Your employees are not a marketing channel

Do you stuff your employees’ bags with folders for handing out during network receptions? Do you urge them to call everyone in their networks when your latest corporate video has been published? No? Then why would you stimulate your employees to share pre-fabricated messages with their social networks? Yet this is what happens in a lot of B2B companies: the marketing department circulates ready-made messages amongst employees. All they need to do, is copy and paste those messages on LinkedIn or Twitter.

To be honest, I have been involved with such distribution tactics as well. But I soon realised that it runs counter to what social media is all about. Treat your employees like puppets and they will act like puppets. Treat your employees like human beings and they will win your customers’ trust as human beings.

A puppet show devoid of personality

It is a worrying trend: marketers and content strategists who see employees as ‘the new distribution channel’. Their reasoning goes something like this: how do you promote your company content now that it has become extremely difficult to reach people via your corporate social media accounts? What to do now that more and more people block your ads? Think social! Use your employees to spread the corporate word via social media. Free reach. And as authentic as it gets.

Some marketers even speak of ‘authentic [content] impressions’. As if the channel (social media) lends authenticity to your message, instead of the intention behind it.

Often such marketers set a bad example themselves. They dump all their white papers, e-books and other company content onto their social media timelines, without any personal touch. Preferably umpteen times a day. They act in the same way as they view their employees: as extensions of a corporate antenna. No doubt with the best intentions. But the result is a lifeless puppet show devoid of personality.

Anti-social marketing
A PR puppet is not a credible brand ambassador

Wait a minute, you may think, what’s wrong with treating employees as brand ambassadors? In itself: nothing. On the contrary, brand ambassadors are extremely valuable. The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that your average employee enjoys higher trust then traditional spokespeople, like your CEO or PR department. So it makes perfect sense to teach your employees how to use online channels that can help strengthen relationships with customers. After all, they are the ones who enjoy your customers’ trust.

But that’s not a licence to abuse customers’ trust by using your employees as a distribution channel. Customers trust your company’s employees because normally they don’t use the overly polished PR language that spokespeople use. Why, then, would you want to put words into your employees’ mouths? Ironically, this rather damages trust. What will your customers think when they see that numerous employees share exactly the same messages on social media, in exactly the same words that were concocted by your marketing department?

A personal touch makes all the difference

In my experience, adding a personal note to company content on social media makes all the difference. I recently spoke about this with my colleague Sander, who works as a client director. Sander ran an experiment on LinkedIn: what difference does a personal note make when I post company content on LinkedIn? Whenever Sander posted a LinkedIn update with a personal note, the number of clicks and interactions spiked – which is not a goal in itself of course, but it shows that Sander’s connections were triggered by what Sander had to say, not by the company content itself.

Sander understands that the people in his network feel connected to him in the first place, and not to the company he works for. That’s why he doesn’t just share company content. Once every few months Sander writes a blog post. In his blog posts he never mentions our company or our products. He writes about the insights he has gained from the conversations with his most important coach: his three-year old daughter. Sander always gets a lot of positive response. That is because people recognize themselves in what he writes. Sander speaks with his own voice. Not with a marketer’s voice. That is authenticity. That is how you build trust.

A matter of trust

With his LinkedIn blog posts, Sander doesn’t generate any traffic to our corporate website. It is impossible to measure the volume of long-term conversions brought about by his blog posts, or to assign lead scores to his readers. But I know for sure that Sander generates more sympathy for himself and for our company than he would by merely churning out company content.

You cannot reduce the essence of trust to mere clicks and conversions. Maybe that’s why marketers tend to overlook the importance of trust. Blinded by data, dashboard and short-term goals, we forget what contributes to success in the long run. Because in the end, it is trust that determines whether people will do lasting business with you or not.

edelman-trust-barometer
Source: Edelman Trust Barometer 2015

The problem of peer pressure

The notion that employees are a distribution channel is compounded by another problem: peer pressure. Fellow blogger Ronald Voorn pointed this out to me.

Imagine you are an employee who is relatively new to social media. You have just joined a new employer and of course you want to make a good impression. You already have a LinkedIn account, but you’re not sure what to post there. You receive an e-mail from your marketing department, asking you to share a company message on social media. You notice that your manager and colleagues have already shared the message on LinkedIn. Then surely you should follow their example?

Employees should not be subjected to such peer pressure, however unintentional. Especially if they don’t fully understand how their behaviour on social media could damage other people’s perception of them.

A different kind of helping hand

But if employees are not used to sharing content via social media, shouldn’t you lend them a helping hand?

The problem with this question is that takes content as a starting point. When in fact, B2B marketing is about building relationships. A better starting point is to ask yourself: how can I help our employees build relationships?

Content is just part of the answer to that question. Building relationships starts with listening. And that is where social media comes in. First and foremost, social media are a tool that enables your employees to connect with (potential) customers, and to understand better what they need and what their aspirations are. As a sales colleague said to me: “Because I follow my customers on Twitter, I always have a conversation starter for my next customer visit.”

The birth of a connection

Some of your colleagues probably already know how to use social media professionally. Others may not. How will you help those colleagues? By forcing content onto them that they should blindly forward to their networks? Or by helping them to develop what Ardath Albee calls conversational competence?

A few months ago, I gave a social media workshop to a group of young colleagues. In preparation for the workshop, I asked them what they wanted to learn. One of them said: “I would like to know how I can help promote our company via social media.”

I appreciated her eagerness. Had I seen her as a mere distribution channel, I probably would have advised her to start sharing company content daily. But I didn’t. Her question made me realise that we should not turn employees into wandering billboards.

During the workshop, we did not talk much about company content. I asked the participants what motivates them in life. We discussed what they found interesting themselves, and what would be interesting to their networks. Because that is where connections are born. Not in the marketing departments of the companies we work for, but in what you and I have in common, as human beings.