She was demonstrating how to make her favorite drink. But this wasn’t Darden’s after-work hobby — it was her day job as a Dunkin’ employee.
Darden had recently been enlisted by her employer as a “crew ambassador,” meaning she was given approval to post behind-the-scenes videos of her work at Dunkin’ on her own social channels — not as an official company spokesperson, but as a regular employee authentically sharing life inside the company.
This initiative by Dunkin’ isn’t an outlier. It’s one of many examples of companies, ranging from Dell to Zappos, deputizing their workers as mini influencers in an increasingly popular marketing move known as employee advocacy.
What Is Employee Advocacy?
Employee advocacy isn’t limited to cool consumer companies staffed with wannabe TikTok influencers either. Spend five minutes on your LinkedIn feed and you’ll likely encounter the pleated-pants version of this strategy, whether you consciously realize it or not.
In fact, one Gartner analyst predicted that by next year, 90 percent of B2B social media marketing strategies will include scaled employee advocacy programs.
The reason is simple: Employee advocacy works.
What Is Employee Advocacy?
Employee advocacy is where individual workers promote their organization on their personal social media channels. As a result, positive word of mouth is spread more authentically than buttoned-up brand accounts ever could, letting brands gain meaningful exposure that rises above the din of social media and, in some cases, generates new business as a result.
The concept of employee advocacy has been around for decades, at conferences and networking events where professionals get to know each other and share what their companies are up to.
But with the emergence of social media in the past decade — along with the scarcity of in-person events during the past two years of the pandemic — employee advocacy mostly takes place online, in places like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.
In this new landscape, regular employees can become online thought leaders and influencers, which is easier for companies to track and encourage. Companies scaling up these efforts often rely on software that allows employees to click and share marketing-generated content or submit their own for company approval.
Employees participate in these programs because they are often incentivized with rewards or recognition, or because they find it easier to build their own personal brands using the support and credibility of their employer.
Companies like employee advocacy programs because it amplifies their brand reach and allows them to leverage the trustworthiness of their workers, which boosts their ability to attract new business and talent.
People Trust People, Not Logos
But they listen to friends, acquaintances and industry peers. Even when it comes to brunch or salon recommendations, the online opinions of strangers is more trustworthy than a big brand-name company.
Something about listening to another individual’s personal experience — or seeing an article shared by someone’s personal account, rather than that of a faceless corporate one — causes savvy and skeptical consumers to put their guards down.
“People trust people — influencers, communities, experts and also employees,” Anita Veszeli, director of social media and advocacy at Ericsson, told Built In.
That’s the logic that animates influencer marketing — and it’s what makes employee advocacy work so well too.
Employee Advocacy Attracts New Business
The peer-to-peer trust of employee advocacy paves the way for improved brand awareness and esteem in the eyes of prospective customers, which down the road can help the bottom line.
On The Internal Marketing Podcast, Chris Walker, CEO of Refine Labs, credited much of his agency’s explosive revenue growth to the content he and his employees share on their personal LinkedIn channels.
“As people at our company start to get recognized in the industry for also being smart, it … creates a massive brand halo for us,” Walker said.
“The impact is high … dramatically accelerating customer acquisition,” he added. “The caliber of companies continues to get much better, the acquisition of talent continues to get much better, [and] the overall employee happiness of the company continues to get better.”
One researcher has found this to be a common sentiment. Peter Thelen, a professor at San Diego State University, interviewed professionals who were part of employee advocacy programs for a study published in Public Relations Review. He was told by one tech worker that “it is inarguable that we’re beginning to see real business dollars and sustained success that are attributed to employee advocacy.”
And nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of companies with employee advocacy programs reported it helped them land new business, according to Hinge Research Institute and Social Media Today’s online survey, which polled 588 participants.
Companies Can Harness the Power of Employees’ Networks
Imagine a company with 10,000 social media followers.
Now imagine the same company with 200 employees, each of whom has an average of 500 social media followers.
Employees in this example have 10 times the social reach of their company. And that’s just sheer volume. Once you factor in the trust that each employee has garnered with their followers, the difference becomes even more substantial.
So it’s little wonder why companies are eager to harness the power of their employees’ networks — promotional messages disseminated through an internal influencer army will travel farther and wider, and are much more likely to make an impact.
“There’s a lot of noise on social, whether you’re posting organically or through paid media,” Brayden Cohen, social marketing and employee advocacy lead at Hootsuite, told Built In. “Instead of doing this, you could tap into the network of your employees.”
“B2B is always in this struggle of ‘How do we reach our target clients?’ And it’s very expensive to try to do that through paid channels,” Jill Inglis, a marketing strategy consultant, told Built In. “Oftentimes your employees will be more engaged with your target clients than your own company is.”
Employee Advocacy Benefits Workers, Too
Employees also get something out of this arrangement, beyond monetary incentives or kudos from the communications team. They are often given a steady stream of content to post to their own channels, along with coaching and guidance on how to level up their social media presence, bolstering their personal platforms in the process.
“We are enabling and helping our employees build their own thought-leadership muscles and their own personal brand,” Hootsuite’s Cohen said. “We’re creating content on their behalf — all they need to do is click a button and share to their Twitter or LinkedIn channel. And their audience is going to be like, ‘Oh, look at a piece of content they just created.’”
Professionals want to stay on the minds of their followers and strengthen their position as thought leaders. This is indispensable when it comes to social selling. Plus, it helps with career advancement.
“When more people know about you, more opportunities find you,” Refine Lab’s Walker said.
That’s why employee advocacy can be a win for ambitious professionals, not just their employers.
Employee Advocacy Works Best as a Sandbox, Not a Cookie Cutter
Many employee advocacy tools provide companies the ability to scale up their programs by allowing workers to opt-in and distribute pre-approved content on the company’s behalf. But some believe this tightly controlled approach often limits the impact employees can make.
“It’s a really great advertisement, but it doesn’t really build trust or engagement with others,” Ericsson’s Veszeli said, noting that more-mature employee advocacy programs encourage workers to create and publish their own content that adds value to customers, not draws attention to the company.
That’s not to say companies should take a totally hands-off approach to employees who want to post on social media. There’s plenty of space between policies that tightly hold the reins and punish creative employees and those that say anything goes when it comes to posting about work on social media.
“You need to create that sandbox,” Veszeli said. “This is where it’s OK to play, these are the rules of engagement.”
Operating within that space, employees “have much more power to build trusted relationships than a branded account.”