Personal branding has been rapidly increasing over the past few years. In line with this, there is a new personal branding trend on the horizon for 2023, and that’s the rise of the employee influencer.
Employee influencing works best when the employee takes a “vested interest” in their own social media presence
What is an employee influencer?
An employee influencer is a member of staff who intentionally builds their personal brand, outside of their day job, and leverages this brand to influence and increase the impact of their work in their employment.
Not quite the advocate…
The employee influencer is a slight departure from the more familiar corporate term of employee advocate.
Whilst the employee advocate serves primarily to promote and support their company brand, the employee influencer seeks to contribute to the wider topic their role represents, rather than just the job itself.
In light of this, the employee influencer is:
- Intentional about building their personal brand
- Externally focused (they love their job, yes, but they recognise that the vision or cause they’re championing relates to the wider world at large, not just their day job)
- Able to leverage their personal brand to produce direct business results for the organisation they work for
According to Anita Veszeli, Director of Social Media and Advocacy at Ericsson, employees are naturally the best influencers for an organisation and should be used in this process.
“People trust people,” she said. “The power of 50,000 employees is so much bigger than trying to build up a base where you compete with other brands. Your employees are already super talented and knowledgeable, so why not partner with them to promote your brand?”
A shift in perception
Anita has been working to harness the power of employees on social media for several years now. For her, it’s important for companies to shift the way they see employees – less as company advocates and more as independent influencers.
“Employers need to shift from this outdated view of employee advocacy and into seeing employees as content creators and thought leaders,” she explained. “Your employees are not your ‘channels’, they are human beings. We need to talk about employees as Creators – people who use their own voice and words to break down PR and corporate content to serve their audience.”
This is something that Hannah Maher, Digital Product Owner and Content Manager at BT, agrees with. “The stuff that performs the best on social media is when it’s the employee’s personal experience – the human stuff. It’s important for organisations to empower their people online, rather than take control of their accounts.”
Hannah and her team first started working with employee influencers because they had a real business need they were trying to solve at the time.
“We discovered, through research, that our competitors were gaining the advantage over us because their employees were closer to C-suite on social media than we were. We decided to address this by shifting more of the budget from press to digital, and engaging more employees on social media, initially from within the senior leadership team.”
They have since learnt that employee influencing works best when the employee takes a “vested interest” in their own social media presence.
“As BT is a very large organisation, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to this,” said Hannah. “It’s important to get the balance right between influencing senior leaders and working with those who are already really interested in [becoming employee influencers] within the business.”
If you’re going to successfully use or encourage employee influencers in your organisation, trust and autonomy are key
Legal implications of employee influencers
If you hop over to a platform like LinkedIn, it won’t take long to notice the growing number of employee influencers creating content and building sizeable followings. Some examples include Recruiter, Stella Leaburn, Charity CEO, Monwara Ali, Diversity & Inclusion champion, Hannah Awonuga, and Senior Banking Manager, Deborah Matheson.
Whilst there are unique opportunities for companies – and the employees themselves – in leveraging professional platforms like LinkedIn for engaging with and influencing customers and clients, Vimala Thangaveloo, a Senior In-House Counsel, adds a word of caution.
“The [positive] possibilities are endless, but there are some things to be aware of due to the very public nature of a platform like LinkedIn,” she said. “There can be risks in posting – for example, reputational risk, leak of confidential information and breaches of law. Addressing these risks upfront can go a long way to mitigating them.”
Vimala suggests that companies develop a set of social media principles that covers both business and personal use of social media by staff, as a way of providing safe boundaries for everyone involved.
This is something Anita identifies and agrees with. “Instead of banning all social media, through fear, we created guidance for employees that focused on education. We provided examples: best practice and worst-case scenarios, e-learning materials, masterclasses, one-to-one coaching and so on. We treated our staff like adults.”
Top tips to encourage your employees to become influencers
If you’re going to successfully use or encourage employee influencers in your organisation, trust and autonomy are key. In addition, here are three top tips to also consider:
1) Model it in your senior leadership
It’s not enough to just encourage staff to be visible on platforms like LinkedIn, you have to model it by getting senior leaders involved in leading the way, as noted by Hannah.
This provides a much better green light signal to the rest of the organisation than any colourful brochure your communications department can produce. This will give your employee influencers the permission they need to do what they already want to do.
On that note…
2) De-regulate the corporate brand from the communications team
You don’t need to fire your communications team, but it’s important to recognise that building the corporate brand on social media should not be seen as a ‘comms activity’. The whole organisation must buy into it in order for it to work. Your employee influencers can lead the way in this process.
Admittedly this idea can be scary for organisations to embrace because of the perceived loss of control, something Ericssonhase had to overcome in their own process.
“When you give this freedom to employees, your messaging might not be the same as the PR messages and that’s really frightening for brands,” said Anita. “But companies need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and know that mistakes can and will be made.”
3) Openly recognise and celebrate influencers
You get more of the behaviour you celebrate, so if more employee influencers are what you want, openly celebrate those team members who are already active on social media. Value your existing employee influencers and it’ll be easier to create more of them.
Looking to the future
As for what the future holds, 2023 seems set to be the year of employee influencers, whether the workplace is ready for it or not.
“I would love for us to get to the place where businesses are more comfortable to let go of control and let people create their own content,” said Hannah. “Content where the employees are more in control of the conversation, rather than it being company-led.”
For Anita, the speed of how companies adapt to the changing environment is going to be really crucial in the coming years:
“If companies can shift some of their existing budget to support the employees who want to create content and allocate say, a tenth of the advertising budget to it, that could mean a lot more impact for the companies, including in retaining talent,” she said. “It also means future employees get to see the organisation as a space they would like to work. I see this as a smart move for brands.”