[This post is part 1 in a series of posts related to Social Media-Based Brand Ambassadors. This post introduces the concept of social media-enabled brand ambassadors and sets the tone for the series of posts that will follow.]
We’ve heard it hundreds, maybe thousands of times – “Our employees are our greatest asset.” When it comes to business-speak, this phrase has become one of the most overused expressions in the trade. From annual reports to media interviews to company rah-rah events, these words always find a way to make themselves at home. Yet no matter how trite we believe the phrase to be, it is true. There is no denying that in business there is little that can be done without human capital. That’s because regardless of technological advancements or an organization’s name, size, products, or services, people buy from people! This point is especially critical in the post-Occupy Wall Street era where humanity, honesty, and transparency have become the new expectation for business.
Many organizations have known for a long time of the value that is created by employees that evangelize on behalf of the organization. These employees are commonly referred to as brand ambassadors. Research and surveys have repeatedly found that brand ambassadors boost an organization’s reputation resulting in improved profitability. As a result of their excitement, knowledge, loyalty, and commitment to the organization and its products and services, brand ambassadors create excitement and loyalty among customers. As such, brand ambassadors act as incredibly effective influencers. More effective than the best advertising.
An excellent representation of the ideal brand ambassador is “Flo,” the customer service representative in Progressive Insurance commercials. Flo is so effective that current commercials portray her luring to Progressive Insurance executives from a competing insurance company. This is the employee brand ambassador concept at its best. According to a Business Courier article by Ric Sweeney (“Brand Ambassadors’ Give Your Business A Boost”) “All employees, regardless of function or title, are key ambassadors for your company’s products and services. Once motivated by senior management to believe in the company and its products/services, employees can utilize their network of friends and colleagues to grow the company’s circle of influence.”
Author Ronald J. Alsop tells a story in his book, “The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation,” (Free Press, 2004) about Larry Fish, former Chairman and CEO of Citizens Financial Group. Alsop says “Larry Fish is rare among CEOs in that he recognizes the value of employees to corporate reputation and makes them his goodwill ambassadors. It’s the employees who are on the front lines working with customers, suppliers, shareholders, government officials, and other audiences. They must be your loyal allies because their effect on your reputation is immense. They can be your biggest fans or your worst enemies.”
While the characteristics (excited, loyal, and knowledgeable) of the brand ambassadors noted in Alsop’s 2004 book are the very same characteristics that embody today’s brand ambassadors, the manner in which they influence has evolved. Historically, brand ambassadors conducted their influencing activities primarily through face-to-face interactions. These interactions took place at their offices, civic meetings, places of worship, and anywhere else someone was willing to listen to them. Brand ambassadors are successful influencers not because they are great salespeople but because they love what they do and who they do it for. Their ability to influence is the result of their passion – as well as the positive reputation of the organization, product, or service.
While today’s brand ambassadors still possess excitement, loyalty, and knowledge, they are no longer confined to face-to-face activities. Through social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, today’s brand ambassadors can influence a much broader audience. Social media enables brand ambassadors to influence not only their neighbors across the street but also those living across the country and across the world.
Facebook, the 800-pound social media gorilla, boasts over 800 million active users. Active users maintain an average of 130 “friends” on their Facebook social network. Twitter, another dominant social network, maintains over 100 million active users. LinkedIn, the social network of choice for business professionals, maintains over 135 million active users. And these numbers do not reflect the millions of users that belong to other social networks such as YouTube, Google+, Foursquare, MySpace, and hundreds of others. A cadre of social media-enabled brand ambassadors can produce results significantly better than was possible just a few years ago.
According Inc. Magazine blogger Eric Markowitz (“How To Find The Right Employees To Be Your Brand Ambassadors”), “In order to fully realize – and leverage – an employee’s full value, a successful company needs to find creative ways to tap into its employees’ networks (both online and offline). Brand ambassadors, or employee evangelists, are becoming an increasingly common way for brands to leverage their biggest asset – their workforce, of course – to reach new markets, generate buzz, and put a real face on the company.” Schwartz Communications blogger Allison VanNest states on the Schwartz Crossroads blog (“Must Love Snacking: Empowering BrandAmbassadors Through Social Media”) that “Employees are becoming more engaged as company influencers.”
Regardless of the demonstrated value that comes from an excited, loyal, and knowledgeable cadre of employees, there is often a discrepancy between the message delivered by the organization through its marketing efforts and the message delivered by its employees. This discrepancy is the result of the organization’s failure to formally train and deploy its employees as part of the organization’s overall branding strategy. This failure on the part of the organization denies the customer, employee, and organization an opportunity to maximize the benefit received. The customer misses an opportunity to receive the best possible attention. The employee misses the opportunity to play a larger role in the success of the organization. And the organization misses an opportunity to develop a deeper and more valuable relationship with the customer. The organization’s failure also ensures that employees lack the excitement, loyalty, and knowledge necessary to become effective influencers. The negative impact of this failure is compounded when the organization does not make use of the leverage provided by social media platforms.
Logical String blogger Mayank Krishna concludes (“Employees As Brand Ambassadors”) that this failure causes customers and potential customers to question whether “The brand is true to what it is projecting or are there things deeper than what meets the eye?” Krishna attributes the lack of employee influence-ability to the fact that “In a majority of organizations, brand and branding is a domain that is considered the exclusivity of brand managers and marketing managers. For an average employee, brand management doesn’t seem relevant and he/she is hardly aware of the nitty-gritty of the brands and brand management philosophies of his/her organization.”
As such, unless organizations create a formal Social Media-Based Employee Brand Ambassador Program to ensure that employees are well-trained brand evangelists, organizations will lose out on the potential benefit that comes from employees that decide to make it their mission to act as influencers for the organization. A further risk is the competition. To the extent that competitors develop their employees first, the organization puts its business at risk.