Ah, employee advocacy.

It’s one of the hot topics among marketers these days, often billed as a critical tactic to combat the algorithms that downplay organic content when you don’t want to spend the money to supplement content with paid promotion.

But as Inigo Montoya would say:

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Employee advocacy IS:

  • Powerful and meaningful when done well
  • Loaded with potential that hasn’t been truly tapped
  • An investment you have to make for the long term

But let’s first talk about a few things that it is not.

The role of technology

The last three years has seen quite an influx of technologies and tools designed for employee advocacy. In many cases (and full disclosure, that includes Elevate, the solution proffered by my employer LinkedIn), they’re designed to be mobile applications – some with accompanying desktop versions – that help facilitate the process of sharing content through employees’ social networks to signal boost it.

That’s a hugely important thing; making content easy to find, easy to curate and easy to share is a core component of an employee advocacy program.

The mistake most companies make, however, is believing that the action itself is the sum total of employee advocacy. And then they wonder why they have trouble getting traction for their programs.

But employee advocacy is not just a marketing tactic. Neither is it a shortcut to game social network content algorithms. And it’s most definitely not easy.

What’s missing

I’ve worked with a lot of companies on their employee advocacy initiatives, and many of them look similar:

  • Corporate marketing teams collect and curate a bunch of content, most of it from the corporate arsenal, and they push it to the aforementioned technologies for employees to access and share.
  • Employees get a link to an app to download and they’re encouraged to find and share content…but that’s where things start and end.
  • A handful of employees are self-motivated or passionate enough to both recommend and share content, but most of their updates look and read the same and they’re not tied to much of anything else.
  • Marketing teams are frustrated because they aren’t seeing the results they want, and employees aren’t particularly invested in the program so adoption and participation wanes as time goes by.

The biggest problem is or should be a familiar one to most marketers: leading with the tactic instead of the strategy, and missing the larger purpose of something like employee advocacy in favor of gaining eyeballs, clicks, or shares to make the dashboard look good.

So let’s figure out what we can do to make these programs really sing.

What we need to add

At it’s best, true employee advocacy is borne out of a team member’s sincere enthusiasm and passion for their work, their company, and the culture represented there. They’re outspoken about what they love, devoted to surfacing the things that need improvement, and they’re active and vocal parts of shaping the organization that they want to have through their actions.

Most true employee advocates are engaged internally as well as being visible, vocal evangelists for the company externally — and often without prompting. They do it because they love it, not because someone told them to.

That’s a tall order, but when it’s right, that’s what it looks like. Unfortunately for many of us, our employee advocacy programs are merely a shadow of that sort of unbridled enthusiasm and voluntary engagement, instead looking to our employees to be marketing megaphones and amplifiers of messages without a whole lot of the cultural support that makes these programs really shine.

When it works, employee advocates need:

Purpose: Something to hitch their star to in the company that is a reflection of themselves, whether that’s a segment of customers, a cultural value, a specific solution that they believe is changing the game (or the world). But it has to be something they have a connection to that feels bigger than themselves.

Empowerment: Philosophically, employee advocates need to feel like their voices are not just allowed, but are welcomed by both leaders and peers alike. This can look like seeing their own suggestions in action, having their advocacy work recognized in more formal review processes, or simply being part of larger conversations about employee engagement and involvement in the shape and direction of the company.

Tools: Yes, this includes technology, but more broadly means having the things they need to use their voice and their influence on the company’s behalf. Maybe that’s budget for a small program, or resources to tackle a passion project, or a platform to write, share or get involved in more tactical ways.

And they need great raw material in the first place: a company that’s invested in creating an excellent, meaningful and employee-driven place to work. It’s hard to foster advocacy for something that people don’t believe in in the first place. If you don’t have that part right, an advocacy initiative probably shouldn’t be the first thing on your priority list.

Marketing is the outcome, not the goal

Looking carefully at all of the above, the act of getting employees to fuel the content and digital marketing engine for the company becomes the net result of doing a lot of the other things rather than the goal in itself.

Employees – just like your prospective customers – don’t want to feel like they’re being used as a mouthpiece, or feel as though they’re just checking a box to help some marketing goal that they’re not personally connected to. It’s why you find so many employee advocacy programs today driven largely by marketers themselves; they’re closer to the problem and more personally invested in the goals and outcomes, so it’s easier for them to find the motivation and enthusiasm to participate. It gets harder the more distant you are from that business objective.

So what we need to do is ask ourselves how we are fostering advocacy for our companies overall, and then using tools and tactics like social and digital sharing as but one lever to enable for people who want to do it.

Influencer marketing works similarly; after all, these are the “influencers” in your own ranks. And it’s often worth starting small to find the people who truly have the interest and enthusiasm, and working with them to organically build something bigger over time. Your best advocates are the ones who volunteer, and even if they’re fewer in number, they’ll make up for it in impact, in peer credibility, and in the long-term success of the programs.

Like many things worth doing in business, employee advocacy doesn’t come with a lot of shortcuts.

But if we can think bigger, broader and more strategically about what we’re doing so that our advocates and evangelists are the natural product of the investment we’re making in our company, everybody wins, and the marketing part will largely take care of itself.