How to (Ab)Use Your Employees as a Social Platform

  • Written By: Phil Reney
  • Published: June 1 2012

Last month I came across Julie Bort's article Your Company Might Think It Can Control Your Facebook Account Soon, which depicted current social guidance efforts by a few large brands such as Pepsi, Dell, Gap, and Intel.

She brought up the interesting point that Pepsi is mulling over the idea of engaging its employees—i.e., its most treasured resource—in extracurricular activities. And this is exactly what I want to discuss with you today.

What Is Employee Social Media Marketing?

Social media marketing has caught on like brushfire with brand owners and retailers alike as the new “in” to their customers' pockets. It has required that they adapt all their marketing know-how to this highly dynamic customer-facing medium which feels so akin to Ancient Rome's Colosseum, with brand owners currying the favor of the mob (AKA their customers) and risking the ruthless “thumbs down” judgement.

And businesses are finally beginning to grasp the idea that they can’t stop their employees accessing social media. They've come to understand the incredible power that their own employees have when it comes to branding on social media. Hence, some organizations, such as the aforementioned, have seen fit to expand employees' social media guidelines in order to protect their brands and hold their employees accountable for their actions.

While core social guidance focuses primarily on ensuring that employees do not disclose confidential or sensitive company information, some organizations are pushing the envelope further by training their employees on how to represent the brand on these platforms.

That's probably as far as the envelope should be pushed. But not according to Pepsi—which in fairness certainly isn't the first brand to enlist its employees in marketing efforts and engage them as brand ambassadors. A decade ago, I worked at Bell Mobility, and we were encouraged to live and breathe the brand 24/7 (even my girlfriend at the time worked at Bell!).

It's understandable that companies might want to consider leveraging their employee base in this manner, since it's commonly perceived as less intrusive than having them show up for rallies or stunt TV ads  that may not fit in their comfort zone. And indeed, the social media sphere (with the exception of corporate pages) does offer a more congenial and informal setting than staged events for most employees.

Furthermore, employees already have established connections/relationships with their followers/friends, which provides a  bridge to first contact with your brand. And the larger your employee base, the bigger your marketing footprint will be. Case in point: Pepsi's 300,000 employees, who averaged 130 Facebook friends each.

Social marketing campaigns are specifically created for employees to use in a context that can take full advantage of their personality and skills. For example, T.G.I. Friday’s is famous for showcasing its bartenders and other employees to give a sense of the cool atmosphere at their restaurants. For Pepsi, social marketing took the shape of employees receiving free samples of a newly released product, as well as cash to host BBQ events (scheduled on Facebook) at which they would distribute the new product. Post-event social media conversations naturally revolved around the "that was fun" experience—as well as around feedback on the new product.

While all this may sound very positive and beneficial in theory, there are quite a few big “buts” that need considering if you are attempting to marshal your forces for social marketing.

How to Get Employee Social Media Marketing Wrong

There is a risk that your corporate message will be poorly communicated, as not all your employees will have the required marketing skills, nor will they share the exact same perception of the message you wish to convey.

Imposing a social media mandate on your employees will force them to operate in an environment they normally associate with non-work activities. Employees that actually use social media sparingly outside office hours will find it awkward to engage in an activity that has little to do with their professional interests, let alone their personal interests. This can result in employee disengagement. It will also distract them from their normal activities, as they will invest more time than you might care for in trying to get it right. The most damaging consequence is the risk that they will develop an antagonistic attitude toward your brand and organization, or leave your company altogether.

Assuming you manage to overcome these hurdles, you still have to deal with a lack of technology to support your marketing program:

  • Since your employees will likely balk at handing over the keys to their digital homes, you may be looking at providing them with corporate accounts. But that would require them to re-enlist their communities to those new accounts. Assuming the communities are willing...

  • Monitoring the progress of your campaign will require that you look at several hundreds if not thousands of accounts, which may prove to be quite resource intensive, and limit your ability to react effectively.

  • You will also have to consider how to measure the results and return on investment (ROI) of your campaign. The "Like" button may be nifty, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a sale.

But even if you address these three points, success is still not guaranteed.

There's the matter of marketing's cardinal rule: target the right people. While some of your employees may have chosen to work for you because they like your brand, some of your employees are there for a variety of other reasons. The same principle applies to the various communities that are attached to your employees: your brand is not necessarily the reason they are there.

This means that you will be in the dark as far as market segmentation is concerned. And more importantly, it is harder to contain mishaps, as these communities are not constructed in a way that lets you perform damage control should an unfortunate event occur. And unfortunate things do happen, even when they are handled through a corporate social media account. See also: Here's Proof That Social Media Blunders Have Real Consequences

Tips for Getting Employee Social Media Marketing Right

If you are deeply convinced of the potential of putting your employees to work in your social marketing efforts, there are a few things you can do to stack the odds of success in your favor.

For starters, you need to know what you want and give yourself the means to measure it. Determining if you are looking to increase sales, subscriptions, attendance at a live event, brand awareness, or even retweets will go a long way toward honing your campaign message. As means of measurement, you can provide your employees with personalized external links to landing pages that can better support the objectives of your campaign, while giving you the opportunity to identify which of your employees seem to perform better, and getting a sense of their respective communities.

Secondly, you must preserve your employees’ authenticity. I suggest that you recruit volunteers for this sort of initiative, as the act of volunteering indicates their willingness to go the extra mile for your brand and to be receptive to how you want to conduct your campaign. It also won't hurt to offer them incentives.

You want to benefit from your employees' personal relationships with their communities. If your employee is unable to maintain an authentic sense of self, his/her friends will know that something is off, which can easily impede the goodwill you are trying to build towards your brand (let alone the possible personal repercussions for your employee, which could include being laughed at or ridiculed). The possible liabilities at this level could be interesting and haven’t been explored very much as of yet to my knowledge. Bringing me to my next point.

You should build your message in a non-corporate format, i.e., one that can be easily supported in casual conversation, and allowing your employees to adapt it to their respective styles. It will go a long way toward conveying sentiment, casualness, and most importantly, authenticity. Social media is a forum for people, by which I mean that organizations are treated (at best) as guests by the community. By leveraging the trust factor of your employees’ community relationships, you will be able to cultivate the word-of-mouth effect to a much greater extent.

And lastly (this is important): Don’t make it mandatory.

Things Can Still Go Wrong. Be Ready.

Even if you offer the strongest possible support to your employees in their marketing efforts, things can still go awry. Not all your employees are as well versed in marketing as they thought they would be, and not all of them are fluent in the intricacies of social media.

If you embrace the fact that you significantly increase your exposure to risk by increasing the number of people sharing your message, you will also realize that simplicity is your best policy (and it will certainly make you message an easier sell to your employees’ friends).

And as with any marketing efforts, you should have a disaster recovery plan. You'll need it to help you contain a volatile situation, or at least to demonstrate proactiveness in resolving an issue that would otherwise negatively impact your brand. Just ask McDonalds. They learned that the hard way.

Is This Type of Marketing Right for You?

I believe these types of marketing campaigns benefit brands or retailers that already have strong potential for a highly visible public face and a highly talkative consumer community. They might work well for Pepsi or Gap, but would be far more challenging for business-to-business (B2B) or business-to-government (B2G) organizations. What do you think?
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