Brands are expected to spend up to $15 billion on influencer marketing in the next few years, yet many ignore the best brand ambassadors that money can’t buy, who are showing up for the very brands day in and day out: their employees.
As a concept, employee advocacy programs (or employee ambassador or employee influencer initiatives) are not new, yet with the growing popularity of platforms like TikTok and Snapchat, they are making a return with a bang, getting marketers excited about this opportunity but also concerned about the risks. Employees can be the best advocates, but through the social channels, they can spill the secrets brands don’t want to share. Are employee influencers a blessing or a curse?
The Benefits Of Employee Ambassador Marketing
According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report, 74% of consumers use strategies to avoid advertising. What they do instead is turn to the advice of family and friends and social media platforms that have become the holy grail of influencers. More than half (63%) of respondents trust the influencers versus what the brand says about itself, raising the value of earned media over owned and paid media.
Employees are excellent candidates for becoming brand influencers: They have firsthand experience of the brand because they live and breathe it every day, and they have in-depth knowledge that an average consumer does not. Combined with an ability to present the brand through their own personal styles and stories, the content employees can develop and the relationships they can build could exceed those delivered by “professional” influencers.
Fitness brands Peloton and Tonal are great examples of this approach: Each coach featured on the platform has their own personal brand and social media presence, building relationships and spreading the brand values beyond the company’s own marketing channels.
Employee influencer marketing goes beyond the personal brand of select employees: For Starbucks, baristas are the ambassadors; for Southwest Airlines, it’s the cabin crew; for Tesla, it’s the showroom sales representatives. Even those employees who do not interact with consumers directly every day still represent the brand when they tell their family about their day at work, talk to friends at a BBQ or chat to strangers while waiting in line at a store.
The Risks Of Employee Ambassador Marketing
With the benefits of employee ambassador marketing, however, come significant risks. The radical transparency that the life of an influencer calls for can backfire—from bad judgment and misaligned messages shared on social media that can upset customers to acts of revenge from unhappy employees who give consumers more than they asked for.
While there are ways to work with employee ambassadors to educate them about the brand and help them deal with tricky consumer questions and navigate sharing personal opinions while staying aligned with the brand’s values, technology makes it easy for unhappy employees to start “spilling the truth.”
Employees have been sharing their anonymous feedback on Glassdoor for a decade, and now there is a platform called Blind where verified yet anonymous employees discuss not only the culture, pay scale or benefits, but also such things as layoffs, cases of harassment and inequality, and other problematic issues that many companies would rather keep within the organization. Social media platforms where one can create, live and breathe their alter ego provide a plethora of opportunities for employees to share the not-so-fancy behind-the-scenes, telling the story their way.
Considering that there are hundreds of social media sites, millions of user profiles and not a single platform that can monitor all accounts and content across all the platforms in one place, there is no way for companies to keep an eye on this, not to mention dealing with potentially damaging content.
Getting Employee Influencer Marketing Right
If there are fundamental issues with your product, if your workplace is toxic or if there are other existential challenges going on in the company, address these issues first, before spending money on any form of marketing. Lying to employees and consumers is unacceptable, and trust is extremely easy to break and hard to repair.
According to the above-mentioned Trust Barometer Report, 56% of consumers can spot “trustwashing,” or companies’ less-than-truthful behavior in public. So just don’t. Spend time repairing the business before you can market it.
A successful employer marketing program starts with a brand that addresses its customer needs and with a workplace where employees thrive. From there, you can start developing an employee influencer marketing program that is based on the same fundamentals as regular influencer campaigns. Identify the employees who are advocating the brand and are interested in taking it online (or are already doing so). Provide the guidelines, and feed content on a regular basis. And be sure to reward positive behavior.
Along the way, you need to build trust with the employee ambassadors and let them implement their creative ideas, bypassing corporate approval for every piece of content they intend to post. Freedom of expression is essential for the influencers to be authentic with their audiences. It’s important for the employees to be clear when they speak on behalf of the company and when they share their personal opinion. To achieve that, have ongoing communications with the employee ambassadors. Offer coaching, and be there with them for the long-term because it’s all a big learning experience, both for the company and for the employee.
Employee influencer marketing has its own risks, yet the upside—when done it right—is that you can build consumer trust, understanding and brand loyalty that will pay back in the long term. Are you ready to give the spotlight to the employee?