Employee advocacy for a brand has existed for many years now, usually in the form of micro-influencing on LinkedIn and Twitter. These pre-approved promotions usually took the form of positive opinions posted to a small audience, or simply a re-post of an employer’s blog to LinkedIn and other platforms to gain some internal recognition. There have been many studies into the effectiveness of these word-of-mouth strategies, such as a recent study into shaping public perception of corporate social responsibility with employee influencers (see here), and attracting new talent with positive employee posts on social media (see here).
This approach has evolved once more into a subliminal marketing strategy that utilises creative and engaging employees by providing a platform for them to share loosely branded content on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Many brands in the US have employed this tactic already. Giants like Sephora, GameStop, Dunkin’ Donuts and Chipotle reportedly have internal ambassador programs that go beyond the traditional endorsement model (Digiday). These programs usually involve an approval process and employee benefits.
More recently, a Woolworths employee named Liam Ashe Kirley who goes by the username of ‘ashe_media’ has been making waves on TikTok, producing entertaining and supposedly unofficial branded content in his uniform and at his place of work. As shown below, his content garners an average of 70,000 views and 9000 reactions. Some of his most viral videos receive over 1 million views and hundreds of user comments.
Historically, companies would have reacted to branded social media posts by employees with animosity. In the worst cases, these would be grounds for dismissal if an employee violated their company values publicly. What we are seeing more recently is a blurred line between what is a reason to get the boot, and what is a beneficial scenario for both parties. Harmless employee shenanigans and insider knowledge are now acceptable in many of these scenarios, as shown by Liam’s video above.
After over a year of posting, we believe Liam would have some understanding with Woolworths by now, whether that involved a formal contract and benefits however, we do not know. What we do know, is that Woolworths would be smart to reward such an individual and keep providing them with a platform to create creative branded content that benefits both parties.
The benefits of an employee influencer program
As we have seen, employee influencers can drive a lot of organic engagement outside of company-driven social media accounts. We want to reiterate that this is more than an employee advocacy or ambassador program, but a collaborative approach to content creation by talented employees. Some of the key benefits to having a well thought out employee influencer program are:
- Increased brand authenticity – in the Woolworths case study, it made their brand more human and likeable.
- Opportunities to create new brand stories
- New avenues for organic reach
- Better grounds for going viral
An example of what not to do
The main appeal to this sort of content is its unstructured and unofficial nature. Therefore, there is a fine balance companies must find between providing structure for employees to adhere to if engaged to create content and the natural creation of such content by these creators. Not too long ago in the US, GameStop started an internal influencer scheme for any store worker to submit videos of themselves dancing to the #RedWineChallenge in exchange for gift cards and more Black Friday working hours. Three things went wrong here:
- Out-of-touch content
TikTok users are smarter than companies may think. If they see employees dancing to a new trend, they are going to immediately see through the post as an unauthentic copy and paste approach by head office. Instead, companies should encourage employees who have been approved for influencing to create unique content related to their everyday job instead of completely unrelated trends. This is more genuine and something the audience wants to see more of.
- Insensitive rewards
GameStop took the offer down after employees began criticising the insensitive nature of the benefits they provided - giving workers more hours based on their social media engagement. This turned out to be a bit too much like a Black Mirror episode for some. Employees should always be treated with respect and humility, don’t let the temptation of viral influencer marketing get in the way of that.
- Quantity over quality
While the intention to cash in on TikTok trends made sense on paper, without actively engaging pre-approved employees and themes of branded creative content, TikTok users would instead see low-effort branded posts en masse. It seems there wasn’t enough time before GameStop took down their offer to see this issue surface entirely, however, the best approach is to always give influencers as much creative freedom as possible to direct their social media posts, as this is when truly creative and engaging content will emerge.
How to get started with an employee influencer program
So, from these case studies, what seems to be the best model we know of right now? Well, here is our recommendation if you want to get started with employee influencer marketing:
Policies, guidelines and contracts
Create an employee influencer social media policy, guideline and updated employee contract clauses on top of existing social media policies and guidelines for standard employees:
- This can be a separate document or included in existing policies and guidelines.
- Policies should set out any additional employee and employer obligations on social media involving the company, its brand, employees, activities and IP.
- Try to avoid any unreasonable policy requirements such as moderating posts.
- Policies are a source of truth that employees can refer to, so make sure they are easily understandable and readable.
- Guidelines should help employees understand what the company’s overall social media strategy is, including goals such as increased awareness about new products, or driving repeat business.
- Your employment contract should include a section for the employee influencer program, stating that it is updated frequently and sets out consequences for employees who do not adhere to related policies.
Employee influencer program
Create an opt-in employee influencer program
Provide a limited number of spots initially to avoid oversaturating social media and to test the waters. You can scale the program over time, but always ensure quality is maintained over quantity. Additionally, create an approval process to align brand expectations with the employee, this would include:
- A thorough vetting of their online presence (with their consent).
- An understanding of the type of content they intend to release, including tone and humour.
- Training, based upon the employee influencer social media policy and guidelines.
- A trial period so that either party can decide to back out.
Create a formal rewards program, this can include remuneration and other employee benefits (just don’t make the same mistake as GameStop as displayed above). Rewards can be tied to metrics, but be careful of encouraging unscrupulous behaviour when metrics are involved. It is best to start small when onboarding employees to an influencer program, such as providing gift cards per post.
Lastly, put a management platform and framework in place for approving posts, tracking posts, engagement and ensuring employees follow policies and guidelines.
Remember, this is an opportunity to open up new avenues for authentic, engaging content. You want employee influencers like Liam, the Woolworths TikToker; in touch with your target market, genuine and funny. This is not a mandatory program, nor a blind pragmatic approach to subliminal marketing - don’t be like GameStop, please. And always, ensure quality over quantity. Good luck!
Whether you are looking to employ a growth marketing strategy or are just interested in some nerdy marketing speak like this article, we can help. At Futuremade, a very human, Sydney based independent digital agency.