One of this year’s breakout films is Ex Machina. At its core, the sci-fi thriller is the story of an inventor’s quest to create an authentic, seamless human experience and connection through something that isn’t human at all: an android.
We have never had more global avenues to connect and be connected to than we do today, and we do it seamlessly and authentically through these platforms of personal expression as if it were second nature. For consumers, digital authenticity is an expectation; for brands, however, it remains a goal that only gently grazes the surface.
For a brand to reach a truly authentic and emotional connection with their customers, and become a part of their lives, they have to do something in this day and age that is very foreign. In order to humanize a brand, they must give a piece of themselves over to their humans, their employees.
External employee advocacy and internal employee engagement are not mutually exclusive of each other and have become popular topics for our clients for great reasons. In today’s highly connected world, employees provide knowledge and expertise – as well as authentic relationships – in their social ecosystems, providing value to both their network as a trusted expert as well as a valuable ambassador for their employer.
What are some of these benefits? It really comes down to the goals of the brand and what problem they are trying to solve internally and externally.
External: Reach & Trust
For brands, trust in a recommendation from an employee has never been higher or more credible. In fact, in a recent study, consumers named “a person like yourself” 62% more likely to trust, “a regular employee” 52% more likely to trust, and “a technical expert” more likely to trust 66% compared to a “CEO” or brand at 43%. It is easy to see why. Word of mouth, even in digital form, is still the most powerful form of marketing. We still crave human interaction and connection; it’s only how we interact and connect that has evolved.
According to a Nielsen study, 92% of consumers still trust recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising. Additionally, consumers are still 71% more likely to purchase based on a referral from a connection and 78% of salespeople using a social selling strategy outperform their peers.
Despite those statistics, less than two-thirds have any sort of strategy for sales and marketing teams and even less have a structure that empowers employees to share.
The reason? Fear on both sides.
Control of identity, message, narrative, and brand protection has been a traditional part of brand marketing, but the more restrictions and controls brands feel they have over their message the more they feel they are mitigating risk but also depreciating authenticity and approachability. Enabling employees to share and join in brand efforts means opening brands up to some risk it also means opening up to massive scale, impact, and authenticity.
An employee assumes a great amount of risk, as well. The greatest risk is their job, and therefore financial wellbeing. Employees fear sharing, or don’t feel empowered to share, for fear they might position the wrong information or fired for sharing their personal interests, views, and activities while identifying as an employee of their company.
As early as 2008, brands were asking employees to not post to LinkedIn (the world’s largest business network), Facebook, or Twitter. As early as 2011, we were still trying to convince brands to build Facebook pages because of the fear of negative comments. As early as last week, I had a conversation with a major brand requesting that employees not identify themselves as employees for fear that their personal actions might reflect poorly on the brand.
From a brand perspective, social collaboration is the idea that everything I do remains private with the exception of what I choose to share, so that the message is controlled. From a human perspective, everything I do, I share, with the exception of what I want to keep private.
Brands benefit by breaking down this disconnect and empowering their employees.
Brands that empower their employees can see a considerable shift in organic reach on Facebook. One of the greatest complaints over the past year is the massive drop-off in organic reach for Facebook Pages where it is generally 0-5%. Person-to-person sharing is much greater. When working in parallel with paid campaigns, the brand can weave a great creative story with human content, increasing the impact of the campaigns.
For Retailers – especially big box retailers. Employee advocacy can allow you to position regionalized content, making your brand feel more local. Because employees often identify as a target demographic with the brand they work for, an employee program allows you to impact more accurately and efficiently, as the employees’ connections within their network are of the same demographic.
For Tech Brands – recruitment and the cost of recruiting are always constant. More and more companies are giving new hire bonuses as an incentive, which is a great first step but few go beyond that incentive. Employees are the best extension of your brand culture, and the theory is top talent knows top talent. Incorporating recruiting into your marketing and enabling your employees to play an active role helps reduce time and costs in finding the right people for open positions.
Internally: Purpose & Loyalty
Engaged employees are brilliant ambassadors for brands, because while they are beacons externally they are also improving the foundational culture internally.
Even more brilliant is that while employee engagement seems a no-brainer, less than 30% of employees say they are engaged in their workplaces, according to Gallup. The least engaged demographic: millennials. It is easy to see why when you consider the traditional philosophy of corporate sharing (everything is private, except what I allow to be open) vs. the personal view of sharing (everything I share is open, except what I wish to remain private). Millennial engagement internally and externally with their network is a plus.
Employee advocacy programs add a feeling of purpose and deeper involvement outside of the day-to-day mandatory productivity that employees execute. That small participation involves and empowers employees and, more importantly, it engages them.
Engaged employees can impact all areas of the balance sheet. Statistics show that there was 2.5x more revenue for companies with engaged employees than competitors with low engagement levels.
From a corporate expense number, $11 billion is lost annually due to employee turnover, yet we’ve seen that highly engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave the company they work for than their counterparts, reducing the cost of onboarding and ramp-up, as well as breaks in culture.
These are just a few reasons why to consider an employee advocacy program.
Employee advocacy programs are becoming more and more important for our clients and for the industry, in general. It is important to understand that this is not something that you just decide to do. The formation of a plan to humanize a brand through the empowered voice of its employees isn’t turnkey. Authenticity never is.
In my next post I will walk you through things to think about when considering enabling and engaging employees as advocates.
Jake Schneider is the Director of Digital Strategy for The Marketing Arm, overseeing both digital and social strategy and in particular leading TMA’s Employee Advocacy practice. You can find him on Twitter @jakeschneider.