Influencing direction

Source: Hays Journal Issue 17 - click here for more information and to get your free copy

While most businesses agree that staff can be the strongest brand ambassadors, using them as such can be a challenge. Some organisations are now appointing ‘internal influencers’ to engage with staff, promote new ways of working and help to attract new talent.

Today, many people associate the word ‘influencer’ with social media – people with hundreds of thousands of followers who can make or break a brand just by posting one photo. Increasingly, however, organisations are realising that they can harness the influence of their own employees.

Given that traditional marketing can be perceived as ‘being sold to’, a message coming from a happy, engaged employee can seem more authentic. In fact, non-branded messages are shared 24 times more frequently than those shared by official company channels, according to communications company MSL Group. One of the areas where harnessing the power of internal influencers can be most powerful when facing external audiences is recruitment. “It’s a missed trick if companies don’t realise that their most powerful branding tool is their employees,” says Craig Hunter, Sourcing Director for EMEA at American Express.

Jo Crellin, from PR and social media company spottydog communications, runs employee social media channels for clients including Mitchells & Butlers, one of the UK’s biggest pub chains. She uses a ‘cascade plan’ that she shares with the company’s recruitment team so there is a schedule for what employees share across their personal and professional networks (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter). “This means the story is drip-fed over a sustained time period without any clashes,” she explains. Enlisting the social media power of employees has led to increased awareness of vacancies at the company and a growth in applications.

According to workforce communications company SocialChorus, employees have on average 10 times more social connections than a brand does. They’re often prolific social sharers; PR company Weber Shandwick estimates that 98 per cent of employees use at least one social networking site, and 50 per cent of those people post about where they work. By encouraging them to share positive stories about your brand, these influencers can amplify your investment in employer branding and recruitment advertising.

Claudia Varela Herrera, a marketing and diversity expert based in Colombia, has seen this manifest itself in a number of ways. She says: “Small companies, often with millennials as CEOs, like to show employees as influencers with different profiles that match perfectly with the company. Another trend is to position the company’s values using leading women as role models. In that way, they enhance their leader’s personal brand while taking advantage of their image endorsement and boost to their reputation.”

While your internal influencers showcase the positive employee experiences, businesses can also recruit employees to become impactful brand ambassadors; the key difference is that the latter’s message is much more externally focused and customer-facing. Good brand ambassadors can be a source of honest reviews of your products – buyers trust reviews from family and friends over ‘traditional’ advertising because they feel they are more authentic.

US department store Macy’s, for example, recently launched an initiative called Macy’s Style Crew with 20 employee ambassadors who would post pictures of themselves on social media wearing the store’s merchandise. This has grown to more than 400 employees actively sharing their photos across channels such as Snapchat and Instagram. The workers have built up a loyal following and Macy’s has reduced the amount it spends on external marketing.

Ready to engage

Influencers can be strong advocates for an organisation internally too. They can fire up engagement among teams and help to push through change where employees may fear it.

The University of Glasgow in Scotland has recently embarked on a transformation programme aimed at helping the institution respond to the uncertain future that higher education in the UK is entering. This includes redesigning how the university offers assessment and feedback, and updating support services that enable academics to undertake teaching and research. As part of the ‘World-Changing Glasgow Transformation Programme’, it appointed Chris Green as its first Chief Transformation Officer in April 2018.

He is in the process of building a network of staff and students who he hopes will embed this change. “We’re building a network of people who will challenge the status quo and who are curious about how people and institutions do things,” he explains. Everyone from the staff and student body is encouraged to join so that there is a range of different people and experiences.

The network is currently comprised of around 140 people, but the intention is to grow this to 300 or 400. “There are 8,500 employees at Glasgow and we can’t talk to all of them. We need our community to design, embed and deliver the change as well as let us know if we’re doing anything wrong,” Green adds. The network leaders send out a monthly bulletin containing an overview of change projects and there are regular face-to-face engagement sessions on particular initiatives, as well as how to manage projects and deal with change. In order to build influencers’ networking skills, the university set up randomised coffee meets with others in the change network so they could share insights.

Direct influence

One of the characteristics of Glasgow’s change programme is that the vision comes from the very top of the organisation, but the influence spreads from the bottom up. Vicky Williams, People Director, HR and Development at the UK’s LTA, Tennis For Britain, talks about internal influence as a process of “osmosis”. When she joined the organisation in 2013, she drove the development of a set of four values (and associated behaviours) expected of the organisation’s employees and the 25,000-plus volunteers who are involved in grassroots tennis around the country.

Because employees and volunteers had a role in coming up with the values and in driving internal change, they have been easier to embed into the culture. “If values are initiated by a set of consultants, they’re not truly owned by the people. It can be top-down led, but it needs to be initiated from the bottom up,” she says. “We try to catch people doing good things.” One of the simple ways the organisation does this is by sharing recognition postcards with employees who have done something that embodies the LTA’s values. Their colleagues see these behaviours in action and the influence spreads. Since the values were launched, both volunteer and employee satisfaction (as measured in employee engagement surveys) has increased, says Williams.

To identify internal influencers, it pays to look beyond the senior leadership team, argues Jenny Perkins from leadership consultancy Cirrus, who has worked with clients such as Tesco Bank and Marks & Spencer on building engagement.

“It’s crucial for senior leaders to be role models for your brand values, but organisations should also identify and encourage others to become brand ambassadors,” she says.

“When I’m working with a client on an engagement programme, we always work together to create a network of influencers – if you communicate your goals effectively and invite people to get involved, it’s likely that you won’t be short of volunteers.”And don’t overlook those who may be sceptical of what you’re trying to achieve, she adds. “People who may be cynical and disengaged to begin with and who subsequently become enthusiasts also make wonderful ambassadors – they are particularly good at engaging other cynics.”

Authenticity matters

Crucially, organisations must give influencers the freedom to speak freely with colleagues, as the more authentic they are, the more likely others are to trust their opinion. Perkins says: “Ensure that your influencers understand your business goals, but don’t expect them to communicate using ‘corporate-speak’. If they can engage people using methods that are close to their own hearts, they are more likely to enthuse and spread excitement.”

This can take on an unexpected form – at one company Perkins worked with, influencers from different parts of the organisation who had never met before formed a choir through their own initiative. “The choir initiated a ‘disruption’ activity by singing about a key message outside the canteen,” she says. “They also performed for the board and became widely respected across the organisation.”

A good network of internal influencers can also help to spread the brand message outside of the business. This can be as simple as leaving reviews on careers site Glassdoor or sharing new roles across their personal social networks.

Simone Weber-Korol, Head of Global Human Resources at chemical company BASF, says: “Employees are our strongest brand ambassadors, and from a recruiting perspective they are also our strongest and most influencing ‘channel’. Their talent recommendations mostly fit best, not only from a technical and educational perspective, but also culturally.”

Carl Hoffmann, CEO of Talentry (a software platform for employee referrals), agrees and notes that organisations can leverage this, even without formal programmes, by identifying which employees tend to be vocal about the company or have referred someone to the company. “Those contacts are most likely happy employees who act as brand ambassadors in their time at work, but also in private, when meeting people or on social media,” he says.

And if there are concerns that one group of influential individuals will simply attract the attention of similar people, ensure that your network of influencers is itself made up of people with different roles and interests, advises Susy Roberts, executive coach and founder at Hunter Roberts. “A diverse group of influencers will target an equally diverse group. The content they share can demonstrate which values are lived in their company,” she says.

“Satisfied employees lead to a healthy corporate culture and vice versa,” adds Hoffmann. “Ultimately, this equilibrium is what wins awards and good reviews on platforms like Glassdoor. Such awards will be communicated by your employees who act as influencers. And that will attract new talent.” Whether the goal is to promote your employer brand, boost engagement or embed a major change, a team of champions could be the best tool at your disposal.