The problem of developing the right approach for a company to be effective on social media is one we’ve touched on several times – if you’ve not already read them, you may want to check out our social media policies, and  Can A Company Ever Be Social? posts. Today we’re going to look at the “holy grail” of business social media implementation: Employee Advocacy.

What is Employee Advocacy?

Simply put, an employee advocacy-based approach means allowing a range of employees to represent the company on social media, as an everyday part of their professional role.  So rather than “containing” social in the marketing / comms / web services department, it’s treated as an integrated communication channel like any other.

Think of it this way: your business recieves phone calls and emails every day on a wide range of topics. In the technical department, people are chatting to technicians in other companies about new developments and ideas. The sales team are talking to customers about how your product or service can help them. Senior executives are discussing current industry issues with their peers. Now imagine all of that conversation being funneled through a single phone number or email address: it’d be a mess, and the amount of valuable discussion would be seriously restricted.

And yet that’s what most businesses currently do with social media.

A big shift

So, a company-wide social media strategy involves a big shift in mindset. Potentially almost every member of staff becomes part of the social media team; but social media is also not treated as a separate discipline, but instead an extension of employees’ existing contact channels.

But it also makes a huge amount of sense: allowing potential customers to connect, on a personal level, with those individuals who are best placed to help or inform them.

What needs to be done

The main challenge for most organisations with this approach is getting signoff from the top, and making a commitment to allowing employees the appropriate site access and freedom. On a practical level, some kind of outline policy is a good idea, as is an internal communications programme ensuring that staff understand the strategy and what’s expected from them.

Basic social media training is also a good idea just to make sure that everyone understands the way that the main platforms actually work – for example, who sees what on Twitter. It’s easy for casual social users to think that they’re aware of all the implications, but it’s best to ensure there won’t be any embarassing mistakes.

Risks and benefits

For most businesses, the gut reaction to using social media in this way is fear – it instinctively feels risky to “open up” the company on social media. But those fears are largely ungrounded – after all, an unguarded email could easily be made as public as a social media post – and significantly outweighed by the benefits. Allowing peer to peer discussion – for example, technical staff talking directly to technical staff at suppliers or potential customers – is far more valuable than providing a single, generic Twitter feed.

In many ways, it’s also simpler for the organisation – provided that they are prepared to trust their staff – than having one or two staff struggling to create a “corporate personality” on a single Twitter account. It needn’t be complicated for individual staff members to hit the right tone either, once they’ve understood the principle that their social media accounts are for use in the context of their professional lives. They should have clear leeway to express their own thoughts and personality in conversations, whilst avoiding any comments or topics which wouldn’t be appropriate for an external email or telephone call.

Who’s doing it well?

IT giant IBM is probably the best known example of a company with a strong social media presence which is really distributed throughout the organisation.

If you’d like to learn more about this approach, there’s an excellent video (with transcript if you prefer it) on their strategy, considerations and challenges here: Employees as Brand Advocates: IBM’s Ethan McCarty.