Don’t Underutilize Your Best Social Media Resource — Employees

The power of social media lies in finding and building connections between like-minded people. Conceptually, this aligns with how companies think about it for business purposes, and they continue to throw more money into the practice.

Investments in building “communities” on major social networks continue to escalate this year. Budgets assigned to social analytics to identify and engage “influencers” are gaining bigger slices of the IT pie. The science (and deal-making) behind finding and engaging people of influence continues to grow and become more sophisticated.

It’s safe to say discovering, building, and nurturing living, breathing networks is now a fundamental business practice.

Ironically, these networking efforts often bypass the most like-minded influencers a company has: its employees. A company shouldn’t simply use internal social networks to talk to and connect employees, but to also actively engage them to advocate — and, at times, defend — the organizations they work for.

To be fair, declaring open season with employees can end badly. Somewhat early in corporate adoption of social media, our team was brought in to help one of the world’s largest IT organizations that had ventured into the social space without a clearly defined strategy. This company had a vast, open blog network, where employees could publish perspectives on company contributions and convey views on where the technology agenda was headed.

Consequently, many of these employees did so without proper guidance, training, or governance. Employees shared proprietary company information, vented about workplace issues, and shared contradictory viewpoints. The business and reputation risk was astounding. We helped address the gap, one faced regularly by companies with a vast number of social media properties to manage.

Today, most companies have social media guidelines in place to avoid risk, along with a governance structure to manage communications across social platforms under management.

Often, these efforts discourage or confuse employees who want to talk about the organizations they work for. And they’re clearly not confined to their company’s social media properties, like the blog network example referenced. Employees are constantly connecting and talking about their companies through their personal accounts on their own time.

Recognizing the Opportunity

Recent global research from my firm, Weber Shandwick, in partnership with KRC Research, found that only 4 of 10 employees surveyed can confidently explain what their employer does and only 3 in 10 are deeply engaged. Yet a deeper look into the workforce finds that 21 percent of workers are well-informed, highly engaged, and supportive of their employers.

What’s especially remarkable is that they are also social activists for their employers. They make their engagement visible, they defend their employers from criticism, and they act as advocates. The opportunity is in harnessing that activism and leveraging it.

Let me put this in perspective: The Fortune 50 averages 265,000 employees. If only 20 percent of those employees engaged with 100 friends about work, they’d have a potential reach of 5.3 million people, using estimates from our study (by comparison, The New York Times’ weekly audience reach is roughly the same size). That’s a huge opportunity that shouldn’t be left on the table.

Many companies are already finding success with social media policies that empower employees. Just look at Whole Foods Market, Zappos, or IBM.

By encouraging creativity and authenticity, they build on their core values to define their social media presence. Whole Foods’ nearly 3.7 million Twitter followers are presented with content generated by employees that features personal anecdotes and company facts.

Zappos takes its “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness” motto to social media with entertaining and engaging content that allows employees to be the driving force behind its message.

IBM has set the expectation among all employees that sharing knowledge is required to live their Smarter Planet agenda. Each company exemplifies living its message, and each takes full advantage of the advocacy and scale that employees can bring to the table. They see the glass as half-full.

New Employee Platforms are Emerging

A suite of software products that are brand- and compliant-safe is fast emerging to enable companies to share their social media assets with employees. Dynamic Signal helps brands and enterprises leverage the authentic voices of employees, customers, and fans to drive reach, awareness, and revenue. Others, like Percolate and SocialChorus, help manage communities, content workflow, and analytics.

The business advantages of building a strong network shouldn’t overlook the most powerful army of advocates available: those who work for businesses. Brand image is built upon the truly human stories and connections provided by employees. Today’s consumer base is hungry for information and limited in its time to research, making these stories the hook that will engage both customers and your staff.

Increasing the involvement of employee “influencers,” or activists, allows you to leverage the broad scope of people your employees connect with and take advantage of employees’ social media habits. And maybe most importantly, it can help you re-engage the large proportion of employees who may feel distanced from their companies’ mission.

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