An Illustrated History of Employee Advocacy Programs

The difficult (and expensive) lesson when communications departments focus on the wrong things.

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Where did Employee Advocacy Programs originate?

To understand these programs, we’ll have to take a look back into their history — before the subject became so popular amongst internal communication and human resource communities.

It’s 2009. Social networks are starting to move into the mainstream, proving to be more than a passing fad. Individuals — and brands — were both beginning to communicate digitally more often.

Illustration by Jordan Warzecha

Companies large and small began to invest time, energy and money toward growing their social media presence.

“Wow! We’ve found a way for our company to have real-time access to our customers via a channel they’re already actively communicating on!”
- businesses in almost every industry

As the appetite for social media likes, followers and fans began to grow in the business world, social networks — which had once been 100 percent free — began to need to generate revenue streams.

Hence the promoted post was born.

To incentivize brands to start spending money on their platforms, social networks changed their algorithms. Before, every follower would see all of your posts. Now, social posts made by business pages are seen by only a fraction of its followers — unless you pay up.

Illustration by Jordan Warzecha

This caused some rift within marketing departments, and rightfully so. After putting all this effort into developing a social following, businesses were now separated from a portion of their audience via a paywall.

But, although the rules of the game had changed for businesses, they hadn’t for individuals.

Then, someone had an idea:

“What if we can get around this by encouraging our own employees to promote our posts?”
Illustration by Jordan Warzecha

Rather than spending money on social media ads, companies began to by rolling out a programs encouraging employees to share brand promotional content on their personal social media accounts.

Combining marketing and internal communications budgets, these programs made good, economic sense.

Team members would learn more about the business, products and recruitment efforts, all the while, actively promoting to friends and family.

Illustration by Jordan Warzecha

Around 2013, businesses began to incentivize this sort of program via “gamification.” Employees who converted family and friends to customers could now win prizes — such as movie tickets, company swag and fake internet points — and were ranked by company leaderboards.

This technique made sense on the leadership level. On one hand, people ought to be proud of their workplace. Plus, who doesn’t like free stuff?

But in practice, these programs didn’t always land well with employees, sometimes seeming hollow and inauthentic. Although these processes had some success in sales-driven consumer markets (Car Dealerships, Mortgage Banking,) even the highest performers quickly cooled down as they ran out of friends and family to sell to.

It was still an effort, albeit a hollow effort.

Early advocacy programs missed the mark as a marketing tool and as an employee engagement program. In many cases, organizations spent $50,000+ to roll out dedicated software for these programs — money that would have been better spent toward a marketing or internal communications initiative.

Does that mean Employee Advocacy is a failed experiment?

If you got through reading all that, you might imagine that I believe employee advocacy is a bad thing.

Surprise! Actually, I believe that promoting involvement and advocacy is a terrific goal for businesses to have. However, this first try wasn’t the most effective approach.

What we’ve learned from these early attempts is that workplace culture should be fostered, not forced.

When approached with authenticity and good intentions, companies can begin to treat employee advocacy as part of the everyday process.

Employee Advocacy isn’t a tool. It’s part of what we do.

Do you think I’m missing the mark here, or do you feel the same way about employee advocacy?