Power to Your People: Employee Advocacy Programs and Social Media Beyond the Marketing Team

Will Trevor is the Faculty Program Director for Marketing at Excelsior College. The original post can be viewed on LinkedIn.

Social Media 01 by Rosaura Ochoa: https://flic.kr/p/5XNfPs (Creative Commons)

Many brands aim to harness the power of social media in order to project their marketing messages and brand values in a cost effective and targeted way, but this has proved to be a mixed blessing for some and it hasn’t always lived up to the hype.  With around 1.59 billion active users on Facebook, and around 320 million on Twitter, brands are increasingly realizing that the ability to interact with the swelling number of social media users is beyond the capabilities of most businesses.  More recently, many organizations are starting to switch on to the untapped potential in a key asset: their employees.

Recent data by Pew Research suggests that half of Facebook users have more than 200 friends and that 44% of users ‘like’ their friends content at least once per day, with a significant percentage, 29%, doing so multiple times per day.  Coupled with this, research by PR firm, Weber Shandwick, shows that there is a rising trend of employee activism in which staff are able to project both a powerful voice and generate a greater visibility to their workplace, but also defend their employers from criticism and act as advocates – both online in social media and offline.

And further findings from the Weber Shandwick report also makes clear that

[o]ne in five employees (21 percent) is estimated to be an employee activist, and another 33 percent have high potential to be employee activists. As the movement grows at an increasing speed, employers have an enormous opportunity to engage and capitalize on these powerful advocates, or risk missing out on an important group of supporters and, at worst, fail to curtail detractors who have the potential to upend company reputations.

Why an employee advocacy program might make sense for some organizations, comes from a moment’s reflection upon the Pew Research data.  Suppose that the business has around 10,000 followers on its various social media accounts: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. And assuming an organization with around 500 employees, each with a notional 200 followers, then we could potentially see an uplift from 10,000 to 110,000! And while this is only a theoretical uplift in numbers, it does suggest the potential in terms of broadening the reach of your social media by harnessing the power of the employees under your roof.

But numbers of followers is not the same as engagement with the content and this is where the question of trust comes in.  The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual global survey of trust in government and business, showed that 52% of respondents agreed that an ordinary employee is more trustworthy than the CEO of a company, which was up from 30% in 2009.  Additionally the data suggests that content distributed on social media is up to eight times more likely to be shared by someone’s contacts than the content disseminated in the branded social media channels of the organization.  A recent report for SocialChorus claims that an employee advocacy program

expands the company’s social presence and allows them to have a much larger footprint than what the marketing or PR team is capable of reaching on their own. Plus, these employee advocates are more trusted because they have a more personal relationship with their audience. Employees are real people who want to help other people.

So with the rise of social media and the advent of the employee activist, it is no wonder that a growing number of organizations are looking to their own people to rejuvenate their marketing efforts.  Starbucks has millions of followers on their social media channels and they also have a fairly developed employee advocacy program.  While they do have a large social media team, they also harness the collective power of their thousands of employees and encourage them to do a lot of tweeting and posting themselves and sharing updates about the brand.  The employee advocacy program was credited with assisting in the success of Starbucks recent Tweet-a-Coffee Twitter campaign that generated around $180K in increased purchases.  Other successful examples include Zappos, the online clothing and shoes platform, which encourages its staff to share updates, and Southest Airlines, that also promotes employee engagement on its blog and in its social media.

Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite, the online social media management dashboard, has outlined five guidelines for developing a social media advocacy program:

#1: It has to be voluntary

Employees will not share under coercion and the content needs to be appropriate and relevant to the audience in order to build and sustain their individual credibility and professional standing.

#2: Align messages to the right audience

Ensure that employees are able to share content that aligns with their audience, so that they are active on professional and personal networks that are interested in the messages generated.  It isn’t about broadcasting messages without any awareness of the needs and interests of the employee’s followers.

#3: Organic or created content?

A balance needs to be struck between sharing content that has the authentic voice of the employee and the created or curated content provided by the employer.  Too much of the latter and it will lose the organic authenticity that is the whole strength of an employee advocacy program.

#4: Simplify

Make it too complicated and employees will soon switch off from the idea.  Many companies have either developed their own apps or they have turned to the growing number of proprietary solutions, such as those available from Hootsuite or SocialChorus.

#5: Don’t over do it!

Swamp your employees with messages and they will lose trust and credibility with their followers and friends, so ensure that you generate and encourage an engagement that is appropriate to the audience and doesn’t lose the carefully nurtured goodwill of the employee.

Employee advocacy and activism has the real potential to reclaim the authenticity in terms of marketing messages that has been lost in many branded social media channels.  While some organizations, such as Zappos and Southwest Airlines, have made a success of this option, many others are yet to fully release the potential of their most important asset.  And that potential should not be underestimated, but so too the pitfalls in terms of ensuring that the messages remain appropriate to the audience.  The dilemma for most social media teams is that they often lack the content knowledge, which is often vested in the expert employees, whereas they do possess the expertise in terms of leveraging that knowledge in the service of the brand.  Employee advocacy has the potential to square the circle and enable the marketing team to harness the power of the organization’s most important asset and allow the brand to find a truly authentic and shareable voice in a very crowded and noisy social media environment.

Will Trevor is Faculty Program Director for Marketing at Excelsior College.


Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of my employer.

William Trevor
About William Trevor 18 Articles
Will Trevor is the Faculty Program Director for Marketing in the School of Business and Technology, in which role he is responsible for overseeing and developing the college’s marketing programs. He has a background in sales and marketing, where he filled a range of positions encompassing both consumer-to-consumer and business-to-business markets and across a range of industries. His experience spans both agency-side and marketing management roles, which have helped to inform his perspective on marketing from both a practitioner and an academic angle. And as a longtime member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, he was recently honored to attain the designation of Chartered Marketer. Will has taught in higher education for a number of years and on both sides of the Atlantic: in the UK as a faculty member with the University of Essex Online, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds City College, and Askham Bryan College; and in the USA he has taught for both Excelsior College and the University of the People. In 2013 Will was recognized for his qualifications and experience in the field of higher education and he became a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. From his practical experience in consultancy and market research, Will developed an academic interest in fields of marketing that relate to market research and the role of big data. He also explores issues of consumer behavior and the impact of the evolving field of behavioral economics on the marketing discipline. And his previous experience in sales also fuels an ongoing interest in sales and sales management and the role of sales professionals in a global context and in terms of cross-cultural issues.

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