How to Turn Your Employees into Brand Advocates

This article was written by Roy Maurer and published on SHRM.

Empowering employees to publicize and promote your organization as a brand advocate can give you a clear edge in the war for talent, experts agree. The recent trends toward marketing employer brand and leveraging social recruiting have opened up the possibilities of expanding engagement with passive talent and allowing employees to become an essential part of the mix. Employee advocacy programs prompt a company’s most trusted advocates—its employees—to share their stories over social channels, significantly expanding brand awareness and job opportunities, all while building the employee’s personal brand.

Once an organization has crafted an employer brand, employees identified as brand advocates should be charged with activating that brand, said Jess Von Bank, vice president of business development at Symphony Talent, a recruitment marketing software company based in New York City. “Your employees are powerful megaphones for your employer brand,” she said. “They’re natural storytellers with authentic voices, and they’re living personifications of your culture and mission.”

Done right, this can be a profitable way to attract talent. “Employee advocacy is a recruitment marketing channel based on your employees’ enthusiasm,” said Carrie Corbin, head of talent attraction, employer brand and diversity recruiting for American Airlines, based in Dallas. “It’s not enough just to be a great employer; people on the outside have to know that.”

The Benefits of Cultivating Employee Advocates

Enlisting employees to advocate on behalf of the employer lends authenticity to recruitment marketing and expands the company’s social presence.

“The No. 1 reason to invest in employee advocacy programs is to build trust with candidates,” said Charlotte Marshall, vice president of digital, social media and employer brand at Magellan Health, a health care services company headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz. “The data shows that people trust their peers and employees more than just about anyone else when it comes to learning about a company, so it’s essential that you involve your employees in spreading the word.”

A recent study from research firm Gartner found that only 15 percent of people said they trust posts made by companies on social networking sites, compared with 70 percent who said they trust recommendations from people they know.

“You’re getting trusted guidance from the people you are connected to and would trust the most,” said Chloe Rada, senior marketing manager for talent acquisition at Sodexo, a food services and facilities management company headquartered in Paris. “Corporate careers channels are often not humanized, and messaging can be hard to decipher. Is the story coming from the employees, or is the brand speaking?” The corporate channel is still important, she said, but people outside the organization relate better to its employees.

In addition, the people who work for you “have huge networks of family and friends at their social fingertips,” Von Bank said. “The average employee advocate has a combined 1,100 connections across their respective social media channels.”

Testing has shown that corporate brand channel followers barely overlap with employees’ networks, significantly expanding the company’s social audience. Dell found that there was only 8 percent overlap between its employees’ Twitter followers and the brand’s Twitter followers, for example.

And due to the trustworthiness and personal nature of employee networks, content shared via employee advocates will perform 24 times better than content shared by corporate brand channels, according to Von Bank. “Do both, of course, but advocacy pays massive dividends you shouldn’t ignore,” she said.

Sodexo shared about 600 pieces of content during fiscal 2016, a majority of which were not job-related. The effort produced more than 43 million impressions. “We’ve seen a huge shift from leveraging our employees’ networks, to have that exponential reach,” Rada said.

Employees Benefit Too

Allowing employees to serve as brand advocates can also help establish their leadership potential and personal brand. “In many cases, you can build a better leader and achieve your talent acquisition goals by mapping someone’s upward mobility in the company with their ability to become an advocate for the company,” said Don Charlton, founder and chief product officer at JazzHR, a recruitment software platform based in Pittsburgh.

“Aside from your talent acquisition professionals, look around your organization for high-performing employees who are connected, engaged and represent the personas you’re looking to attract,” Von Bank said. “Give them the WIIFM [what’s in it for me?] and they’ll be happy to amplify your brand message.”

Charlton believes that employees with leadership potential and the potential to become company advocates should be involved in brand strategy from the start. “This involves allowing them to be as involved with shaping how the world experiences the company as possible,” he said. “The best way to create advocates in the organization depends on building a great culture that co-opts employee involvement. Don’t just sanction culture from HR. Ask your employee advocates to have an ownership stake in uncovering the culture.”

In that same vein, Charlton said employee advocates should be proactive participants in the recruiting process, from helping to write job postings and assisting with sourcing to being involved in interviewing and final decision-making.

Advocacy also drives engagement. “If you ask me to tell my network about my job and where I work, my chest puffs out a little bit,” Von Bank said. “I’m proud, dedicated, more closely committed to making sure what I say is true. The employee advocacy and engagement relationship is a chicken-or-egg scenario where you win either way.”

Tips to Get Started with Employee Advocates

The following tips can help you turn your employees into effective advocates for the organization.

Encourage participation. This could be a culture change for some companies, but you’re going to have to trust your employees, Corbin said. “If you micromanage them about what they share, they will not be engaged.”

Corbin also recommended tapping into the company’s employee resource groups to disseminate information and tying incentives to advocacy. “We would create competitions to see who could drive the most referrals or opt-ins to our talent network,” she said.

Charlton recommended that people tapped to be advocates go beyond social sharing and develop their public speaking skills. “Set a goal where they must find an event in their profession and speak at the event, and in effect promote the company and its job opportunities.”

Offer coaching. There is some coaching that needs to take place, Rada said. “Review their social channels and help get them be consistent in the way they are portraying the company first before you get them set up with a shareable content program.”

Employee advocates will also need to be trained on compliance with the same rules and regulations that any recruiting professionals must comply with. “Root advocates in the responsibility they are taking on and overtly explain the dos and don’ts of being a company leader,” Charlton said. “Let them know all the ways that the organization can be sued.”

Be creative and strategic about content. Creating a content marketing strategy may sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be, Von Bank said. “You have content everywhere. Ask your employees for their stories and suggested content; repurpose brand content from your marketing counterparts; capture the things happening around your company every day; and leverage free editing, branding and collaborative tools.”

Rada said that her team tries to reimagine content the company already has by putting a recruitment spin on what the organization is doing. “I align with different departments and try to understand what initiatives are being pushed that might be attractive to candidates,” she said.

Just ensure that advocates are able to retain their creativity and authenticity when it comes to what they share, Charlton said.

Have advocates go beyond the day-to-day responsibilities of the job to focus on why they do what they do, and why that matters to them, Marshall said. “We launched a #WeDoGoodWork campaign to share with candidates. The campaign focuses on employees’ stories of passion and purpose in carrying out our mission. Those stories are recruiting gold. Powerful stuff,” she said.

“The best-performing content is not branded,” Von Bank said. “It’s job seeker tips or throwback logo Thursday. It’s not necessarily ‘why you should work here.’ The point is you need a steady stream of interesting, engaging content that is relevant to your audience, and every once in a while you throw in a company-related story of why the company happens to be a great opportunity.”

Have an employer-review response strategy in place. Requesting reviews of the company on employer-review sites is another great way employees can add to employer branding efforts. “Because all reviews require both pros and cons, employees can reaffirm positive attributes, while expressing thoughtful concerns,” Marshall said. “Focusing on selected responses that address more realistic experiences is important. In my last role at Thermo Fisher, we looked to address responses that fell within the middle 80 percent of reviews, steering clear of those at the extremes which did not attempt to reflect our culture.”

Don’t forget to measure results. This step is critical to driving adoption, optimizing your approach, and measuring tangible business outcomes, Von Bank said.

Metrics will show how employee advocacy efforts are helping the company reach its goals, Marshall agreed. “Did the Glassdoor ratings improve? What was the reach and engagement that week? What was the highest performing piece of content? Who were your super-users? Make sure you call out and celebrate successes to keep the momentum up,” she said.



5 Ways To Grow Employee Brand Advocates

This is a time of synergy: Viral is the new normal, everyone is a brand (whether they know it or not), and smart organizations are turning to employee advocacy. They’re leveraging the selling power of their most valuable spokespeople: employees. This vibrant interconnection between employers and employees is enabled by the new order of social media, among other forces. A global study of some 2,300 employees (ages 18–65) found that 50% of employees shared something on social media about their employer.

In this prevailing social, mobile and transparency culture, we’re blessed with endless access to information and image, and just as endless opportunities to use it. There’s always something to share, be it positive or negative: it can go either way. Based on circumstances, the synergy between employer and employee as brand advocate is a nice juicy handout; not only do we get people to work for us, we get them to rep us, too. But it’s a marketing dream that’s only as dreamy as you are able to make it. It’s only going to thrive if organizations know how to maximize the potential.

Five things to consider:

Let them. Everyone wants to stand out, and in these mobile social times, we are what we post. Everyone is out there building a personal brand: blogging, tweeting, doing the Facebook thing, writing, commenting, posting, or reviewing. Or all of the above: it is rare indeed to find someone who is not weighing in, though certainly some of us are better at it than others. Companies that consider every employee a potential brand ambassador are playing to far better odds.

Be open. A year and change ago, this post by a millennial on how to build a personal brand was pretty much cutting edge; within a few months, not so much. Here’s another reality: social is constantly morphing, and employees tend to use their own preferred online assets, not yours. So just because a 40-year-old manager doesn’t understand the impact of Snapchat, that doesn’t mean the savviest 20-something employees don’t. The site’s got more visitors (23%) than both Twitter (21%) and LinkedIn (20%), and in the past year, awareness of it among people age 12 and older has gone up from 60% to 71%. Caveat: nothing against 40-year-old managers.

Be transparent. Here’s where your company’s policy of genuine transparency will really pay off. It’s all about trusting people to speak for you, trusting them with information, trusting their judgment and acumen. Employees have to feel empowered enough to want to speak up, which also means hearing what they want to say. They need to feel like they’re free to choose to represent the brand or not as well: you can’t, and don’t want to, require a plastered on smile. LinkedIn research also found that 61% of LinkedIn members who follow your organization are ready, willing, and able to act as your brand ambassadors. And we know that employees garner more trust than entities, so let them.

Share. Confidence is key with employee advocates; if they don’t feel like they know what the organization is doing, they can’t advocate with enough authority — or candor. Make sure your employees are truly privy to what’s happening, and activate them to be able to share that message as well. That same global survey (by Weber Shandwick) found that 39% of those employees have shared something positive and complimentary about their employer. What does it take to get that number higher? Give them more to say. If you want employees to invest their own personal brand in your brand, then build that bridge. They need to be privy, feel on the inside, in order to become engaged, not just with your brand, but with its success.

Measure. Is it working? There are countless ways to find out. You need to be looking for a range of key performance indicators (KPIs), including social leads, reach, mentions, and engagement. Use metrics that are powerful and agile to track the information you need to track, and also the trajectory of a campaign. Track who’s participating, who’s really taking the ball and running with it, and where. Then you can take the successes and focus on them, refining the program with meaningful data. Once again, it’s analytics that really crystallize the power of this synergy between employer and employee.

The power of employee advocates is unlimited, and it dovetails beautifully into the new perception of work as an investment not only in hours, but in engagement. But like anything in our business, we have no idea how long it’s going to last, and no metrics to predict that — yet. But I met someone who was thrilled about his company’s new program to measure KPI. And no, he wasn’t paid to tell me about it. Which is why, I think, he was so happy to – and I was certainly thrilled to listen.

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