One of the most powerful impacts of social media is the way it has democratized brands. No longer is the brand, or corporate image, tightly controlled by a few senior executives, marketing communications specialists, and PR spokespersons. Every stakeholder in an enterprise—every customer, prospective customer, supplier, channel partner, employee, industry blogger, shareholder—has a voice. Those voices collectively shape the brand.
This reality can be scary as hell for brands, but it also creates new opportunities. Treating customers well produces an army of advocates, with far greater credibility and at far lower cost than traditional advertising. Invite bloggers to your company events, give them a peak “under the hood,” and the collective “media coverage” generated can be tremendous.
The most natural and knowledgeable group of brand ambassadors would seem though to be employees. They know the company’s products, people, policies and procedures from the inside. They (presumably) want the company to do well, as their livelihoods depend on its success. Those on the front lines, in areas like consulting and customer support, have a unique perspective and level of credibility. And collectively, particularly in large organizations, they can be a powerful amplifier of brand messages and values.
Yet companies big and small have struggled to capitalize on this potential. Asking employees to use social platforms on a brand’s behalf can easily feel awkward, or forced. Employees may not want to talk about the company on social media, or may not know how, or may want to expose too much, or may even use it in ways that damage the brand.
Of course, most organizations of any size now have social media policies in place; but these often only set the basic ground rules for discussing the company in social media (e.g., don’t discuss financial details, don’t disclose customer data, don’t talk about products in development). They don’t turn employees into effective and impactful brand advocates any more than merely knowing the traffic laws makes one an expert driver.
Into this milieu have stepped Cheryl and Mark Burgess with their book, The Social Employee: Success Lessons from IBM, AT&T, Dell, and Cisco on Building a Social Culture. A must-read for any executive or manager who wants to understand how to unleash the social power of a properly trained, motivated and incentivized workforce, this book goes far beyond the do’s and don’ts of social media policy. The authors have gone inside some of the most respected brands to discover and reveal how these companies have made social media work by enabling and empowering their employees.
In today’s social online world, the linear model of brand engagement (awareness, interest, desire, action) is obsolete. Rather than being the end goal, the sale is often the beginning of the true relationship between customers and brands. It isn’t just the product that matters, but the entire customer experience with the product, with post-sale support, even with a company’s values, that shape the brand image in the social realm.
To introduce their concept of a non-linear model of customer engagement, the authors invoke the image of a Möbius strip: a geometric shape that is “somewhat unique in the physical world. While the Möbius strip appears to be a closed band like a bracelet, because of a twist in the band itself the object technically has only one side—although it appears to have two…
“We like the metaphor implied in this famous mathematical conundrum: here is an object that is easy to understand by experiencing it, but incredibly difficult to produce through attempts to quantify it. Such a riddle creates an unmistakable parallel with the nature of social employee engagement. Any brand can see the value of social of social collaboration once they’ve jumped into the fray, but it’s much more challenging to try to define the precise formula for why it works…Each of us behaves as an employee, brand, and customer—sometimes simultaneously—throughout the course of a single day.”
Later in the book’s opening section, the authors quote a McKinsey Quarterly article which argues that “senior leaders can harness social media to shape consumer decision making in a predictable way…(social media) is much more than simply another form of paid marketing, and it demands more too: a clear framework to help CEOs and other top executives evaluate investments in it, a plan for building support infrastructure, and performance management systems to help leaders smartly scale their social presence. Companies that have these three elements in place can create critical new brand assets (such as content from customers or insights from their feedback), open up new channels for interactions (Twitter-based customer service, Facebook news feeds), and completely reposition a brand through the way its employees interact with customers or other parties.”
Social media is fundamentally changing the nature of marketing, and employees are crucial to successfully navigating this transition. In the sections titled Employees Already Own Your Brand and Marketing is Everyone’s Job, the authors contend that “strong Business-to-Business (B2) or Business-to-Consumer (B2C) communication outside of the brand’s walls begins with strong internal employee collaboration…Because of the many new demands that social media has created for internal organization as well as B2B and B2C interactions, brands are quickly coming to the realization that the act of marketing is no longer just the responsibility of the marketing department…This isn’t to say that each member of each department has to be on the frontlines of branding, just that everybody should have a role in spreading the brand’s message.
“The only thing preventing organizations from connecting employees with the necessary information and resources to drive real change is the willingness to develop a proper infrastructure…Many companies simply don’t know how to handle the changes in the work styles and attitudes that are emerging within the workforce.”
And that is what sets up the core of this book: lessons the authors share from seven leading companies in how to harness the power of social employees. Among them:
- • IBM: let employees develop the company’s social media guidelines. “In trying to determine the best way to address questions regarding the proper protocols of a social business, IBM struck on a novel idea: rather than confining a small group of people to a conference room to hammer out social policy, why not take the question to the people? IBM quickly set up an open wiki accessible to the entire network that would allow IBMers to establish their own computing guidelines…The results of the wiki experiment were quickly adapted as the company’s official social media guidelines. According to (IBM executive Ethan) McCarty, everything is still holding up quite well. ‘IBMers treat it like their Magna Carta’…The guidelines, which McCarty affectionately refers to as IBM’s social media Woodstock, have become so renowned in the business world that hundreds of other organizations have contacted IBM seeking permission to adopt them as their own.”
- • Adobe: promote social media policies and best practices as “guardrails” for employees, not straightjackets. Adobe’s Corporate Social Media team knows it can’t control or dictate every social media interaction, so it has instead “adopted a policy of `influence without authority’ in order to spread the brand’s social message…Larger brands simply don’t have the resources to micromanage social adoption practices for an entire enterprise. `We had little to no authority over (other internal) teams to mandate change,” (Senior Director of Social Media and Public Relations Maria) Poveromo said. ‘So instead, we had to learn ways to encourage these stakeholders to see the value of working together.'”
- • Dell: use tools and structure to monitor and address the torrent of social media activity happening outside the brand’s direct sphere of influence. “Listening to over 25,000 conversations daily produced a wealth of data, but the brand has had to be creative in how it sorts and utilizes this information. In 2010, Dell established the Social Media Listening Command Center (SMLCC) Led by Maribel Sierra. The brand has since designed over 300 monitoring categories in order to aggregate information by product line, customer segments, and various business functions. The SMLCC is able to sort data by criteria such as location/geography, basic demographics, reach, sentiment, subject matter, and social platform. To accomplish this kind of sorting, the SMLCC team uses Saleforce’s Radian6 technology to assess and report on the trending social media topics related to Dell.”
There’s much more, from Cisco (representing leader authentically builds tremendous credibility); Southwest Airlines (founder Herb Kelleher: “If the employee comes first, then they’re happy…A motivated employee treats the customer well”); AT&T (use social media to humanize the brand: “A fundamental trait of the social age is the fact that people expect information to come from a trusted resource with a human face”); and Acxiom (create a social employee “PACT”—short for passion, accountability, creativity and teamwork).
While the book showcases examples and practices from large organizations, many of the lessons are applicable to companies of any size—such as the importance of executive involvement on social platforms on behalf of the brand.
I’m thrilled and honored to have worked with Cheryl Burgess for the past three years honoring the #Nifty50 top women and men on Twitter. Cheryl and Mark have written an outstanding book for any leader seeking a roadmap to building and optimizing employee engagement on behalf of the brand in social media. As legendary management guru Tom Peters said of the book, “Social media is wasted without social employees…my social business favorite books #1: The Social Employee.”