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USING EMPLOYEE ADVOCACY TO SPREAD THE GOOD WORD

Companies that encourage employees to use their personal social media networks to share stories and information about the business can benefit greatly from this powerful form of promotion.

WORDS: ISABEL OVERTON

 

7th January 2022

Employee advocacy – when employees promote their employer externally – is a great way to raise brand profile and credibility. When done properly, it can engage employees, generate business and attract new recruits.

For some companies, the risks that come with talking about the business online may not seem worth taking, but that won’t necessarily stop it happening. Work often forms a big part of our lives and who we are. So, whether it’s endorsed or not, most people will be talking about their job and employer in one way or another.

While these conversations can’t be controlled, the impact they have on the business largely can be. Show colleagues how to share relevant information in a safe yet confident way, and you will maximise the benefits it has for the company.

Keith Lewis, formerly social media manager at Zurich Insurance, says: “Human relationships influence all areas of our life and can shape our perception greatly. If your sink breaks and you need the services of a plumber, you’re likely to trust a recommendation from someone you know. The same goes for how people view companies.

“The key factor that makes advocacy like this so powerful is trust. And businesses can capitalise on this. Studies have shown that people trust their peers more than they trust CEOs. This is why – whether communicating internally or externally – it makes sense to champion voices closer to the ground.”


Expanding your reach
Employee advocacy as a concept has been around for a long time, but before social media its reach and impact were largely limited. With the rise of social media channels came endless opportunities to connect with people, making it much easier to be seen and heard.

Martha McKenzie-Minifie, head of communications and brand experience, wholesale banking EMEA at ING, says: “Most employees are active on social media and many have large networks made up of organic connections that they’ve built up over time.

“When they post about the work they’re doing, the events they’re attending or the thought leadership that’s coming out of their company, the people who know them are likely to pay attention and engage with their post.

“This is especially true on certain platforms like LinkedIn that are designed to help people stay up to date with their professional contacts, as well as news and trends from the industry.”

Neal Schaffer, CEO of digital marketing consultancy PDCA Social and author of The Age of Influence, agrees, adding: “Having your employees share content about the company on social media is so impactful because it offers you levels of exposure you couldn’t achieve as a business.

“Most companies have just one account per platform – at most they’ll have a few because of sub-brands or different teams. But if you have 100 employees, you’ve potentially got 100 more accounts to talk about your company from.”

As well as improving your reach, having employees share your content will also make it feel more personable.

“As a brand, achieving a persona on social media that people want to engage with and enjoy listening to is really hard,” says Keith. “People will see the company logo and instantly be reminded they’re talking to a company, which makes it hard to get authenticity and personality across.

“As individuals, it’s much easier to bring our character to posts, and this makes engagement feel more natural.”


Keeping it real
Social media is famously a place where people go to complain, so there may be hesitancy from companies when encouraging employees to bring the two worlds together. But if this is a pressing concern, it says more about the company than it does about its employees.   

Rani Mani, head of employee advocacy at Adobe, says: “What you do inside always reflects the outside, so first and foremost, your words and deeds need to match. Too many companies still use lots of fluffy and gratuitous words to promote themselves, but if this isn’t a realistic portrayal of your company, you’re going to run into trouble.

“It’s not just about how the company treats its employees either. It’s also about how the company shows up in the communities it operates in, and whether it’s making a positive difference to the world or not.

“Today’s employees are much more discerning, and they won’t wilfully help their company to spread a message that they know is not true.”


Listen to your people
There are a number of ways for companies to formally introduce employee advocacy, and you should take the lead from employees when deciding on an approach.

“In my opinion,” says Martha, “colleagues need to be willing to bring their work more officially onto their personal social media, which is why an opt-in approach is best. It won’t have the same effect or feel genuine if people feel forced into taking part, so it needs to be communicated as open to all but mandatory to none.

“At ING in the UK we started off by listening to determine the best way to introduce employee advocacy. We ran an optional survey that asked colleagues how they used social media, what platforms they were on, what they liked about it and what barriers they found and felt.

“Lots of colleagues chose to take part and the findings were very valuable. It helped us to shape our objectives for employee advocacy and understand where we were at as an organisation.”


45%
of global internet users turn to social media when researching products or services.
Source: HootSuite – Digital 2021 Executive Summary Report

 


Once you’ve established some objectives, you can share them internally, along with a call-out for people interested in taking part.

Establishing a formal programme can give employee advocacy some much needed structure and reiterates to employees how seriously it’s taken by the company.

There are lots of platforms you can use that make employee advocacy easily scalable. Some allow you to put in curated content that employees can access and share, while others link to your intranet and highlight pre-determined articles available for sharing.

Keith says: “Using tools like this allows you to have some control over what employees are sharing, but it also offers enough choice and autonomy – options to edit content before posting are available – that it keeps content authentic.

“Before setting up an official platform, however, you need to think about who will own it. It could be one particular team or it could be designated people from across different teams. There are lots of valid options so work through them before making any decisions.

“And be sure to get leadership on board and a compliance framework established up front.”  


A new culture
Setting up a platform or adapting an existing channel to help employees share content will be meaningless if they don’t feel comfortable to post, so you need to be encouraging.  

Neal has worked with lots of companies to help them overcome this issue. “The number one thing you need to start with is creating a culture that celebrates employees talking about the brand on social media,” says Neal.

“Some employees are afraid they might get in trouble if they say the wrong thing. Make it explicitly clear that you’re encouraging people to talk about the company, and that it’s viewed as a positive thing.

“Having leadership actively demonstrate this will go far. People at the top should be posting – it sends a strong message that it’s allowed.

“And you should go beyond simply encouraging posting by offering practical training too.”

Martha agrees, adding: “At ING we handle sensitive information, so it’s understandable that our colleagues would want training and guidance around navigating this.

“We do bespoke sessions for individuals or teams. We’ve also run 10-week training programmes that give colleagues the skills to use social media for professional purposes. It’s broken up into one-hour sessions a week, all the while helping people to get into the habit of liking, commenting and posting.”

There will also be lots of relevant skills that you as an internal communicator can pass on to colleagues.

“Internal comms is very focused on the right content for the right person on the right platform at the right time and how language and tone of voice is coming across,” says Martha. “Passing on knowledge around how to write conversationally and accessibly will be useful for your employees.

“You can also discuss the importance of timing, what’s coming up in the calendar and also being aware of what’s going on both inside the company and outside of it.”

At Zurich Insurance, overcoming the idea that losing control through employee advocacy was a negative helped to reshape the thinking of the workforce.  

“As an insurance company our culture was very conservative, but we’ve shifted that by letting people know we trust them as experts in their field to share what matters on social media,” says Keith.

“We’ve built a culture of being social and the importance of this for the business. And we use internal networks to get people comfortable sharing posts. Once they feel ready, they then move to sharing externally.”


Connecting the dots
Just as important as employees feeling comfortable posting is making sure employees are interested in posting.

Rani says: “Best practice is to make sure you help employees to connect the work they’re doing to the content they’re sharing. Make sure people can see their personal fingerprints on the broader strategy or message – that they can recognise their contribution.  

“People are hungry to promote things they feel they’ve had a say in and they feel emotive about. Use language to pull at the heartstrings and make the emotional connection for people.

“This doesn’t have to be over the top – it’s about the essence of the message. Make it obvious why people should care about your content and want to share it.”

Celebrating and praising people’s efforts can create an excitable atmosphere that people will want to engage in.
“When we hit a big milestone number on social media we celebrate it,” says Keith. “We show people that employee advocacy works, and we thank them for their contribution to it.”
If you want to add to this culture of celebration, Neal recommends trying gamification.

“Creating a more collaborative way to get people involved and finding a way to incentivise it can be effective. But make sure authenticity remains at the heart of posts – you want people to share content because they believe in it, not because they want to be rewarded.”


One of a kind
Employee advocacy platforms that allow you to store ready-to-post curated content are an efficient way to encourage employees to post and offer them an easy way to do it. The challenge, however, lies in making sure employees’ posts still feel authentic and organic. This is something that internal communicators and anyone else who writes content for these platforms should be mindful of.

“If I upload a piece of content onto an employee advocacy programme, I know that thousands of people have access to it and can post it,” says Keith. “This is why it’s important to write in a way that makes sense for most people. Text should be short, sharp, clear and as simple as possible.

“We also don’t want the same version of one post to be shared thousands of times, so we tell employees to edit what’s been written to make it sound like them. We want them to give our content their own style and personality.”

Martha agrees it's important to help colleagues tailor posts to something that is relevant to them, whether it's their work role or community involvement.

“Encourage your people to develop an online personal brand and think about what they want to be known for professionally when they post on their channels – similar to their offline personal brand.”

This can give employees a stronger motivation to post about related topics, but it will also hopefully make it easier for them to edit prepared content.

Not all employee advocacy programmes use tools that store curated content. One positive of choosing to go without is that posts will sound more authentic.

Neal says: “There’s always the option to tell your workforce that you want them to talk about the brand any way they want. By giving them total freedom, you’re championing authentic voices and opinions.”

You can also encourage employees to follow the company accounts and like, share and comment on existing posts that they like.


Playing by the rules
No matter what approach you take to employee advocacy, you should always set guidelines in advance around posting online. These shouldn’t be set to stifle employees, but rather to support them.

Rani says: “At Adobe we have a very open philosophy about posting online. People are doing it anyway, so we want to help them do it the best way they can.

“We encourage them to post about anything that’s already publicly available, and to just use good judgment when they do this. The only thing off-limits is proprietary or confidential content.

“We don’t want to sabotage the value of having employees advocate for us by dictating what they talk about, so we give them a lot of freedom.”

Making sure employees are aware of your social media policy or guidelines is key.

“There are lots of ways to approach social media,” says Keith, “so you shouldn’t give employees a long and complicated list of rules to follow when they post.

“At Zurich, our two main guiding principles are for employees to be considerate and courteous of who might come across their post, and to be mindful of company and customer data.”

It’s typically rare, but for times when employees post something deemed inappropriate, you need to be prepared.

“How you deal with problematic posts could determine the outcome, how the person in question views employee advocacy moving forward and how your wider workforce views it,” continues Keith. “You need to establish ahead of time who will be responsible for speaking to employees when things go wrong, and what the course of action will be.

“In some cases, a simple conversation and removing the post will be enough. But you may find some situations require you to follow company protocols, so recognise the difference.

“When it comes to minimising the risk of employees speaking badly about the company, we use threads internally to talk about bad stuff, so that people can vent safely and freely. Importantly, we then make sure issues are dealt with and fixed.

“If your internal culture allows people to talk and then the company takes action, you’re less at risk of problems spilling out.”


Coming out on top
The benefits of employee advocacy far outweigh any potential risks, for both employers and employees.

“Employee advocacy can attract people to your company – whether that be getting more customers or potential recruits,” says Neal. “It’s a way to monetise influence, in essence.”

As already mentioned, it also boosts reach and brand reputation and sentiment.

Rani says: “At Adobe we’ve been able to measure the positive improvement that employee advocacy has had on the company. The same content shared by employees will get 10 times more views and engagement than when shared by branded channels. People react more positively to it when it’s coming from an individual.

“It’s also helped to boost employee engagement internally. Because we’re curating content for employees and making it available at their fingertips, they find it easier to stay updated. People who feel they’re in the know are also more excited and engaged.”

The opportunity to discuss professional achievements is also attractive.  

“Employee advocacy can be a source of pride,” says Neal. “It can provide people with impressive content to share with their community, and a way to show what impact their job has on the world.”

Furthermore, it may even lead to opportunities for them.

Martha says: “I know a colleague who was offered an external speaking opportunity because of the content she was sharing. It was relevant to her job, and the fact she was actively speaking about this topic showed she was knowledgeable and passionate. We’ve had another colleague get invited to join the committee of an industry forum because his profile was raised through his social media.

“For me these are great examples of why I like employee advocacy so much. It’s a way to showcase the value that people and teams bring, and to help them share their stories and expertise.”

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