If I had a pie chart of the time I spent as a reporter, one of the largest slices (just after "procrastinating") would be time spent working the phones to get employees to talk about what was going on in their companies.
Sometimes I was looking for a particular inside story, but more often I was just looking for an expert to teach me how the world I was writing about worked. What were the trends that a particular company or industry was riding or battling? Who were the people who were making a difference? What were the exact steps behind how a product or service got invented, built or launched?
Now, as the executive editor of LinkedIn, I’m watching those insights finally get shared with the world as the professionals take to the keyboard or upload videos to explain what they know. We now have over 50,000 posts published a week on LinkedIn on subjects ranging from why Coke might win in milk to how to craft an RFP for a shopping cart. Entry-level workers are sharing what they're learning and seasoned executives are talking about what’s coming around the corner.
What’s particularly interesting is seeing how smart companies are responding to this demand from their workers to be more public. The best of them are actively encouraging their employees to get their voice out there—by supporting their writing, suggesting content for them to comment on and share, or making suggestions of what people might want to tackle and then curating and sharing the posts.
The data backs up the strategy. While companies have spent the last few years amassing followers, their employees have organically done the same—on a much larger scale. On average, according to our data, the employees of a company have 10 times the social following that their company has. And those voices have much higher engagement. While only about 2% of employees reshare the content their companies share, they’re responsible for 20% of the overall engagement (views, likes, comments, and shares) that content receives.
My favorite example of a company embracing the idea of being a chorus master is Dell. Last year, Dell recruited 43 employees, from subject matter experts to executives, to regularly publish posts on LinkedIn and SlideShare. Instead of giving them a script—talk about this product, using this language—Dell senior social media strategist Nazli Yuzak told each writer to talk about what was important to him or her.
"People buy into other people more than buy into products or services," says Yuzak. If she could get her coworkers to talk about what they were passionate about, the readers would come. What was in it for Dell? An authentic set of voices in the market, a softer ground for finding, approaching, and closing on prospects. "It gives potential customers and hires a sneak peek behind the company curtain, a front row look at what makes Dell, Dell."
And what makes a company isn’t necessarily what the company makes. Kevin Green is an executive director of marketing at Dell. Shortly after his father died from Parkinson’s, he wrote a post about the life and business lessons he learned from his father’s death. Was this work? Corporate messaging? Personal? Does it matter? It’s what Kevin needed to talk about. "I just expected it to circulate among my network, and figured a few people who know me outside the office would comment. I had no idea it would spread the way it did, and receive so many comments," says Green.
Within a few weeks, the post had achieved more than 200,000 views and a thousand comments, an engagement level that shows people weren’t just clicking, but carrying on a conversation. People InMailed and followed him, and asked questions: a few wanted to know more about Parkinson’s; several others asked if he was interested in chatting about content marketing best practices. One person even asked him if they could use his post to teach people how to use content to get jobs. Soon he’d become the second most-viewed Dell employee on LinkedIn. The first? Michael Dell. Instead of asking him to pipe down or to focus on laptops and servers, Dell’s HR team reached out and thanked him for sharing his knowledge.
Dell’s path isn’t an easy one for companies to go down. After years of being hung up on—or hearing—empty corporate messaging when trying to get employees to talk, I know first hand the preferred path: silence.
Executives, HR directors, PR pros see only potential pitfalls—a vocal employee is a poachable employee; someone sharing sharp takes can also share sensitive information; what if employees are boring or, worse, interesting? Better to just to keep the barn door firmly shut.
The approach seems safe. But it’s not. Staying silent means not being part of the dynamic business conversation that is happening everywhere around the world.
When a banker in Brazil needs to better understand the mortgage market in Fort Lauderdale, she goes online and starts searching for expertise. A broker who has demonstrated an expertise or posted an amazing deck about the peculiarities of the local market is the one who is going to get followed, get contacted and win business. When a conference or panel needs a speaker who can excite the crowd, they’re going to search for someone winning followers and sharing thought-provoking messages. In each case, via the voice of the employee, the company’s message gets spread and its corporate and recruiting brand grows. If you’re not being talked about or doing the talking, your competitor certainly is.
You can worry about your employees getting poached, but I’d argue that a bigger pair of worries should be:
- Are great employees leaving because they want a bigger stage than we’re willing to support, or
- Are we not closing on potential customers and hires because they don’t get what we’re about?
The world is increasingly social and the output of these 50,000+ posts a week, not to mention the millions of shares and videos, is expanding the world’s understanding of work and business. Content has long flowed from the cubicle set, but instead of dry and barely skimmed white papers and press releases, we’re now seeing real insights flooding the world. And they’re coming from the bottom up, meaning the messages get embraced rather than ignored. Companies who learn how to harness and channel their employees’ voices are the ones who are going to find themselves with the biggest voices of all.
—Daniel Roth is the executive editor of LinkedIn where he oversees the editorial team that handles, and helped launch, the news on Pulse and the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Dan was previously the managing editor of Fortune's digital offerings, overseeing its websites, apps, and digital initiatives.