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With 36 million Facebook likes and 10 million Twitter followers, Starbucks has clearly mastered the art of social media. It’s also translated social fans into real revenue: The company’s famous Tweet-a-Coffee Twitter campaign, for instance, generated $180,000 in direct sales in less than a month.

Starbucks, of course, has an entire team of social media strategists working round the clock. There is, however, a lesser-known secret to its success: Its own employees do lots of the tweeting and posting themselves. A unique employee advocacy programactively encourages staff to share updates about the brand on their own social media accounts. You might think that getting your own staff to do the same—successfully and sustainably—just isn’t achievable. But it can be, and here’s how.

ALL HANDS ON DECK

Starbucks isn’t alone in bringing employees into the fold. At Zappos, employeesreceive special Twitter training and are encouraged to share updates about what they’re doing at work. (There’s even a company “leaderboard” that shows who’s got the most followers.) Southwest Airlines, which is incidentally reporting record profits, is famous for harnessing its own employees to share stories on its Nuts About Southwest blog and post about the company on social media.

Despite these success stories, however, employee social media advocacy is still a widely misunderstood and underused marketing strategy. By now, executives and managers know that Twitter, Facebook, and other networks are driving consumer decisions. (Three-quarters of consumers report that social media directly influences their buying behavior.) But social media only works if you have an audience. For companies struggling to grow a following, getting a return on social media investments can prove to be a slow, frustrating process.

So start small. Simply encouraging employees to share their company’s social media updates—when done properly—can dramatically expand a company’s total following, extending the reach and impact of its messages. Nor does that require any special investment of time or money: The resources needed to execute it are already on your payroll.

WHY AN ALL-STAFF SOCIAL STRATEGY MAKES SENSE

A little math hints at the potential. Suppose you’re a mid-sized company with a total of 5,000 followers altogether on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Now, let’s say you have 100 employees, each with (a relatively modest) 250 followers of their own, for a total of 25,000 unique followers. By asking your employees to share messages, you can boost your audience (at least on paper) from 5,000 to 30,000—instantly.

It isn’t just a numbers game, of course. Word-of-mouth messages from friends and colleagues are widely seen as more relevant and trustworthy than social media blasts from corporate accounts. As a result, content shared by employees, by one recent measure, gets eight times more engagement than content shared by brand channels, and is reshared 25 times more frequently. Even more impressive, leads developed through employee social marketing convert seven times more frequently than other leads. When employees share messages, companies not only expand their social media reach, they also get measurably better results.

GETTING THE LOGISTICS RIGHT

But this is where it’s important to pause for a reality check. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see this social media strategy going sideways. Who says employees actually want to share company updates? Will their followers even care? Who decides what updates get blasted out? And don’t you risk numbing your followers with too many messages?

These are a few guidelines I’ve developed—with a little trial and error—after using employee social advocacy in my own company since starting Hootsuite in 2009.

1. Employees have to want to share updates. To be clear, any employee social media program has to be voluntary. I’d even go a step further than that, however. For this process to work, employees have to actually want to share company news. This starts, of course, with having the right company culture. If employees are engaged and enthusiastic, then helping the company get the word out—if it’s easy to do—isn’t a huge ask. At the same time, by sharing relevant messages, employees can ideally build their own professional social followings, establishing themselves as experts in their professional sphere.

2. Messages need to reach the right audience. It’s important that employees have a social following that actually cares about the messages being seeded. There’s little reason for your VP of sales to send quarterly earnings updates to his buddies on Facebook (though sharing those same updates with colleagues on LinkedIn may make good sense in some situations). In other words, audience alignment is key. Social advocacy works best when employees can tap into relevant professional or personal networks on social media.

3. Know when to share organically and when to prime the pump. Who decides what messages to send out and when to send them? To a large extent, employees should be spontaneously composing their own messages and sharing company news without any special prompting, just as part of their normal routines. Of course, some groundwork is required to get to this point. Basic social media training may be necessary to get everyone up to speed on different social channels, and it’s also key to lay out guidelines for how employees should talk about the company on their accounts.

At the same time, however, it’s equally important to “prime the pump” and offer employees with suggested posts. This might seem presumptuous at first, but it’s not easy to come up with catchy messages—and your team members have other jobs to do. They can modify those messages as they see fit, but sometimes you need to offer a little inspiration.

4. The sharing process must be extremely simple. When it comes to getting employees to share suggested messages, it pays to take the Amazon 1-Click shopping approach: for best results, minimize steps and make it effortless. Predrafting messages is helpful but still poses logistical challenges. Inevitably, you’re going to have to send these suggestions out by email. Then employees are going to have to open the email, log into their own social networks, cut-and-paste a message, and then send it. That’s a lot of things that have to go right just for one message to see the light of day.

(Technology can help. For instance, we developed a mobile app that lets suggested Tweets and posts be pushed out directly to employees’ smartphones. They scroll through proposed messages on their phones, then tap to decide which networks, if any, to share on. The ease of just one or two taps, versus the tedium of the email cut-and-paste approach, makes a huge difference in participation rates.)

5. Use your employee advocates sparingly. It goes without saying that social media runs on trust. Messages have impact because they come from real people—in many cases people you actually know and whose views you value. Employers need to keep this in mind when asking their team members to serve as social advocates.

If employees’ followers are suddenly swamped with company messages, the brand’s credibility suffers and people simply tune out—a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. So it’s important to use this strategy judiciously. It’s not really a matter of how many messages you send, as what kinds of messages you send. The best updates for employees to share are genuinely useful or entertaining. They align with company interests without being too promotional or narrowly focused.

Employee advocacy isn’t new, but social media has made it significantly easier to enlist your full staff as a marketing resource. Applying the right strategy and a little technology to tap into employees’ existing networks can radically increase the reach of your social media messaging.

But it’s important to point out that none of this works without the right foundation. Social advocacy depends on having an engaged and enthusiastic staff and the right corporate culture. People will never volunteer to promote a company where they don’t feel genuinely valued in the first place.

 

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