Beyond Engagement: The Growing Influence of the Subject-Matter Expert
Don't expect to find a one-size-fits-all employee-advocacy program - there's no such thing.
Selecting an approach that's right for your organization is the critical step in your program; get it wrong and you may as well not bother.
Identify potential use-cases and choose carefully, as I advised in one of my first columns. In a consumer-facing organization, campaigns and product promotion may be top of your list, but elsewhere, longer-term objectives often take priority. Here, the increasingly influential role played by content deserves deeper consideration.
Authorities on best practice in content marketing aren't hard to find. It doesn't require extensive reading to understand the value of high-quality, authoritative content in a typical non-consumer sales cycle; neither is it a massive leap to appreciate the part it plays in brand promotion. In either case, advocacy offers a great way to reach your audience, authentically and effectively.
The Essential Role of Content in Advocacy
In a fast-moving consumer environment, short-form content may be the answer. Tweets, social-media updates, posts and comments are all easily shared and make excellent material for the advocacy process. That leaves a huge number of organizations looking for content that supports longer-term objectives; enter the subject-matter expert (SME).
Many companies, IBM, Dell, SAP and Eaton among them, recognize the part played by authoritative content in an extended sales cycle. Building the B2B Foundation, an early, authoritative and much-referenced white paper from global consultants AT Kearney, highlights the importance of value-added content in the digital world and cites the "key competitive advantage of deep industry knowledge."
These forward-looking companies adapt this principle by empowering and encouraging SMEs to develop and disseminate content that not only enhances their personal reputation but builds toward one or more of the corporate objectives. Let's take a look at the SME use-cases and the potential for value-added-content-based advocacy.
Why SME Advocates Exert Unrivalled Influence
In Employee Advocacy - What's in it for My Business? I cited four use-cases:
• Awareness - brand development, community outreach
• Campaigns - promotions, products, events
• Support - customer service, subject expertise
• Talent - recruitment, employer reputation
Long-form value-added content isn't always suited to individual campaigns; the other use-cases, however, are ripe for picking by SMEs!
There's plenty of evidence to show that great content drives brand awareness. Several well-documented case-studies highlight companies that grew their public profiles substantially by arming SMEs with great content. In a recent article, Cheryl Snapp Conner, Managing Partner of Snapp Conner PR, showcased her client, inventory software provider Fishbowl.
Fishbowl's experts include CMO Kirk Tanner, who fronts a YouTube channel that delivers "straightforward information about business and inventory management strategy in an interesting and visual way," and CEO David Williams, who now writes a regular column, A View from the Bowl, for Forbes.com. Williams, together with Fishbowl's President, Mary Michelle Scott, also co-authored a series of hugely popular articles for the Harvard Business Review blog.
Subject-matter experts don't have to be C-level executives. Promoting your technical team outside your organization is also proven to work exceptionally well. In 2011, Ford Motor Company hosted Forward with Ford, a two-day "TED-style" conference that drew heavily on the contributions of internal SMEs. It was, the company reported, a major success, with "thousands of pieces of content being produced."
Product support is another fertile sector for the SME-advocate. Demonstrable technical expertise goes hand-in-hand with helping customers get the best out of a company's product or service, and many experts enjoy almost cult status on support channels that now routinely include Twitter and Facebook. In 2006, Comcast's Frank Eliason reportedly became "the most well-known customer service manager in the U.S." after launching @ComcastCares on Twitter to counter a negative viral video.
The benefits of SME-advocacy to the organization are manifold. Increased brand authority, more trusted technical support, brand-focused community development and enhanced employer reputation are only a few of the positives that arise from effectively promoted and well-informed advocate experts. Recruitment also becomes that bit easier when potential employees see themselves as the next Matt Cutts ...
Generating Great Value-Added Content is Vital
By now, you'll have realized that, when advocating on behalf of their employers, subject-matter experts rely on more than simply sharing an occasional blog post on LinkedIn or Twitter. Value-added content does exactly what the name suggests - provides recipients with something worth reading, viewing or hearing and - hopefully - sharing. It doesn't appear as if by magic.
Neither do all experts create all their own content. Organizations intending to launch a serious advocacy program must assess content needs at all levels and provide appropriate resources. Not many will be equipped in-house to create everything needed - which may include blog posts, white papers, e-books, videos and more. Some SMEs, particularly in technical fields, will be comfortable with authoring while others will need professional help.
Sharing relevant third-party content is fine for most advocates, but SMEs need a more structured approach if they are to achieve authority status in their chosen fields. A fully featured advocacy platform should include a content-management hub - if yours doesn't, there are some great stand-alone offerings, the pick of which I'll review in a later column. I can't over-emphasize the importance of providing the right content - fail to do so and you risk jeopardizing your entire program.
So Where Does That Leave You?
Maybe you're a subject-matter expert who already enjoys broad exposure in your chosen field - if so, please tell us about it. How do you plan your content sharing? And what help does your employer provide? If you're managing a program that includes SMEs, we'd love you to share your experience. Do people take much convincing to become an in-house expert? And please do share your successes with us - you could be the person that inspires others to follow ...
Beyond Engagement is an exclusive Social Media Today column published every other Thursday.
Column logo by Marie Otsuka
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