Employee Advocacy: influence, engagement and new digital leaders

José Luis Rodríguez

4 December 2017

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An expert in macrobiotic cooking who shares recipes on social networking sites can be more inspiring to potential customers than a “mere” cook at a vegetarian restaurant. It doesn’t even matter that they’re both the same person. Empowering our employees is the most important step in building a powerful brand ambassador program.

This mere change of perspective, which implies looking at our collaborators as potential influencers, endowed with a special knowledge and close to our business, is what organizations looking for the most reputable, loyal and committed digital leaders require.


The best ambassador, the committed employee


If there is a point regularly made in the digital environment, it is that people are much more credible and valued sources of recommendation than any advertisement or publication of a brand.  

Companies, always eager for new ways to position their products, have learned this logic and exponentially increased their investments in campaigns led or supported by individuals in social networks. It is estimated that in 2017, U. S. companies will have invested an average of 42,000 to 84,000 euros for each program dedicated to influence marketing, double what was determined the previous year.

Although relevant, this commitment to people as prescribers of the brand still appears insufficient. Not any more because of the resources committed or the intention to conquer new territories through means acquired or paid for like those that embody the influencers. Essentially, it is because those programs seldom involve the best, most loyal and most profitable ambassadors: our employees.

Activating internal collaborators as brand promoters is a worthwhile and lasting investment. By discovering, training, supporting and promoting the experts who bring the organization to life, companies can better compete for relevance on the Internet.

Content shared by employees has up to eight times more engagement than that published by the corporate channels of their companies… an important figure if we consider that for every 12% increase in brand recommendations made by an ambassador, the revenue increases by up to 50%.

What’s more, collaborators are now a more credible channel of information than their own spokespersons and corporate directors, and can generate up to three times more trust than the organization’s own CEO.

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True ROI is linkage and leadership


Companies that are committed to involving their collaborators in “Employee Advocacy” programmes are also performing a fundamental task: they strengthen internal links whilst simultaneously discovering and preparing their new digital leaders.

For example, when an IKEA chef realizes that his day-to-day life, between cookers and Nordic dishes, actually makes him an expert in Swedish food, the cognitive and functional leap is spectacular: he works on his positive self-perception, enlarges his professional projection space, optimizes his abilities and creates a vision of transformation with a high cultural impact for the company.

The mission, therefore, will be to equip our potential ambassadors with confidence, a secure working framework in which their personal brand can operate, and with adequate resources and recognition so that this new task becomes as natural as it is rewarding.

This process of mutual learning, almost more important than the result obtained in social media, is fundamental to improving the relationship between the collaborator and organization.

According to Altimeter:

  • 19% of employees who act as company ambassadors on the Internet claim they do so to be seen as leaders;
  • another 30% to gain more corporate recognition;
  • and 42% to generate new relationships with their co-workers.

When asked about the benefits, most employees say they feel more connected and motivated at work when they incorporate the company into their digital activity and social profiles.


The lack of clear and open governance for participation


However, if this potential is not sufficiently put at stake, it is not just a question of vision. The fear of losing control over the brand has led to many organizations developing employee codes of conduct in social networks that are at best unclear or ambiguous.

For the most part, companies have equipped themselves with restrictive manuals and guides that, far from stimulating collaborator participation in the Internet- regarding evaluating the brand-, actually generates a lack of interest or even fear of publishing any content relating them to the company.

A study on the status of banking on social media in the United States revealed that 58% of companies in this sector directly prevent their employees from talking about the company online. Whilst more than half of the rest lack clear rules for channelling this engagement.

In fact, and despite having no apparent restrictions, only every 4 out of 10 employees of these so-called “permissive” ensure that they have adequate work policies to act as ambassadors for the organization.

Another barrier is one embodied by companies themselves, who obsessed with quickly converting the employee into a corporate asset, display closed communication models, where the only and unattractive role permitted for the collaborator is to share on their personal profiles content that has already been prepared, validated and encapsulated by management, without any possibility of editing.

In other words, they are only called upon to rebound messages to the liking of our Marketing and Communication departments, although unattractive to the sender and even less so to the potential recipient.

In the words of Aitor Goyenechea, Telefónica’s Director of Corporate Communication, we should not think so much about “manufacturing brand ambassadors but building brands that are ambassadors of their employees“.

Let’s imagine that a salesperson of Avón, Mary Kay or Tupperware, carefully prepares each order and hand-delivers it to their customers and acquaintances. Like them, we think that the success and credibility of our collaborators is just that: they personalize their contents and use the codes (themes, formats and tone) that really understand and manipulate their contacts.


Five key steps: selection, governance, training, support and promotion


A successful brand ambassador programme will have to implement at least these five stages:

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Selecting your brand champions: let’s start with a pilot

Any member of your company is, in theory, an excellent candidate. However, experience tells us it is always better to start with a small group that can then act as a guide for the rest. The question is, who do we select for this pilot?

Firstly, we can identify potential ambassadors based on the following; the objectives we want to achieve, a mix of different business functions or departments, varied hierarchical position as well as different age groups and locations. By ensuring a broad mix of people, we can establish reverse mentoring strategies and knowledge sharing.

Another good approach is to track those employees who already have a digital presence (they are active on social networks or forums, write a blog etc.), either through surveys or by social media monitoring.

It’s also important to involve individuals who are especially committed to the organisation; due to their performance, their participation in internal programmes or their initiative to promote change within the business.

Through the analysis of social networks, we are also able to identify and include employees who may have authority or influence. These will be our hidden leaders.


Governance: providing clear guidelines

The second step is to provide your ambassadors with clear rules and guidelines. These will help to protect employees from any threat in social networks, as well as shielding the brand, but don’t get the order of those two mixed up.

These guidelines, traditionally known as your Social Media Policy, should be simple and easy to understand. The New York Times act as a good example. You should also ensure that the policy is positioned as positive and encouraging rather than instructive or threatening.

When developing specific activations, it’s also important to propose different levels of participation according to the nature of your ambassadors. Help your selected ambassadors to decide the platforms, themes, style and frequency of publication that best suits their personal and organisational goals.

Consider the reputational implications of your ambassador programme. For example, the more prominent parts of your company should be more selective with the content they publish than employees from other departments where implications are fewer and less direct.

However, it is essential that senior management are represented and actively participate in brand ambassador programmes; and we don’t mean employing a team to develop their contributions for them.

The best way to understand the advantages and threats of new digital landscapes is to place your CEO in front of Twitter or LinkedIn. The idea isn’t for them to dominate these platforms but to ensure that they can engage with key social behaviours such as sharing, adding value, referencing, mentioning, linking and showing gratitude. All of this in an open and unpredictable environment.

According to a study conducted by Hootsuite and LinkedIn for the financial sector, 25% of consumers and 40% of employees say they especially trust companies who openly participate in social networks.

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Training: understanding why and how to participate

It is almost imperative that, in addition to guidelines and a personal advocacy plan, our ambassadors receive training in disciplines and specific areas of knowledge beyond their existing capabilities.

There are three particular areas we would highlight:

  • Social networks: from a general understanding of the social landscape (including ethical and intellectual property issues) to the daily management of profiles and publication of content.
  • Personal brand: opportunities and techniques to build a solid, coherent and honest professional digital identity.
  • Digital communication: style, structuring messages, production of new content formats etc.

At this stage, the important thing is to find collaborators with the right motivation to maintain an active digital presence and remain linked to the organisation, empowering their own career development as well as improving your digital image.

In fact, it is estimated that 50% of employees are reluctant to publicly associate their personal profiles with the brand or organisation they work for. The main reasons for this are as follows:

    1. They don’t see a personal benefit.
    2. They’re not sure how to do it.
    3. They worry that they would lose credibility within their network.


Support: provide adequate resources

While we hope that our ambassadors will be keen to develop their own content, we will often encounter some fundamental barriers that go beyond the knowledge of the collaborator or the will of the organisation.

One very common issue is the lack of time to develop valuable resources, or even to locate reliable sources of information and relevant third party publications.

However, the most complex of these issues are legal, such as the inappropriate use of images or information subject to intellectual protection as well as access to and distribution of sensitive company data.

For issues of this nature, we recommend that organisations enable their own content space and conveniently identify where employees are able to share easily without risk in order to customize and enrich their own publications.

We can, for example, enable a repository of content similar to that which is often provided for journalists. This can also act as an ideal platform to utilise tools in order to internally promote brand campaigns based around social content and overcome some of these specific challenges.


Promotion: recognition and presence in official channels  

While there are programmes which include rewards or points which can then be converted into gift cards etc, the most successful incentive in these programmes is an emotional one.

In fact, the most powerful weapon to link our collaborators and encourage them to become passionate and constant ambassadors is recognition.

Regardless of the gamification strategy we propose, it’s important to incorporate our brand champions in the internal communications of the company and in public forums where they can demonstrate their expertise in service of the brand.

This external presence can take the form of participation in corporate events, publishing blog content – similar to the way Jorge Ordovás does for Telefónica – or the inclusion of ambassador content in official social channels, similar to the way IKEA Spain does with its Country Interior Design Leader, Lorenzo Meazza.

One unique case study is that of Julieanne Kost from Adobe Systems, who years ago started volunteering her top tips and recommendations for using Photoshop from her private YouTube channel. Today, thanks to the tremendous success of this content, Julianne has corporate support and facilitation from the company.


Conclusion: it is profitable but above all, it’s a purpose

In short, the implementation of brand ambassador programmes that involve employees of the company is a profitable strategy in many aspects including reputation, business value and the emotional.

Content is more valuable today than ever before, especially when it tells the real stories of those who make up the company. Offering those living, breathing relevant experiences exemplifies the purpose of the business.

All in all, the most important thing to understand is that this is not about launching a set of activations which make the company look good. It is necessary to look to the heart of the organisation, at the internal culture and values and to awaken a sense of loyalty and devotion among your employees.

In other words: it’s a purpose, to decide what type of company you want to build.