By Gloria Lombardi

45% of companies invest in employee advocacy programs in order to engage customers, and 15% of them expect some kind of financial return. But, a positive byproduct of employees sharing information about their organisation is that it boosts engagement with the employer.

Ed-Terpening-130x130The four-month study by Altimeter Group, ‘Social Media Employee Advocacy: Tapping Into the Power of an Engaged Workforce‘, surveyed the opinions of brand leaders, employees and consumers. Its author Ed Terpening (pictured right) is clear about the power of employee advocacy:

“Yes, companies are engaging with consumers. And, yes, there is a financial return to that. But, they also end up with a workforce that better understands the business.”

I wanted to speak with Terpening to explore key insights from the study and how organisations could strengthen their employee advocacy efforts. In this interview he shares the motivations for staff to share corporate content, the importance of internal communications, the drivers for successful initiatives and the link between internal and external social media.

Gloria Lombardi: As your study shows, companies have started to realise the benefits of staff advocating the brand on social media. But, what does it take to really motivate an employee to share information about their company, authentically?

Ed Terpening: According to our findings, the number one reason that employees share corporate information is because they believe in the mission of the company.

But, they also said they believe in the product and want to promote what the business does. Another reason is about connecting with other people outside work.

Recruiting is a big motivator too. Many employees would like to help their friends to get a job at their employer. So, they share job postings and what it feels like to work at the company.

GL: What are the key drivers for successful initiatives?

ET: First, is content. Organisations have to provide employees with a stream of information to have them on board and start sharing. But, not just any type of content. They have to align or tailor it to the interests of their employees. The content that they should share with people in Accounting would be different from Sales or Product Development or HR. So, the company has to have a relatively rich content library.

The best content is also curated to support the sector in which the company operates. So, for example, a bank that sells mortgages, might share a story about the housing market or interest rates.

And, it does not need to be content from the brand itself. In fact, usually it is a mix: there is the information that is discovered and curated by the social media team as well as the content created by the internal communications team. But, there is also the content that is created and curated by the employees themselves.

GL: Tell me more about employee generated content.

ET: Generally, there are two ways of doing that. One, it is about creating and sharing thought leadership content. The employees who are thought leaders in a given topic would spend a lot of time thinking about and writing content on their subject area. Let’s take security, for instance. A technical engineer of a company that makes security software might write a blog post about a virus or a hack. Then she shares it with her networks, both internally and externally.

But, there is also the average employee who might just post a photo of an event at work such as a fundraising initiative. In the end, there can be a wide range of content from more informal to thought leadership pieces.

GL: What’s the link between internal communication and employee advocacy?

ET: Internal communication is very important. In fact, many companies miss that point when they start. We saw some brands starting employee advocacy programs from the marketing department as a way to expand the reach of the company messages on social media. But, many advanced brands quickly learned that it was really more an internal communication vehicle. And, they moved the whole program to internal communication.

GL: When we talk about employee advocacy initiatives we almost instinctively think about external social media – employees sharing content on Facebook, LinkedIn and other channels. But, what about internal social networks? Do they have a role to play?

ET: Interestingly, 80% of the companies with a strong internal social network, also have strong employee advocacy programs. Their employees are already used to creating and posting content for their fellow colleagues inside the company. They know how to share company-related information because the organisation built this culture.

In fact, getting employees to share content is really a cultural thing. It is not the technology. Implementing advocacy initiatives can be easy from many standpoints, but only if you overcome the cultural issues.

We have to remember that many employers did not let employees post about work for so many years. It is only recently, in the past few years, that more companies have started to ask their staff to share.

GL: Which organisations are doing employee advocacy well? Could you give me some examples?

ET: Adobe is a good example. They are focused on recruiting. Being a technology company based in Silicon Valley they have a lot of competition for engineers. And, they have to find any way possible to recruit new talent. So, they created a wonderful program called the Adobe Life where all the employees are trained and allowed to post information about what’s like to work at Adobe.

AT&T does very well too. It is one of the brand that have been successful by, over time, moving their employee advocacy program to Internal Communications, a natural fit.

GL: Which are the platforms most used by organisations?

ET: There are individual platforms such as Dynamic Signal and Trapit, which are popular. And, there are platforms that are built into existing social media management systems. For example, Hootesuite have a tool called Amplify.

But, as we saw earlier, sharing is recurring more and more within enterprise social networks. For example, AT&T have a platform where employees can choose to share information with their outside networks without leaving the internal tool. They do not need a separate technology. It is an existing part of their communications.

GL: How about mobile applications for employee advocacy?

ET: Mobile is where companies will be going. I’ll give you an example. Target is a large retailer with hundreds of thousands of employees who do not have desktop computers. They distributed a mobile application to employees to keep them informed but also to share corporate news with their friends.

GL: You conducted the survey with companies in North America, the US, the UK, France and Germany. Did you find any difference across the regions?

ET: We found a couple of key differences. In general, Europeans are more focused on privacy. We asked employees in both continents: ‘Does your employer make it easy for you to share information with your friends?’ In the US, 41% of employees said it was true. In Europe, only 21%.

Additionally, half of the respondents in North America share work-related content because they want their friends to understand what they do. In Europe, only 30% of them said that.

But, even in the US a third of people still do not want to mix personal with professional life.

GL: Could we sum up your findings with some final advice to organisations? What should they think about before launching an employee advocacy program?

ET: There are a couple of things that I recommend. First, even though you may start with a small pilot, involve early groups like Internal Communications, Legal, HR, IT and Marketing. They all have a stake. Sales may have a stake too, particularly if the company has a B2B sales force.

And, set expectations early on. Are you doing this to engage employees? Or to engage customers? Or to have financial returns? Make sure to have a clear objective before starting.