Turning Employee Stories into Employer Brand Equity

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg


Why is it important for companies to be transparent about their culture and values? And how can your company build a great employer brand with the use of employee generated content? I had a chat with Lisa Cervenka and Jason Seiden of Brand Amper to find out how to turn employee stories into brand equity.

Have a listen below and don’t forget to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

Tell us about Brand Amper and your roles there.

Lisa: Sure, love to. Brand Amper is a branding platform, and Jason and I developed it to really help companies engage employees in telling stories and shaping the brand based on what is true to employees today. So it’s really an employee-centric approach, like no other solution or tool that we’ve heard of or found. And we make sure that employees kind of really know what’s in it for them.

Jason: So that’s what Brand Amper is. In terms of ourselves, officially Lisa’s the Chief Branding Officer and I’m the CEO. But with any company where there’s only two of you, it’s less about roles, it’s more about priorities. So we’re both fully responsible for our success, and we have different strengths, and I think at this stage, Lisa, I don’t know about you, but I’d be hard pressed to even tear some of them apart sometimes. So for instance, when it comes to go to market we’ll both look at competitors, we’ll both look at client needs. We just tend to look at different things.

Lisa: Yeah, I would say the only real differentiator maybe is when we are analysing our data, I tend to look at all the various pieces or you do actually look at all the different pieces of data to try to figure out the best way to present it to clients to solve their problems. And I tend to read every story and look for branding terms.

Why do companies need employee generated content?

Jason: Yeah, so simply put, it’s because that’s where candidates and prospects go to look to discover what’s real. We’ve been trained to go beyond the company’s party line. Corporate websites are great, but sites like Glassdoor are becoming the go-to for prospective employees.

And then, Lisa, you often talk about Edelman’s trust survey. So that’s a nice anecdote, but one of the things that Lisa will often go back to is the hard numbers that are actually starting to come up around just how real this move to employee generated content is. So what makes somebody buy, or, in this case, buy into an idea, is determined far more now based on what people in your network say than what experts say, right? People are 90% more likely to trust their network than a brand. The gap between trusting an employee like me versus a CEO is significant. That trend is here to stay and we’re just watching the numbers grow year over year.

What’s the power of bold transparency?

Jason: So bold transparency is, this is a term that Lisa came up with, which I just think is killer. And it goes back to this idea that you’re letting your employees state what’s true on your behalf. You’re creating alignment between the employee and the company, and so instead of having to sell something, you’re simply replacing your walls with windows and letting people see what actually exists. And the power there is, not only is it a far more efficient way to be because you’re not constantly selling, but the feedback loop is immediate, because people can react to what they see to be true instantaneously. You don’t have to wait for focus groups to come back a year later and tell you what, right? And it’s also genuine, so the costs of managing it are far lower than trying to manage an image that may or may not be genuine.

Lisa: I think we call it bold transparency, because I think a lot of companies claim to provide transparency. They want candidates to see what life is really like get a look at their culture, however, they want it done in a very specific, compliant way. And so the idea of the bold is really we need to make a little bit of an improvement on what we’re calling transparent.

What are the risks of not having employee generated stories?

Lisa: Sure, sure. Well, we’ve got them. We definitely it’s risky behaviour. So honestly, I’ll go so far as to say I think it can be devastating.

First of all, you might be marketing a brand to prospects that really does not exist or resonate with current employees, because they can’t relate to it, so it’s more aspirational. So, unless you’re gathering their stories to validate whether or not what you think is true, is true, that could be a big problem. And there’s nothing worse than advertising a place to work falsely.

Jason: And then having your employees roll their eyes.

Lisa: Exactly, and not have it meet expectations for new employees. And then also, what if your competitions are offering these transparent compelling looks into the company culture, and all the other things like hard benefits are basically equal? You might be missing out on a really big differentiator. Recently, I’ve read a lot of articles about how people would rather get paid less and work for a company with a really good reputation that they could be proud of. So more and more it’s becoming an absolute differentiator.

What are the challenges with current methods of creating and sharing stories?

Jason: Yeah, you know I’ll take that one. And Jörgen, the reality is most of the current tools and solutions have everything backward, right? And this is what we saw long before we ever developed our tool. This was something that frustrated us for years. A lot of the solutions out there require company leadership to assume three things. One, that they know who their advocates are, who their employee advocates are. Two, that the employee at large will care enough about the company to engage, right? Meaning that leadership does not think that they need to show employees what’s in it for them. And then three, that leadership can predict which content channels are most important.

And none of those three assumptions are true. And, because of that, your premise is only going to be as good as the assumptions it’s built on. So when they go in and they put in a solution or they develop a process built on thinking they know who their advocates are, thinking that people are going to jump up and partake, and thinking that they can predict where they should be sharing content, it means they end up with all kinds of problems, all kinds of mismatched incentives. And anyway, they all kind of snowball from there.

How do you work with employees to create and share original and branded content?

Jason: So, right. So there’s the cliché answer, it depends, right? And the reality is, every company’s a little different, but what we’ll tell you is, people are the same. So there are some commonalities that absolutely should exist across every program anywhere. As long as there’s a human being in the program, there are some similarities that should percolate up. So the key to Brand Amper’s success is we give the employee the company brand and we say, “Here, use this to make yourself look better.” And then ask directly if the employee wants to share content. So you asked about the challenges a minute ago, right? The step-by-step guide is to find a way to flip that script to make sure that the employee interests and the company interests are aligned. And once you do that you massively increase opportunities for engagement, and simultaneously you’ve massively reduced the need for compliance checks.

Lisa: Yeah, I think speaking of compliance, one thing, before people go about the tactical steps or even strategies to doing this philosophically, I think companies need to let go of this notion of, “On brand,” when it comes to employer branding. That’s something we hear all the time with consumer branding, and now we’re dealing with people. So I think we’d argue you need consistency, for sure, but not compliance. People need room to be able to customise and expand on ideas about the brand.

What are some of the benefits to the employees and to their personal brands?

Lisa: I think there’s a lot of benefits, and really it gives them, at a very high level, permission to take the time to do so. And in this case, or in our case, it’s a tool to help them focus on it and step them through it, because on a daily basis rarely do people think carefully about what it is that they put out there for others, let alone remember to update it. So it kind of gives them a roadmap for engaging, and content sharing, and all kinds of social activity that might be intimidating. And it also lets them realise, “Okay, here’s my brand. Maybe there’s some relevant company info which is part of that brand, and now I need to share content, or do things on social that reinforce that.” So it’s a purposeful disciplined approach to personal branding.

Jason: Yeah, I would take it one step further. I think if the company is doing it right, in addition to the benefits to the employee, I think if the company’s doing it right, they’re also using it as an opportunity to re-acclimate employees to the brand. So the research that we’ve done shows understanding, well conscious that we’ve done. This actually goes back, this is organisational theory, but the more an individual understands what the company they work for is all about and how success gets measured, the more invested in their work they are. So it’s not just about giving them the permission and tool to develop an employer brand to get to the benefits that Lisa said, but there’s also a benefit that flows back to the company, which is when people can make that connection they’re more invested in what they’re doing.

What social and digital channels are most important and why?

Lisa: Well, first of all, I have to give the caveat that it’s different for every company. It’s like that marketing 101, where are your prospects looking to engage, and where are your employees actually willing to? So you have to start with that and I think companies make huge mistakes in launching five channels at once. And inevitably one of them gets cobwebs pretty quickly, and employees get totally overwhelmed, like, “Where am I supposed to be interacting?”

Jason: Yeah, and I mean way back in the day, prior to Brand Amper we fell into this trap ourselves. When social was exploding it’s real easy to go chase that shiny object, and you really do need to start with that end in mind. And the reality is that the field of tools is constantly changing. And that’s one of the reasons why we focus on stories, right? Stories are foundational content, they can be turned into content for pretty much any channel. And so that’s kind of like the marketing answer.

To give you a direct answer, we mentioned Glassdoor before, we’re actually seeing Glassdoor in particular become increasingly important. It is the leader in employee generated content. Interestingly, if you had asked the question two years ago, we would have said it would have been LinkedIn. Now Glassdoor’s coming up. In two years we’re not sure what it’ll be two years from now. So our recommendation is focus on the foundational stuff, keep the end in mind, and then be responsive to which channels the people you care most about are using.

What’s the ROI on employee stories?

Jason: So you started off by asking what our roles are, and we mentioned we look at the same things we just look at them in different eyes. This is one of those questions Lisa and I have been asked countless times, so I kind of can read your mind, I know what you’re going to talk about. So I’ll start this off, and I’ll say from a company level, if you’re going to start any new process it’s got to do something you’re already doing more efficiently and/or more effectively. So when we look at our process for gathering stories and putting them into action for employer branding content, we’ve actually figured out that you can cut an agency cost by 90%.

But you think about the way that most companies do it and when you factor in how long the management reviews take, and then the focus groups, and then coming up with the pillars, and the EVPs, and the research. It’s not uncommon for a big company to hide behind that process.

So I’m not saying that agencies are bad. We actually have agencies as partners. The reality is, is that you get people inside of companies that will hide behind that process. So when you look at what it is in total, if you’re doing this right you can actually take a lot of that legwork and crunch it down, disperse it amongst the employees, so you can drop the cost significantly. You can actually probably get this under one-third the cost in 10% of the time. That’s kind of the macro view, but Lisa, I know you focus on…

Lisa: Well, yeah. I think we’re constantly because we did in a way have the luxury of building a tool that collects data, we have lots of opportunities and feedback from incredible friends in the industry, and thought leaders, and clients to tell us, “Okay, you know what, if we’re going to do this, we need to know certain things.” And so we’ve built measurements into our tool and things that we report on. Things like how many people started the tool versus completed it versus did not even start? And we do that because it tells us a lot about the effectiveness of their internal communications, how they engage with their employees, and do people pay attention when they offer something? Also, who exactly has decided to be a brand leader?

We provide a list to clients and the ROI on this is really measurable because it can be used to seed a lot of the expensive pilots they engage in. So who should be selected for an expensive content sharing tool pilot? Things like that so they can save time and not waste money. We also let them know things like who has chosen what brand messages. So they know what, again, not to be chasing, time and money wise. Not to mention kind of the value in and of itself of capturing hundreds of pieces of this employee generated content.

Jason: Yeah and when you kind of put these two things together you start seeing where those overall cost savings take place, right? If a company’s going to take six months just to figure out who its advocates are, and guess wrong, and then have to relaunch a program, right, and take six more months. And we can make sure they get it right the first time. That’s one of those cost savings that actually is a win for everybody in the chain.

What are the tech considerations for a company embarking on a program like this?

Jason: We’ve got a particular viewpoint on this, and I think it’s a little distinct, and maybe a little here heretical in the space, but we recommend that any time a company brings in a tech vendor that they make sure that that vendor can help you the client implement it and drive engagement at the employee level. We not only hear that need from companies, but interestingly we’ve talked with prospective investors, people who actually invest in HR technology, and we had one person point-blank challenge our focus on implementation and activation. And they were like, “You have to move away from providing that as a service for your clients,” and we’re like, “You’re crazy,” right?

Any technology platform worth its salt is going to make sure that its clients get the help they need implementing its tools. And you pretty much look at any successful software platform out there and you’re going to find an implementation ecosystem that supports it. So I think it’s a critical need, and in today’s world of SaaS implementations, and I swipe my credit card and buy a certain number of seats, you’ve got to make sure you’re still getting the help that you’re going to need in implementing it and making sure that people actually use the software.

What brands inspire you on social at the moment?

Lisa: Well, you know it’s my favourite thing to talk about by far. And I am a bit of a fan girl when it comes to some of this stuff, but I would say Salesforce definitely. Their whole dream job campaign, especially on Instagram, is amazing and bold. I love what Cisco is doing, how they kind of revamped everything and they have the #WeAreCisco hashtag on Twitter and other places, and really trying to focus from careers at Cisco to who are the people and kind of giving the brand back to their employees.

And I’ll say too, I feel like the tech companies because their recruitment needs are so acute and it’s so competitive, they tend to do the employer branding stuff on social and digital better than other industries. But I will say in terms of a hospitality or a consumer brand, I love what Airbnb does. I think we talked a lot about Glassdoor, and I was actually on Glassdoor looking at their stuff last night, and they do a great job of segmenting their prospective employee audience. So saying, “If you’re an engineer, click here and read about this,” etc. And there’s also a report that your listeners might be interested in. We’ve done some work with WilsonHCG and they put out a great report. They did it in 2014, and they also did it this year, and it’s called Fortune 500 Top 100 Employment Brands. It’s really worth checking out. You can download it for free. And they’ve got all kinds of criteria they use that might be interesting for people to see.

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

Jason: Stories, silly. We’re going to explode. We’re going to be huge. I think we’re already starting to see more collaboration. Interestingly, we’ve talked about Glassdoor, let’s leave them on the shortlist of things that are going to be important, but I think that peer-to-peer networking also opens up ideas. We’re seeing something called Open Source HR, which just was launched this year by a couple of practitioners in the employment branding space, in the talent acquisition space, and it’s gaining traction. So I definitely think we’re going to see more people looking to people both at the employee level and then also amongst the practitioners. And our belief is making sure that as an individual you can actually let people know who you are is going to be a critical part of that, because if we’re looking to one another for support it means we need to know how and when to opt into one another.

Lisa: Yeah, and I think another thing that’s going to be huge this year is tools that put the candidate in charge of the interviewing process and the experience with the company. We have a friend, Ray, who founded a company called Great Hires. They were featured at this year’s HR Tech, the awesome new startup as we once were. And it’s a mobile app that facilitates a lot of transparency and control for candidates. So they get to download it, they see who’s going to be interviewing them, they can upload presentations theirs or samples of their work. It’s all kinds of stuff to say, “All right, let’s just make this as straightforward as possible and let the candidate feel like they’re in charge.” So I think we’re going to see a lot more of that too.

Follow Brand Amper on Twitter @BrandAmper and be sure to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.


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