Employee Advocacy: Tapping into the Power of an Engaged Workforce

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg


How do you tap into the power of an engaged workforce on social media? To find out, I’ve had a chat with Ed Terpening of Altimeter Group who has done extensive research in the employee advocacy space.

Listen to the podcast episode below, keep reading for a transcript and be sure to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

Tell us about “Social Media Employee Advocacy: Tapping into the Power of an Engaged Workforce.”

Every year we conduct a benchmark of what’s happening in terms of social business. And we define social business as basically the application of social media within a business. And in these annual benchmarks we ask how mature are you in service, in support, in marketing, in recruiting, in all the different ways you can use social? And one of the areas that really popped out as a growth area was employee advocacy which for years was down, way down the list of priorities of strategists.

And we saw a huge jump, 191% jump just between 2013 and 2015. And actually in the research we’ll talk about today we saw a further jump. So now we’re seeing that 90% of brands are either piloting, mature in their use of employee advocacy, or they’re considering it. So we just thought it was a very interesting area to look at because one of things that we all have to deal with regarding technology disruption is this idea of a bright, shiny object. So it’s this overhyped idea that may not meet expectations.

And so I wanted to study that because I wanted to make sure that our readers and the brands we work with understood that this is not a be all, end all, that there are some obstacles and to understand this disruption realistically.

What results do brands expect when they invest in employee advocacy?

There are three that we looked at. Basically the most popular was engaging customers. So 45% of brands said, “We’re doing this because we want our employees to engage with customers through further reach, through answering questions perhaps, by getting more brand page followers, by getting product ideas and feedback,” so that sort of thing. So that was the first.

The other was engaging their own employees. If you look at the research on how engaged or disengaged employees are today, the numbers are pretty dismal. So there’s a very small percentage of employees that report that they’re truly engaged in their work. And so what we found is that many brands using employee advocacy is actually a way to just inform their employees about what’s going on within the company.

And then the third was a direct financial return. So this would include social selling for example, looking for an ROI in terms of campaigns and product offers that might go through employees, that sort of thing.

Would you say social selling is part of employee advocacy?

Yes, it is. It’s kind of a subset of it. And Charlene Li, our principal analyst, is looking at social selling as well because, especially on the B2B side, if you think about social, it’s all about relationship building. And that direct connection that a sales person can make to a possible client or a prospect is really important, and it’s shifting away from golf games to LinkedIn and other social and online platforms. So it is a subset of that. It’s a little different obviously but it is part of the mix.

How do employee posts compare to social advertising?

What we found was that the click through rates for example on social posts are extremely high. So for example, consumers reported that they like a post 21% of the time. They’ve shared a post about 13% of the time. They’ve commented on a post 10% and they’ve shared it. Or actually LinkedIn I should say, linked from the post, the social, the employee post to the website of the brand, and that came out at 8%.

So if you look at an 8% click through rate, you would never get that in an ad. Even in a social ad, the highest rates we see, or the rates range between 1.4% and 3% at least on Facebook. So to get an 8% click through rate is just pretty astounding. So I think a lot of folks are looking at these numbers.

Now the question I’m concerned about as well long term is that if employee advocacy becomes very, very widespread, consumers might start to tune out these posts just as they do ads over time. So we’ll see, we’re early in the process, but so far the results that consumers have told us, that they like, share, that they click into the brand’s website are very, very encouraging.

How long it will take before platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn turn off APIs to employee advocacy platforms?

I wrote a blog post about this last month I believe saying that eventually, only about 3% of brand posts make it through the organic news feed today because they’re limiting those posts in order to prop up advertising. Over time if employee advocacy grows at the rate that we think it may, they’re going to have to take action because it’s going to start eating into their advertising revenue. And that will be a very interesting process won’t it? Because now they have to sort of determine, “Well, is this post a brand show post or is it an authentic post from a person that happens to work at brand X?”

I think it’ll be very interesting to see how the platforms respond. When you look at Twitter now, they’re instituting an algorithm based feed, as well as Instagram. So a lot of these platforms are going towards these algorithmic based feeds because they do want to control the experience and have advertising appear in their feeds.

What motivates employees to advocate on social?

There are three things that we looked at. We looked at direct benefit to the employee themselves. We looked at what benefits the brand and then we look for shared benefits. And thankfully and I think good news for brands is that the shared benefits were the most popular motivators among employees. So for example the most important that came up in our research was, “I believe my employer’s mission and want to promote what they do.” So 57% of employees said that that’s why they share content.

The second most popular was, “I believe in our products and want to share my experience.” And what’s interesting though too I have to say is that when we look at the research and who’s actually advocating, it’s 77% are manager and above. So they’re more engaged in the brand, and so they look for these kinds of shared benefits. What I think will be interesting over time is when you get individual contributors doing this more than they are today. Only 23% of individual contributors are sharing any kind of content about work. And obviously they make up the vast majority of the workforce. So I think the motivators might shift a little bit over time, but these are the kinds of motivators that we’re seeing.

How can you address concerns that some employees will have about sharing company updates to friends and family?

One of the interesting findings that we had was that those that are advocating are advocating on Facebook almost two and a half times more than they are LinkedIn. I think that means that there’s a challenge for LinkedIn, they have to somehow find a way to get more employees to talk about work and not just go to the site for job connections or news or that sort of thing.

So the number one barrier that employees noted when we asked, “If you don’t share, why don’t you share?” was they want to keep professional and personal lives separate. So obviously if they shift their thinking and they start posting on LinkedIn, then they have that kind of separation that they want. And actually the separation between work life and personal life was most strong in Europe, a big difference. Almost twice as many European employees believe that they want to keep work life and personal life separate than do North Americans. So it’s certainly a challenge.

How does employee advocacy scale?

I think it’s going to take time. The brands that we spoke to that are very, very mature in this space, it took them between five and seven years to get there. And the reason it took them so long are multiple. One of them is content. So you have to have the right content for the right employee at the right time.

So if you’re a large complex business, your accountants should have one stream of content that’s appropriate to the accounting world or to their world of finance versus perhaps your sales people versus product developers or security professionals or whatever the role might be. So that’s one thing that I think is slowing down brands is just getting the right content to the right employee at the right time. And then deciding how much of that content that is shared is created by the brand and how much of it is curated from new sources. That’s also a mix that they have to think about.

The brands that are most mature at this, they actually integrate sharing of content within their internal social networks. In fact it was astounding to us, we found that 80% of those who share actually also happen to use internal social networks at work. So whether it’s Facebook at Work, which you may know is in testing right now, or Yammer or other internal facing kind of social experiences, we found a very high correlation between those folks that share internally and those that share externally.

So that’s kind of the journey we’re seeing among the mature brands. They really think about and they get a content engine in place. And then they also start to integrate sharing as a natural part of their daily work life. And if they use an internal social network to collaborate among employees to share information, that’s the natural place for them to share externally as well rather than having a separate process or a separate tool in place.

What type of networks do you see brands using for internal/external social success?

The scenario that we see most often is using an internal social network like IBM Connections or Lithium or Jive. And so when I say internal social network, it’s almost a replacement for the intranets of the ’90s. So rather than having SharePoint and Outlook and that sort of thing, brands like TD Bank, and AT&T, and IBM, they really focus on the next generation of communications which is social, which is collaboration via social like tools. So that’s where we see a lot of the success, is the companies that have invested in these kinds of internal platforms.

According to this study, employees share job postings and daily workplace life the most – aren’t there enough vacancies posted on social already?

I suppose job postings are popular because it shows the employee’s connections, what the opportunities are in the brand and the culture of the brand, that sort of thing. I’m not sure, I think it’s probably because it’s very utilitarian so it has utility. So if you are looking for a job or thinking about a new job, you do want to see those kinds of posts. And you also might want to work in the same company your friend works in, right? Just so you have a colleague right away that you can relate to.

But yeah, it was a bit of a surprising finding. But it’s interesting, companies like Adobe for example with their #AdobeLife program, they’ve seen really tremendous success with this. And so companies that are in a particularly competitive environment, I’m talking to you today from Silicon Valley where the fight for engineers is fierce among Apple, and LinkedIn, and Facebook, and all the other technology platforms that are here. From their standpoint the employment brand and what it means to work at an employer is actually a pretty important part of their strategy for employee advocacy.

Where do employees share employee advocacy updates? According to the study, Facebook is in the lead.

I think that reflects the fact that there’s still a pretty small percentage of employees who are using formalised sharing programs, who are using a tool that’s provided by their employer. So I can tell you for example, I’m using a tool like that, I’m using VoiceStorm, and I don’t even have an option to share something on Facebook. The options I have are LinkedIn and Twitter because they’re more business focused.

So I think when you look at the Facebook numbers which is 86% of employees said that they share there, I think that’s more of the organic sharing. So it’s sharing daily posts about work and what it’s like, what they’re doing it work, events, that sort of thing. So I think that’s probably why it’s so much higher. I think once more formalised tools are in place you may see a jump in LinkedIn as one of the platforms.

But also as I said, I think LinkedIn, I think they have an opportunity here. They need to really highlight more so than they do today, incentives for their users to post about work on their own platform. I think that’s something they need to do more of. And obviously they have published posts and they have short updates, they do have those tools available but clearly based on our research, they’re just not nearly as popular as other platforms including Twitter.

If we look at the profile of employee advocates, who are the leaders, who are the people who are on the leader boards?

What we found is that 77% are actually manager and above. Here’s my theory on that, for years we’ve been telling employees not to post on social. So if you look at the average or the template for the employee social media policy within companies, it almost always says, “Don’t tweet on behalf…” or, “Don’t post on behalf of the brand, leave it to the professionals.”

So I think that individual contributors still have quite a bit of fear and angst about posting this way. Especially when there is no formalised program in place for them to do so. Managers and above I think feel like they better understand what the limits are, what the policies are, and they’re also typically more engaged than the individual contributors. So I think all those things are playing into this.

How do social media users respond to employee advocacy updates turning up in their feeds?

Well first of all, the one very interesting finding was that the vast majority of consumers that saw these posts didn’t even think of them as employee advocacy posts. And that’s why I describe in the report that this is sort of the new native advertising of social if you will, because it’s a very natural looking. Now again a lot of these employees are posting outside of an official capacity. So that plays into it.

But we found that again, the response rate from consumers was pretty high. They find job postings useful, they find product promotions useful, they click through to these things, they find that they better understand the brand that their friend works for which is always good for brand health obviously. So the response is pretty good.

I think the one area of caution was defriending, and we did find that 20% of consumers will unfriend a connection based on posts about work. That actually jives with Pew Internet and some other studies that we looked at. And if you think about right now what’s happening with, at least in the U.S. we have a very contentious presidential election and a primary period where there are a lot of contentious posts about politics, and the defriending rates based on what we saw with Pew Internet for example, that research firm was very similar.

So there is a downside here. And so I think it’s important that employees know and realise and brands know that when they give this content to an employee to share, it has to be very useful and they can’t go too far afield or otherwise they’re going to be unfriended and they’re going to diminish the power of their employees’ social reach.

Should employee advocacy updates carry a specific label for transparency?

Yes, absolutely. In fact AT&T is a good example. Even when someone in PR tweets on behalf of the brand and they share information from the brand, they use #attemp; or #attemployee depending on how much room they have. And so what they’re trying to do is obviously be transparent in identifying the fact that they are an employee. And also they want to meet the regulatory requirements at least within the U.S. that requires that if you have a relationship with an employer or the employer is paying you in some way, that you have to disclose that.

So absolutely, I think when it comes to native advertising in these kinds of posts, there’s actually some room to grow because we’ve seen plenty of posts where you have no idea that the employee works for the company. And we may see some regulatory action in the years to come as this starts to grow to force brands to make that disclosure more obvious and transparent.

What is the difference between employee advocacy in Europe vs. North America?

One of the questions we asked was, “I want my friends to better understand what I do at work,” and so this was a question asked of employees. It gets again to the motivation of why they share. So in North America, 49% agreed with that statement. They post because they want their friends to better understand their work life, and in Europe that was only 29%. I think it gets back to Europeans tend to have higher standards for privacy than North Americans do. Employees don’t feel like they need to share their work life on their social platforms.

The other big disparity was, we asked employees, “Are tools provided to you by your employer to share?” or, “Tools make it easier for me to share.” And North Americans had double the response than Europeans. So North Americans are further along in employee advocacy, in formalised employee advocacy programs it appears based on this data. But also I think the cultural differences are going to come to play. I don’t know that we’ll see employee advocacy pick up even in the long term the way it has in North America just because of the cultural differences.

How do you measure ROI of employee advocacy programs?

Well we’re in the early stages. So if you remember 15 years ago when brands started investing in social, sometimes the objective is just to test and learn, to get an idea and measure what’s actually happening. So because financial return showed up, was such a low priority among brands, we think that brands understand that and they see this is as a phase just to learn.

But some of the metrics that we did see, for example website traffic, brands want to drive more referrals from social to their website. And we found that 55% of brands told us that that was one reason why they’re investing in employee advocacy.

Revenue impact was pretty low, is about 29%. Interestingly enough only 11% of brands said that they wanted to invest employee advocacy as a way to defer their cost in social advertising. I think that will probably change over time as they start to see that their employees in aggregate have much greater reach than brand pages. So we might start to see some shifting there.

Some brands look for customer service effectiveness, a pretty low percentage. But interestingly a quarter of the brands told us again that the return for them would be just more engaged employees. So they’re fine with a program like that simply meaning that their employees better understand their company, what they do, what their direction is.

I’ll give you one example, so there’s a retailer in the U.S., it’s one of the largest retailers. They were going through some tough times. So they launched an employee advocacy tool because the vast majority of their employees, you’re looking at 200,000 or 300,000 employees, they don’t sit in a desk or have a PC that they use regularly. So it’s a challenge to communicate to those employees. So they actually distributed an employee advocacy tool, made it available on their personal mobile devices, and they use that as a way to feed information about what the CEO is thinking, about direction, and this is all public in terms of the information fed to employees. It’s obviously public, something that is publicly consumable.

So over time they found that employees wanted to share this. And so they started to share it. So it’s interesting that in that case, the use case and the benefit that the brand was looking for was again engaging employees more deeply. And then the side benefit to that was okay, once they’re more engaged, they’ll start to share externally with their social graph and their social networks.

What should brands avoid in order to get ROI from employee advocacy?

The first thing is expectations. I’ve talked to some CMOs that think that they’re going to get 50 to 100% of their employees sharing this content. And that’s just not realistic. Even the most advanced brands that I’ve spoken to, 10 to 40% seems to be a reasonable range of employees participating. So that’s the first thing that many brands do get wrong is they just have the wrong expectations. And that’s fine because this is a kind of a test and learn phase for this type of engagement. So that’s not surprising.

One of the others of course is, are your employees ready? Are they motivated? Do they understand your brand well enough to represent it in social? If you think back to the early phases of employee advocacy, they were actually ambassador programs. They had trained, certified PR professionals or even engineers or others that went through some heavy training in order to represent the brand. And that actually leads to one of the other things that you can get wrong, is you can’t just launch this and expect results, you have to have ongoing training. And really important is your manager has to recognise the fact that you are contributing, employees do look for that.

So you do need to have some sort of monitoring in place for this kind of work to see who is sharing, to see what they’re sharing, and then to recognise them internally. So that’s one thing that I think brands do get wrong, is they don’t realise that they need to give their employee some ongoing feedback and training.

What’s the best employee advocacy technology?

I can’t really say, we have not done an in-depth analysis of that. So we’re pretty neutral on that. I think we counted 40 or so tools that are doing this. So like any new technology, there’ll be a shakeup, there’ll be some mergers and acquisitions going on, there’ll be maybe some combining of tools. And we’ve actually seen some of that happen. So I think over the long term there’ll be some shifts and changes in tools.

If I were a brand right now, I would look at any tool that I acquire, you know, I would at a one to two year horizon because there’ll be changes in this environment. These tools are innovating very quickly, and they’re integrating into tools and technologies like CRM systems, like Salesforce and support systems like Zendesk, things like that. So I think over time if I were a brand, I would look at a short term horizon for this and realise that longer term I might want to look at the market again because it’s shifting and changing so quickly.

Who inspires you online and what brands do you think have found success in employee advocacy?

There are many brands that do a great job in social. But I think the brands that have done extremely well in employee advocacy, there are three I can talk about, Adobe, IBM, and AT&T. I spoke to the heads of social for all of those brands or those that are involved in employee advocacy.

Adobe does just a stellar job in terms of recruiting, empowering employees through their Adobe Life program to talk about what it’s like to work at the company and really using that content as a way to draw engineers in and to draw in new candidates. So they’ve had some great success, and I think they do a tremendous job.

IBM is in the similar camp. Although where they excel is more in the thought leadership side. So if you look at IBM services for example, they do consulting around social media, social business, big data, so they have a thought leadership challenge for their business as any business like that, like Accenture, or Deloitte, or KPMG. They need to help their employees build their personal brand online. I think IBM has done a great job of that.

And AT&T has done a great job in a couple of areas, one is in public relations. So using social from a PR side and a public relations side, and then again they’ve started also going more and more into the recruiting side. And they have a hashtag called #ATTLife; which is very interesting, very similar to obviously to #AdobeLife. So those are three brands that I spoke to, and I think looking at them, they’re doing a great job.

And one other brand I’ll talk just briefly is TD Bank. They’re based out of Canada, they also have presence here in the U.S. They do a great job at internal social, as does the Home Depot actually by the way. So there are a couple of brands that are doing a tremendous job of engaging their employees internally. And actually I would put IBM in that camp as well. It’s not just an external success that they’re seeing, they’re seeing really tremendous success internally by using social platforms inside the company to collaborate and to communicate amongst employees.

Follow Ed on Twitter @EdTerpening and don’t forget to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

More on this topic at Employee Advocacy: The Ultimate Handbook.


Our newsletter is exclusively curated by our CEO, Jörgen Sundberg, for leaders who make decisions about talent. Subscribe for updates on The Employer Branding Podcast, new articles, eBooks, research and events we’re working on.


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