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Beyond the Retweet: HR and employee advocacy in the digital age

November 20, 2018  

Written by Kelly Thibodeau, Owner & Lead Consultant, Squarely Social & Jill Knaggs, Communications & Marketing Manager, CME Manitoba

As featured in the Fall 2018 Issue of HRmatters

More than 10,000 North American Dell employees regularly post and share company and industry-related content – a powerhouse approach that generates nearly 50,000 clicks; 150,000 social shares and reaches an audience of 1.2 million potential customers annually. How? Dell’s engagement program, powered by EveryoneSocial, is aimed at creating a culture in which team members discover, curate and share interesting content; rather than forcing employees to share corporate communications (or refrain from discussing the company at all).

As Dell Marketing Director Amy Heiss puts it: “One of the big tenets of our social media and community training is that we want people to post 80 per cent about topics that are informative, helpful and relevant to our customers or are personally interesting to our employees, stuff that reflects their own interests. Only 20 per cent of the content they share should actually be about Dell.”

There’s no question employee advocacy is a powerful strategy for raising brand awareness. Empowering staff as brand ambassadors can pay big dividends, but aligning HR realities with big dreams for brand in the C-suite can have practical and broad-reaching implications. In an era when social missteps dominate the 24-hour news cycle, it’s understandable that HR pros are wary of an approach that can see a single poorly-thought out post instantly amplified to thousands. Some find themselves dipping their toes with caution, while others avoid the pool entirely.

The credibility crisis

High profile studies by Nielson and McCann continue to show that consumer trust in brands is falling, but personal recommendations – the opinions of family and friends – remain the most credible source of advertising for customers and talent alike. In fact, 96 per cent of people that discuss brands online don’t follow those brands owned profiles at all. Influencers and brand advocates are one of the fastest growing channels for marketing budgets with good reason – returns can fluctuate significantly but ROIs of 6-11X are common. Employees – with their insider perspectives – can be incredible champions for brands with the potential to drive improvements in reach, market share, reputation and a host of other business-critical metrics.

Is social media the key to a looming engagement epidemic?

Employee engagement in the digital age is changing faster than organizations can keep up as the lines between personal and work are increasingly blurred. Employees are hyper-connected to their jobs through mobile technology and networking and social tools like LinkedIn, Facebook and more. And it’s not just millennials. Older workers too, are increasingly social. All of which present new opportunities and challenges for HR teams. The culture of engagement, and the tools that support it, will be even more important as the demand for talent heats up – all while the expectations of the next generation(s) of workers continue to challenge traditional management practices.

Social inside and out

The American Marketing Association (AMA) makes a sound argument for social media engagement beyond brand. They argue that smart companies are going social not just to enhance their advertising budget and increase market share, but also to spur employee engagement and shape their story from the inside out. Central to the argument is the idea that engagement can help develop internal thought leaders, mentors and advocates; creating a stronger sense of community and improving productivity – which in turn also helps with acquisition and retention. Companies that fail to adapt risk being left behind as workers seek out employers that empower them and consumers search for brands with an authentic, 360-degree presence.

A new approach

While restricting social media is the conservative approach for risk management, some companies are embracing change and empowering their employees to use their own voices – with big results. Not only does a culture of social media empowerment greatly appeal to workers, it gives companies the opportunity to build internal thought leaders who can influence the entire organization. Take for example, L’Oreal. Number 30 on Forbes’ list of most valuable brands, the company is well-regarded for its savvy approach to social media.

L’Oreal’s #LifeatLoreal and #LorealCommunity campaigns empower employees to share their passion and connect at, and outside of, work. Inspiring team members to create a sense of community and broadcast the best of its culture, the company encourages employees to tell its workplace story in their own words and photos to big results. The proof is in L’Oreal’s 200,000+ campaign-generated Instagram impressions and its place among Canada’s Top 100 Employers with an “A+” rating in employee engagement and performance.                                 

HR holds the keys

As the world of work continues to evolve, traditional HR practices that restrict employees’ use of technology and social media are likely to backfire. Simply put, not only is it fair to say that the risks of a single employee post going viral and irrevocably damaging the parent brand grossly overstated; but the potential rewards are staggering.

As a strategic business partner with a seat at the C-suite, HR has the dual responsibility for improving employee engagement as well as attracting and retaining talent – no small feat. Traditionally seen as a cost centre, HR has an opportunity to identify with the revenue pipeline while building a culture where employees are trusted brand advocates. Not only can practitioners influence policies and practices related to employee’s use of social media, they can – and should – have a seat at the marketing table when it comes to rounding out a company’s brand strategy. With a panoramic view of how social media, employee engagement and the marketing mix can determine success in the digital economy, HR professionals can implement a best practice framework that supports company-wide brand objectives while empowering people from the frontline up. After all, in the digital age, the key to harnessing the full power of an engaged workforce may very well be an organization’s ability to adapt social media to its own advantage.


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