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Employee Advocacy Beyond "Please RT This" and the Rise of Digital Eminence

With marketing channels becoming completely fragmented, companies are looking towards new ways to get their message out.

Social media is becoming noisier and noisier for brands as pretty much every company is using social (many in the wrong way) to broadcast their latest message.

Enter the employee who has their own social network and community - do we just want them to be a proxy for our own network and message?

I’ve started to see the rise of “employee advocate” platforms, and while they have a place in the marketing mix, we need to be careful that they don’t just treat employees as an extension of the marketing department.

I'm sure many of you reading this are nodding your heads, having recently received an internal email imploring you to “Please Retweet this!”

Real brand advocacy goes beyond the "click and tweet this” treatment and engages employees as an integral part of the brand message.

Authentic Advocacy

As the word “advocate” suggests, employees can become real advocates for your company. I’ve become a brand advocate for IBM, not because I have to or because it's in my job description, but because I genuinely believe in the amazing things IBM are doing around analytics, blockchain, weather, IOT, social collaboration and cognitive computing, to name just a few. I present keynotes around the world that aren’t simply IBM product pitches, they are (I hope) smart pieces of thought leadership on a range of topics.

I’ve received feedback on numerous occasions after my keynotes that “I didn’t know IBM did that”, and “My opinion of IBM has completely changed as a result of your talk today”. This is unscripted brand advocacy - but it's hard to get everyone in the company doing it, and indeed not everyone wants to be that overt brand advocate.

And beyond the basic "Please RT this" on social, I rarely just retweet a message from one of the many IBM social accounts. Instead, I look at the message and see what additional insights I can provide from my unique position inside the company. I'm also aware of the value of my personal brand, and know it would be devalued if I just shared everything the company produces.

Employee advocacy platforms

I'm seeing more and more tools emerge to support this brand advocacy work, from companies such as Dynamic SignalPassleTrap.it, and LinkedIn’s own Elevate platform.

There's nothing wrong with these platforms, and they'll provide additional reach for companies, but I do fear that there's a fine line between authentic, original content and a simple reposting of a press release from a staff member to their social networks.

If you have one of these platforms at your company, or are considering signing up to one, look at how you might use it beyond just a marketing tool. Think of how people looking to join your company may perceive hundreds of people sharing the same content over and over again, versus real and original insights.

One quote from Trap.it on their website grabbed my attention:

"Why launch an employee advocacy program? Because employee advocates put a trusted human face behind your content and messaging. When employees share news and information about your organization on social media, they extend your marketing reach and boost recruiting – all while becoming more engaged."

Hmm - while it's true that such programs can extend your marketing reach, it has to be done in a co-ordinated and authentic way to not just become the “click here to RT” model.

I’ll keep an eye on these platforms over time to see if they evolve into real brand advocacy platforms, or just stay as a marketing tool.

Producing unique content

One other way of encouraging content creation from your own employees is to aggregate this in the one place.

Companies such as NewsCred allow the mix of licensed content (eg from Forbes, Inc and CNN) to be aggregated alongside thought leadership from employees on the same content hub.

You can see examples of these - Visa Vision is a good one, followed by IBM’s own Think Marketing.

Having seen “under the covers” for these types of content hubs, marketers can encourage their own thought leaders to contribute (some would also argue compete) to have their own unique content featured on a company’s content hub that is marketed widely as “the place to go” for thoughts beyond just the company’s press releases.

Done properly, these content hubs can be seen as a real go-to place for industry thought leadership instead of simply just another website from the company.

Using paid “influencers"

A discussion about brand advocacy wouldn't be complete without my opinion on the use of external “influencers” as a marketing tactic.

Having been the CEO of online influence network Kred for a couple of years before I joined IBM, I saw first hand how “influencer” programs work, and how influencers are chosen.

While there is a place to use influencers (I’ve heard some FMCG companies call them “creators”), I’m amazed that companies still shell out thousands of dollars paying for influence when they already have paid influencers. They’re called employees.

Your employees, I would argue, are your best advocates, and you already have them on the payroll, but companies often defer to the paid influencer route because it's "easy" and they know how many "impressions" (a completely useless metric of how many potential people might have seen the message) they can generate, and hence meet a marketing KPI.

My time at Kred also taught me about the psychology of online influencers. The first rule is that if they call themselves “influencers” anywhere (eg on their website, Twitter page etc), then they’re probably not.

Influence is earned, it's bestowed on people by others. Calling yourself an influencer, in my eyes, is a red flag that you’re really just someone who's noisy but doesn't have real influence. I've come across countless examples of “influencers” that I’d never put in front of one of my clients, but could deliver “reach” of content via social channels.

It's one thing to be great behind a computer, however many of my clients have never heard of some of these online influencers, and probably never will.

We need to be careful to discern online reach (think number of followers, retweets etc) versus real influence that would lead a client to consider my product or service as a result of a recommendation from an influencer online.

In my work at IBM, we are exclusively in the B2B space. The B2C influencer market requires a whole different approach.

With B2B, you're often “influencing the influencers”, as it is rare to be targeting the ultimate buyer or decision maker unless there's an existing relationship. The analogy I like to give is that often I'm asked to present to a client as a result of someone else seeing my content and recommending me to their boss.

Influencing the influencers

An excellent example happened to me just last week.

A leading Bank was looking for a keynote speaker to present at their annual digital team offsite. The ultimate decision maker is the MD of Digital Banking. He'd never heard of me and had never seen any of my content or tweets. One of his team who does know of my work and has seen my content recommended me.

I'm sure the conversation went along these lines “... we need to find a good keynote speaker for our digital offsite, can anyone recommend someone who’s good?”.

Someone I've influenced and knows of my work recommended me to him, and I'll be presenting to 300 of their digital team later this week. It won’t be an IBM product pitch (I just don’t do this), instead it'll be some inspirational words of wisdom around digital. They'll all know where I work, and imagine that some of the 300 people will speak to me afterwards about what I do there.

In an indirect way, my existing online content, body of work and respect in the digital community brought me in front of the Digital MD, by influencing the influencers. I have countless examples of this, and it's hard to teach someone how to do this - it takes time, but it can be very valuable as this example proves.

Tips for dealing with brand advocates

  • Treat them the same way you would journalists - provide embargoed material ahead of time & press briefing material and marketing assets
  • Provide them with guidelines on how they treat company information on social networks- see IBM’s here
  • Let them try new technology first - perhaps even have them review it alongside existing bloggers & influences
  • Understand their real influence and marketing reach and play to their strengths
  • Involve them in your marketing planning sessions, they may have some great ideas to help you from their own experience

What’s next after Brand Advocacy?

I believe that there is a next step for companies beyond brand advocacy, and it involves a smaller subset of your staff, those with real eminence, not just online (digital eminence), but as the complete package, a respected and eminent person in their field.

Beyond Digital Eminence

I’ve written extensively on Digital Eminence, both on my own blog as well on customer blogs, such as ANZ BlueNotes, which addresses how your eminence can increase using digital techniques.

Real eminence, however, goes beyond having a profile and thousands of followers on Twitter. Real eminence is earned from your industry peers, as they appreciate and respect your opinions and thought leadership on a particular subject or practice area.

Your eminence value has a number of components that go beyond the online piece (with thanks to my colleague Lynn Reyes):

Personal Character - To be respected, you also need to be humble and be prepared to share your knowledge. Eminent people will never tell you that they are eminent, they'll instead help people grow in their understanding of their area of expertise.

Body of work - Eminence is not earned overnight. Your eminence in a particular subject happens over time as you add to your body of work on a particular subject. In academic circles, eminence is related to the number of published articles. It works in the same way beyond academia.

Practical Application - It's all very well to have a brilliant thought on a particular subject, but has it worked in practice? Michael Faraday’s eminence in the field of electricity was gained as more and more people took his knowledge and turned it into something practical. An idea that doesn't work or exist in practice is just that, an idea.

An Eminent person with the characteristics above can start to promote and socialize their knowledge using online (social media, blogs etc) methods as well as offline (public speaking, TV, radio), but this can only happen once they have a body of work, worthy of others bestowing eminence upon them.

Many of you will identify with people in your own firm that are already incredibly eminent in their field or industry.

Eminence as a currency

Eminence can be thought of as a currency. A person’s increased visibility, respect and value of their thought leadership over a competitor puts a company at a competitive advantage. As a person’s eminence increases, it should be harder for a competitor to catch up without a structured and measurable eminence program.

Promoting your eminent people can't be treated in the same way as your brand advocates. The value of their thinking, and that of their personal brand, is too valuable to be treated in a mass-market way.

A properly structured eminence program can in some cases lift the share price of a company, as the market understands these incredibly intelligent, valuable and thought-provoking people can be engaged via your company.

I expect that in the future, as companies develop eminence programs, the investment will be able to be measured against revenue, increased win ratio for bids, and even a stronger sales pipeline.

Eminence is not something you can expect a return from overnight. First of all, you need to identify and attract these eminent people to your firm, then develop a program to authentically share this with the market through multiple channels, not just social media. 

Eminent people that are strong public speakers can be extremely valuable for a firm, and as their eminence increases, so will their invitations to speak, write for industry publications and appear on TV. All free publicity for your firm, and a sign of the smart people who work there.

Watch this space as brand advocacy and eminence makes an impact on the marketing and sales effectiveness of firms in the future.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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