Workplace Culture

Companies Look to Capitalize on Viral Voices

By James Walsh

May. 27, 2011

Some companies spend millions of dollars on marketing and advertising to communicate their corporate and brand messages. Yet many have overlooked one of the cheapest and most effective ways to tout the company and its products: their employees. But now, thanks in part to the explosion of social media, more employers are capitalizing on the credibility and power of employee word-of-mouth. Such companies as PepsiCo Inc. are using their intranets and social media platforms to transform workers into brand ambassadors.

“If your employees want to contribute and they want to share their voice, not only is it a way to add value to your brand because it humanizes the company, but it also allows employees to feel really invested in your communications strategy,” says Rob Frappier, a community manager at online reputation and Internet privacy company Inc.

PepsiCo has begun using its internal communications system and social media to tap the reputation-building potential of its employees. “We view the idea of communicating internally with our almost 300,000 associates worldwide as a tremendous opportunity to tell the PepsiCo story,” says Bernadette Wade, vice president of global internal communications. “In fact, our goal is to turn all of our 300,000 associates into brand ambassadors.”

Motivating workers to become brand ambassadors not only helps enhance a company’s reputation but also strengthens the bond between employer and employee. Greater loyalty is particularly important now because so many employees feel disengaged and could quit when more job opportunities develop.

In late 2010, Purchase, New York-based PepsiCo surveyed its workers and found that 65 percent said their friends and families were asking them questions about the company, and nearly 80 percent wanted to share information about their employer’s involvement with environmental, nutritional and community issues.

One of PepsiCo’s latest initiatives is a series of e-postcards to publicize new products and brand extensions. This year, the postcards will be accessible through PepsiCo’s intranet, which about 140,000 employees use. Workers can then post the information publicly on their own social media channels.

The company also plans to release a series of employee-produced one-minute videos for download from its intranet. The videos will showcase the four pillars of PepsiCo’s Performance With Purpose mantra: performance, human sustainability, environmental sustainability and talent sustainability. “These will be ready-made materials that all associates can use and pass along” through social media, Wade says.

While PepsiCo’s employee ambassador program is new, IBM Corp. has dedicated the better part of a decade to encouraging its workers to spread the word about the technology and consulting firm.

“Internally and externally we’ve had tens of thousands of bloggers—then that expanded to wikis and now LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter,” says Adam Christensen, a social business and digital influence manager at IBM. “From a marketing and branding perspective, it’s really important for us to expose what we think is our greatest asset—our people—and have them engage with people publicly.”

Encouraging employees to participate is one thing; encouraging them to speak favorably about their employers is another. “Our goal is to create positive experiences for IBMers to participate in so they will share positive things,” Christensen says. “We don’t explicitly tell them to speak favorably. We create programs that they automatically want to talk about in a positive way so it’s genuine.”

Jenny Sussin, an associate marketing manager at IBM and an active social media user, says she has never been asked to publicize the company. But, she says, “There is just a ton of opportunities to share interesting content when you notice it” on IBM Web pages. The company’s latest large-scale social media effort involves its centennial. Through the company’s IBM100 website, employees can access content such as videos and “icons of progress” (100 milestones in IBM’s history), which can be linked through as many as six different social media platforms.

So far, the company is encouraged by its employees’ response. “We’ve seen them be very active on Facebook and Twitter sharing things in IBM’s history they’re proud of,” Christensen says.

To motivate employees to become cheerleaders for their companies, employers should emphasize the potential benefits to the worker’s own personal brand. If you say to employees: “ ‘You’re contributing to our company’s communications efforts and that’s good because it’s contributing to your own personal brand,’ it’s a way to make the idea of brand evangelism a little bit more palatable to your employees,” says Frappier of

IBM, itself, has more than 80 employee-produced blogs covering everything from the company’s Lotus collaboration software to social media strategy. Christensen believes the online forums help workers promote their own accomplishments, while providing invaluable exposure for the company.

Yet there is still the potential for negative online publicity. “When it comes to getting your employees to talk about your company favorably online, it’s important to have a social media policy in place that clearly defines how your employees can use social media tools within the communications construct you’ve created,” Frappier says.

But according to the 2010 Forrester Research report The CIO’s Guide to Establishing a Social Media Policy, 43 percent of respondents’ organizations did not have policies in place, while 11 percent were unsure if a policy existed.

Implementing regulations without seeming restrictive is an emerging and important concern for online community managers. IBM took a democratic approach by allowing employees to develop their own social media checks. Among other provisions, the social media policy encourages employees to fully disclose their role in the company; to add value to the brand by publishing useful information; to withhold confidential or proprietary information; and to avoid engaging in conduct that would be unacceptable in IBM’s workplace.

“It’s really a policy owned by the employees,” Christensen says. “The social media guidelines give a level of clarity around what you shouldn’t do in a social context. IBMers have been really great with following those guidelines and using good judgment.”

Workforce Management, May 2011, pgs. 8, 10Subscribe Now!

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