It's every company's dream... having a community of customers who are so devoted to your company that they market to and evangelize among other members of their community—customers who feel a sense of ownership in your company and want to spread your message to others.

Such strong bonds between companies and their communities of customers aren't the norm, and they cannot be developed without great planning and dedication. But for companies that are willing to embrace and empower their communities, the results can be magical.

Here are five companies that have embraced their community of customers as their marketing partners.

1. Fiskars

Fiskars makes scissors that are pretty popular with scrapbookers. So Fiskars decided to go into the scrapbooking community and find members who were using Fiskars scissors in their scrapbooking.

After identifying these community members, it then created the "Fiskateers," a group of brand ambassadors for Fiskars. Then Fiskars set up these four Fiskateers—Stephenie, Holly, Cheryl, and May—with a Web site and their own blog. There, the Fiskateers blog about their crafting and scrapbooking projects, how Fiskars products are helping them complete their projects, and life in general.

Spike Jones at Brains on Fire, the agency that worked with Fiskars to implement this ambassador program, explains why this works:

And the key part of the movement was to find those passionate people, give them the online and offline tools and opportunities to talk to one another (and also reach out to potential kindred spirits) and then get out of the way. Sure, we expected a lot of things to happen. But even in its infancy, it's gone far beyond what I ever imagined.

Now, unprompted, these passionate advocates are creating their own marketing tools. They are stepping up and taking ownership in an international brand.

2. Maker's Mark

Since the 1980s, the Kentucky distillery has always embraced its network of brand ambassadors as true marketing partners for its products.

The CEO, Bill Samuels Jr., knew he could stay in constant contact with his Kentucky base of evangelists, but wanted a way to keep his community across the country inspired to continue to market for the company. So Maker's Mark created an ambassador program for evangelists, who would promise to continue to spread the Maker's Mark message to other community members and also encourage bars to start carrying the Maker's Mark brand. In return, the name of each ambassador would be featured on a barrel of the whiskey, which takes six years to ferment.

Maker's Mark took an activity that these evangelists were already engaging in (word of mouth about Maker's Mark) and in return gave them a sense of ownership in the brand, and personalized their input into the product. This goes to the heart of the concept of empowering your community.

3. Mozilla

To help promote its new Firefox browser, Mozilla created a community of evangelists called "Spread Firefox." A Web site was created for the community in the summer of 2004, and in October Mozilla announced that it was planning on running an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal promoting the release of Firefox 1.0. The advertisement would be funded by members of the Spread Firefox community, and all community members would have their names listed in the ad.

Mozilla hoped to have 2,500 community members contribute—and instead, over a 10-day period, 10,000 enthusiasts contributed to this campaign. As a result, Mozilla was able to forego a one-page WSJ ad in return for a two-page spread in the New York Times.

Spread Firefox members are given rewards, such as prizes and discounts on Firefox merchandise, in exchange for promoting the browser, with special bonuses given to the most active evangelists. The efforts of the Spread Firefox community resulted in 25 million downloads of the browser within the first 99 days of its release; less than three months later, that total had doubled. And by October 2005, the Firefox browser had been downloaded over a 100 million times.

4. Threadless

Threadless is an online T-shirt company that takes a different route and makes its customers partners in the business from the very start.

Threadless lets its community submit T-shirt designs, and the visitors to vote on whether they like each design. The designs rated highly enough are printed and sold to the community. Members who submit winning designs are given prizes in their choice of cash or store credit. These prizes can be anywhere from $500 to $1,500, as well as store credit.

The idea behind Threadless is that community members choose the products that they would want to buy, then Threadless delivers the product to them. This allows Threadless to know up front which products the community would be most likely to buy, and it also gives the community a sense of real ownership in the business, since its input determines the products that will be offered.

5. New Line Cinemas

By now we have all heard of how buzz was generated on the internet for this summer's movie Snakes on a Plane. But here's the full story: As early as January of this year, bloggers and other internet users began creating their own sites and movie posters ridiculing the movie with the absurd title.

The focus for much of the attention that this movie was garnering was a site called Snakes on a Blog, which would collect and repost the movie posters and trailers that were being created by fans—leading, of course, to even more submissions.

Originally, the fear was that New Line would contact the owner of this site and demand that the site be shut down. Instead, the studio was smart enough to realize that this was giving its small-budget movie much-needed promotion. So New Line began to openly encourage these fan-created posters and trailers, which of course led to an explosion of fan-generated content.

In effect, New Line told all the bloggers and Internet users who were making fun of the movie that "We see what you are doing, and we love it!" When these Internet users saw how New Line was embracing their actions, they began to actively promote the movie.

One small decision by New Line—to not crack down on the posters and trailers—instantly converted most of these "citizen marketers" from critics to empowered fans of this movie. This went from being a silly movie with a silly name to a movie that they had a role in promoting. New Line reached out to the people who were talking about this movie and made them their promotional partners.

Lessons Learned

The common thread running through all of the above examples is that in each case the company was willing to give its customers a sense of input into the direction of the brand.

Here are some ways that your company can market to your community:

  1. Identify your customer evangelists. Every brand has customers who are marketing for it in their community. These evangelists can give you the invaluable marketing perspective of the community.

  2. Start a blog for your brand. This suggestion comes with the big caveat that you must be willing to let your community comment on your blog, and you must realize that some of your customers WILL criticize and voice their displeasure of your company and brand.

    But, if you will honestly listen to your community, and let them have their input, you will find that you will gradually convert the visitors to your blog into evangelists for your brand.

  3. Create a brand ambassador program. After you have identified your customer evangelists, create a program to reward their efforts. Recall, for example, that Maker's Mark gave its brand ambassadors a sense of ownership in the brand by putting each ambassador's name on a barrel of bourbon.

    The idea is to reward your evangelists for marketing your brand within their community, thus giving them the incentive to further promote your brand.

  4. Start from the inside out. Excitement is contagious. Employees who are passionate about your brand will lead to customers who are passionate about your brand. Respect your employees and understand the role they play in marketing to your community.

Customers are more connected than ever before, and never before have they had so many tools available for them to express themselves. The smart companies are the ones that will interact with their community of customers and give them a sense of input in the direction that the brand will take. Doing so is one of the quickest ways to convert customers into empowered evangelists who will become your marketing partners in your community.

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image of Mack Collier

Mack Collier is a social-media strategist based in Alabama. He helps companies build programs and initiatives that let them better connect with their customers and advocates. His podcast, The Fan-Damn-Tastic Marketing Show, discusses ways that brands can turn customers into fans. His first book, Think Like a Rock Star: How to Create Social Media and Marketing Strategies That Turn Customers Into Fans, was published in April 2013 by McGraw-Hill.

Twitter: @MackCollier

LinkedIn: Mack Collier