Sometimes, an unexpected question prompts a debate that fails to produces a simple answer. So it was when one of my connections started a LinkedIn group discussion by asking: "Does anyone know where the term 'Employee Advocacy' originated?"
And did I? No, as it happens - not exactly, anyway - so I did a little digging. Maybe I should have stuck with the original question, but the temptation to go beyond the name and to research the origins of the practice of employee advocacy was too great. I was fascinated by what I learned.
Employee advocacy, as I've noted in previous articles, isn't new. Every workplace has its idiosyncrasies and, human nature being what it is, people are always ready to compare notes with family and friends. Those fortunate enough to work for forward-thinking, responsible employers are generally happy to share their experiences with their immediate circles; the arrival of social media simply serves to make the process easier, faster and more widespread.
So Who Were the First Employee Advocates?
Since there weren't many unsuccessful gladiators in a position to argue the counter-case - they were mostly dead - this was a little more one-sided than modern-day advocacy. It does at least illustrate that trusting personal recommendation isn't anything new, although nowadays the consequences of a bad career choice are marginally less drastic.
Fast-forward to the present day; business owners have become fully awake to the power of third-party endorsement for their products and services, and sometime during the 20th century, the "Brand Ambassador" was born. Although, as The New York Times reported, "using celebrities for promotion is hardly new," brand owners made increasingly sophisticated attempts to convince customers that "a certain star or singer might actually use their products," hoping that sales would take off as a result.
It's Your Own People Who Make the Difference
In the early days, many so-called brand ambassadors were little more than guns-for-hire; marketers began to see the light around the turn of the century. In 1999, British market-research firm Ipsos MORI published The Brand Ambassador Benchmark
, a farsighted research report that examined "the effect that staff have on consumers' purchase decisions as compared with traditional marketing tools such as advertising, price and promotion."
It concluded that employees play a major role in influencing repeat purchases and word-of-mouth recommendation. I found this comment from brand-marketing expert Professor Leslie de Chernatony particularly telling: "This key source of sustainable competitive advantage may well be overlooked and more attention needs to be paid to enhancing staffs (sic) role as brand ambassadors."
A further decade elapsed before the magnitude of the opportunity became clear. SAP's Sarah Goodall, writing in 2010 on her personal blog
, reviewed Seven Social-Media Trends for Engaging the Workforce
, a 2009 presentation from FleishmanHillard that highlighted the potential for "employees as digital ambassadors." Sadly, the original presentation has since been taken down by the authors, but Goodall, a social-media marketing expert, was clearly enthused.
Goodall's suggested actions for employers wanting to support their people in the ambassador role included:
- creating social media guidelines for employees;
- communicating [accepted] social channels to employees and encouraging them to connect to those channels;
- training people on how/when to use social media in their jobs; and
- adopting social tools internally for collaboration and sharing.
"Finally," she says, "embrace social media as part of the culture, don't ignore it!" Now that sounds like employee advocacy to me ...
Cue an explosion of interest around the marketing community ...
Enter the Big Guns
In November 2010, Matthew Brown of Forrester Research wrote about the results of his firm's most recent Workforce Forrsights survey
. In his article, entitled "Employee Advocates Emerge From Empowered Workforce," Brown reported that the survey allowed Forrester begin analyzing the impact of technology on the advocacy process; it concluded that "advocacy correlates with work technology attitudes and behaviors." "My question," he said, "is one that business technology leaders should be asking themselves: 'What role should I play to encourage employee advocacy?'"
I failed to locate an earlier mention of the term "Employee Advocacy" anywhere online, other than in its original context - describing someone who advocates on behalf of employees. However, I'd be delighted to have an eagle-eyed reader point out to me the glaringly obvious prior-art source that I missed!
Since 2010, things have moved on apace in the advocacy world. Technology has helped shape the software-as-a-service business model adopted by most advocacy platform providers, and the choice is extensive. If you want to know more about the players in the market, I refer you to Chris Boudreaux's comprehensive Buyer Guide for Social Employee Advocacy Software
Remind Me, What Was the Question?
I now believe I know where the term "Employee Advocacy" originated, although it's more contemporary - by a long way - than the practice itself. I'd be interested to hear of your advocacy experiences, particularly from times when it didn't go by that name. Maybe, like me, you encouraged people to advocate for your business in more traditional, word-of-mouth ways. Either way, do leave a comment if you'd like to contribute.
Beyond Engagement is an exclusive Social Media Today column published every other Thursday.