremendously powerful, perhaps more powerful than all of the traditional marketing methods combined.
I kept up an almost constant correspondence with every Student Ambassador, relating to them as colleagues and as friends. After a short time, once we were all comfortable with the programme and with one another I found a lot of them started coming to me with various ideas of their own, things in their day to day lives which they felt would be a perfect environment for advertising the Access Pass. There were tons of ideas coming at me and I found myself almost trying to keep up.
We offered our thanks to each Ambassador in the shape of invitations to special events, free tickets on a regular basis, a backstage tour and the opportunity to meet musicians. However by the end of the first year it was evident that Ambassadors gained a tremendous amount of personal reward from being a part of the programme and witnessing first hand the reactions of those they’ve persuaded to attend the symphony for the first time.
Ambassadors forwarded me e-mails from happy concert goers thanking them for introducing them to the Symphony and explaining how they wouldn’t normally have considered going but will in future. It was heart warming to see such positive reactions from both sides and it was our hope that in time and with continuing the programme into the long distant future that these positive feelings would grow and continue to influence a wider population.
Do you think of your ambassador programme as part of marketing for VSO?
Yes I do. I think of them as an extension of the marketing department and as small part of the education department.
What is the most important thing your ambassadors provide or add to VSO?
In their entirety they are an amazing task force. They are hard working, creative, enthusiastic and open minded. They are priceless in my mind and perhaps the best marketing tool there is.
What do they get out of being ambassadors?
They are routinely offered free tickets, invitations to special events to meet the staff and musicians, a back stage tour and the opportunity to be a recognized part of the VSO. It seems they also gain a good deal of personal reward.
Do they get results you can measure?
No they do not, not ones I can stick onto an excel sheet that is. It’s a long term investment.
We did start out by giving each Ambassador a personal code whereby if anyone bought tickets and quoted that code, their tickets would count towards the Ambassadors’ total. However, I felt it wasn’t working for several reasons. The first one being it didn’t make sense for anyone to remember a code and repeat it to a customer service rep when it didn’t effect them in any way, ie. there wasn’t a discount or a perk associated with it. Secondly, I didn’t think it showed we had much faith in the Ambassadors and it erased a part of the good will, we’re doing this because we love it vibe.
How much time do you spend managing them?
Quite a fair amount. I would say with organizing events, answering everyone’s questions and building my ambassador base it takes up much more time than I had imagined. It’s definitely hard to measure but depending on where I am in the season it ranges from 0 hours per week to perhaps 16 hours per week.
Is it expensive to run an ambassador programme? Is it cost-effective?
So far it hasn’t cost us anything other than the clean up costs after one of the special events plus my time. However, I view the Student Ambassador Programme as part of my role as the VSO’s Community Engagement Coordinator and I can’t think of a better, more cost effective way to reach this demographic.
Have you ever had to deal with an ambassador that is not effective in some way?
An Ambassador whose heart really isn’t in it is pretty obvious and will normally just stop responding to me. After a fair amount of time I cut them off. I haven’t had to kick anyone off as such.
What tips would you give to someone who is just starting to put an ambassador programme together?
Maintain almost a friendship with your Ambassadors. Talk to them as often as you can either over the phone or via e-mail on a one to one basis and keep a personal touch. It is easy to be overly zealous and communicate with your Ambassadors as though you’re a living breathing press release. It’s not necessary to ‘sell’ to them and in fact as it has been documented lately that can be quite a powerful turn off. Just be yourself, have fun and be personable. They’re doing this for fun and you’re a part of that fun.