HANGZHOU: Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, launched a premium loyalty programme for its top-spending customers two years ago and has since discovered that these enthusiasts double up as very useful brand ambassadors.

Called Alibaba Passport, or APASS, the exclusive rewards program now has around 100,000 members, who are required to spend more than $15,000 a year on Alibaba's various e-commerce sites, although they typically spend more than $45,000.

As reported by Bloomberg, members get the usual perks in return, such as discounts and personal service, but a clever feature of the initiative is a user score that rises on the frequency and effectiveness of members' communication with other shoppers.

"APASS members love to share," explained Hai Wang, Head of Customer Experience and Innovation at Alibaba. "Every day in our APASS Members Zone, a lot of members are sharing their daily life stories, shopping tips, showing off their shopping lists, etc. A good number of APASS members are verified bloggers."

In effect, the rewards buy consumers' loyalty which then can be turned into marketing opportunities at a time when Alibaba is facing growing competition from rivals, such as JD.com.

A recent example of how Alibaba tapped into the power of recommendation that its elite members can deliver involved an all-expenses paid trip to Italy.

The company took 10 APASS members on a nine-day holiday where they visited a Maserati factory, vineyards owned by Mezzacorona, and toured the premises of other high-end Italian brands. At the same time, parts of their trip were streamed live on Alibaba's Tmall app and its Youku Tudou video site.

According to Alibaba, the vineyard tour was viewed 400,000 times while also boosting sales. Buoyed by the effectiveness of the program, the company has said it aims to double the number of APASS members next year.

Data sourced from Bloomberg; additional content by Warc staff