Did you know that more than a third of people make travel decisions based on online recommendations from people they know? How many potential attendees might be swayed to attend your event or avoid it based on similar recommendations?

Using the power of online communities well can positively market your event, build association memberships or attract new customers. So how do you do that?

Let fans do the heavy lifting

ocityEmpower the people who love what you do, give them promotional tools, and provide guidance and support. You don’t have anyone on staff who can moderate and promote you on social media? Engage a team of super fans to do it. Who better to spread positive messages about your event, association or business than the people who know and love what you do?

Ryan Goff, social media marketing director for Baltimore-based MGH, helped create an ambassador program for Ocean City, Md., which has increased interest in the area, pride in the community and Web traffic to the site — all without giving the convention and visitors bureau any extra work. He shared his insights about the OC Insiders program, how it started and why it became successful, at the 2012 Social Media Tourism Symposium. Although created to promote a destination, Goff’s community-building tips can easily be adapted by meeting and event planners eager to create something similar for their company or association.

Assembling a team 

Screen Shot 2013-08-02 at 3.27.02 PMThe OC Insiders program began in 2008 with an open application process that the CVB and MGH promoted through social networks and the city’s website. Aspiring ambassadors answered a handful of questions designed to test their Ocean City knowledge. Top prospects were further vetted through phone interviews. After careful evaluation, 20 were chosen for the inaugural year.

The ambassadors were brought to Ocean City for a full day of training, exploration and group bonding. They toured facilities and attractions, learned about upcoming initiatives and special events, and got a behind-the-scenes look at how the city’s marketing team worked. They also signed contracts that outlined a set of expectations and the incentives they’d receive in exchange for their participation.

Charged with monitoring discussions on the city’s website and Facebook pages, the OC Insiders answered questions posted by potential visitors, a job previously handled by CVB staffers. Thanks to the insiders’ peer-to-peer relationship with the visitors and quick response time, the number of questions asked increased by 1,000 the first year. Within two years OC Insiders had provided 7,500 answers to potential visitors and their section of the CVB’s website became known as the place to go for expert knowledge. The constant stream of content they created by answering questions increased the site’s search engine optimization, which attracted even more new visitors. People spent more time on the site reading about the city, and the city’s tourism workers were freed up to spend more time on other things.

Ah, incentives

What was in it for the OC Insiders? Their images and quotes were used in Ocean City advertising campaigns. The CVB offered them to the press for media interviews. They were spotlighted in newsletters, videos and other stories about Ocean City. And the Top 5 ambassadors at any time (in terms of activity and engagement with visitors to the website and Facebook page) were prominently featured on the website.

Use this technique to help you form passionate communities around your event, association or company. Next, we’ll share more tips from Goff about how to identify ambassadors, manage them and measure the success of this kind of program. Read about the 9 steps you need to take now.

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Have you ever tried to engage your event or association’s fans to help you promote it? What did you do? Did it work? Share your stories with us in the comments section.