When Johnson Controls began a transformation from a 130-year-old maker of thermostats to a global industrial company, it found it was speaking in tongues on social media.
“We had lots of very well-intentioned and creative individuals across the company adapting them on their own,” said CMO Kim Metcalf-Kupres. “We realized we had thousands of points of contact for the company.”
Not being a large traditional advertiser, social media worked well for JCI, but it needed to centralize, said Metcalf-Kupres. It engaged in a social media cleanup campaign and today, it has four Twitter handles that represent the company.
“It was big effort to establish some consistency as it relates to the company’s identity, the way we talk about ourselves and the way we engage in these channels,” said Metcalf-Kupres.
As a B2B company, Johnson Controls can afford to me more selective about social media channels, but on the other extreme are more retail-focused B2C marketers, such as the shoe retailer Zappos, which trains employees on social media and encourages them to engage consumers on behalf of the company.
“Employees can be some of the best advocates for a brand,” said Sara Spivey, CMO of BazaarVoice, a consumer-generated-content platform. “Who knows the product better than those living and breathing it?”
For example, a brand like Apple can use store employees as an extension of the Apple experience, to “deliver that overall sense of cool and creativity,” said Ashley Connors, group strategy director at agency StrawberryFrog. “They’re great influencers, not because they’re trying to influence, but because they are simply doing their jobs and truly believe in the product and brand.”
A number of tools have put media within reach of the average person, and given employees a voice, but these activities can cut both ways. Companies like Zappos use their employee voices very effectively, as an extension of their brand-building. Unhappy employees can do the opposite.
The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer study found that while the word of friends and family was still #1, online and social media content created by employees of a company was trusted by more consumers (55%) than that coming from the CEO (50%), a journalist (45%), or a celebrity (33%). The report recommended that companies leverage the employee storytelling as part of their media efforts and build trust with their employees, who will then be more effective advocates.
“Employees are often an untapped source of influence. Yet, they are often in the best position to act as powerful influencers,” said Christine Villanueva SVP and head of strategy at agency Walton Isaacson.
Most companies know they need to create a strategy so that all their employee bloggers are on-message and don’t damage the brand equity. In effect, experts note that when they engage with consumers directly, employees are acting as customer service agents for the company, not just influencers.
A best practice is to leverage employees to answer questions about a product, or share content that creates relevance to consumers like them, said Spivey. She noted that Walmart.com buyers film “scrappy videos for holiday toys” that show off some of their features.
With proper disclosure, employees can also help fill in some gaps where there is no consumer-generated content in advance of a product launch, she said. But Spivey cautioned that brands should use caution though and not try to “pass them off” as consumers online, but instead use employee-generated content to expand on what other content the brand has to offer.
“Employees are an important part of the customer journey but they fall somewhere between influencers and advocates across the (word-of-mouth) spectrum,” said Jeremy Simon, director of influencer & partnership marketing at Attention, the social arm of agency KBS. “Every brand should have an employee advocacy program, but there are different guardrails and tactics needed than a traditional influencer marketing program.”
Most experts noted that the first step is to ensure that employees understand what the brand stands for and how that should be communicated to the outside world. The Edelman report recommends that marketers engage employees and reward them as they do consumer influencers and create content their employees can share on social media.
“I’ve been surprised by how many company employees don’t really understand what their company brand really stands for and how that should be expressed,” said Villanueva. “It’s important that the brand’s essence and role is clearly communicated and understood internally, otherwise it’s unrealistic to expect employees to act as influencers.”
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