The Truth About Employee Advocacy And Social Media

The Truth About Employee Advocacy And Social Media
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In this guest post, founder & managing director of Propel, Roger Christie, explores the growing industry interest in employee advocacy on social media, how to limit risk and the steps to running a successful program.

From problem child to prodigal son: the return of social media

If you’ve had a hand in making decisions, managing or measuring social media over the past 15 years, you’ll be well aware of how much the landscape has changed. What started as a free, low-risk digital playground became a tightly-governed fortress as organisations soon realised the more people they had using social media channels the higher the stakes.

Long-held corporate reputations (and market value) could quickly evaporate in the viral, permanent internet age. And, as most organisations weren’t equipped to provide the training and guidance needed to help staff safely navigate this new form of communication and customer engagement, they made the decision to opt out of social media.

Social media was a problem child and a source of risk. Organisations were better off restricting access to a few brand specialists rather than training the masses in a yet-to-be-proven medium.

But that was almost a decade ago: the tables have well and truly turned. Today, social media marketing costs continue to snowball, we’ve reached ‘peak content’ online, and the results are in: consumers don’t trust the major institutions.

While these trends should shape the way organisations use social media, it’s not all bad news. In fact, in amongst widespread institutional scepticism, a new opportunity has emerged: consumers trust – and want to hear from – regular people.

Yes – the reign of brand dominance on social media is over, but the age of the individual awaits. The real value of social media now depends heavily on employee activation.

Authentic advocacy depends on collaboration between Marketing and HR

In her recent interview with B&T, Hootsuite’s global chief marketing officer, Penny Wilson, highlighted this emerging role for social media:

“Now more than ever, maintaining trust in our institutions is becoming a major consideration for Australian marketers… Employee advocacy is one way to combat this dynamic… [It is] one of your biggest assets when it comes to social media.”

So, how does it happen? What should you do to unlock ‘one of the biggest assets’ in the battle for trust? In short, stop thinking about channels and start thinking about people.

Arguments around employee advocacy and social media are not new, but they’re almost always presented from the side of the employer. When it was considered too risky for brand, staff were discouraged. When it was considered too hard to manage, staff were restricted. Now brand efforts are falling short on social media due to costs and consumer trust issues, staff are suddenly being encouraged to fill the void.

While that sort of business logic might add up in boardrooms and strategic planning sessions, it fails to acknowledge the needs of the desired advocator. What do your employees actually stand to gain?

Almost all (90 per cent) workers want to build new digital skills to further their careers, yet only one third believe their employer provides the opportunity to do so. Value doesn’t lie in pre-packaged posts sent in an all-staff email encouraging people to share. Value lies in helping employees understand how social media – and social capability – can make them a better professional today and in the future.

This requires close partnership between the channel subject matter experts – often Marketing – and the workforce subject matter experts – HR. It means understanding the use cases for social media across different teams and tailoring training to suit their needs and workflows. It means showing employees how the data, technologies and channels accessed via social media will make their daily lives easier, regardless of whether they market, sell, serve or communicate.

Six steps to get employee advocacy right on social media

Of course, in the face of increasing consumer scrutiny, the last thing any organisation needs is reputational damage caused by a wave of unprepared employees diving enthusiastically into social media… Imagine the consumer backlash if one of the major banks encouraged all staff to simply hop online and build ‘authentic’ relationships with customers via social media in today’s climate. Amazon learned this the hard way.

So, if there’s more to it than updating policies, setting up technology and telling everyone it’s ok to use social media again, what steps should you take to help your organisation harness social media value via an effective employee advocacy program?

  1. Take the time to understand employee attitudes and explain how you can help. Kick things off by running a formal consultation process to capture employee and customer pain points. Then work out how any advocacy program would address both parties’ needs and keep verbatims up your sleeve to show people you’ve listened.
  2. Identify and engage your internal advocates. As program manager, your role is to create an environment that helps others thrive, not do it all. Identify your champions, bring them ‘into the tent’ and let them tell others – in their own words – what they stand to gain.
  3. Equip your leaders. Without leadership support and participation, no program will really take off. They don’t need to be prolific, Trump-esque tweeters – they simply need to be shown the business case and to feel like they aren’t being set up for failure. Consider dedicated reverse mentoring over an army of support staff.
  4. Design training and governance with people – not tech – in mind. Work with team managers to really appreciate workflows and operating rhythms. Tailor any training and support resources to everyday needs so people see the value.
  5. Encourage peer-to-peer learning, not central dependence. Authentic employee advocacy relies on individuals taking ownership, not ‘command and control’. Provide forums that help staff meet and share ideas – on and offline – and learn from one another. Peers have much greater influence than subject matter experts.
  6. Ask for feedback and regularly review progress. Most employee advocacy programs make sense in theory, but the truth is you’re asking staff to do new tasks. You may not get it right the first time, so be open to feedback and help them use your training and guidance in a way suited to their professional lives. Don’t just set and forget.

When employees feel equipped, empowered and trusted to act – whether in social media or any environment for that matter – all stakeholders stand to benefit. If you can build your program around people rather than platforms, you’ll start to surface all new sources of value from social media.

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