The evolution of marketing and communications, driven by the popularity of social media has placed a lot of attention on the customer as a valuable business asset. The theory dictates that the “wisdom of crowds” (if enough people are saying it, it must be true) is a more powerful purchasing motivator for prospective consumers than a corporate advertisement.
Certainly one could point to many case studies that have proven this concept to be true, both before Web 2.0 (Word of Mouth Marketing) and post (Social Media). However, there’s a disruptive force at play in the collective chants of even the biggest brand’s consumer advocates; one in which a single tweet, video post or status update can immediately and decisively stop “bandwagonism” in its tracks. The employee.
The reality is consumers are fickle. They are quick to jump on the bandwagon and equally quick to jump off and throw stones at it. It takes many people chanting your brand’s value to create that instant credibility in one prospective customer but only one employee’s public comment to destroy that faith in many.
So the theory I’d submit for discussion is that the greatest new business asset social media has generated for a business is not the consumer, but the employee. And as with most things in life its greatest strength can also be the greatest weakness.
The Yin Yang of Social Employees
Many businesses pay lip service to the importance of their employees in the growth of the company through well-crafted HR manuals or motivational wall plaques. The CEO may even provide the obligatory “thank you” email at year end. However, employees are more often than not leveraged as operational tools rather than a marketing channel.
The same communication paradigm shift that elevated the power of the consumer voice has bestowed the same, if not an even greater power to the employee’s voice. However, tapping into that employee resource pool for social media brand advocacy is much more challenging than swaying a group of consumers to blindly promote your brand.
The nature of the Employer-Employee relationship adds a more sensitive dynamic to the effort. The understanding that employee has the “inside-scoop” on a business’ operations, lends more credibility to their brand advocacy. Yet, any discord between the employee and employer can produce a even more powerful detraction from the brand’s marketing efforts and destroy years of consumer good will.
Two famous cases that illustrate this point are:
- The Domino’s Pizza employee YouTube video, where the employee picked his nose and rubbed it into pizza dough and spit into it, too.
- The Belkin Computer Hardware employee who was caught offering money to anyone who posted positive testimonials about certain Belkin products.
The potential negative brand and sales impact from employees engaging in social media is so feared by executives that many corporations forbid social media engagement by its employees. However, the fact that an employee can cause so much potential harm to the brand through this medium, makes their positive commentary and referrals that much more powerful.
Like it or not, even those corporations without a social media policy already have thousands of employees representing them in social channels. The brand might be liable for anything that they say even in their personal networks but, if managed well, they can convert that risk into powerful brand evangelism.
Tapping into the Social Employee Resource
Companies like Cisco, IBM, Best Buy, Zappos and IBM are actively encouraging employees to take to the social airwaves. Some do so with very specific engagement policies and others like Best Buy have few to no policies dictating how (for example) their employees use Twitter. There are some commonalities that serve as lessons for other corporations looking to follow suit:
- They recognize the employee’s need to be social and actively encourage participation in online channels. Fighting this need creates an initial foundation of mistrust, which can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
- They provide the tools and support systems for employees to actively promote their brand, which can include content repositories, cross-functional social media teams and community managers.
- They’ve created a sense of brand ownership in ALL employees, not just the marketing team. And like consumer communities, this sense of corporate community and ownership in the public brand encourages employees to act responsibly.
- They’ve aligned the positive promotion of the brand and the benefit it provides the corporation with the employees own personal goals.
Most businesses understand that consumers no longer respond to the “corporate voice” but do respond to their peer’s recommendations, thus focusing on the consumers and community as the promotional channel. Most have ignored the employee. Those corporations who have leveraged their employees by empowering them to speak in their own voices on the brand’s behalf, have reaped even greater rewards. And from a marketing and PR perspective, what more powerful asset can your business have?
What say you? Are employees a more powerful social marketing asset to the corporation? We’d love to hear your opinions and experiences.
By Sam Fiorella
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego
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