The 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer, a trust and credibility survey that collects data from more than 30,000 people, found that regular rank-and-file company employees have more credibility than executives. While this might seem like bad news for companies - it should be considered a fantastic opportunity. By turning employees into trusted brand ambassadors, companies bring their strongest asset and their most vocal internal advocates in direct contact with their customer base.
It is very visible when the company has passionate employees who love the brand they work for. Having adoring employee base isn't just great for word-of-mouth marketing, but for the bottom line as well. In one of their studies Gallup showed that companies with high employee engagement levels have 3.9 times the earning per share compared to their industry peers or competitors. The bad news, though, is that only 13% of employees are engaged in their jobs - that is, emotionally involved in and committed to their work -according to Gallup's 2011-2012 study of employees in 142 countries worldwide. What's even more distressing is that most companies do not encourage their employees to be their external ambassadors.
Employee advocacy is a critical element of brand's success. In the digital age companies don't have much social capital, whereas people do. Scott Kirsner, innovation columnist at The Boston Globe, says: "I listen better to people directly involved than people paid to pitch. In-person connections are where it's at. I want to see companies in their natural habitat: when they innovate, not when they have a PR agency."
And there is data to prove that. In their book The Most Powerful Brand on Earth, Chris Boudreauz and Susan Emerick cite the IBM study that found that traffic generated by IBM internal experts in social media converted seven times more frequently than traffic generated by other IBM sources. "In social media," state the authors, "people - not brands - are the channel." They argue that some of the benefits of employees' social engagement and advocacy include:
- Increasing awareness of the brand
- Improving brand position in search engine results
- Making it easier for customers to find answers to their questions online
- Improving the brand's ability to hire the best job candidates
- Employees who are recognized as thought leaders can decrease the costs of engaging external audiences, as well as creating digital content
There are a few companies that have not only realized the potential, but took full advantage of their employee's love and loyalty towards their brands. Zappos is one of those companies. But creating brand ambassadors from employees is about more than just throwing out a few incentives. You have to begin by looking at your organizational culture. By assessing your company's core values and cultivating a workforce that lives up to those values, you're creating a company culture that promotes strong customer service, loyalty and a sense of fun.
So how do you cultivate brand ambassadors internally? Well, it begins by identifying the core values of your company and your brand - who you are, what you do and what you stand for. Then, you can look to cultivate these values in your staff, by creating an environment where employees enjoy going to work and feel their efforts are noticed and rewarded.
Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, the shoe company who has created a strong culture of loyal brand advocates, explains how they decided to focus on their culture. "At Zappos, our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff-like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers-will happen naturally on its own. We believe that your company's culture and your company's brand are really just two sides of the same coin. The brand may lag the culture at first, but eventually it will catch up. Your culture is your brand."
Zappos have built their culture into every aspect of their business, from the hiring stage, through to performance reviews and their attitude toward rewarding and celebrating achievements within the company. "We celebrate on a companywide, departmental, and individual-contributor basis," says Hsieh. "We believe there is so much value in recognizing the things we do well that there are dozens of ways, big and small, that we make sure to constantly reinforce those behaviors, achievements, and actions we want repeated."
Hsieh adds that celebrations - both big and small - are a big deal at Zappos. "We truly feel that celebrating frequently the things we achieve is one of the best motivators around for getting that kind of achievement repeated. While we rack up some pretty big bills for happy hours and parties, we believe that every one of those dollars comes back to us threefold in employee engagement, which to us is really what success is all about."
But, most importantly, Zappos is great at giving their employees full freedom to talk on behalf of Zappos brand in front of their customers, their vendors, or any other audience for that matter (Zappos employees are allowed to speak at various industry events to talk about the things they are most proud of).
Coffee chain Starbucks is another company dedicated to creating brand advocates out of employees. In a recent overhaul of their UK employee program, Starbucks is providing employees with options for obtaining qualifications while they work, as well as providing funding opportunities for employees to undertake community projects.
"We've up weighted our commitment in the training and development of our people because as brand ambassadors our partners must truly embrace the values of our company," says Brian Waring, Starbucks VP of Marketing. "We know that the longer we keep and develop our baristas, and the more they embrace our values the better our coffee and our service. "
There are many ways you can begin to cultivate brand ambassadors within your own firm. Here are 5 just to start with:
- Encourage social media interaction and advocacy. Zappos have a unique policy on social media - they believe that by hiring people who share their values, they can trust their employees to use social media for the good of the company. They don't restrict social media use and enable employees to distribute coupons to customers as they see fit. If your employees are online talking about how much they enjoy their work, this is a good thing.
- Allow employees to help strengthen customer relationships. Create a sense of shared ownership in the goals of the company, and focus on using employee experience and feedback to improve products/services and customer service.
- Create channels of communication. In working with companies small or large on both internal and external advocacy programs we have noticed that communication with brand advocates is not only vital, but profitable, as they are invested in improving the products/services and spreading the word of mouth around your brand. They want to be heard, they want to have a relationship with your company. You need an easy way for both your external advocates (your customers) and internal advocates (your employees) to offer suggestions, and they need to feel their suggestions are acknowledged and considered.
- Invest in employee wellbeing. A little goes a long way when it comes to showing your employees that they're appreciated. Zappos celebrate with impromptu happy hours, free t-shirts and props emails, Starbucks employees receive free coffee and are given the opportunity for flexible work schedules that fit around their other commitments.
- Make Sharing Easy. Brands should make it as easy as possible for employees to share their brand experience, by encouraging social media use, adding "share" buttons to websites, supplying employees with graphics for marketing campaigns, and allowing them to be actively involved as the "faces" of the company. Finding a platform dedicated to helping bring your internal communities together will allow you to take these relationships to the next level and make this process less manual. At BRANDERATI we work with a number of companies to create internal ambassador networks, powered by our unique platform, which would help amplify employee passion and advocacy and extend it externally.
With employees being the most trusted sources for customers, it's vital that your company's employees are encouraged to participate in your brand. With an organizational culture designed to attract and reward brand advocates, you'll soon see what an asset engaged employees can be. If you're looking to cultivate loyalty and create brand ambassadors, why not start in your own backyard?
Originally posted in Forbes