The Intersection of HR & Marketing: Employee Advocacy

dot.govAlthough it may not seem like it at first blush, HR is no stranger to marketing.

At its core, that’s what recruiting is: marketing and direct sales. Those in the recruitment profession market professional opportunity through sharing openings, culture, and brand association. On the sales side, its quite possibly one of the hardest sales jobs; much like real estate, both sides are buying, so both sides can say no. It’s not like a car is going to refuse to be sold to a buyer.

So over the years, recruitment has focused on refining its “spoken sales pitch.” While an important part of the process, it is fairly limited in its reach. The move to digital marketing came about and our ability to broadcast news, share glimpses into our company culture, and build different level of “relationships” with ‘brand-fans’ widened. The online space got very, very noisy.

Amidst that noise emerged evidence of fissures in the brand façade; the carefully crafted messaging by the brand didn’t actually match conversations about the workplace realities of the employees. “A company that cares? Sure … about profit! Let me tell you how… [insert employee vent session here].” Well-intentioned employees trying to help disgruntled customers or potential buyers by giving product/service information that proved to be inaccurate. Less-than-flattering posts from the “personal” side of life conflicting with stated goals, ethics, and morality embraced by the organization.

All of these disparate voices, fragmented messages — they have traditionally freaked out marketing, human resources, and the C-Suite … with fair reason: the disharmony can create confusion in candidates and consumers, which is clearly bad for the brand.

The reality is that employers cannot “silence” the voices. They never really could. Those fissures always existed; however, the adoption of digital ecosystems vastly extended individual reach and amplified their individual stories “on brand” or not. And here’s the real kicker: employees have more credibility, individually, than executives, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. So if we’re unable to “control” these powerful voices, what are HR marketers and brand managers to do? The need behind this question drove the creation of a new category that sits at the intersection of marketing and human resources: employee advocacy.

An employee advocacy program is about more than marketing controlling how the brand message is shared.

This is a business transformation program that truly does help build confidence in employees to share their story in a way that’s positively fused with the company story — extending the company reach to help drive awareness, sales, build upon reputation. Employees have 10x more followers than corporate accounts, according to a 2013 study done by Cisco. Neilson reported in 2013 that 77 percent of consumers are more likely to buy a product from someone they trust; so going back to the what we’ve discovered from the Edelman Trust Barometer, employees can truly help drive awareness, demand, and close rates — both on your products/services and career opportunities.

Brand powerhouses such as Electronic Arts, AT&T (which I do work for), 3M, Dell, Intel, Salesforce, Verizon, HP, State Farm, SAP, and Deloitte have all begun to reap the benefits and value a well-designed employee advocacy program can create. Jenn Meiners Roumian, global brand manager, talent acquisition, at EA, recently shared the process and benefits of building an employee advocacy program for Electronic Arts. EA wanted to create a program helped create a sense of community while mitigating risk associated with the vast amount of content created by the popular brand — and in phase one of its pilot launch (six weeks), created a program value of $25,500 from 60 advocates across 9,300 engagements.

To start, define the program goals using the scientific method:

WHY: This is where you identify the mission objectives. What’s the point of this program; what do you want to gain? When Deloitte launched its employee-run Twitter handle @LifeatDeloitte in 2010, its- then senior employer brand manager Lisa Monarski shared with MarketingSherpa writer Maria Fernandez that it had a singular goal in mind: “We wanted to answer the question ‘What’s it really like to work at Deloitte?’ in a way that is entirely authentic — and seen as such. We decided to have our people answer that question.”

By outlining your objectives, it will help you better outline everything from your philosophy to the creation of the “brand ambassador” job description. Be specific in your reasons for program development: “awareness” as an objective is too vague, for example.

  • What kind of awareness do you want to drive?
  • Why is it important?
  • Do you have a baseline measurement to use as a benchmark?
  • How will it be measured?
  • What happens if you don’t reach your goal to increase awareness internally/externally?

While drilling down to this level of detail may seem like overkill, it’s really not. Taking the time to create a proper foundation will go a long way toward program success. Jenn noted that initially, EA rushed its program launch. “We really went full throttle,” she said. “We were being really aggressive with our plans and at one point, we just got stuck. We were constantly thinking big picture and we just got in over our heads. So about two quarters into the fiscal year [in which we launched the program], we slammed on the brakes and we started over completely. We really started to take baby steps, starting with defining our mission and philosophy … starting with the what and the why.”

WHAT: Define your program philosophy — what do you want to share, how rigid do you want to be in the copy/content passed along to your employees? Do employees need to disclose affiliation to satisfy governance requirements, regulatory compliance, or legal requirements? If so, identify one method of identification and include that in a created social governance program. If it isn’t written, it can create enforcement complications. Creating a solid philosophy will not only help you identify the best technology to use in your program, but it will also aid your project team as you work to brand your employee advocacy program.

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To that end, you can’t enforce what you don’t teach.   well-developed training program reflecting your program’s philosophies, expectations, and rewards is important. Go over it several times in group and individual settings. Identify “super-users” to help guide/mentor newer program participants and reward those who take initiative.

WHO: Define your initial cast of players. Who do you want involved in both the program project team (business partners and leadership), the day-to-day administrator (will this person sit in HR/talent attraction or marketing?), and who are your ideal employees to invite to be your initial brand ambassadors? Also, how do you want to brand your program? What will your brand ambassadors be called?

Create a job description for your brand ambassador that clearly identifies the objectives and responsibilities associated with participation.

Then, do some social listening – inside and outside of your organization. Who is already talking about your brand externally? How active are they on social and what level of engagement/influence do they have? Internally, who do employees gravitate to (these can be natural leaders, not just official management)? Employees who fit into these two categories (socially active and influential) are likely those you would want to invite into your initial program.

WHEN: Timeline — create a plan for both short-term program building and long-term engagement. Don’t wing it. Set up success goals and identify how they’ll be measured along the way. 

Don’t rush your launch — you’re not ready to “go live” until you can arm your program participants with branded and program assets, training, initial curated content to share.  With training, the focus should focus on creating a framework for engagement: including things like response guidelines and recommendations, tone, and in the case of client/consumer-facing interactions, escalation guidelines. Where are the conversation boundaries, when do they need to “hut” the conversation on to someone else in the team, and to whom does it need to go? Ensuring your employees have a proper understanding and are comfortable in this framework will help your leadership team sit easy, but can also improve your overall customer engagement satisfaction as it ups your “care factor.”

HOW: Technology plays a big role in program success, but the best tech in the world won’t matter if you don’t have employees willing to use it. How will you incent people to participate and how will you rewards them when they do? At AT&T, gamification elements such as badges are used to promote participation in its “Social Circle.” “Badges work — just like scouting!” Lee Diaz of AT&T’s Corporate Communication team reported at a Social Media Club Meeting in Dallas. In one year AT&T’s program has over 2300 volunteer participants. Those participants created over 28,000 actions, which lead to over 500,000 engagements (RTs, Shares, Replies). Using SocialChorus as the technology hub to push content externally and track sharing, engagement, and the value of earned media, AT&T has calculated a program ROI of nearly $1.4 million.

Finally, make sure you have developed three other components prior to launch:

  • Employee profile/brand alignment — help your employees tell their best story and ensure that their message is aligned with brand messaging. This can be done in several ways, from LinkedIn Optimization workshops to technology such as solution Brand Amper. Not only will it help employees streamline their stories in a way that creates the right impression, but it has the added benefit of being a crowdsourced brand validation.
  • A communications/community platform — how will you communicate with your employee advocates along the way? While several of the aforementioned companies use conference calls and email digests, you can also use social community platforms such as Yammer or IBM Connections. This communications platform should be a two-way street: employees need to have a place to ask questions and get help when needed in order to maintain healthy adoption levels.
  • A leaderboard — Gamification works when it comes to adoption. It’s great to use badges, but much for the same reasons Scouts wear their badges on sashes and vests — it’s better when people can see them. Create healthy, fun competition and recognition system with your employee advocacy program. While marketing has turned to vendors such as Bunchball and Badgeville for gamification with badges; you can also build your own to use on your internal bulletin board or community.   No matter which way you turn, reward those who are rewarding you with their advocacy and positive recruitment, sales, and brand impact.

Does your organization use an employee advocacy program or are you planning to in 2015?

Crystal Miller Lay is the CEO of Branded Strategies, building employment branding and recruitment marketing strategies for some of the world’s biggest brands. She has worked with start-ups to Fortune 15 companies to at the intersection of HR & marketing; creating campaigns and strategies that solve business problems, tell compelling corporate stories and share the meaning of work in engaging ways that drive results.

She has been a reliable expert source on the topics of talent attraction, talent acquisition, talent management, and digital strategy for multiple media outlets including CBS, Hanley-Wood, Mashable, and ABC. As an industry leader, she writes for outlets such as ERE and Recruiting daily, is recognized for expertise in employer branding, recruitment strategy & marketing, social media, community building, digital strategic solutions and speaks globally on the same.

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