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Brand Ambassadors vs Influencers: Which is Best for Your Business? [2023 Update]

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Influencer marketing and ambassador partnerships have become essential elements of engaging modern consumers. As options to amplify your brand, knowing the core differences between the two is key to determining which approach aligns better with your specific goals and target demographic.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll clarify exactly what brand ambassadors and influencers are, weigh their unique pros and cons, provide real-world examples, and offer recommendations based on objectives to help inform your strategy.

The Rise of Influencer Marketing

Let’s start by looking at the explosive growth that has fueled influencer collaborations into a major marketing avenue:

Influencer marketing industry growth to $20 billion

As you can see, influencer marketing has rapidly gained adoption among brands and is on pace to become a $20 billion dollar industry by 2028 according to Business Insider Intelligence estimates.

What’s driving these staggering numbers?

  • Increased user time spent engaging with influencer content on social media
  • Higher than traditional advertising conversion rates from influencer endorsements
  • Cost efficient way to tap into niche, engaged follower bases that identify with influencers

Clearly influencer marketing is here to stay and provides amazing opportunities for brands.

But that doesn’t mean long-standing ambassador programs that leverage your biggest fans should be neglected.

Understanding the key differences between the two approaches is crucial so you can allocate budget and activate the right partnerships based on your unique objectives and audience.

Defining Brand Ambassadors vs. Influencers

First, what exactly sets influencers and brand ambassadors apart?

Brand Ambassadors tend to be:

  • Organic brand fans identified for their loyalty potential
  • Unpaid but incentivized through free products, promotions, etc.
  • Motivated by their belief and support of the brand rather than monetary compensation
  • Close, personal relationships focused on long term cultivation

Influencers are typically:

  • Individuals with large, niche social followings that match target demographics
  • Paid sponsorships negotiated based on influence and audience relevancy
  • Shorter term, transactional partnerships centered around content creation
  • Leveraged to expand reach rapidly through borrowed audience

While there can be overlap in some cases, the core differences come down to:

Brand Ambassadors → Selected by company

Influencers → Paid by company

Now let’s explore those differences across some key dimensions.

Key Difference #1: Reach and Audience

One major variance between influencers and brand ambassadors centers around reach and access to audience.

Influencers have spent years cultivating targeted, niche followings that closely align with their positioning and interests.

For example, fashion influencers will have cultivated audiences passionate about clothing and style. A food influencer will have followers that are hungry for content about recipes, restaurants, etc. Their engagement and response numbers back this targeted appeal.

This means influencer partnerships give brands immediate access to new, receptive segments that likely have significant overlap with ideal customer profiles.

According to data from Upfluence, 60%+ of consumers rely on influencer recommendations and content when making purchasing decisions:

60% of consumers rely on influencer recommendations

Alternatively, brand ambassadors may be highly enthusiastic fans but don’t innately come with an existing audience developed around shared interests.

Their support is authentic but may lack the broader reach on its own to achieve mass awareness goals for campaigns. This makes influencers the better choice when amplifying to completely new groups at scale.

Key Difference #2: Compensation and Incentives

There also exists a substantial difference between influencers and brand ambassadors when it comes to compensation models and incentives.

Influencers operate much like other paid sponsorship opportunities in media. Their rates are commensurate with the size of audience reached and their ability to drive desired conversions.

Micro-influencers charge brands anywhere from $50 to $500+ per Instagram post depending on follower count, typical engagement levels, etc. Celebrity influencers with millions of engaged followers can charge $10Ks to $100Ks+ per post.

This means setting aside an initial paid media budget that scales in relation to the tier of influencers tapped.

Brand ambassadors, on the other hand, aren’t financially rewarded upfront. You activate their support through other incentives like:

  • Free or discounted access to products/services
  • Unique promo codes driving special offers
  • Early access or exclusivity to new offerings
  • Status as an “insider” or “VIP”

The only investment comes from allocating budget to Ambassador rewards. But this pales in comparison to sizable upfront influencer sponsorship costs.

Key Difference #3: Relationship Horizon

There is also a sizable difference between influencers and brand ambassadors when it comes to typical relationship length and depth with brands.

Influencers are brought on mostly for short bursts around executing a specific campaign or timed promotion. Brands negotiate a scope of work around required posts, content features, etc. and put a bookend timing around this.

The relationship rarely extends beyond the defined project itself. There may be follow-on campaigns but each is separately contracted.

Brand ambassadors, however, involve much longer term, sustained partnerships that have no set endpoint.

You onboard ambassadors with the goal of retaining them as loyal brand advocates nurturing the relationship over many years – not just through an initial launch or seasonal push.

Ongoing support is rewarded through an expanding tiered program providing additional incentives, early access, etc. for ambassadors as they stay actively engaged over time.

Determining ideal relationship length is an important consideration when weighing your options.

When Influencers Get Better Results

Given these core differences, in what situations can influencers prove the more effective driver of results for brands?

Launching with a Splash

Influencer activations shine when generating a short burst of high visibility launch hype is the primary goal.

Take mobile games seeking a rocket ship growth curve early on. This NoBake Games case study demonstrated the power of influencers when trying to scale an untested new app rapidly:

  • Recruited 200+ gaming influencers to demo new title
  • Achieved #1 in US downloads within 36 hours
  • Saw 4X higher conversion rates than typical paid UA
  • Positive momentum and reviews cemented long term success

Rapid access to niche audiences ready to amplify and advocate for launches allows brands to clear key milestones around building awareness and user bases faster.

Reaching New Demographics

Additionally, influencers expand brand exposure to completely new segments that likely don’t overlap with existing channels.

Fashion retailer Revolve strategically activated micro-influencers on Instagram and TikTok to increase awareness and trial among Gen Z audiences. This enabled successfully penetrating a demographic that may not have organically found the brand otherwise early on.

Driving Trackable Conversions

The direct call to actions and trackable links facilitated through influencer content also makes it the ideal channel when conversion related KPIs tied to sales or lead gen are top priorities.

Clear attribution models can be structured through unique codes and pixel tracking to optimize cost per result generated over time when working with influencers. Proving incremental lift beyond existing channels is straightforward as well.

This additional transparency on direct response in relation to dollars spent is rarely as clean cut through ambassador programs.

When Brand Ambassadors Perform Better

While influencers hold advantages in some use cases, brand ambassadors can prove greatly effective in achieving other objectives:

Building Credibility and Trust

Even more than paid endorsements from influencers, authentic recommendations from customers themselves establish authority and trustworthiness. Their real-world product experiences lend credibility.

Software company AppSumo built an ambassador program that became a core channel for not only driving awareness but also establishing market dominance through genuine word-of-mouth and reviews. This authenticity remains a key competitive advantage setting them apart from competitors.

Driving Loyalty and Retention

The passion brand ambassadors have for the companies they support also directly correlates to higher long term loyalty and lower subscriber churn.

Streaming service Crunchyroll formalized its most ardent anime fanatics into a brand ambassador corps. Beyond providing product feedback and creating engaging platform content, these superfans proved 3.2x less likely to cancel subscriptions than average users, dramatically increasing lifetime value.

Promoting Launches with Authenticity

And while influencers can be great for short term hype creation, ambassadors also play a key role when brands seek authentic launch advocacy.

Rather than paid endorsements that run the risk of coming off as inauthentic, true brand fans speaking genuinely about new products builds credible momentum.

For example, Airbnb leverages its Host community as genuine ambassadors when debuting new offerings tailored to Host needs and success in driving bookings. This establishes realness and relevance that pays dividends beyond initial release splash.

Key Recommendations and Takeaways

When determining if brand ambassadors or influencers suit your initiatives better, focus on a few key questions:

1) What KPIs and goals take priority?

If rapid reach through exposure or direct conversions are the goal, influencers provide measurable impact. If long term credibility and loyalty matters more, tap brand ambassadors.

2) What current gaps or needs exist?

Influencers fill white space through new audience access while ambassadors reinforce existing positioning. Assess which requirement you face.

3) What budget do you have to work with?

Influencer sponsorships require significant financial commitments that ambassadors do not. Weigh your budget tradeoffs.

4) Do you require an enduring partnership?

For one-off initiatives, influencers‘ defined scope suits better. If seeking a lasting brand connection, ambassadors foster enduring relationships.

And often, determining budget for both influencers and ambassadors leads to an optimal blend.

In closing, comparing brand ambassadors vs. influencers along factors like audience and reach, compensation models, and relationship depth shows key differences on where each excels.

Carefully weigh your specific goals and resources when plotting an effective long term strategy. This guide serves as a starting point for making the right decision between the two popular options to amplify your brand in the market.

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