Who do you trust more online: people you know or commercial enterprises? The answer usually is pretty straightforward. Paid advertising or commercial messages rarely beat friends and trusted connections for influencing a buyer’s decision.
As trust and relationships are the hard currencies online (apart from data about users and their behavior, of course), it’s no surprise that companies increasingly strive to tap into the trust, relationships and reputation of their employees to build brand awareness. Especially since the potential reach through employees' networks might surpass what companies can achieve on their own.
Don’t cut the branch you sit on
Unfortunately, employee advocacy is often mishandled through an over-simplified, mechanical approach.
The all-too-common approach is:
- Have the marketing department or an agency produce canned messages talking about what the company can offer
- Distribute these to employees (hopefully volunteers) through a system, together with trackable links to pages or downloads on the company website
- Encourage and possibly reward employees based on the volume of posts they relay to their networks, maybe in combination with the number of people reached. Often this is done with some kind of gamification, for example lists of top performers
Ain’t that great or what? (Not)
The problem is that this approach easily erodes the trust capital of the employees — the very reason why the company wanted to tap into their online standing in the first place.
- The topics and tonality is not their own
- The employees’ online following might be built around completely different topics, having little to no interest whatsoever in their day job
At best, the result is just wasted time and effort. At worst, the obvious lack of authenticity even erodes the online trust in the employees, ruining their online reputation as well as diminishing their value for their employers.
Work WITH employees instead of THROUGH employees
The good way to do it is in the name; it’s called employee advocacy, not employee parroting. Parrots repeat without thinking or adding value. Advocates speak in their own words, in their own way, but for the cause of someone else. It might take a more elaborate effort, but it’s more sustainable and more impactful.
Building an advocacy program is a matter of supporting employees in speaking for you, not of message redistribution. Start by setting the right ambition: Aim for quality (interaction, engagement) instead of quantity only (of posts, or people reached - a.k.a. vanity metrics).
Empower your employees
Train and coach them to communicate with impact and about how to build their brand and following online. It's quite straightforward really: the greater their brand and following, the better for you. But, you also need to make sure they are fully aware of company values and policies, and how to communicate and behave online in line with your policies. As advocates, they need to represent your company in the way the company should be represented.
Why not offer them analytical support (at least selected employees) to find relevant ongoing discussions and influencers to engage with? Maybe designate company spokespersons on selected topics.
Create talking points
Instead of canned messages, provide them with talking points and trackable URLs, then let them phrase their own messaging, in their own style. As the effort for them will be somewhat greater, you might get fewer posts, but with much better — and lasting — impact.
No more need for gamification. The reward will be in employees experiencing their online brand and impact grow from building relationships with influencers and thought leaders. And in seeing their value for the company grow, too. If you still want to include some kind of reward, base it on interaction and engagement achieved, on relationships built with industry influencers or leads generated.
In summary, here are some tips:
- Avoid canned messages (provide talking points)
- Train your teams and value their work (they will naturally feel proud to work for you)
- Show your employees they matter to you (and they will become advocates)