Employee advocacy insights from those who’ve been there

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher September 15, 2015
Two experts who run employee advocacy programs share the right way to do employee advocacy - and mistakes to avoid.

Employee advocacy is a great way to earn the trust of your customers. After all happy, engaged employees understand their market well and speak highly of their companies giving customers more confidence in the products and services sold by the brand.

But there is no one right way to set up and run an employee advocacy program, and it's a program that's not without its challenges. The opportunity to learn from others who have taken the leap and found success, and maybe even failure, can make the difference between a successful employee advocacy program and an unsuccessful one.

To get some insights into what works and what doesn't, I spoke with Bart Casabona, Director of Social Media at Pitney Bowes, in charge of Pitney’s global employee advocacy program, and Sarah Goodall, a veteran in the tech marketing space who has spent the last three years building employee advocacy programs for enterprise companies.

Getting started with an employee advocacy program

You’ve decided you want to do it, but are you prepared?

For Pitney Bowes, it was simply the right thing to do. Bart Casabona said that Pitney Bowes recently celebrated its 95th year in business. As it continues to transform its products and services, and its relationships with its clients, it recognizes that peer-to-peer recommendations in the purchase decision are becoming very important. Pitney saw an opportunity to connect with clients and prospects in new ways leveraging employees and technology.

Sarah Goodall said you needed a fairly strong social media strategy already in place - which means you already do things like social listening and managing brand channels. Social should already be intrinsic to the company.

Both Goodall and Casabona agreed that having leadership behind you is also critical. Leaders need to understand the importance of social. Goodall notes the many times she’s dealt with management who have the idea that social is free and easy to do. She says they need to understand it’s much more participative than they might think.

You also have to have the right culture, said Goodall. Your employees have to understand the brand and what it stands for before they can tell the brand story. If you have disengaged employees, it’s not the right time to start an employee advocacy program.

Keep your employees top of mind. Pitney wanted a program that benefited employees as much as it benefited Pitney Bowes. Everything had the employee in mind. Casabona said his team saw the tremendous value in harnessing the collective social influence of passionate employees. By focusing on ensuring the employees were successful, the organization would be successful.

Success starts with the right team and the right culture

An employee advocacy program requires the support and input of a number of departments within a company. Goodall believes that HR should be interested in the program, considering HR needs to have an engaged culture to attract (and keep) people to the organization. Typically she’s found that HR wants to be involved but doesn’t want to lead it. In many cases, employee communications lead the program because they are involved in helping employees. Marketing also wants this program for support with digital campaigns and sales wants it for social selling.

There are many in the organization who have a stake in the program’s success. But who should lead it? Goodall believes it should be a team that sits above all these groups, something she tried to get management to buy into at her last position. It could be a social media group, as long as it’s autonomous from the marketing team (which is where the social media team often resides).

The Pitney Bowes employee advocacy program is called “The Insiders.” It was initially led by a team of three, including Casabona. Pitney Bowes launched its pilot in the US in October 2014. Casabona noted it was important to start with a modest group of willing employees (and he stressed the willing aspect). These were employees who were already involved in activities beyond their normal responsibilities that promoted Pitney Bowes’ message in the marketplace.

In both cases, the employee advocacy program was run by a specific team with collaboration from several departments in the organization. For Pitney, the social media marketing team (an autonomous team within the marketing department) owned and led the program in collaboration with other functions. For example, legal help as they enter new markets/countries, HR assists as they expand to new territories and deal with new resource regulations, and communications help with recruitment and communication of the program.

Goodall said a consortium should be created with HR, marketing and employee communications. In her case, this group then took the program to the business to get buy-in and funding. Employee advocacy is such a new concept that it’s hard to justify why an organization should do it and how to measure it. Goodall said you don’t want your employees to look like another marketing channel, out there spamming content. It’s important to demonstrate that there are returns to the investment.

An employee advocacy program requires a lot of work and daily management. For Pitney Bowes it was a new venture, so every aspect had to be developed from the ground up, including selling the program, technology review and selection, community selection, and training. Pitney’s cross-functional team embraced the challenge. Casabona notes the passion and entrepreneurial spirit of both employees and leadership was a key ingredient that enabled them to bring the program to life.

Pitney Bowes also has executive sponsors in each of the countries they are located. These sponsors help promote the program and inspire employees to participate.

Success with this type of program is also about the content. Goodall says that content is the heart of any social advocacy tool. This includes both branded and non-branded content from both the company and the employee.

One mistake Goodall believes her last company made was only using branded content. She says you get more credibility if you also share third-party content because it demonstrates the employee is an independent thought leader. Employees can also suggest content to share, and they get points for suggesting content. To prove that non-branded content is also critical, Goodall suggested doing a test pilot and tracking the metrics for the non-branded, third party content.

Casabona said that it was important to help employees create their content and promote it through the brand. It’s a win-win for everything he says.

My take

Listening to Casabona and Goodall, several common themes appear to ensure your employee advocacy program is a success:

1. Strong leadership support is critical. This is a program that should go across your company and that means you need your leaders behind you completely. But don’t expect buy-in to be automatic. With Goodall it took some convincing. Expect to do due diligence to demonstrate value.

2. This program is about your employees’ brand first and foremost. What your organization achieves as a result of an employee’s successful personal brand building is gravy – really tasty gravy. Invest in your employees and you’ll see the returns.

3. Content strategy is a critical element. You need the right content to give your employees to share. This content should not be purely branded content. Social media savvy people understand that it’s not just about sharing, it’s what you share. And if what you share is all about the company, people won’t listen. Some experts say that at least 80% of what you share online should be content created by others. This shows you are active in the greater community and understand your market.

There is more from these case studies to examine, including the question of technology and ROI. For now, focus on getting buy-in and setting up your team.

Image credit: Business man holding a white card saying Trust © Gajus - Fotolia

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