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.
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.
You Can’t do Employee Advocacy without the Right People and Technology
When I interviewed Bart Casabona, Director of Social Media at Pitney Bowes, and Sarah Goodall, an employee advocacy expert, I knew two things immediately about running employee advocacy programs:
1. You have to focus on the employee, not the brand.
2. You need the right combination of people, process and technology to be successful.
Last time, I wrote about getting started with an employee advocacy program and how important the right people and culture are for success. This time I wanted to focus on how to put the employee first and understand the value that specific employee advocacy technology brings to the table. Finally, you can’t look at any organizational program without talking about ROI.
It’s as much about the employee as it is about the brand
Something both Casabona and Goodall stressed is that an employee advocacy program is first about the employee. Ensuring the employee is successful will also ensure the brand is successful.
Pitney’ designed its program for both the socially savvy and those just getting started. Training was developed with the busy employee in mind, comprising an hour long instructor-led session. In this session they covered the basics of social media and social networks, the rules of engagement (guidelines for communicating on behalf of the brand), and ended with training on the employee advocacy tool. Another key is that the employee must disclose they are a Pitney Bowes employee.
In the Pitney Bowes Insiders program, Casabona said they want to ensure a culture that is socially savvy and could communicate about the brand. But they also want their employees to communicate about the industry and even personal aspects of the employee’s life. He said when you train employees how to leverage social networks and build a social presence, you are, by nature, sharing information about Pitney Bowes.
Is there a right employee for this type of program? Goodall said that there are already social superstars in most companies, but they might not be the best employees for the program. They already have their tools in place and their processes. When you implement an employee advocacy program and use a specific tool, focus on those just starting out. In her case, they didn’t select employees but opened it up to anyone who wanted to build a personal brand online.
This is not something you can force employees to do, and she doesn’t agree with making participation part of the employee’s KPIs. You want your employees to engage in the program, and that’s a slow progression, but the right way to do it.
Goodall helped set up the training program at her last company. The goal was to move employees from “social zero to social hero”. The training comprised three modules and employees could stop the training at any module they chose. The first module focused on the importance of building a social brand, getting started with profiles, building a network and then social listening. The second module, which leverages a tool, was about sharing content, and participating and engaging in others’ content. At this point many stop, but some move to the third stage – how to become a social influencer creating and sharing their content.
Rewards were an interesting discussion as well. While both Goodall and Casabona agree that rewards/gamification are part of an employee advocacy program (both have a number of modest incentives for performance in the programs they run), they also note this isn’t what drives most employees to be a part of the program.
Casabona said that by being a part of the Insiders program employees are true “insiders”, getting access to communications within the company sooner. Goodall said that being recognized by the brand is a reward in itself. In some cases, top employees are asked to participate in special functions, like being a social reporter at an event.
Scaling an employee advocacy program requires technology
You can run an employee advocacy program without a special built tool – but you won’t find it easy. Many employees want to start building a brand but aren’t familiar with the tools available. They are also nervous about sharing content about the brand, not wanting to get into trouble.
Goodall said a tool gives employees the confidence and comfort of knowing what they are doing is acceptable. It’s a safe place to click and share content, and it enables the brand to track metrics on how things are going. Although she said you could do this program without a tool, it would be a very manual, time-consuming process for both the employees and the team managing it.
Casabona said they initially started without a tool, communicating to a core of socially active employees via email. They would share traditional messaging and images. He said that this could work for a small 20-30 person group. But as you move beyond a small group and want to scale your program out, it becomes increasingly difficult to ensure employees see the information to share. It’s also difficult for the team to manage and see the impact of the program.
An employee advocacy tool enables you to manage the program centrally. In Goodall’s case, they had a central tool, but each department bought their licenses and assigned their admin to manage it. She believes this wasn’t the best approach, and that a central administrator should handle the licenses, track the metrics and report performance, support employees and optimize the content. She suggested doing a company-wide rollout working by groups or departments, but with central management.
The proof is in the ROI
You can measure the performance of an employee advocacy program, and both Goodall and Casabona demonstrate this. Goodall found a big difference between the performance of those who went through the training and those who didn’t. Specifically, trained employees:
- are 3x more likely to share content (and this is customized content, not simply spamming out the same message)
- share more than 2x the amount of content,
- see 50% more engagement with their content (likes, comments, shares), and
- most important, get 2x more clicks
Casabona shares similar positive metrics:
- employees have shared 16,000 pieces of content
- received 13 million impressions
- and most important – picked up two sales pipeline opportunities stemming from this program and social sharing – something the team believed was possible but didn’t expect to see this early in the program
The biggest challenge and the best advice
I wanted to end with the biggest challenge and the best advice from Goodall and Casabona.
Goodall’s biggest challenge: Get marketing to understand. She said marketing doesn’t have the expertise or capabilities or the people to get out and participate in the social conversation. Many are still stuck in the traditional marketing mindset of campaigns and don’t understand the value of networking. They need to get the company behind them to ensure success.
Goodall’s best advice: Define what you want out of the program. Think about your goals – is it social selling, social business, marketing? Then get your team together and do the groundwork before you get started.
Casabona’s biggest challenge: Training. Pitney Bowes wanted to ensure participants were properly onboarded. Live, instructor-led sessions created a solid foundation despite the level of social-savviness of the employee. It ensured the employee got off to the strong start. The proof? Many of those who started off not socially savvy are now in the top 10 – top 5 lists of performers in the program.
Casabona’s best advice: Take the leap. Start small and expand over time. The value to the organization and the employees makes it worth exploring. Focus on the benefits to employees and the benefits to the organization will follow. Ensure leadership buy in – it’s critical, and choose the right technology partner wisely.
Something else Pitney Bowes’ employee advocacy program has been able to do – secure a seat at the larger marketing table.
The insights that Sarah Goodall and Bart Casabona share clearly demonstrate several things. The focus must be on building the personal brand of the employee. When an organization invests in its employees, it shows it cares about them and their careers and proves the importance of employees to an organization’s success.
In both cases, a tool – Dynamic Signal – was used to build up the program. In full disclosure, both Goodall and Casabona were connected to me via Dynamic Signal and both spoke very highly of the tool and what it has enabled them to do with their program. There are other employee advocacy tools out there, and I recommend you carefully investigate the market before selecting one for your program.
Something Goodall said to me brings clarity to the how to do employee advocacy right. She said while the tool is very important, and you can’t scale a program like this without one, it’s the combination of people, process and technology that ultimately makes it successful.
If you don’t spend the time upfront to:
- Define the right team to manage the program
- Focus on your employees and the onboarding process
- Get the leadership buy-in and support
- Create a clear content strategy,
- Manage and track the program’s success
No tool, no matter how good it is, is going to make you successful.