Employee Advocacy: Word of Mouth in the Digital Age

Many orga­ni­za­tions strug­gle to deal in a pos­i­tive way with social media. Inter­nal­ly, a lot of the poten­tial of net­work­ing in an enter­prise social net­work is still untapped and exter­nal­ly, the use of social media is in many cas­es lim­it­ed to the dis­tri­b­u­tion of press releas­es via the offi­cial chan­nels of the orga­ni­za­tion. In most cas­es, employ­ees are sig­nif­i­cant­ly more expe­ri­enced in this field than their employ­er. Dig­i­tal natives, in par­tic­u­lar, inhab­it this vir­tu­al pub­lic space quite nat­u­ral­ly as pri­vate per­sons and get involved on Face­book, Twit­ter, Insta­gram, LinkedIn. That is what it is and can­not be avoid­ed or banned. So how should the orga­ni­za­tion deal with this?

The first nat­ur­al reflex is to lim­it and reg­u­late by means of social media guide­lines. After all, there are spe­cial­ists for com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the orga­ni­za­tion. How­ev­er, the much bet­ter alter­na­tive would be to make active use of the employ­ees’ net­works and reach as an orga­ni­za­tion and to con­sid­er and sup­port every­one as a cor­po­rate influ­encer. This word-of-mouth pro­pa­gan­da in the dig­i­tal age has of course already got a catchy buzz­word: It’s called Employ­ee Advo­ca­cy. And so I have final­ly found a name for what I have been doing with a more or less offi­cial mis­sion for over sev­en years now.

One cannot not communicate!

The orga­ni­za­tion for which some­one is work­ing has always been the top­ic of con­ver­sa­tion. Who­ev­er asks at a par­ty the ques­tion of what some­one is doing for a liv­ing will receive the name of the orga­ni­za­tion in the first or at the lat­est in the sec­ond sen­tence as an answer. Today, this con­nec­tion between employ­ees and orga­ni­za­tion is omnipresent any­way through appro­pri­ate links in social media pro­files. With more pro­fes­sion­al net­works like LinkedIn and XING, this is a very impor­tant piece of infor­ma­tion, with Twit­ter, Face­book and Co. it’s up to every­one to decide for them­selves to what extent a rela­tion­ship with the employ­er is estab­lished or whether they pre­fer to act as pri­vate indi­vid­u­als and even point out explic­it­ly that they express their own opin­ions (what else?) and not nec­es­sar­i­ly those of the employ­er. Through this ubiq­ui­tous link between per­son and orga­ni­za­tion, every employ­ee becomes a com­pa­ny spokesper­son — some with more, some with less reach. To para­phrase Paul Wat­zlaw­ick: In times of social media, employ­ees can­not (at least implic­it­ly) not com­mu­ni­cate about their employer!

Employee Advocacy: The Long Tail of Corporate Communications

The term Long Tail became pop­u­lar in 2004 with the book of the same name by Chris Ander­son. He describes the phe­nom­e­non that in the course of dig­i­ti­za­tion, e. g. in the case of music or books, a larg­er num­ber of niche prod­ucts emerged than in the past. The democ­ra­ti­za­tion of the means of pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion allows vir­tu­al­ly every­one to bring their titles onto the mar­ket at no great cost and make a prof­it even if demand is low.

Trans­fer­ring this to cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tion means that the influ­ence of the employ­ees also fol­lows the same pow­er law: few employ­ees — the cor­po­rate influ­encers and func­tion hold­ers vis­i­ble to the out­side world such as the mem­bers of the Exec­u­tive Board — have a very large reach and a lot of influ­ence, while most employ­ees’ reach is lim­it­ed to a more or less close cir­cle of acquain­tances. Of course, this has always been the case. With social media, how­ev­er, the com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels have also been democ­ra­tized. As a result, it is now pos­si­ble to use the reach into each indi­vid­u­al’s niche more or less free of charge — for brand com­mu­ni­ca­tion as well as employ­er brand­ing. Do good and talk about it!

Advantages for Both Employees and Employers

Mar­kets are con­ver­sa­tions, said the 1999 Clue­train Man­i­festo. And then con­tin­ues: “Mar­kets con­sist of human beings, not demo­graph­ic sec­tors. Con­ver­sa­tions among human beings sound human. They are con­duct­ed in a human voice.” Authen­tic­i­ty and cred­i­bil­i­ty are a cru­cial fac­tor for stick­ing out in the over­abun­dance of infor­ma­tion in social media. That’s why it makes a big dif­fer­ence who shares some­thing with me. A study by LinkedIn shows that the typ­i­cal click-through rate for employ­ees is twice as high as for the offi­cial cor­po­rate chan­nels: “Despite the fact that only 3% of employ­ees share con­tent, they gen­er­ate 30% of all con­tent engage­ment for a typ­i­cal business”.

For the employ­ee, the advan­tages are in vis­i­bil­i­ty and thus in per­son­al brand­ing. As an expert, it is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to show pas­sion for his work, his orga­ni­za­tion or his prod­ucts. Of course it helps me to write and dis­cuss my thoughts about agile trans­for­ma­tion in the blog and on social media. How­ev­er, it also helps the BMW Group IT in this case, because I hope that I will be able to car­ry the change cred­i­bly to the out­side world and thus increase the attrac­tive­ness as an employ­er for pro­gram­mers, Scrum Mas­ter and many others.

Markets are Conversations

Today, employ­ees have a com­plete­ly new role as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of their orga­ni­za­tion. Of course, the fine­ly chis­eled offi­cial cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tion will con­tin­ue to exist and must con­tin­ue to exist, but the increas­ing net­work­ing of peo­ple means that every employ­ee can make a dif­fer­ence and not just the Exec­u­tive Board, the select­ed and well-known cor­po­rate influ­encers or the offi­cial com­pa­ny spokesper­sons. What the employ­ees need, how­ev­er, are not so much the rather damp­en­ing social media guide­lines that exist every­where any­way, but rather encour­age­ment, empow­er­ment and sup­port. And in the mean­time, just apply my favorite mot­to for cor­po­rate rebels:“If you want to achieve great­ness, stop ask­ing for permission!”

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