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Leadership Now

Marketing That Money Can't Buy—Getting Employees to Tweet About Work

Want a marketing message that people will actually listen to? Keep your employees happy and they'll be your best advocates.

[Image: Flickr user Cuatrok77]

Is the day coming when we’re going to earn raises for retweets?

Many savvy brands like Dell, Oracle, and Intel think the future of marketing is on social media and their best advocates are their own employees. The move to ask employees to market for their companies raises a lot of questions like:

How do you properly incentivize advocacy? What should employees share on social media? How will this change the content of social networks? What types of companies can actually make this work?

Here’s my read: Brands can only pull it off if employees love the company.

To understand this, first look at the reasons why companies have embraced employee advocacy and how they are structuring their programs.

1. Brands and employees have different followers.

Brands are interested in employee advocacy because it allows them to connect with an audience that would otherwise be expensive or impossible to reach. According to Liz Bullock, former director of social media at Dell and current CEO of the Social Arts & Science Institute (SASI), there is minimal overlap between an employer and its employees’ social followings. For example, at Cisco employees had 10 times more followers than corporate accounts yet only a 2% overlap in audience.

2. Word-of-mouth marketing is invaluable.

The most authoritative survey results continue to show that word of mouth rules over any other form of marketing. In 2013, Forrester found that 70% of adults online trust recommendations from friends and family, but only 15 percent trust posts from companies and brands on social media. Similarly, Nielsen found that 84 percent of consumers trust recommendations from people they know. Employee advocates can give brands credibility that they otherwise lack.

What works

Three years ago, Dell was one of the companies that began to recognize these advantages and led the curve in employee advocacy. Dell employees go far beyond tweeting or posting brand messages—they’re answering questions, thanking customers, writing blog posts, generating sales leads, connecting with potential hires, covering events, and more. Their advocacy program has certified over 10,000 employees to represent the brand on social-media sites. Top advocates are personally recognized by Dell’s CMO and featured on their advocacy platform’s "Wall of Fame."

Programs like Dell’s are designed to build thought leaders, not brand parrots. Thus, employee advocacy is not only about transforming marketing, sales, and human resources, but reinventing the culture of a company. In a sense, advocacy programs formalize, channel, and encourage sharing that might occur anyway. They also shift the brand identity from its logos, leadership, and products to individual people as they become the face of a company.

How to make it work

Employees aren’t going to tweet about their company if working there makes them miserable. If their marketing department is pumping out crummy content, they’re certainly not going to spam friends and risk their trust, and demoralized employees will have no motivation to connect with potential hires. Even with cash incentives or other perks, advocacy from a poor culture is going to come across as forced and inauthentic.

In other words, to compete in the social-advocacy arena, brands need happy employees.

So will companies make advocacy optional or required? Will they offer bonuses or other rewards? Might they rank employees by social advocacy? Will an entire workforce get paid to post?

Above all else, I think companies will focus on producing cultures that employees want to advocate for. In terms of long-term sales growth, marketing success, and talent retention, that will matter far more than the fine details of each advocacy program.

If the rise of employee advocacy encourages better corporate cultures and leads to happier employees, higher-quality brand content, and more effective companies, let’s welcome the social workforce.

Greg Shove is CEO of SocialChorus, advocate marketing solution for the brands that people love. Follow him on Twitter at @gregshove.