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 Leadership Behaviors Loyal Employees Trust

Is any relationship ever completely reciprocal? Not really, because one party always wields more power over the other. This is a human behavior dynamic that is tough to ignore, especially when we look deeper at workplace culture and team dynamics. There are leaders and followers, loved ones and lovers, employers and employees. We might like to think equality, common goals and unquestioned commitment are the norm but it simply doesn’t happen. It’s true in personal life and in the workplace.

I recently spent a weekend at a high school graduation where teachers glowingly described the fairly small class as a group of leaders. Although parents and kids basked in the glow of achievement and praise, it was clear that some in the group were more equal than others, more accomplished, more confident and composed. While the speeches were heartwarming they seemed insufficiently realistic: clearly not all in that class are destined for success, and not all will be leaders. Despite what we say as a society about equality, the best we can offer is what seems like a cop out: the promise of equal opportunity.

Leaders today talk a lot about loyalty, retention, and the business value of empowering employees to be brand ambassadors. Nonetheless, research literature and blogs abound which discuss the erosion of employee loyalty to the workplace, especially among Gen X and Y. The prescriptive leadership and talent management advice runs the gamut, from changes in compensation structures to more flexibility in work schedules, team building and more, all aimed at encouraging employee engagement with the employer’s brand. But the worry persists and with good reason: can the damage inflicted on employee trust by years of layoffs, pay cuts, IPOs and benefit claw-backs be overcome?

Speaking of IPOs and trust, look no further than the recent Facebook news breaks. Zuckerberg may face his biggest challenge yet as CEO when shaping the new Facebook workplace culture “post IPO”  – The change in company climate will undoubtedly be reflected in the employees, a reality that Jena McGregor from the Washington Post sums up nicely here and with this quote:

“So how will Zuckerberg manage them? The Wall Street Journal has a great roundup of ideas for the 28-year-old founder. He’ll need to feed these new millionaires’ entrepreneurial mindsets, giving them time and autonomy to work on their own projects. He’ll have to become expert at stroking egos while not setting up cultures that give the lottery winners on staff too much sway. And he’ll need to keep people from checking the stock price, oh, every 10 minutes, and be willing to say goodbye quickly to those who don’t want to stay.”

So, is there a way to increase loyalty and engagement in the workplace? I believe there is, and it requires a near-equal exchange of information about the business’s goals and challenges and a shared sense of the value of work. This true for CEOs and for employees alike. It’s a two-way street of respect and trust.

All great leaders know getting there is the challenge, of course. Here are 5 behaviors for leaders and hiring managers to adopt when struggling to keep employees happy and loyal:

1) Tell the truth. Not everyone is a star. Pick out those with leadership or other valued talent potential and nurture them. This will come back to the business as these individuals, in turn, nurture other workers.

2) Communicate roles and responsibilities. Provide a path to success not only for those with leadership promise but for all employees. Sometimes this will mean difficult changes, but remember the most important skill of a leader: never surprise an employee with bad news. Have a development plan for all, and a get-well plan for those whose performance lags. Make sure everyone knows the plan.

3) Create a workplace culture that values real people relationships. For many employees, workgroup relationships and relationships between managers and workers drive engagement and loyalty more effectively than foosball machines, logo T-shirts, and Thirsty Thursday gatherings.

4) Be fair and open. This does not mean treat everyone equally – it means have transparent processes for managing and leading. Employees are more likely to respond positively to change when the process used to manage change is fair.

5) Model the behaviors you seek. Just as the headmaster at the high school did, accept your responsibility as a leader and act with engagement, commitment and responsibility. Do this every day.

Each of us possesses skills, strengths, talents and flaws. Each of us seeks to belong, to be engaged, to relate to those around us. Loyalty is built on relationships, shared understanding and trust. Engagement and commitment require loyalty, shared goals and fair treatment. Don’t take loyalty and engagement for granted – create a remarkable culture where there are possible and rewarding outcomes of the workplace.

We are only human after all – Every one of us. Every leader. Every brand. Every workplace. Every person.

A version of this post was first published on Forbes on June 4, 2012.

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