What the shit is employee branding?

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Ah, employee branding. Many thought leaders are pounding their chests about it at every turn these days. Before we get too deep, though, let’s try some definitions.

At the broadest level, employee branding is about establishing some tie between employer, employee, and the products being produced. This is often tied to “employee advocacy,” which is the idea of using your employees as marketers. If they have nice social networks and they share your updates, well, that will give your updates more reach. And maybe new customers!

There are enough problems here to choke a horse, however. First of all, employee branding and employee advocacy rest on one core idea — that the employee really likes working there. That’s unfortunately not always true. In America, for example, over 1 in 2 employees have their foot out the door at a given moment. It’s hard to establish a really great employee branding program if your employees dread working for you every day.

The second issue is how people contextualize social media. A lot of people see that as their personal thing, and they don’t want to involve work in it. We mostly have half-assed processes at a lot of companies around “employees and social media.” That scares people. If they agree to some employee branding or advocacy program and do the wrong thing, can they get canned? Or will they fall behind in the rat race? (Answers: yes and maybe.)

Many employee branding programs are no-context jamokes. Let’s be better.

The third issue is that old standby: communication at work. It’s usually terrible. In cases of employee branding, that’s no different. Most companies buy some software solution. They casually mention their “employee branding program” at some meeting, then send an email about it. No one does it initially. Whoever “owns” the project gets pissy and bitches to his/her boss, who then gets another email sent. Employees are staring at each other. “So wait, am I supposed to share this thing on LinkedIn? Do I even have a LinkedIn?” The communication is train-wreck-level poor and the employee branding or advocacy program barely gets off the ground. In fact, let’s start this bouncing ball right there.

Employee branding and MIT research

Here’s one from MIT called “When Employees Don’t Like Employers On Social Media,” and this part pops near the top:

However, our research shows that for many companies, the opportunity to use employees as brand ambassadors has been only partially tapped. Although employers expect their employees — especially younger ones — to follow the employer’s brand on social media, share its brand links, recommend its products, and recommend the company to job candidates, we found that on the whole, employees displayed very low brand engagement on social media. At a European consumer goods company we studied, for example, less than half of the employees followed the employer’s brand on social media. Managers at several companies we studied were surprised to learn that their employees were not following them on Facebook or other popular social media sites such as Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Yet when employees are not fans or supporters of the company’s products, this can send an ambiguous message to employees’ contacts and deprive the company of potential supporters.

In short: a lot of companies are not really doing this employee branding idea that well.

Wait. Isn’t employee branding how the company is seen to potential employees?

Not really. That’s employer branding, usually. As MIT says:

We treat employee branding as the outcome of a process that begins with employees internalizing the brand and that leads them to endorse the brand externally with both customers and potential employees. Whereas corporate branding delivers the organization’s explicit promise to key stakeholders, employee branding conveys the promise when employees internalize it and endorse it either explicitly or implicitly through brand-consistent behaviors.

Basically, employee branding is about getting your employees on board with who you are and what you do. Then, through social sharing and word of mouth, they convey that externally. In sum, then, it’s a marketing trick devised by the thought leadership illuminati of the moment.

What often happens with this type of employee branding?

Most jobs have some degree of perks. We’re talking travel, parties, bonuses, etc. Usually, this is what happens. Someone shares a picture from a party with a caption like “Love my co-workers!” Because that person has 1,156 friends on Facebook, some middle manager in marketing considers that “employee branding.” Signed, sealed, and delivered.

The problem is, that’s not employee branding. Let’s say you are one of those 1,1156 friends. You get that photo in your NewsFeed. Unless you are really (actually) friends with the poster, you have no context on this photo. Such as:

  • “Oh, where does she work again?”
  • “Do you know what she does?”
  • “Looks like a cool party. What’s the organization?”
  • “What do they sell or make?”
  • “Where’s the website?”

Now look. If you slap a party picture from a work shindig on Facebook, I’m not arguing you need to list all that stuff every time. But we allow a lot of employee branding to happen completely devoid of context for what the brand is, what it does, how it could help someone else, etc. I fail to see how that’s powerful. Even if you have big networks, just randomly sharing shit isn’t powerful. People will ignore stuff they have no real connection with.

Can we improve employee branding?

Of course, but it’s based primarily on “soft skills” — and those are hard for true decision-makers in bigger companies. Examples include:

Better communication: What is this employee branding program? How does it work, workflow-wise? What’s the end goal?

More context: Tell employees what they should be sharing and with whom. Pinpoint specific events you want them to focus on and make sure everyone is aware of hashtags, etc.

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

Process: Organizations love them some process. Walk employees through the process — and the potential pitfalls.

The One-Pager: Have interested employees write up a one-pager on the brand and their connection to the work. If you want control of this, have someone in marketing edit these. Now you have all these unique one-pagers. Have employees send these out to contacts, or make them into visual memes and share them. That’s contextual, legitimate employee branding — as opposed to “Here I am with four people you’ve never seen holding up a product you’ve never heard of.”

EMail: A lot of people tie employee branding and advocacy to social shares. Thing is, many people on social ignore stuff related to work and jobs. In your email, you’re less likely to ignore that. So if you want to hit some employee branding targets, have your people work their email lists as opposed to their Twitter followers. Just teach them to be conversational.

Employee branding and buzzwords

Employee branding is very buzzword-heavy when discussed in speeches, videos, or business media. Why? The idea is so logical on face. If you have 50 employees and each of them shares a piece of content you produced, the reach is much higher than just your brand page sharing it. The whole thing makes sense! Logical!

But … most true decision-makers could care less about this. It seems like fluffy HR or marketing crap, and they are revenue dragon-slayers. This idea of employee branding is the purview of middle management, usually in marketing, and a lot of those people have no idea what they’re doing. Whoa, was that harsh? Maybe. But here’s the thing: companies make money off execution, and people who are less-than-stellar at execution get trapped in the middle. Those people, as a result, will listen to snake oil thought leaders peddling employee branding software solutions. Words like “real-time” and “engagement” and “social growth” will be tossed about. Those words seem great, so someone will buy in! 18 months later, not a soul in the place will remember that program.

If you want employee branding to work, make a map. Understand where you’re going, why, and how you want to get there. Communicate that to employees. Explain the pros and cons of posting your stuff on social. Be clear. Transparency. That’s how you make this work. It’s not rushing to a software solution or just saying “We have this program now.”

What else you got on employee branding?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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