Building an authentic brand that people connect with is the pinnacle of achievement for any business leader. Good leaders know that if you build it from the inside out, you will reap the rewards. Employee advocacy is exceptionally powerful, technically free, and has significant cultural gains, too. The potential of this, however, often goes unseen or is misunderstood within organisations.
"Advocacy isn’t built overnight. For it to flourish, it takes leaders, internal communications and HR teams to listen and learn together; creating a culture of strong delivery and trust".
Skimmed over as another misapplied business buzzword, if you miss the opportunities active employee advocacy brings, prepare to forfeit untapped revenue and your chance to build a more purposeful culture.
What do we mean by advocacy?
If you take the view that employee advocacy is a relatively passive exercise – the act of asking reluctant colleagues to share work updates on social media – then you’ll find limited success.
True advocacy is driven by autonomy, born from a deep sense of trust, appreciation and shared values. It’s about the people who live and breathe the brand. So those who offer that advocacy freely, rather than those we urge into doing it, adopt a sense of ownership and proactivity that spans far beyond recruitment or marketing.
Advocacy isn’t built overnight, however. For it to flourish, it takes leaders, internal communications and HR teams to listen and learn together; creating a culture of strong delivery and trust. It can seem like a lot of work for something difficult to measure and seemingly intangible, but the rewards are worth the investment.
To build a stronger case in the boardroom for prioritising employee advocacy, we need to understand its far-reaching implications, and the business areas it has the potential to uplift.
Strategies to unlock employee advocacy -
1. People and culture – attracting and keeping hold of the strongest talent
Proud colleagues who recognise and share their appreciation for their employer are willing – and able – to actively promote the business as a great place to work. Acting as influencers, they help attract and retain the best talent.
Many existing case studies, such as this one from Sky, focus almost exclusively on this angle. Bringing in better quality hires alone can seem like enough of a benefit, but showcasing a great place to work is just one aspect.
As vehement believers in your mission, vision and strategy, these influencers play a key role helping the business be a great place to work in the first place, shaping strong internal culture. Given permission and authority, they can help build and preserve an environment where people want to join and, crucially, stay.
2. Products and services – an army of authentic marketeers
Employee advocacy can create a legion of authentic brand ambassadors that money just can’t buy. When we’re given the ‘inside track’ by people who know how their business works and still choose to use its services, it tells us a lot about trust and quality. Personal endorsement can prove more powerful than brand-led marketing alone.
When slick brand messaging hits us in every social scroll, authenticity influences whom we choose to buy products and services from. A huge 83% of people surveyed trust a recommendation from family or friends more than advertising. According to research featured by Cisco, just 135 solid brand advocates have the same reach and influence as one million Facebook fans.
Viewed this way, employee advocacy isn’t just about increasing sales; it’s about creating a deeper, long-term relationship between your business and your customers, through a more authentic voice.
Strengthen this by empowering your people to get involved in new product development and testing. Feeling invested in something’s creation leads to a much deeper affiliation.
3. Operations and culture – finding opportunities for improvement
Whether or not they’re in explicit leadership positions, advocates naturally become leaders, influencers, and drivers of change.
These ambassadors share a sense of ownership in the organisation. As genuine believers, they feel the incumbent is on them to identify, explore and mitigate the things that stop them and colleagues being at their best every day.
Your advocates can tremendously improve how you get things done in a way that feels aligned to your strategy and true to your values – that’s if you give them the safe space to do so. Many businesses encourage good suggestions, rewarding and recognising those who take part to inspire others. Some take a more organic approach, making changes locally, owned and directed by individual teams. Either way, if you make changes based on their suggestions without too much process getting in the way, you’ll reap the rewards and they’ll feel valued and heard.
4. Building the brand – a shared purpose
The people who live and breathe your values are the personification of your brand. They’re the ones actively involved in workplace socials and community initiatives. They do this because it feels natural and reinforces their own sense of purpose.
A quick look at your uptake in volunteering hours or match funding incentives will speak volumes about the strength of your culture – and how employees are or are not advocates of it. If they are not, either your brand values are not speaking to them, or there is a mismatch between these values and their own.
What’s getting in the way?
With all this untapped power, why don’t businesses invest more in understanding, building and strengthening employee advocacy? Why do some organisations report exceptionally high sentiment, yet see little action?
One factor is limited understanding and recognition of what employee advocacy truly is and how far it reaches. If leaders understood its potential value, they would surely create the mandate and mechanics to let advocacy build and flourish.
So, does your leadership team get it? Do your people trust them? Do your leaders give people the room and flexibility to learn, grow, and develop? Do they allow people to be personally invested in your organisation? If not, think about why not.
Practical blockers can hamper efforts. For example, your organisation may have restrictive social media policies. Creating a framework where people feel comfortable to share how they feel for both internal and external purposes will be the key.
Perhaps it’s deeper rooted than that. Perhaps your culture is too rigid and hierarchical for people to have a sense of freedom, permission, and ownership to speak up. It’s worth reviewing to see if it promotes, supports and equips the potential for all of your people to be advocates.
How a business treats its people can lead to advocacy, apathy or anarchy – you only have to look at the events of the past few months to come to a stark conclusion on who’s winning and losing brand advocacy. There’s a truly transformative power hidden among your people – now’s the time to get to grips with it.
Are you creating a better culture for your organisation and its people?
HRZone has recently launched Culture Pioneers to support and celebrate the people practitioners dedicated to transforming company culture in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. If you're doing good work in this area, we want to hear your story!
About the author
Perry Timms is the Founder & Chief Energy Officer of PTHR, with 30+ yrs experience in people, learning, technology, organisation change & transformation. His personal mission is to see more people flourish through their work, and help shift organizations as a force for societal good (not just profit machines). PTHR's mission is defined as "Better Business for a Better World". In October 2017, his first book, Transformational HR - was published by Kogan Page and the Energized Workplace published in August 2020. He was an extremely proud new entrant to the list of HR Most Influential Thinkers for 2017 and again in 2018 + 2019 (in the top 10 both years).