Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Social Media and Your Most Important Customers: Your Employees

There has been so much attention of social media for marketing purposes that there is a risk we may overlook the profound impact social media may have within our organizations. Certainly using social media to create stronger relationships with customers should be a goal, but what about creating stronger bonds with employees? With social media demanding more transparency and with the potential for employees to be communicating to larger groups of stakeholders, there has never been a greater need to ensure your employees are your most loyal customers.

Customers and prospects aren't the only ones talking about your brand and organization on social media sites; once they head home, your employees are also sharing information, observations, and feelings. What they're saying online may be read by potential job candidates, prospects, customers, vendors, and coworkers. The same Web 2.0 tools that create relationships can also be used to weaken them, so the role of social media in the employer-employee dynamic must not be overlooked.

What does the enterprise need to consider with respect to social media and its employees? Here are some good places to start:
  • Revisit employee communication guidelines: One of the ways brands will stumble in the new Web 2.0 world is by failing to inform employees what is and isn't permitted. If in the past 18 months you haven't taken a fresh look at your communication guidelines--and made sure every employee understands them--it's time to review and update your policies.

    As you study how your Communication Policy must be updated for 2008, consider the entire breadth of social media tools and information transfers that can occur between your employees and other stakeholders. Don't just give attention to what happens during work hours, but also contemplate the ways your employees may be altering perception of your brand with their personal use of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums, and the like.

    What sort of information can employees share? Can they mention their employer online? Can they share compliments? Criticisms? And what will happen if the policy is violated? Employers and employees must share a common understanding to avoid social media missteps.

  • Consider what Social Media's openness means to employee relations: Even the most detailed communications policy cannot prevent employees from communicating any and all complaints and criticisms to others. Of course, we always knew that no employee handbook rule would stop people from commiserating about their employer with peers and friends, but while it was only a mild worry to know this sort of sharing was occurring among a couple people at a time, it's a very different concern today when an employee can gripe to hundreds of followers on Twitter.

    While it may seem the appropriate response to these risks is to clamp down on all public discourse by employees, employers need to understand that a new openness is the rule among younger employees and social media users. Organizations have the right and obligation to set policies around employee communications, but the best defense is a good offense. Giving employees reason to brag rather than complain is the best way to prevent inappropriate employee communications and to manage your employer brand in the Web 2.0 world.

  • Give employees an outlet: Most companies already maintain ways for employees to share their concerns and ideas, but it may be wise to consider if your organization is doing enough. Providing the appropriate feedback mechanisms within your organization lessens the chances employees will voice their concerns via external social media sites. I know of several large organizations that have borrowed from Web 2.0 tactics and created open forums for employee feedback.

    How concerned should you be about discontented employees taking their frustrations outside the organization? Those in the tech field will fondly (or not) remember F#ckedCompany.com, which became the bane of many dot-com startups due to the negative and confidential information that was routinely disclosed by employees.

    That site is now a footnote of the dot-bomb era, but new sites are springing up to give employees a place to share. For example, GlassDoor.com, a social media site that provides "an inside look at companies from those who know them best," encourages people to share salary information, perceptions of their employer's management, and their feelings about their employer.

    You could (and perhaps should) block this site at the corporate firewall, but that won't stop employees from participating on GlassDoor or other online forums in their spare time. Rather than strive (and fail) to control your employees' outside activities, create the sort of employment environment that permits and rewards sharing, and you will reduce the impetus employees may feel to take gripes outside the organization.

  • If you're doing things right, help employees brag: Employers might consider the same viral marketing tactics for employees as for customers. In the same way that many brands seek to turn loyal customers into brand promoters in social media, the same can be done with energized employees. Of course, this requires you have highly engaged and motivated employees, but if your organization has succeeded in creating raving fans within the workforce, why not leverage this as a social media asset?

    Zappos shows how this might be done--check out the Inside Zappos blog where employees give a peak into the working environment at the world-famous footwear retailer. It's easy to get a sense of the kind of workplace Zappos offers while reading about Fried Bologna Friday or how Jonathan kills exotic blue snakes in the name of fashion.

    A Zappos program aimed at consumers could also be leveraged by great employers. The "I heart Zappos" campaign provides customers with code they may use to place a Zappos badge on their Web site, Facebook profile, or blog. This badge declares the site owner's love for Zappos and creates a link back to the Zappos Web site. How might the impression of your organization be improved in the employment marketplace if your workers extolled the virtues of the organization in the same manner?
Social Media will have a significant impact on more than just marketing. Employers cannot ignore that the same changes occurring in the communications channels with consumers will also be happening with employees. In an age of greater transparency, the more dedicated, informed, and enthusiastic your workforce, the better the experiences created for customers and the stronger the brand.


joshjs said...

You might consider a post on the positive effects this sort of thing can have on recruiting.

Augie Ray said...

That's a great idea Josh--I wonder if anyone is publishing numbers on recruiting and retention in relation to social media. I doubt it, but I'll go hunting.