Beyond The One-Time Click: 6 Social Media Rules For Creating Brand Evangelists

There’s a vast expanse between the transactional moment when a consumer likes, friends, or follows a site and the instant that same consumer becomes a brand evangelist, entering into a state of emotional commitment.



There’s a vast expanse between the transactional moment when a consumer likes, friends, or follows a site and the instant that same consumer becomes a brand evangelist, entering into a state of emotional commitment.

The former isn’t difficult to achieve; observe how many sites have hundreds of thousands of friends, very few of whom feel any real passion for the brand, or would go out of their way to recommend it to somehow (least of all defend it in a the social-media equivalent of a barroom brawl.)

The latter is the bell-ringing marketing challenge of today. It’s not surprising that there isn’t more deep-down devotion among the millions of superficial friends and followers. Most brands do very little to cultivate a more meaningful, psychologically grounded relationship.  

Sure, they can convince a consumer to step into the friend category through some form of social or economic quid pro quo–become a friend and get a discount, or get a badge or incentive. But they do very little after that to create a co-equal, honest relationship that has feels personally and not algorithmically generated.  

There’s a ton of work being done on how to measure and track true “engagement” on Facebook, and elsewhere. Mashable recently identified three important metrics that brands should use as markers for success: Track “People Are Talking About,” Track “Engaged Users,” and Track “External Referrers.” 


These are all perfectly useful, if not important, criteria and filters. And they are far better metrics than simply adding up the popular vote. But looking beyond the sheer numbers is one only challenge. The other challenge is to understand what ignites evangelism–from the point of view of psychological affinity, message content, stylistic posture, communication cadence, and of course, financial rewards.

Here are six new rules of engagement, based upon an analysis of brand successes, behavioral psychology, and trends in consumer marketing and the social context. Nothing here is all that complicated; they are fundamentals of human psychodynamics, ported to the digital setting. But it’s tough for companies and brands to adapt to them because, well, corporations have a hard time inhabiting human skin.  

That’s not surprising; corporate structure and organization is largely part based upon taking subjectivity out of the decision calculus, and imposing a set of processes that attempt to systematize behavior, and through that, reduce risk.

But nothing here should be that strenuous for companies that truly want armadas of evangelists (to mix a metaphor) on their side.

1. You See Numbers, People See Themselves


Marketers who are trained in the nuances of insightful segmentation and consumer nuances seem to forget all that when marketing through social media. They blast one message to hundreds of thousands of people.  Even millions.  But creating a brand evangelist starts with a personal connection, and personal connections can’t be built with impersonal messaging.  Acquiring giant quantities of friends makes this more difficult, but the growth of Big Data and customer intelligence solutions makes it possible.

2. When People Share Values, They’ll Share A Lot More

Brands today are complex, impressionistic constructions of product, performance, perceptions, and belief systems. More and more, brands are taking stands on social and even political issues; companies like Whole Foods  and The Container Store, for example, are active members of the Conscious Capitalism movement.

Brands can also share values through the choices they make in how they communicate. Style is substantive. Zappos is widely regarded as brilliantly adept at creating wildly devotional brand partisans, and the Twitter feed of its CEO, Tony Hsieh, is a large part of that.

Here’s a perfect example of that; a Tweet he made last July. No sell, no offer, in fact, an anti-consumption message: Want happiness? Don’t buy more stuff–go on vacation!


It was preceded by a Tweet about research on getting kids to consume more vegetables, and a quote from Ann Frank.  This random glimpse into the mind of a CEO displays an emotional transparency that builds loyalty. You know that it wasn’t rubber-stamped by a Twitter Approval Sub-Committee.

So social media is the ultimate platform for communicating your values and energizing people around them. Of course, you can’t satisfy everyone, but the process of creating brand acolytes means that you cannot be equally meaningful to everyone. Deal with it.

3. Lameness Can’t Create Loyalty

Have you noticed how much social media is represented by Tweets and posts like this triteness display from McDonald’s:

Morning! How’s everyone’s week going so far?


24 Jan Favorite Retweet Reply

Would you want to be friends, and hang out with someone who always feels obligated to spout something, even when they have absolutely nothing of interest on their minds? So if you want to create evangelists, start with being excruciatingly demanding about every single thing you say. And how you say it.

4. Real Friends Don’t Impose–Unless There’s a Good Reason

Offline relationships are the psychological model for brand “friendships.” Well, before you ask a friend for a favor, you think through the implications. How important is it to you? How difficult or emotionally fraught might it be your friend to act on your request? When does the request over-stretch the implicit boundaries of the relationship?

Brands need to go through the same social calculus, but they seldom do. So a brand will ask you to forward something to a friend, or invite a friend to join a group, without really thinking through the implications.  They are pushing hard, if not violating, the natural limits of the “friendship”–and then they are surprised when they don’t get the results they expected.


To create evangelists who are ready, willing and able to use their social graphs to advance your brand, you need to develop some rules of reciprocity, and real customer intelligence about which of your current fans and friends are most likely to share. For example, those who have large networks, and high Klout scores, might be better evangelist than those who keep to themselves. But are you treating them all the same?

5. Surprise Everyone, Including Yourself

We become emotionally attached to those who bring unexpected twists and surprises to our lives. That’s because disruptive surprise and intrigue release dopamine, which creates pleasure (and its evil cousin, addiction.) Insufficient novelty creates dopamine boredom.   

Surprise can be the way you say something (style) or what you give them as far as rewards or incentives go (content). It’s a rich area for innovation.

Trouble is, many big brands see surprise as a risk, because it requires unexpected behaviors, which by definition, haven’t been done before and might be considered “off-brand.” Dopamine boredom is always safe. Hence the paradox of evangelists: to create them, you need to push on the limits of institutional norms. But if you do so, and surprise them and yourself in the process, you might actually find your dopamine will be flowing as much as theirs.  


6. Go Out Of Your Way For People, and They’ll Go Out of Their Way for You

One of the most powerful ways to create evangelists is to behave with breathtaking responsiveness. Many are halfway there. Increasingly, more and more companies are turning to social media to address customer service issues. So we’re seeing tons of responses like this from Target:

@XTEDDIX That’s frustrating! Thanks for letting us know. We’ll be passing your comments along to our Store Leadership team. Matthew

But what we’re not seeing are a lot of results. The average friend or fan is exposed to a torrent of problems, not solutions. So in the interests of being a responsive organization, brands can come across as customer-service train wrecks.

Wouldn’t it be cool if a brand posted, each day, the resolution of its most triumphant, confounding, and amusing customer services issues.  


These little human-interest packages would be terrifically entertaining to read, and would create evangelists by demonstrating corporate flexibility, a stop-at-nothing obsession with consumer satisfaction. So even if the experience didn’t touch you directly, you feel touched by it.

It’s a form of social osmosis, which, like the other five rules I’ve described, can turn the passivity of fandom to the activism of discipledom.

For more leadership coverage, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

[Image: Flickr user carlo cravero]

About the author

Adam is a brand strategist--he runs Hanft Projects, a NYC-based firm--and is a frequently-published marketing authority and cultural critic. He sits on the Board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, and has consulted for companies that include Microsoft, McKinsey, Fidelity and, as well as many early and mid-stage digital companies