How to Build an Employee Advocacy Program

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

What’s the key to a successful employee advocacy program? We’ve had a chat with Mikael Lauharanta, the co-founder of Smarp, to find out.
Listen to the podcast interview on Soundcloud, iTunes or keep reading for a transcript of our conversation.

What’s the story of Smarp?

Smarp started out as a social media consulting company. And we worked with LinkedIn a lot and kind of like the professional side of the social media. And from the beginning, our emphasis was, “what’s the role of employees on social media? So how can they improve their own personal brand, professional brand and how does that positively affect the entire brand of the company?”
And we started getting clients onboard because not a lot of other companies were doing this and we started working with a couple of law firms, for example, and they always told us that, “Yeah, this is great because our clients are never really hiring the company. They are always going to look at the people who are working with us.” So we thought, “Okay, we’re on the right track,” and we started getting some more clients onboard and working with some listed companies as well.
One good example is Metso. They work in mining, paper and minerals and they have 30,000 employees globally and 7,000 on LinkedIn, so a pretty good percentage already. And at the same time they had 10,000 followers for the company page and that they were more interested in how to create interesting content for that follower base.
But then we actually found out that those 7,000 employees have 260,000 unique, first degree connections. So we realised that there’s huge communication potential in the employee networks, and then we started working on a couple of ideas to create this kind of win-win situation to online communications. So how can we help employees become better at what they do, help them increase their thought leadership status and then at the same time help the company reach more people in a little bit more relatable fashion? And this was already before there was a term “employee advocacy“, so people were talking about employees as brand ambassadors in those terms. So it was already there before the term was coined.
So that’s kind of the story of Smarp, how we created the employee advocacy software that we nowadays have, SmarpShare. And my role as COO is, I do a lot of things but currently the most important thing for me is to lead the UK operations from London, help in sales and product development as well and act as the communicator between all the different territory offices and functions that we have.

Why do companies need employee advocacy?

I touched on it a little bit already in the kind of intro but there’s obviously internal and external goals for the company regarding employee advocacy and like I mentioned earlier, it’s something that the probably have already done without knowing. So the term is really new but for example a lot of companies that we talked to, they’re already sending emails to their employees asking them to share, for example, open positions or if there’s some industry news. But in the end it all boils down from the company side, how can they reach more people in a more relatable fashion?
And if you ask companies what their goals are on digital nowadays, it’s usually all about increasing the reach. But I think more importantly, there are soft values and internal values for the company about showing they trust their employees, they’re okay with them going on social media actually trying to help them gain their own personal benefits and achieve their own personal business goals on social media. So I think those kinds of internal engagement and empowerment gains are more important in employee advocacy.
6 benefits of employee advocacy:

  1. Increase your reach by up to 10x more than a company’s corporate social channels.
  2. Build trust, an employee advocate is trusted twice as much as a CEO.
  3. Save costs, employee shares generate on average 4 clicks on Facebook.
  4. Engage your employees, 50%+ of employees rank communication and honesty as key factors to drive engagement.
  5. Succeed in recruiting, one third of companies see decreased time to hire, about half find an increase in quality of candidates and 43% in quantity of candidates.
  6. Generate sales, 12% increase in brand advocacy generates a 2x increase in revenue growth. Leads from employee advocacy are 7x more likely to convert.

What’s the employee advocacy reach calculator?

It’s actually a really, really simple formula. We can take a look at how many followers a company has for their official social media channels. Let’s take EY, one of our clients. If we look at their Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn followers, it’s a total of 1,200,000+ reach through their official company profiles, but then at the same time they have right around 190,000 employees. And actually from our SmarpShare data we can tell that an average user has 420 Facebook friends, 370 Twitter followers, and 348 LinkedIn connections. So if we multiply that network size with the amount of employees, it’s a ridiculous number. So the same thing as in the story, the intro, the communication potential in the employee networks is huge compared to the company following.
The reach of the official social media channels for EY would be about 1.2 million, but with employee amplification it would be about 216 million. But obviously not all the employees are always going to share each story to each network, but still even with a smaller participation the increase in the reach is significant.

What are the key elements of an employee advocacy strategy?

I think first of all the most important thing is to get the positioning right, and the internal communication. So they should position it as a tool really for employees and how can these employees become better at what they do to reach some of their KPIs or their personal business objectives. And then only through that correct positioning that it’s a tool really for the employees, then the company can also reach some of the goals that they have put forth regarding their employee advocacy program. So just think about the positioning before sending out any invitations.
Obviously another step is identifying the user group that they want to roll out with. So sometimes we’ve had clients that want to roll out right away for everybody. Sometimes they have identified that they might have a brand ambassador program going on and then it’s natural that those people are the first ones that are going to get a crack at it, so to speak. But, yeah, have the positioning right, then identify the target group and carefully do the internal communication and hopefully also include the leadership in that and show some examples.
And obviously then have a program manager as well, somebody who’s responsible, looking after the program. Not necessarily doing everything themselves but making sure that everything works well, and that there’s good communication also between us and the company. And then eventually the program hopefully starts growing organically but obviously doesn’t stop with sending out the invitations. It needs fresh content updating and taking care that it gets off to a good start and then after that hopefully grows organically.

Should you incentivise employees to share?

It’s gamified a little bit so you get points for your activity when you share and especially if you get a lot of traction for your post. So if you are able to come up with a clever kind of way to tell why you are sharing that particular article so you get more points for more clicks for that content.
And then there are several ways to recognise those employees, and we’ve noticed that the best thing is usually to actually have your management recognise those most active people online,  if they’re already active on LinkedIn or Twitter, then have your CEO or someone from the management team actually give them a heads-up and tap on the back, “Hey, thanks for being active here.”
Some companies find it really interesting that you can see how you stack up against your colleagues or other departments so there are leader boards there. And then actually with the points, you can also donate money to charity, so the company can have a poll of, for example, which charities the company should be donating money to and the most active and influential employees can then have a say to which charities they donate money to or then they can also claim small rewards from the platform, and that’s entirely up to the company to decide whether it’s a Starbucks gift card or if it’s a gym membership, or some other memorabilia.

Who are likely to be the most engaged users of an employee advocacy tool?

I think the most interesting part is that you cannot always tell, so sometimes our clients are really surprised how active their people are, especially after they give the green light and actually encourage them to be more active on social media. But obviously if you have employees that are already being active on LinkedIn, it just fuels the fire, so to speak. So those people that already have those networks and understand the value of professional networking online, those are usually in the beginning the usual suspects.

How can you evaluate what content is good for the brand?

Mikael: Yeah, that’s something that we’re always being asked about and we decided we’re going to write a little blog about it. And I think the key word is value and value to actually three different kind of stakeholders. So as long as the content is valuable to, first and foremost, the employee, secondly, the employee’s networks and thirdly, also the company itself. If they can find a lot of content that checks all those three different areas then they’re off to a good start. Further reading at the Smarp blog.
Questions to ask yourself:

  1. Does this content create value for the brand?
  2. Does this content create value for the employee?
  3. Does this content create value for the people in employee networks?

How can you measure return on investment on a program like this?

There are several different ways you can kind of try to kind of arrive at a monetary value and also the return on investment. Obviously it depends on the kind of KPIs that the company has set for themselves. But the most obvious thing is when we can see, okay, how many clicks the company is getting from which networks in a certain time period. We can then look at how much they would be paying if they compared that to what they would be paying if they bought advertising from Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. And we also know how much they have paid to us in that time period, then we can just compare, okay, what is the return on investment multiplier in this case? We call it the estimated earned media value, the price of those clicks on social media.
But obviously it goes further than that so we track the website traffic with UTM tags as well, so if they have conversions on their website, for example to purchase products or to apply for a certain position and then we can tell okay, these people actually came through SmarpShare and did this on your website. They can look at the bounce rate, what pages inside the website they take a look at. So really there’s a lot of measurement and analytics that you can get out of using employee advocacy platforms.

What are typical employee advocacy mistakes companies should avoid?

There’s a couple of key things. So we already talked about the positioning but I’ll say it again, it’s really important. So positioning it correctly to your employees, so sometimes the internal communications or the inviting or telling about it is more about the eventual benefits for the company in terms of larger reach and all of that. But it all starts with, “What it’s in for the individual employee?” And then only through that, only if the employees find it useful and good for them then the company can reach some of their goals that they have set for themselves.
The second thing that’s always a little bit irritating for me is if the clients are underestimating their own employees. So they might think, “Oh yeah, no, we can’t have this. Our employees are going to go crazy on social media,” or, “No, they won’t understand the value or something like that.” So trusting your employees. I think whenever you trust your employees and show trust, good things will happen. So not underestimating their power.

What are some of the clear benefits for employees?

There’s a lot of things and at all starts with your own professional brand on social media. So if you have good content to share to your professional network then you’re going to increase your thought leadership status and it’s going to help you reach some of your own personal business objectives. If you’re in sales, it can help you get more leads in and obviously create more business. If you’re in recruiting, you might reach more people, more relevant people, get better applications or more applications. If you’re in marketing, you’re going to look at the cost per click at what you’re doing on and your digital footprint. So regardless of your job function it can help you.
And in the end I was also talking about those people that are already on social media and doing professional networking and being active on LinkedIn, the benefit for them is the ease of use and the time saved, so they don’t have to go around and look for good articles anymore. It’s kind of tailor made for them and they can just pick and choose the ones that they like and share them instantly from the same platform to different sources. So they don’t have to go to Twitter and do that, and go to LinkedIn do that and find articles from Forbes, Guardian whatever. So it’s easy content discovery.
And yes, sometimes it’s about the recognition, so in the form of they know that somebody knows that their actions are not going to go unnoticed and they can get a pat on the back for their good work on social media. Because there’s a lot of unmanaged employee participation going on already, so it’s just a way to take it a step further.
6 WIIFM for employees:

  1. Professional image, by sharing you’ll build your personal brand online.
  2. Growing networks, with relevant updates you’ll engage and expand your network.
  3. Easy content discovery, save time by picking suggested updates.
  4. Recognition, you will get noticed internally and externally.
  5. Professional success, sharing can help you recruit, sell and market.
  6. Influence company performance and branding, this is your chance to make your voice heard.

What are the important considerations when choosing your technology?

I think for me the most important thing is when you’re looking at different options or providers is how easy it is to use, because in the end if the employees don’t find it easy to use, they’re not going to use it consistently, they’re not going to return to it. And also think about has it always been built around employee advocacy? And is that the number one thing that the kind of software was created for? Was it tweaked or changed from something that the company has or did before?” Think about for example those two things.

Tell us about what EY did in the Nordics?

EY is a great case for us and they started originally in the Nordics but they have since expanded to other regions as well. And they were just looking at it also from two different directions, so some of the external things that they wanted to do, so just to be more visible to create brand awareness on digital and become the most socially active company in their industry. But then also they wanted to reach a couple of key internal goals as well, to show everybody who’s working at EY the projects and the wins that they’re achieving and getting. And in the end some of the returns that they got, which they didn’t even think about. It was more like they increased the team spirit of the EY employees and there was a lot of internal pull for the software as well. So those employees that didn’t use it were asking, “Okay. Hey, what’s this? I’m seeing this post for this software and it looks kind of funny and cool.” So yeah, it was all about making sure that there’s goals both internally and externally.
And they achieved some really good results. One nice quote from their program manager, Leena Suominen, was that they actually, when they launched in the Nordics, the employee advocacy initiative outperformed any paid advertising campaigns they’ve ever done on social media. So the amount of clicks and the cost per click for that was crazy compared to some of the more traditional methods that they had been trying. So they were really, really happy and are still happily using SmarpShare.

Any other companies finding success with employer advocacy?

I think the best part is that we’re not tied down to any industry or region, so we have a lot of clients from different industries. We have a lot of IT companies, for example, EMC and Rocketfuel for example, then there’s Professional Services, EY of course, Wilmington. Then from the recruiting industry as well, it seems to be a really good vertical. We have Morgan Philips in France, for example, then B2C companies as well. For example Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds. We have some pharmaceutical companies, construction companies whatever it is. We even have one tax office using our service. So it’s great to see a lot of different industries using it.

Do people really want to hear from the tax office on Twitter and LinkedIn?

No, but they have good content as well and even if it’s just open decisions and that’s the thing they’re trying to… especially for example in Finland. They have actually some really, really funny posts on Twitter. And they are trying to change the image that people have about the tax office and the tax industry and the company. So I think it’s great that they have leveraged employee advocacy for trying to kind of change the image that people that have of them.

What’s going to happen in this space over the next three years?

I feel like it’s going to become more of a standard, so I don’t know if it’s going to happen in the next three years but it’s going to move into the direction of, okay, the companies look at employee advocacy like they look at CRMs. Obviously you’re going to need a CRM, so companies are going to look at employee advocacy platforms as well so we need this and we just need to choose who we want to move forward with.
And the other thing that I witnessed is that companies are looking at communications from an entirely different perspective nowadays. They’re turning it upside down, so instead of thinking, “How can we communicate so that it’s the most beneficial for the company?” They are actually starting to think, “Okay, what sort of communication is the most beneficial for our employees which are, in the end, the most valuable resource that the company has?” And it’s been great to be a part of this transformation.
More on this topic at Employee Advocacy: The Ultimate Handbook.


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