5 keys to a successful employee advocacy program

While few would argue that employee advocacy -- the concept of leveraging your employees as "brand ambassadors" for your company -- isn't a powerful concept, there are some essential principals to consider before rushing ahead.

By now most of us are aware of the Nielsen research survey that reported 90 percent of consumers trust the recommendations of people they know, and 70 percent trust online recommendations, whether they are familiar with the individual posting or not.

There is perhaps no better source of advocates for your organization than your own employees. But what happens when a disgruntled employee maligns the company, or when a well-intentioned individual misspeaks? What happens when an employee who gains "star power" starts to put their personal mission ahead of the company's needs? Or worse still, when they get plucked by recruiters and the giant following they've amassed tags along?

These are frightening prospects; however, the power of employee advocacy far outweighs these significant risks. But to ensure your program's success, before you hand your employees the company's social media microphone, consider these keys:

Know the legal ramifications

What are the legal risks to your company if you sanction an employee for badmouthing a supervisor online or for revealing trade secrets/misinformation or participating in concerted activities such as the creation of Facebook pages to complain about workplace policies? The National Labor Relations Act protects employees' rights to discuss workplace conditions even in a concerted fashion (i.e., unions) up to the point that they are "disloyal." Disloyal may be a hard term to define, but in summary, legal authorities note that social media postings are protected as free speech up to the point that they no longer merely complaining about workplace conditions and are actively seeking to reduce the company's business by driving customers away. These aspects of social media are vital to understand regardless of the employee advocacy program, but the launch of your program is an ideal time to review the legality issues as a company and spell out the criteria for engagement in explicit terms for management and employees alike.

Set clear objectives

Just like your public relations program, the goal for employee advocacy should not be strictly to bring more awareness. Hone in on the messages and the audience you are seeking, and know exactly how these efforts will advance your company's success in reaching these goals.

Have a plan (or better yet, a platform) for content creation and sharing

To set your employees loose on a mission to spread the good word without a plan or a platform for doing so is inefficient at best. And at worst, it could actually create damage to your overall goals as every individual goes rogue with their own ideas or simply becomes complacent and allows participation to drift away. If you are willing to go to bat with an employee advocacy program, you will achieve exponentially better results by using a consistent platform for the development and sharing of the content. In addition, the platform will be vital toward your ability to measure and assess your results for the program.

Conduct ample training

Be sure your employees fully understand the expectations and rewards of the program that's being launched. In some cases, employees may prefer to create separate social media identities for the work-related information they share. Your training can help them with the creation and management of the social media tools they will use. The training should also create feedback loops to let the advocates see how well their efforts are succeeding. As the program proceeds, create a program champion that gives the participants a resource to go to with questions and ideas and to ensure their success.

Put a clear and meaningful social media policy in place

Of every step, this one is perhaps the most vital in terms of mitigating the company's social media risks. Most employees would not willingly tarnish or sabotage their company's reputation, but are simply unaware of the behaviors that might put the organization at risk. Your policy should spell out best practice conduct in social media use as well as create awareness of the situations that create risk. For instance, responding to a reporter's question or publishing their workplace complaints or even their fervent reactions to issues relating to the company within their personal blogs could be damaging. Clarify the difference between communication on issues such as explicitly speaking as a personal expert on a non-related work topic and when they are speaking on the organization's behalf. The ramifications and penalties for misuse of social media should be clear, and every employee who participates in an advocacy program should be aware of this policy.

Employee advocacy is one of the most compelling themes in social media for 2014. It is a powerful tool. But remember that when you engage your employees in social media, in many respects you are giving them the keys to the company's kingdom. So partner together, with your employees, in a way that prepares them well to handle this new-found responsibility.

Eric Roach is co-founder and CEO at EveryoneSocial.

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