Employee advocacy.

In many circles, it’s being billed as the answer – or part of the answer – to the decline in organic reach for content. 

It’s also – quite accurately – framed as a force multiplier for marketing and talent acquisition teams, since the exponential power of employees’ communities and networks is often several orders of magnitude larger than the reach of a brand by itself.

There’s no question that it’s a powerful concept, but of course one of the first questions I, get when the topic comes up is “This is great, but how do I get my employees to participate?”

The short answer: You don’t.

That’s not really helpful, so let me give you the longer version.

One: You don’t “get” them to do anything.

Time and again I see companies try to force this stuff down the throats of their teams – some even mandate it, scarily enough – and end up meeting indifference or resentment, derailing the whole program not just in the short term but in the long term because that fragile initial trust is broken.

You can’t make people become an advocate. You absolutely cannot mandate it. You can only empower those that are already inclined to be one. 

That means starting with a group – however small – of people who actually want to do this on their own volition

Then you have to work with them carefully to hear about what they’re interested in, what motivates them to participate, and demonstrate that you’ll build a program that values those things first.

Build your employee advocacy program with your teams. And let them have a voice.

Two: You recognize – and empower – the human element

The same people that want their employees to become megaphones for the brand are the ones who walk into planning meetings with the CFO and call them “resources”.

Your teams are human beings, with their own motivations and interests and personalities. If you’re looking for people to regurgitate brand messaging verbatim and never flex their own voice and perspective out in the market, you’ve lost before you’ve begun.

They’re not carpenter ants or automatons, they’re human professionals with emotions and minds and souls. You’ve got to give them a reason to believe in what you’re doing, and value the things they bring to the equation. (If you can’t do either of those things, start there before you move a step further). 

Then you have to give them the tools they need to help you do your work and – here’s where the hard part comes in – trust them to do it in a way that’s both authentic to themselves and valuable to the brand.

You need more than technology to build the foundation for that.

Three: You need to create things that they care about.

When employee advocacy works, it’s because the most engaged people share the stuff that resonates with their personal interests, values, and goals.

Sales and marketing people will share product information if it seems to meet a strong need from the customers and prospects they serve and they think it’s truly valuable to helping them create rapport, build trust, and deliver education. Lots of people will share content that reflects a culture and workplace that they actually see themselves in and that they can be proud of.  More still will share interesting industry news or perspectives that gets them thinking, or reflects  (and even challenges) their view of the world, or helps them spark discussions within their own communities.

No one shares the carefully manicured, brand-perfect messages that marketing feeds in a social media template. Or rather they might share it…but that’s where it ends. (And eventually, when 50 employees share the same message across their same social networks, it becomes obvious that it’s a button click more than a belief system.)

Advocacy and repetition are not the same thing. You’ve got to create the stuff that builds interest and connection, not just amplification.

In short: Start with the people.

Today, tools and technology are available to help you put in place the mechanics of an employee advocacy program. Many of them are excellent (and full disclosure, at LinkedIn we have our own, and I like it very much). 

But the most advanced employee advocacy technology in the world is still powered by human beings.

Getting the people-centered foundation built for these initiatives is essential to their long term success. It’s worth the time and investment it takes to get input, collaborate amongst your colleagues, and really get it right from the start. 

It takes more effort, but in the end, you won’t be one of the people that has to ask me why their program is struggling. You’ll be figuring out how to keep up with interest and demand. 

And that’s a very good problem to have.