While most social business efforts generally focus from the outset on gaining adoption — the initial strategies for which are now increasingly well-understood — many organizations greatly under-leverage one of the very best and most accessible resources for achieving high levels of traction in their efforts. Although it’s now largely appreciated that community managers form the operational and strategic backbone of social media-powered business environments and processes, they are just one set of a company’s stakeholders which must be well-connected in an integral fashion in the social business.
We now fully realize that one of the most vital group of actors in a social business are the workers of the organization itself.
In our research on social business success stories — many of which are included as case studies in our just-published strategy book, Social Business By Design — and our work with clients, we see time and again how the most intrinsically valuable social business projects carefully cultivated their employees and turned them into effective and empowered participants in scale. (See the SAP case study for a particularly high impact example.)
The benefits of employee advocacy cannot be underestimated: Ramping community management up to the levels required to effectively engage millions of customers who are trying to interact with a company socially just can’t work. Using automated engagement tools instead actually kills the point (and much of the benefit) of being socially connected with the marketplace. And, as invaluable as community managers are, they have their own point of view that can’t possibly represent the entirety of the company. No, to accomplish this, employees themselves must be externally engaged in a proactive and strategic manner that maximizes the benefits of becoming a social business. Employees know the company the best, they have vested interest in good outcomes for the organization, and they’re the most scalable resource the company has directly in hand.
Employee advocacy: Overcoming the trust deficit
The simple fact is, trust is one of the hardest attributes to come by in today’s business world. There’s been a profound loss of trust in central institutions in recent years. Traditional pre-packaged push marketing and communication, while still useful, is becoming less and less effective. In fact, countless studies — such as the famous Nielsen study that showed that 90% of people trust recommendations from other people they actually know, well-ahead of any other source — have shown that building strong relationships has become more important than transactional communication. That includes advertising or any other form of one-way publicity in terms of actually creating useful outcomes. This is underscored in hard data as well, showing that social advocacy has a dramatic effect in increasing sales for instance.
Thus, if trust is the currency of the social media age, where then will the wellsprings of trust come from for organizations, when people primarily trust only who they actually know? The answer should be readily apparent what the answer is for organizations: Only by building healthy and strong relationships between employees and the marketplace at large can the trust be regained. This can’t be scaled with a small, dedicated staff nor can it be simulated with software. Scaled engagement with the world has to be real and it has to be significant. The aforementioned rewards are demonstrably there for those that understand this and are ready to activate upon it. This has been confirmed with other recent data. And specifically, to enlist advocacy successfully requires more than an off-handed or half-hearted approach.
We now understand that an structured and properly resourced employee advocacy program is required to ensure the best and most useful outcomes for social business initiatives. Employees can be enlisted, trained, and guided to participate in ways that are eminently useful and accelerate goals for the community, for the business, and otherwise.
I should be careful to state that employee advocacy definitely does not mean putting all of the organization’s employees to work all of the time in external communities. That’s certainly not required, not possible, and counterproductive. Instead, employees should be involved based on their responsibilities, capabilities, and local business objectives. Employee advocacy is generally not a randomized crowdsourcing of interaction with the external world, but instead aligned with specific work purposes such as marketing, sales, customer care, product development, crisis management, and more. A smart employee advocacy program sets clear boundaries and provides easy to follow guidelines and then sets employees loose. Some organizations, Dell in particular stands out here for example, provide sophisticated social media training and certification, and the company has minted thousands of advocates to help them engage more successfully with the world, build trust, and achieve results.
Getting to effective employee advocacy
For now, we recommend that organizations engaging in social business get more serious about employee advocacy and make it a properly prioritized component of their social business strategy, with appropriate resources, planning, and activation.
The responsibilities for those realizing employee advocacy are the following:
- Define clear employee advocate policies and practices. This should be a part of the company’s published social media policy and ideally part of a just-in-time training program.
- Enlist and guide mass participation. This is the step where community managers are indeed a vital component, to ensure the right people in the company are connecting with the right customers and other constituents as conversations unfold in social environments.
- Identify and track employee engagement. Using social business intelligence tools, social business solution owners and community managers can identify and support employee advocates, while capturing best practices and lessons learned to be shared across the company.
- Measure external engagement and manage the results. This completes the required feedback loop so that employee advocacy can be guided in the large to achieve desired outcomes. An excellent example of this is sentiment analysis. By spotting a brewing problem in the company’s social ecosystem and mobilizing enough company stakeholders to address it, highly undesirable situations can be averted. Doing this well requires an operational measurement and management process however. In the end, good measurement just means good management, and the measurement information must be used to optimize and improve the process on a regular basis.
Employee advocacy is still a relatively under appreciated component of social business strategy and we’re hoping that this will change as the successes it leads to are identified and recognized more broadly. Please consult our case studies in Social Business By Design as well. Finally, if you’re interested in supporting capabilities for making employee advocacy possible at scale, I urge you to look at our new Employee Insight offering.