Turn Employees Into Advocates: 3 Lessons From Referral Marketing

Customer advocacy marketing – that is, turning existing customers into engaged consumers who go on to share the benefits of your product or service with others in their network – is enjoying a surge in popularity, given our increasing resistance to other forms of promotion.

The benefits of an active force of brand advocates are obvious. When your customers are doing your selling for you, you spend less of your own time and energy pushing your message out to consumers. In fact, these customer-led promotions may be more effective than any advertising strategy you’re able to implement on your own, simply because we’re more inclined to trust personal recommendations than we are marketing messages.

That said, marketing and advertising aren’t the only realms within which you can leverage the power of personal recommendations. Many of the strategies used in customer advocacy marketing apply just as well to employee advocacy programs.

In this context, however, you aren’t trying to lure in new customers with personal testimonials. Instead, you’re using employees’ natural inclination to post socially about their experiences at work to drive everything from positive brand sentiment to future sales.

Step #1:  Create an engaging culture

This can’t be overstated: employees will not advocate for a company they don’t believe in.

Shep Hyken, author of The Amazement Revolution, shares how important organizational structure is in driving customer advocates:

“Customer advocacy starts when the culture of the company is aligned with what you want the customer to experience. To begin an advocacy program, the organization must be customer-focused. What’s happening on the inside of an organization is felt on the outside by the customer.”

Intuitively, this makes sense. An unhappy customer isn’t going to refer their friends and family members to a company they don’t like; in the same way, employees who aren’t satisfied in their current positions aren’t going to post good things about your business on Facebook.

Unfortunately, disengagement is common among employees. Paul Keegan, reporting for Inc. Magazine, cites research from Gallup that states:

“Only 30 percent of American workers are engaged at work. The cost of this disengagement ranks in at a whopping $450 billion to $550 billion per year, encompassing absenteeism, workplace accidents and higher health care costs.”

Clearly, addressing your company’s culture and the role it plays in employee engagement offers many benefits beyond increased advocacy – and it should be done before any formal advocacy program is put in place.

So what does employee engagement look like? The fact is, every company will define it differently. As Hannah Botelho of Hubworks notes:

“Remember that your definition will likely – and should – be different from another organization’s, and that it may evolve over time as you listen responsively to your workers’ feedback. Once you’ve defined employee engagement, you can begin putting programs in place to support your objectives.”

Whether your employees are currently engaged or not, consider the following suggestions for creating the kind of workplace your employees will want to recommend:

  • Invest in leadership and professional development programs. Show employees the pathways that exist for growth within your organization, and offer the resources they’ll need to follow them. OfficeVibe reports that “86% of businesses and HR leaders believe they don’t have a good leadership development path” in place.
  • Help your employees believe in the mission of your company. The Dale Carnegie Institute reports that “54% of employees who were proud of their company’s contributions to society” considered themselves “”
  • Show employees that their contributions are valued. Wagepoint suggests that companies “Create an environment where everyone is treated as equals, and where all ideas and contributions are respected and appreciated. There should be a sense of camaraderie in the workplace, not an atmosphere of distrust and cutthroat behavior.”

Poll your employees periodically (and anonymously) about their level of engagement. Do not begin a formal advocacy program until you’re confident that at least some of your workers would be willing to recommend your company.

Step #2: Establish your employee advocacy goals

Once you’re ready to move towards formal employee advocacy systems – but before you actually create and implement your programs – take the time to consider what you hope to get out of them.

For example, are you hoping for:

  • Direct referrals for new business from your employees?
  • Positive reviews of your company on sites like Glassdoor?
  • Positive social media messages spread organically by your employees?
  • New job applicants referred through current employees?

Each of the above goals could be the focus of a formal advocacy program, though achieving each of them might require different tactics.

Consider also what your company is willing to invest in the program. Will you pay cash bonuses for successful referrals? If so, how much will you pay? Will your referral bonuses be one-sided or two-sided? Should the bonus be paid out immediately after a referral sale is closed, or should there be a waiting period? Will all employees be eligible, or will you be limiting your program to carefully-chosen advocates?

If you’re considering a compensation scheme that doesn’t involve cash payouts, poll your employees to see if the perks you’re thinking about offering are sufficient to incentivize referrals. Your employees may not be motivated by a $25 movie gift card, for example, but they might go to the ends of the earth to drive new business if you offer extra PTO.

This type of brainstorming process is a critical part of developing both customer and employee advocacy schemes. What works for one company won’t work for another. It’s up to you to identify the goals and incentives that are right for you.

Step #3: Design a formal employee advocacy program

Finally, it’s time to codify your employee advocacy program. If you’ve created a positive company culture, you may already have candidate referrals happening naturally – the same way that customer advocacy often springs organically from happy buyers.

Putting a formal plan into place will allow you to magnify this effect and ensure that you’re meeting the goals you set for your program in Step #2 of this process. Take the following steps – based off the process of creating a customer advocacy program – before rolling out your initiative:

  • Enroll a manager. Programs – whether customer advocacy, employee advocacy or something entirely different – are often most successful when they’re driven by a committed leader. Find someone within your organization who can spearhead your new program and take ownership of its results.
  • Set referral guidelines. If you’ll be incentivizing positive social promotions, for instance, consider writing out guidelines on how employees should speak about your company on social media. In any case, codify guidelines for acceptable advocacy behavior. Gray areas only lead to frustration.
  • Educate your advocates. Make sure any employees who will be participating in the program understand what you’re trying to do and how they can help achieve it. Get them excited. Make them feel important for being entrusted with the responsibility of advocating for your company. The happier they are with the program, the more likely they are to participate.

Once your program is launched, monitor both its activities and results. If you aren’t on track to reach your goals, make the necessary changes to ensure your organization gets the greatest possible benefit out of your new employee advocacy program.

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