Sunday 21 December 2014

3 Keys to a Successful Employee Ambassador Program and 3 Pitfalls to Avoid

This post was originally published on Tamara Snyder’s blog Internal Monologue.

“What are the latest trends in employee engagement?” As a Chicago Northsider, I get that question as often as “when are the Cubs FINALLY going to win?”

I actually have an answer to the engagement question: Increasingly, our clients are asking how they can tap their own employees as ambassadors, either for the company, its brands, or both. It’s always nice when the facts support your opinions, and indeed, the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer uncovered a dramatic increase in the credibility of “average” employees – especially those with technical expertise – as unofficial company spokespeople. (Fun fact: A technical expert within the company’s ranks is now more trusted than the CEO.) This highlights a real opportunity to recruit, train and equip employee ambassadors to be the faces of the company.

Ambassador programs are hardly new. For decades companies have been recruiting employees to hand out brochures at events, volunteer in their communities, share product discounts with friends, etc. But the rising power of social media has breathed new life into such efforts. More and more, we see clients tapping employees to advocate for the company and its brands via their own social networks. I’ll be sharing an in-depth look at one ambassador program when IABC publishes its Gold Quill Award winners next month.
In the meantime, however, I wanted to share a couple things we’ve learned from running such programs. We start and end each of these with a participant survey. Not only does this help measure the program’s effectiveness, it also allows you to ask employees what works – and what doesn’t – about your program.

Here are three things employees have told us make ambassador programs successful:

1. Training on the company’s social media policy.
No one wants to get in trouble for talking about their employer online. While many companies have in place social media guidelines, employees have told us that they’re unsure how to put such policies into practice. As such, they’d rather say nothing at all. Scenario-based training (self-paced or workshop format) that walks employees through real-life situations can build the confidence to start talking about the company via social networks.

2. Interaction with leaders and other ambassadors.
Let’s not kid ourselves: Employees don’t volunteer for ambassador programs out of pure altruism – they expect to get something in return, too. What, exactly? Networking opportunities, for one. While coffee and croissants with the CEO is unlikely in larger organizations, ambassadors appreciate exposure to senior leaders. Furthermore, employees have told us they want to learn from their fellow ambassadors. For one program, we set up a closed ambassador Facebook group, where participants asked each other how to respond to tough questions from the outside world, posted links to interesting content for others to share and simply put faces to names. Of course, if networking isn’t enough of an incentive, you might consider offering something more tangible, like the trip to Las Vegas that inspired this Home Depot employee’s video.

3. Specific calls to action.
Share a great experience you had with one of our brands! is not a call to action.  It’s too general and about as actionable as someone telling you to make some life changes! You might think you’re giving employees the freedom to advocate however they choose, but most need more specific guidance. Give ambassadors easy, defined activities that take only a second: Ask them to retweet a link to an article about your company. Provide a sample email to send congressional reps in support of legislation. Or a product coupon code to share with Facebook friends. Whatever you ask of your ambassadors, make it something they can do quickly, simply and preferably on the spot from their mobile devices.

Conversely, here are three things to avoid with ambassador programs:

1. “Corporatey” content.
From an employees’ perspective, you can’t spell corporate messaging without mess. If you ask ambassadors to share something on Facebook, they won’t do it if it reads like the first line of a press release. My colleague Phil Gomes recommends giving content the “Battle Hymn of the Republic Test”: Read it aloud, and if it sounds like something you’d hear announced over the Battle Hymn of the Republic, rewrite it.

2. A heavy-handed approach.
Motivating ambassadors to participate should be a carrot vs. stick system: Don’t penalize employees who aren’t fully engaged in the program, but do recognize your rockstars. Ambassadors are typically volunteers, and they don’t want to be treated like corporate shills.

3. Asking too much.
Similarly, set realistic goals for your ambassadors. They’re doing this on top of their day jobs, so asking them to tweet about all the wonderful things your company is doing twice a day is unreasonable. Keep it real.

Image credit: Steve Kay

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