Participation Marketing: Mobilizing Your Employees To Tell The Brand Story


Brand storytelling is more than just branded content, native advertising, creative campaigns on Facebook or tear-jerker Super Bowl commercials.

It should also involve mobilizing employees to participate and feed a brand’s content engine.  And it’s not just employees tweeting or sharing company news in social media.  It’s about surfacing the amazing stories about the brand, its products/services, culture and workforce; then using employees as media to tell the rest of the world about it.

We all love to hear good stories.  It’s what connects us to our humanity.  It links us to our past, helps us relate to others in the present and provides a glimpse into our future.  Storytellers learned early on that people like to hear stories with a beginning, middle and end.  We are drawn to stories that have characters that look like us, act like us or have similar characteristics that we can relate to.

We desire to be drawn into every story that matters; and enjoy when that story builds up to a riveting climax, followed by a conclusion that we are happy or satisfied with.  Most of us enjoy being emotionally moved by a story, like in any good romance film.

You probably know “that guy” who commands the attention of everyone during a dinner party when he’s telling a story or sharing an experience.  He’s always with an entourage of people laughing and agreeing with just about everything he says.  This might explain why when someone is telling you a good story, you may not even realize it.  You are too fascinated with the actual story itself, perhaps envisioning yourself as the lead character.  That’s the power of a well-told story.

From a brand’s perspective, storytelling allows a company to be “human” and being human is about having a real, honest connection with people, being transparent, responsive and above all accessible.

Data from the Boston Consulting Group tells us that when it comes to trust and credibility, “people they know”, “consumer opinions online”, and “colleagues and friends” rank the highest when people are seeking information about a company and its products.  Every year, the Edelman Trust Barometer has similar findings, also stating that “employees of a company” and “technical experts” are highly trusted.

Additionally, research by the Society for New Communications Research from a few years ago found that the most frequent use of social media among business professionals was interacting with their peers online.  65% of users participate to engage with a professional community of colleagues and peers via social media, and 82% exchange information with technical experts.

The last piece of research stems from Altimeter’s 2015 State of Social Business Report.  Their research revealed that developing employee advocacy programs has grown as a top external objective by social strategists since 2013 by 191%, jumping from 13% to 45%.

By considering all of this research – either individually or collectively – the only real and logical conclusion is that developing an employee program should be a strategic initiative for you going forward.  Doing so gives your brand the opportunity to demonstrate thought leadership, influence others through the buying cycle and feed the content engine with relevant and trusted information.  It also provides an opportunity to have a select group of employees become brand journalists and tell stories through a more human lens; while the rest can amplify those stories all over the Internet.

The philosophy of employee brand storytelling is simple.  It’s about combining the core tenets of journalism with storytelling, then using a motivated workforce to activate; thereby creating conversational value to all stakeholders, both customers and the media.  Some simply call this employee advocacy.

Whether you agree with it or not, the idea of employee brand storytelling is easy to comprehend – the execution isn’t.

The following approach was developed to give you a blueprint on “how to design” an effective employee advocacy program; and ensure that it’s strategic and considers the mechanics and structure of both small businesses and large, complex organizations.  This approach has evolved over the last 24 months based on real learning and real application.  Not theory.

  • participation-marketing-brandPlan and define the operational elements of the program i.e. goals and objectives, selection criteria, stakeholder collaboration, technology selection.
  • Identify, train and segment employees based on specific job roles and/or varying levels of participation.
  • Activate employees with strategic calls to action ensuring content aligns with overall business and brand goals, and enable them to participate quickly and easy through smart technology deployment.
  • Amplify employee-generated conversations to other participants; and also through various PESO (paid, earned, shared, owned) activations.

Define The Guiding Principles, Starting With The Employee Experience

It’s critical that you deliver an amazing employee experience for your program.  Making that experience memorable; and more importantly, convenient for your employees to share content needs to be top of mind, always.  Otherwise, adoption and participation will suffer.

The content itself must not only focus on storytelling but also be relevant to the brand, product or business priority.  It should resonate with what your employees care about and align with their passions and interests.  It should also match, within context, what your customers are talking about.  Performing an audience analysis will surface those key topics of conversation and language.

To determine the success of your program, there must be a framework establishing what KPIs will be used to measure real business impact.  It’s not just about relationships but tangible business outcomes like sales, leads, clicks to a website and yes, engagement.

Collaborate, Plan And Document An Operational Plan

Prior to the implementation of your program, it’s critical to answer the following questions and document the contents within a plan of record (POR).  You may end up using the plan to ask for budget dollars from internal stakeholders or to “sell in” the program for executive approval.  It may also be used as a reference point for others to review:

  • Goals And Objectives: What does your brand want to achieve?  What business/marketing outcomes are expected?
  • Program Logistics: Who owns the program and what dependencies are needed to ensure a successful launch or pilot program i.e. budget, program management?
  • Employee Selection Criteria: How are employees selected to participate? What’s the plan to scale participation, language?  Where do they participate – owned channels, branded channels, 3rd party communities?
  • Training: Is there training prepared for employees at different proficiency levels?  What’s the plan to scale training globally?  What about employees in different regions, languages?
  • Technology: What technology platform will be used to scale the program i.e. content management, employee segmentation, language translation, rewards/badging, mobile integration, ease of use functionality?
  • Marketing: What’s the name for the program (internally and externally)? Will it be branded externally?

Find And Recruit Employees; Design Training For Specific Employee Segments

There are several options to segment employees for training, content and overall management of the program.  The good news for you is that this segmentation exercise, which should be done at the beginning, can be used on the back end of whatever technology platform selected for content, rewards/leaderboard, measurement, etc.

The Employee Content Engine

According to Altimeter Group’s recent report by Ed Terpening called, “Social Media Employee Advocacy: Tapping into the power of an engaged social workforce” 53% of marketers surveyed said that content is the biggest challenge when designing employee advocacy programs.  For this reason, it is critical that you go through a narrative exercise and build an editorial approach, specifically for your employees.  Consider the following model, which has been slightly adapted from a brand storytelling framework.  It’s an identical approach in principle and execution.
The Employee Content Engine

Data will give you the insights you need to find white space in the market. You can extract patterns of behavior, conversation analysis and audience insights that will help deliver the core positioning of your employee content.

The “winnable moment” is that North Star that makes you unique from everyone else and allows your brand – through your employees – to own that piece of the conversation.

The employee content and editorial framework is a way to categorize your content and allows your employees to tell their stories through three different lenses, whereby:

  1. Your employees are the hero of the story: stories all about your employees, the value they bring to the market, products/services; sometimes can be perceived as egotistical if not balanced with other stories.
  2. Your employees are characters in a broader story: stories about your customer, the value your customers receive from solving technology challenges or business problems in partnership with your employees; should not be self-serving and stories must show humility and lead with customers first.
  3. Your employees comment on a 3rd party story: stories about your employees’ point of view about a topic in the market, the market itself or a topic that resonates with an audience and is also relevant to the brand; must add value to the market, educate and provide thought leadership.

Amplify Employee-Generated Storytelling Through Converged Media Integration

What’s the point of activating employees to participate and “tell the brand story” if only a very small percentage of customers and/or the media actually see it?  Data from the Edelman reminds us that people need to see your brand message 3 – 5 times before they start to believe.

This is why integrating employee stories across paid, earned, shared and owned media is critical to the success of your overall brand objectives.  Whether or not you agree, employee content is more trusted than branded content ; and there is absolutely nothing wrong with using the power and budget of your branded channels to activate those employee-driven stories.  For some struggling brands, participation marketing could very well mean life or death.

This article originally appeared in the Social Media Special Edition of Brand Quarterly,
produced in association with Sysomos – click HERE to read the full issue