updated 5/2/2013 10:18:57 AM ET 2013-05-02T14:18:57

Last year Ryan Klarner, a member of his Illinois high school swim team, posted a plea on Taco Bell's Facebook page. Employing a loose interpretation of English grammar, the 15-year-old asked: "Is there any way you guys could make me a customized speedo that says think outside the buns on the back of it?" Thirteen days later, Taco Bell posted a reply: "What size do you wear? And what's your address?"

More than 2,600 people liked Ryan's post, and more than 1,000 liked the reply. Ryan was already a regular customer--his post noted that he eats at Taco Bell "at least" five to seven times a week--but he is now a fan for life, or what's known in the marketing world as a brand ambassador.

To Raquel Smith, marketing manager at Oneupweb, a Traverse City, Mich., digital marketing agency, Taco Bell's handling of the request was a textbook lesson in how entrepreneurs can inspire customers. "It's a great example of listening to your fans, providing value for them and creating a really strong ambassadorship," she says.

Businesses routinely rely on loyal customers to serve as ambassadors--prized patrons who can be counted on to spread the word about a company's products or services or general wholesome goodness. Some companies offer something in return, such as exclusive access to sales or product launches. But marketing experts insist that entrepreneurs don't need million-dollar budgets to cultivate brand ambassadors. "It's a matter of being able to find and activate those consumers to see who you are," says Perry Fair, a chief creative officer at global ad agency JWT. "That doesn't necessarily take a lot of money. It does take a lot of effort."

Much of the process of building ambassadors occurs on social networks (though experts stress that face-to-face interaction should never be discounted). The key is to engage customers in conversation and let them know you're interested in what they say. "It's really all about dialogue--listening--and if these people are carrying your torch, thanking them for that and rewarding them in some way that makes them feel good," says Karen Post, president of Tampa, Fla.-based Brain Tattoo Branding.

Fair cites the recent case of Crayola. When a customer complained on Facebook that a new box of crayons contained an unsharpened Carnation Pink, the company responded by mailing a replacement. The customer went on Facebook again and posted: "Guess who has a new crayon?"

Fair says Crayola's small gesture spoke volumes about a willingness to listen--and respond--to customers. "When so much is happening online, brand ambassadorship is built off of customer service," he says. "At the end of the day, that's really what it is."

Copyright © 2013, Inc.


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