Situation 1: Imagine you are looking out for a Club Mahindra resort for your next getaway. You have numerous sources providing feedback about this property. The official Club Mahindra website gives great descriptions and a photo gallery to allure you. The Make my trip or Trip advisor platforms also offer their reviews and ratings. You also find reviews on the Facebook account of a friend, who happens to be a Club Mahindra employee. Now, which of these sources will you find most reliable?
Situation 2: You are seriously considering company XYZ as your next career destination. You are bombarded with information about the ‘great place to work’ feel of the company through the feedback and videos posted by employees on its official website. You also have the option of checking the company out on Glassdoor. In addition, you are a part of the Twitter group comprising the current staff of the company. You have oftentimes witnessed conversations amongst them about events, initiatives and knowledge-sharing sessions organised at the workplace. Which piece of information would seem more authentic to you?
If you are like most respondents tapped by a Nielsen survey in one of their studies, you would be more impressed and influenced by the voice of the employee of the company/brand that you want to engage with.
Welcome to the world of employee advocacy, a highly recommended and coveted medium that helps organisations leverage their biggest assets — for improving brand awareness and reach — their very own employees.
For a long time these two words resonated a need for organisations in general and HR in particular, to be advocates of employee well-being. However, employee advocacy (EA), in its true sense, means promotion of the organisation by its own staff. It entails a voluntary involvement of the employees in the communication efforts of the organisation with the outside world. As advocates, employees would share, comment or post content about their organisation and its products and services or any other information about company events, programmes, culture, etc.
Essentially, this initiative involves creating an open culture, wherein the employees feel excited to be a part of this promotional journey. Imagine having employees voluntarily speak about the company for which they work on their personal social media accounts. No matter how large or small the company, or how well it manages the social media, employees are richer in terms of their social network and reach as compared to the official network of the company. With the advent of social media, most organisations realise the immense opportunity that such initiatives throw open to improve their brand visibility and value in the eyes of the external world.
How would organisations benefit from EA programmes?
People are the heart of all organisations. Engaged and energised employees form the core of successful companies. Employees as advocates have a huge bearing on the social, commercial and corporate reputation of a company. Employee advocacy initiatives would help organisations in a number of ways:
Employee advocacy opens up a vast personal social media network that employees possess. A brand communication going through such a network creates a more authentic image for the brand and its products and services. The organisation stands to benefit clearly in terms of increased brand awareness and improved brand position in search engine results on social media.
Culture of trust and openness
Employee advocacy (EA) would be impossible to achieve without an environment of trust, transparency and openness. EA requires a very evolved and mature organisational culture, which espouses a high level of freedom and empowerment bestowed upon employees who have a say on the content that is created or shared. Thus, an EA initiative helps organisations create and build a team of committed, engaged and loyal employees, as well as a culture of mutual respect, ownership and pride. In short, EA generates a superior employer branding that can attract the best of the talent for future engagement.
The book, Most Powerful Brands on Earth, by Chris Boudreaux and Susan Emerick finds a mention of an IBM study, which indicates that traffic generated by IBM internal experts on social media converted seven times more frequently than traffic generated by other IBM sources. Socially- engaged employees are more likely to attract customers and new talent creating a superior talent pool for the organisation.
What’s in there for employees?
While it’s clear that organisations stand to gain through active employee advocacy, the million-dollar question that needs to be addressed is, ‘Would employees voluntarily look forward to lend their voice for the advocacy of their organisation?’ The answer to this question lies in the basic principles to be considered while framing an EA programme.
Any organisation can take one of the three approaches, while considering an advocacy programme— Instruct-Insist-Inspire. While the first two may be the easiest to roll out, the third approach is the only rational one to create a legacy of an engaged and involved work culture. The success of the initiative depends on the clarity of the objective the organisation aims to achieve through such an initiative, and a sound diagnosis of who the best advocates within the organisation are.
Some points that organisations would like to ponder on at an individual employee level are as follows:
Are all my employees ‘advocate material’?
Not necessarily, but there may be some who have a natural affinity towards social media and a strong presence on various platforms. Such employees may be a ready pool to tap and more than willing to get involved in the advocacy initiative. Some may be very interested in their own online branding and may lap up this opportunity hoping to enhance their personal branding and social- media image. Their personality patterns and their comfort with the social-media platform become the chief elements in an attempt to rope in employees in advocacy programmes.
When would they be advocates?
The key to this involvement lies in the perceived feeling of freedom of expression and exercise of control over the social media presence given to the staff. Employees would become the voice and face of the organisation only when it instils a feeling of pride and belongingness in them, along with a belief that the organisation walks the talk and is committed to their well-being. They would like to be a part of such an endeavour if they feel valued, trusted and respected for their contribution.
What would motivate them to be advocates?
This is the most challenging puzzle for organisations to solve. On one hand, some champions of EA programmes prescribe rewards, leader boards, points and tangible prizes to be linked to participation in such programmes. On the other hand, some believe that intrinsic motivation and a deep sense of connect with the organisation are factors that prompt employees to support such activities. Such a set of highly-motivated employees may at times get put off by the external rewards and recognition typically associated with such initiatives. Thus, it is a tough job for organisations to create an environment that is perceived to be fulfilling and conducive by all employees.
Finally, employee advocacy has great merit and a bright future if used strategically and emphatically by organisations. A number of great places to work, such as Intel, Microsoft, TCS and Google are already creating advocacy programmes that would extract maximum participation from employees. Numerous vendors are creating solutions for organisations to launch such programmes. The success of such initiatives finally depends on the investment of time and trust in the most critical aspect of business – the people.
To conclude, in the words of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, “If you give your employees reasons to believe in their work and that they are a part of a larger mission, they will personally improve the experience of every customer.”
(The author is associate dean at IBS Business Scool, Mumbai)