How to generate authentic brand advocacy from your employees

Incentives for glowing endorsements or staunch defenses of your organization might work in the short term, but more intrinsic sentiments will resonate and endure. Here’s how to proceed.

Diverse friends watching a livestream

More and more employers recognize the power of employee advocacy on social media.

They’ve learned that employees offer an authentic and cost-effective way to spread company PR and marketing messages. Consumers trust personal connections more than brand marketing or promotion.

Employees are widely available and can both defend and promote their organization. They can also recruit job applicants and support their employer’s positions on industry or social issues.

Many companies offer employees incentives—such as prize drawings, company logo items, extra time off or cash—to promote the brand’s message on their personal social media accounts.

Some PR and marketing pros caution against the practice, questioning whether it’s effective or ethical.

Motivated by rewards

If authenticity is the goal, what happens when employees share messages only for a reward?

“Organizations need to ask themselves if their actions are intrinsically motivating employees to engage in the desired advocacy behavior or simply motivating them to get the reward?” writes Patrick Thelen, a research editor for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center.

If employees learn to expect a reward for every action, what happens if the company must curtail incentives because of financial constraints or other unforeseen circumstances? Most likely, the abundant “authentic” sharing will wither.

More companies have turned employee advocacy into a game by rewarding those who gain the most impressions, “likes” or shares. Though that strategy can engage employees, it could stall if the same handful of people keep winning. Overemphasizing vanity metrics might not produce meaningful results.

PR risks of job reviews

Employee advocacy has become a favorite HR strategy for recruiting job applicants. Companies may ask employees to announce job openings and encourage—and sometimes pressure—employees to post positive reviews on workplace rating sites such as Glassdoor.

PR experts urge companies to avoid pressuring employees to post dishonest ratings. Besides being unethical, the practice risks reputational damage when bogus reviews are exposed, and it won’t improve recruitment over the long run. The employees will eventually quit and post negative reviews—including complaints about being coerced to sugarcoat their true feelings.

Consider these alternatives:

  • Explain why employees have a vested interest in the organization’s success,and show them how their social media advocacy can help the organization reach its goals.
  • Provide frequent, targeted, easy-to-consume information that employees can share on social media, making each staffer feel essential to the organization, Krzysztof Kazibut, general manager of Bambu by Sprout Social, advises in a Convince & Convert article.
  • Make it easy. Centralize content in a hub, and explain why it’s important to different internal groups. Provide suggested messages that employees might personalize, and provide training and guidelines to satisfy compliance and regulatory concerns. Most important, let employees add their own thoughts or tweak the language in their own voice. “The intent is to empower your people to share important information while positioning themselves as trusted experts in their fields,” Kazibut says.
  • Through social media monitoring, identify staffers who tout or defend the organization online and share the brand’s content. Once you’ve trained them to use their social media profiles, those internal leaders can use their experiences for a larger program, advises Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group.
  • Help employees establish themselves as industry experts when they share informative, thought-provoking content that mentions their company. That strategy is especially effective for B2B firms.
  • Share social media successes. Collect and share testimonials from sales representatives who have seen an increase in revenue due to online marketing through employee advocacy. Identify new employees who learned about the position through social media.

A version of this post first appeared on the blog.

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