Employee ambassador programs: 3 musts and 3 pitfalls

If you want employees to talk up your brand on their social networks, offer training, incentives, and a call to action.


“What are the latest trends in employee engagement?”

As a Chicago Northsider, I hear 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 employees as ambassadors either for the company, its brands, or both.

It’s always nice when the facts support your opinions, and 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: People trust a technical expert within a company more than the CEO.

This highlights an opportunity to recruit, train and equip employee ambassadors to be the faces of a company.

Ambassador programs are hardly new. For decades companies have recruited 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 tap employees to advocate for the company and its brands via their own social networks.

I want to share a couple things we learned from running such programs. We start and end each program with a participant survey. Not only does this help measure the program’s effectiveness, it allows us to ask employees what about the program works—and what doesn’t.

Here are three things employees 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 his employer online. While many companies have social media guidelines, employees tell us 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 their 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. 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, posted links to interesting content, and simply put faces to names.

If networking isn’t enough of an incentive, you might offer 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 freedom to advocate however they choose, but most need more specific guidance.

Give ambassadors easy, defined activities that only take a second: Ask them to retweet a link to an article about your company. Provide a sample email to send congressional representatives 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. Corporate-sounding content

From an employee’s 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 you give content the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” test. Read it aloud, and if it sounds like something you could announce 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 rock stars. Ambassadors are typically volunteers, and they don’t want you to treat them like corporate shills.

3. Asking too much

Set realistic goals for your ambassadors. They’re doing this on top of their day jobs, so it’s unreasonable to ask them to tweet twice a day about all the wonderful things your company does. Keep it real.

Tamara Snyder is a vice president with Edelman Employee Engagement. She blogs at Internal Monologue, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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