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Beyond Engagement: Authenticity and How to Recognize It

What makes people want to advocate for their employers? And why should anyone listen? After all, these are employees we’re talking about – it’s their job to promote their companies, right?

Wrong ... at least, not as most people understand “promotion.”

Two words is all it takes to answer both questions – “Authenticity” and “Recognition.” Just mix them well – two parts recognition to one part authenticity – and, given a fertile environment and the right encouragement, advocacy will flourish.

Appreciating the part played by each of these essential ingredients of advocacy requires a step back – way back – to a time before social media, when word-of-mouth communication wasn’t just one of a number of alternatives, but the norm. When authenticity was every bit as important, but maybe a little more personal than it is today.

Why Should I Believe a Word You Say?

Knowing someone who has the inside line on a subject has long been one of the best ways to get at the truth. Whatever’s going down inside an organization, people who work there are most likely to be in the know. Family, friends, neighbours – these are people who will tell you it like it is. They may also be employees, but you can trust them to tell you the truth. That’s authenticity.

The challenge for employers that want to channel the power of advocacy is to maintain the same level of authenticity without the benefit of one-to-one communication, and without forcing the issue upon their people. Avoiding the pitfalls takes a little effort, but the results are more than worth the time you invest getting it right.

Leave all social-media-related considerations firmly to one side for now. The essence of authenticity is choice. People must be willing participants, and they must be free to decide what they say and where they say it. Encouragement has to be the order of the day, or authenticity flies right out the window.

Voluntary Participation Isn’t a Limiting Factor

Don’t expect every last one of your employees to jump on the advocacy bandwagon; it isn’t for everyone. That said, you can make it easier for your people to participate by identifying activities that fit individual comfort zones. IBM, for example, identified eight discrete roles as part of its employee-advocacy movement and assesses all participants in order to find the right balance for them.

Advocate ProfileIn essence, play to your people’s strengths. Find the round pegs and have them occupy round holes. Not everyone wants to be a promoter or a conversationalist. There will be those who are comfortable creating content for co-workers to share, or encouraging others within the programme to fulfil their potential. Their contributions will be all the more authentic for that.

Content and Channels – It’s All About Choice

Marketing-speak messages that leave employees with little or no opportunity for personalization are unlikely to benefit your brand. As Susan Emerick of IBM puts it, “asking employees to parrot brand-generated messages ... is not a sustainable strategy.” Take a look at the video that Susan uses to ram home this point – do you want your people to come across as pre-programmed automatons?

Content comes in all shapes and sizes – often, those best positioned to create media that’s right for your organization are your own people. Asking for ideas isn’t a sign of weakness; rather, it’s an opportunity to increase authenticity levels while making it more likely that your message will eventually see the light of day.

Remember also that not all social-media channels are equal. Asking someone to share business-related content through a personal Facebook account that is otherwise used for nothing but discussions among a group of hobbyists is clearly a recipe for ridicule. Make content available for the right channels and allow people to personalize it. Provided you’ve prepared your program thoroughly, they aren’t likely to let you down.

Recognition, Recognition, Recognition

Two parts recognition to one part authenticity? Well, recognition is a bi-directional occurrence; organizations need to recognize the contributions made by their employee advocates, and people receiving messages from those advocates have to be able to recognize the authenticity of those contributions. Without either, whatever momentum exists will simply be lost.

Internally, public recognition counts for an amazing amount. Calling out an individual for a service rendered above and beyond, or for a job done exceptionally well, has long been one of the best motivators in a leader’s toolbox. People don’t need monetary rewards for advocacy; 2013 research conducted at IBM shows that public recognition of an achievement has an equivalent value to an award worth $1,000, and in the eyes of many, monetary rewards diminish the authenticity of advocates’ messages.

The most important aspect of advocacy – the impact it has on advocates’ connections – is to some extent a matter of perception. Yes, factual messages may be taken at face value, but the perceived authenticity of an advocate’s overall contribution is a big weighting factor. Although trust surveys repeatedly rank employee contributions above those delivered via formal company-owned channels, it doesn’t take much to tarnish a reputation.

Allow people enough freedom to maintain complete authenticity and keep your employee-advocacy program entirely transparent. Only then will your intended audience recognize contributions as truly authentic, allowing them to deliver value for recipients, enhance the collective reputation of your people and maintain your organization’s standing in the eyes of both.

How Authentic is Advocacy in Your Eyes?

We’re always pleased to hear from organizations with first-hand experience of advocacy – if that’s you, please share your experience. Alternatively, if you receive business-related messages from any of your social-media connections who are advocating on behalf of their employers, do you find them authentic? What makes you more or less likely to accept the message at face value? Do tell us.

Beyond Engagement is an exclusive Social Media Today column published every other Thursday.

Image credits:

Column logo by Marie Otsuka

Advocate Profile: IBM

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