Employee advocacy is the idea that your team can and should evangelize your brand externally. More and more companies are beginning to recognize the effectiveness of having employees promote their products and successes across their own social networks, creating more effective leads built on trust and grassroots expertise.
But as my good friend Nancy Harvey loves to point out, “There is no longer any meaningful difference between internal and external communications,” so any sufficiently successful advocacy effort has to start by first looking in the mirror.
One of the things we see too often are companies that ask their colleagues to spend valuable social capital promoting products with a “branded” mentality instead of something more authentic.
The first wave of advocacy products, services, and strategies focused on extrinsic motivation. It assumed that incentivization of varying kinds would get the job done. Wrong. At best this approach resulted in mere compliance.
The second, current wave of thinking about advocacy is more thoughtful. Intrinsic motivation to share causes more frequent and effective marketing results. Essentially, pride drives advocacy, and advocacy, in turn, drives profit.
Now, I get it that this is hard to embrace when you’re under the gun to beat aggressive milestones. What should give you encouragement is the fact that successfully orchestrated advocacy programs, produced month after month, drive down costs progressively. The payoff is big in terms of dollars and cents if you summon the courage to do advocacy right. Locking in a long-term, “always-on” channel, if anything, frees you to take bigger, more exciting risks with campaigns elsewhere.
Advocacy is thus, at its heart, an issue of corporate culture. Corporate culture is generally positioned as a benefit to recruitment and retention. What doesn’t get talked about enough are the benefits it can provide marketers and the benefits, in turn, that marketers can provide to corporate culture.
Employees Are Customers, Too
If you can’t sell your employees on your own products, how can they sell to customers in any significant way?
If you put in the effort to understand your employees with the same concern and sophistication that you give to your customers, what would you do differently? A lot, I think. This is a foreign concept to many companies, but what’s nice, especially for customer-centric organizations, is that the tools and behaviors you need to establish a better corporate culture sit right in front of you.
For example, you might start conducting “stay” interviews, instead of just exit ones. These are really just customer interviews, where the customer is your colleague. People at companies I’ve founded and run have great retention because we work damn hard to keep them interested. I think that’s a better goal, by the way, than keeping them “happy.” I want people to be happy, but happiness is, in our experience, a surrogate for success, not a driver of one.
The practice of forward-deploying sales engineers to a customer’s site is another consideration to adapt to cultural work. What if a few days each quarter you redeployed design and code resources internally, in service of your people and the problems they are trying to solve every day?
It’s also useful to think about upselling. What are you ultimately upselling your people on? It should not be enough to merely keep them. A fish swims to breathe. Retention is never a matter of just sticking around. If the path in front of your colleagues is ill-defined, they’ll never matriculate to higher levels of performance and responsibility. You want the same in this case of customers as you want of employees--namely, escalation.
What Is Culture? Communication
As Nancy is also prone to say, “Culture is not espresso and rollerblades.” I wholeheartedly agree. Culture is more than anything about good communication. Does the ordinary employee know what is meaningful to the organization at large? What is exciting? What is threatening? What is known and unknown?
I’m a fan of transparency, but to think that transparency is synonymous with, or part of, good communication misses the point entirely. Transparency (and relative degrees therein) is a technique, a mere mechanic. But good communications or, more broadly, successful corporate culture, also includes vocabulary, which can matter as much, if not more, especially if that vocabulary is a shared one.
Think also of good communications as ammo. Employees who advocate on their colleagues’ and company’s behalf need to feel as though they have clarity enough to accurately and responsibly represent the hopes and desires and opinions of the group effectively.
If a culture of good communication is in place, it is markedly easier to externalize key messages, and even more so when those messages have been specifically designed for reproducibility (a topic for another post altogether).
Emphasizing Professional Development
I’ll make one more point and then wrap up.
Anyone who is getting serious about advocacy needs to understand that advocacy isn’t about “click to Tweet” either. The tool-level conversation obfuscates the complexity at hand.
Professional development (PD) is a better word for what’s required. What you’re really trying to do is spark your people, turn them from “off” to “on,” usually with discourse, and not simply classes. Advocacy isn’t a skill; it is a mindset, and PD is a gesture of respect, a “give” before you ever initiate an ask.
What are you giving your employees? Ideally you are giving them something against which to spark, which I think is the greatest perk and motivator of evangelism.
If you don’t have a culture of internal discourse, however, it will be hard to have an external one. Forming, stating, and defending opinions are unfamiliar or uncomfortable to many. Sometimes it is outright verboten.
And yet, what is a sales or marketing message other than an opinion about how someone ought to spend his time or money? The very best advertisements are arguable. Anything self-evident stops conversations instead of starting them.
And half the time you have to remove barriers in parallel and make certain things newly OK. In an era of Twitter profiles disclaiming “opinions are my own,” imagine the stress of suddenly being asked to have an opinion and, in some regrettable cases, one precisely not your own.
Essentially, are you in it together? If management and nonmanagement aren’t a unified front, none of this will work. And if what’s good, interesting, or essential for your organization isn’t equally so for your customers, advocacy can’t happen. Advocates and those they advocate to and for have to play for the same team.
Take This Away
In closing, I’d urge you to wrap your mind around the idea that an investment in corporate culture can have hard ROI. I’ve always treated it that way, and you can, too.
Advocacy and social selling are just one example of such a return, though they are top of mind for many of us. Don’t look at this stuff as a cost but instead as a profit center.