When Lauren Seserko wanted to get back into shape after college about five years ago, she went to the running store near her home in Baltimore for good shoes, a training team and advice on items to help her go faster and farther.
Now a seasoned marathoner, she's worked to encourage and guide others just starting out. That includes directing them to the products that she found worked.
"I thought it was really cool to hear from real people about tips and training plans and stuff they used and hear their running and racing stories," Seserko said. "I decided to share my story."
Seserko, now 29 and an occupational therapy student, began blogging, developed a following and became what's known as a "brand ambassador," first for Nuun, a plant-based electrolyte drink, and then for several other companies and groups.
Brand ambassadors tell others, typically through social media, about products, companies or services in their own words and generally on their own terms in exchange for discounts or free merchandise, inside information on new products, access to special events and a chance to engage with other like-minded people.
Branding experts say companies large and small have always relied on word-of-mouth advertising to attract new business, but the growth of Facebook, Instagram and other social media venues has made ambassadors an increasingly crucial link to loyal customers and new ones.
Effective programs don't seek to buy "authenticity" with free stuff, said Brandon Chicotsky, a business faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University.
"These are not blockbuster celebrities or athletes getting $120,000 for a post," he said. "These are your peers, and that's who you believe."
Chicotsky said studies have shown that more than three-quarters of people trust peer recommendations over other forms of endorsement, and 96 percent of millennials have joined social media in some form. That makes ambassador programs ideal for reaching many members of that key demographic at once.
The programs are also cheap, costing only some merchandise, discounts or small payments.
In addition to posts that sound phony — that clearly are not from genuine fans — the risk, Chicotsky said, is that companies have little control over what people say online, which could include criticism. It also takes effort to sign on true "influencers" who have large and relevant followings.
Caitlin Wolf, a marketing expert at the Baltimore advertising agency Planit, helps companies identify potential ambassadors based on their online personas.
Wolf said many industries can benefit from ambassadors, but fitness-related brands lend themselves to such programs because there are many opportunities to post about product rollouts and events — almost 17 million people crossed a race finish line last year, according to Running USA.
Amateur athletes also tend to build or join communities of like-minded people and are eager to share information and support, Wolf said.
"They share the same mindset and core values," she said. "They get excited about making themselves better and helping others be better."
RewardStream Inc., which offers high-tech help managing ambassador programs, surveyed companies of all sizes last year and 65 percent of the nearly 200 businesses that responded had some kind of program. About 85 percent said the ambassador programs were effective in attracting new customers. They also said such programs helped build customer loyalty, gain customer insight and enhance brand awareness.
Ambassadors were offered a range of credit, points, gift cards, discounts and drawings for prizes.
At Seattle-based Nuun, officials said they offer ambassadors some perks. But officials say the main incentive is a forum to connect people who want to share experiences and support each other's athletic pursuits.
The 12-year-old company launched its ambassador program five years ago with about 50 people. Now it has about 3,000.
Arielle Knutson, Nuun's director of marketing, said the company does very little traditional advertising these days and sponsors only a small number of professional athletes. It relies on ambassadors, as well as showing up at marathons and other events.
"We like to involve people who are already interacting with the brand, who already love the product," she said. "So when they tell their friends about it or wear a Nuun temporary tattoo at their next race, it's truly organic."
Big brands will continue to turn to traditional advertising and multimillion-dollar celebrity or professional athletic sponsorships, said Hopkins' Chicotsky. But small startups don't have those resources.
Nathan Woods, COO of Run Gum, which manufactures gum with caffeine, said the 2½-year-old company does not even have a presence at many events. So 120 ambassadors help spread the word about the gum beyond the headquarters in Eugene, Ore.
He said many ambassadors have significant online followings but will just pass out pieces supplied by Run Gum during their morning runs with friends. The company assigns each ambassador a code to hand out to consumers as a way of tracking who sparked a sale.
Woods said company officials already knew runners listen to other runners; Run Gum was co-founded by Nick Symmonds, an Olympic runner who came in with his own sizable following. That has translated into more sales for Run Gum, he said.
Some local businesses did not have such a head start.
Planit helped Heather Chilcot, owner of Core Cycle Studios in Timonium, identify and contact appropriate bloggers and others to come to an opening event in February with no strings attached.
They were treated to cycle, barre and yoga classes, got to ask questions, see the facility and sample offerings from other local brands, such as a juice company. Chilcot said the risk was they would not be impressed. Instead, she said, the studio got some good early publicity from people who continue to come to the studio. Feedback has since helped Chilcot make changes, such as adding time to a class.
She's now looking for ways to tap into the strength of her ambassadors, such as allowing one to take over Core Cycle's social media for a time.
Chilcot said relying on traditional media and offering big discounts might have brought in more members initially, but she was more interested in an engaged and pleased customer base.
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"I didn't want to just grow as quickly as possible," she said.
Josh Levinson, owner of Charm City Run, a group of running stores in the Baltimore region, said small shops in the age of the internet all have to rely on an engaged customer base to some extent. And he said his stores have survived by building communities that run and train together and get advice from its staff. Lauren Seserko now coaches a training team through the South Baltimore store, which sold her the first pair of running shoes, provided the training team that helped her finish her first 5K and introduced her to Nuun.
Levinson said he often sees people posting about a training run, a race organized through the store or a special event, such as a contest it's sponsoring with Saucony.
"We hope we have thousands of informal ambassadors now," said Levinson, who is considering launching a more formal program.
"It's about creating groups that people want to be a part of," he said. "We want people talking and posting about what a great run they just had with us at Loch Raven Reservoir or on the harbor promenade, or a great charity event or even the advice they just got in the store. If they also decide to then shop local, then it's a great thing."