In a recent data report from Aberdeen Group, advocacy is a direct product of an engaged workforce. Best in class companies realize the benefits of employee advocacy only if they’ve built an environment that fosters employee engagement through communication, professional development, and empowerment to make an impact.

Going From Employee to Advocate to Thought Leader

With these environmental factors in mind, consider the maturation of an employee within your employee advocacy program:

  1. They are engaged enough at work to become an active advocate. They share company content with their social networks, as well industry and relevant subject matter content from around the web.
  2. Their advocacy activity begins to generate interest and engagement from their social networks. This response reinforces their desire to participate.
  3. Eventually, interest and engagement transforms into business opportunity. The employee is viewed as a trusted, authoritative resource by their social networks.

Congratulations, your company has developed a thought leader!

As you can see, there’s no better way to foster thought leadership than through your employee advocacy program.

Bear in mind, this progression won’t happen automatically. The employee needs support from multiple areas of the company to become a thought leader. And so to outline the key things a company must have in place to create a culture of thought leaders and advocates, I enlisted the insights from a colleague who does thought leadership for a living.

Introducing Loren McDonald, Marketing Evangelist, IBM Watson Marketing

McDonald’s role is to educate marketers and executives on digital marketing best practices and emerging trends. He has written more than 500 articles and delivered more than 300 webinars and presentations around the world. McDonald has 30-plus years of experience as a consultant, marketing executive and thought leader at companies including Arthur Andersen, USWeb/CKS, EmailLabs, Lyris, Silverpop and IBM.

I’ve known Loren for several years through email marketing circles, and had the opportunity to hear him speak about this topic of corporate evangelism at MarketingProfs B2B Forum in 2016. He was kind enough to share some of the tips and frameworks behind a well-run thought leadership program below.

My hope for you in the Q&A is that you see how developing your workforce into thought leaders can create new opportunities for your company and how it can fill key holes in the content strategy for your employee advocacy program.

How do you identify potential thought leaders in the organization?

First and foremost, look for people who are good storytellers. They understand how to talk about their company or product without actually talking about it. They understand the end customers’ pains and challenges, and communicate by addressing those pain points.

Internal Subject Matter Experts

Whose names come up the most often when people are asking around for subject matter expertise, the answers to best practices and trend-related topics? They are probably going to be the most thorough and first to respond to questions from coworkers and clients.

These employees, regardless of their role and time commitments, view responding to these questions not as an annoyance but rather as an opportunity to help someone out by leveraging their experience and expertise. They take pride in being a source of knowledge and insight and relish being sought out for their expertise.

They are employees who don’t like to say “no” even when overwhelmed with work, and will find a way to direct someone to content or other resources for answers.

External Readiness

They may or may not be excellent writers or accomplished at public speaking, but they enjoy these areas and want to improve. They are your company’s biggest sponges for industry trends and best practices information and content.

Lastly, they aren’t afraid of social media. These employees don’t need to have 10,000 followers on Twitter, but they should at least enjoy sharing and having conversations on at least one favorite social media platform or community.

What kind of support do these employees need as they “level up” their advocacy responsibilities?

Management buy-in is the single-most important support factor and that includes senior management. This is true of advocacy in general. Being an advocate and spending time on thought leadership activities, requires a time commitment, even if it is only a small part of someone’s job.

Management buy-in ensures that the employee can allocate the appropriate time. It also sends a signal that the employee isn’t adding extra work without being supported or rewarded.

Secondly, make sure these employees have access to creative resources as needed, including writers, editors, designers and stock photo libraries. Provide budget for speaker training if they will be speaking at events or on webinars and don’t have much experience in this area.

Thirdly, allocate budget for travel and registration costs to support employee advocates to speak at or attend appropriate industry conferences.

Conferences Are Key

Attending conferences is critical to the growth and education of advocates for four key reasons:

  1. It builds up their network. Conferences are where employees will meet and learn from other evangelists and advocates. Sessions provide a volume of deep and broad content. Real relationships are formed in small conversations over drinks at the bar during receptions.
  2. By observing accomplished public speakers, employees absorb new ideas and techniques to better present content that resonates and wows audiences.
  3. Events are where employee’s existing ideas are often shaped into bigger, better and bolder communication platforms.
  4. When the employee is finally chosen to speak at an event, it will build their confidence, experience and brand. This will open up many more future opportunities that benefit the company.

How can a company encourage employees to create thought leadership content?

Thought leadership needs to be of known value throughout the organization and recognized as a key means of differentiating the company and creating value for clients.

Management and marketing leadership need to convey to employees that it is easy to contribute content and showcase outcomes that result from their very simple contributions. For example, show how a customer success or product marketing manager shared a short tip, which turned into highly-shared blog post, and led to forming the foundation of a repeatable webinar series.

Provide a Platform

Showing the occasional example is not enough. The key is to back up words with proof of actual commitment to content and employee advocacy. At minimum, these commitments should include:

  • Strongly supported and active social media outlets
  • A blog that has consistent cadence of posts and supported by an editor
  • A video channel
  • A regular webinar series
  • Budget and support for employees to attend and regularly speak at conferences

If an employee sees this level of commitment from the company, they will be more inclined to contribute, as they will recognize that the company values and rewards evangelism.

Empower Your Writers & Editors

Is there a writer or editor on staff that can be tasked with seeking out these employee content contributions? How about turning them into compelling content such as blog posts, white papers and tip sheets?

These editors should have a list of employees who they know have expertise and are willing to share. Set up a communication structure for them to solicit content ideas on a regular basis. Getting into this habit, and having an editor ping employees, especially on specific topics, will help get these contributors into a “content groove.”

One of the keys to great content and thought leadership is to have an ongoing flow of ideas. Not all of them will be great or memorable, but it’s okay. Encourage employees to simply share ideas that they may have written in an email response to a question from a client or co-worker. A good content editor can take this content and whip it into shape.

Turn Expectations Into Goals

Certain roles are predisposed to advocacy and thought leadership. These roles include product marketing, customer success managers and solutions consultants.

Put performance goals in place around content and advocacy. Depending on the role and employee, these goals could be modest or aggressive. A starting point could be to contribute three blog posts and one webinar per year. Make the goals achievable so the employee is more enthusiastic about participating. At the same time, make it clear to that content and advocacy is expected, perhaps even part of their compensation and/or performance review.

Does this scale? Thought leaders have responsibilities other than creating content.

Yes, it can. Think in terms of “teams” and “packaging” or re-packaging of content.

Your content marketing team can get employees to contribute 50-100 word tips each month. Turn these tips into newsletter articles and blog posts. Take these, along with longer posts of only 250-400 words, and package them into tip sheets and white papers.

Scale is key. You want to avoid asking an employee for “single-use” content. Instead, have a plan for that content to leveraged across other channels. For example:

A customer service response is turned into a short blog post. The blog post forms the basis of a video, tip sheet, series of Tweets, webinar and public speaking session topic.

Remember, the employee doesn’t have to come up with an endless stream of new ideas. You don’t want them to. Instead, create a framework that lets them iterate, improve and expand on one original idea.

How does a company begin to measure the effect of thought leadership?

Start by sharing the successes. It is really important to track and share the great results of advocacy and thought leadership programs.

Obvious metrics include leads, revenue, retention and others that you can reliably track within your employee advocacy program.

Still, content and thought leadership can sometimes feel a bit squishy to management. To effectively prove their value, we need to look to other areas that resonate with management.

Share of Voice

I learned this lesson early in my public relations career, and it applies here. Nothing motivates executives more to invest in thought leadership than being constantly reminded that their key competitors own the industry dialog.

Conduct competitive analysis around content and thought leadership; then use the results to make the case for increased employee advocacy. From a quantitative perspective, here are some things to track:

  • How many white papers, research and benchmark studies are published?
  • Who are the employee, client and partner speakers at key conferences?
  • How many webinars do competitors produce?
  • While tough to track and estimate, how many deals fell through because you weren’t considered a thought leader in your industry?

Conversation Drivers

In addition to the ideas above, look at the timing and quality of competitor content. Do competitors consistently beat you to the market with big ideas on emerging trends and new developments that the market cares about?

Ultimately, take an objective look at who drives the conversations in your industry. If it is one or two key competitors, then you need to step up your game.

What factors contribute to creating a culture of thought leadership?

Make it clear that advocacy and evangelism is not just the role of a few people, it’s everyone’s responsibility.

For example, think about those answers by customer support to recurring questions from clients. They can be turned into content for a blog post, community discussion or webinar that creates huge value for clients. Adding value in this manner turns your clients into greater advocates for you in the marketplace.

Finally, management must make it clear to employees that advocacy and thought leadership is based on great storytelling–not product specifications. You win the hearts and minds of clients by weaving great stories from an understanding of customer pains and challenges. As employees become better storytellers, they become better advocates and evangelists simply by doing their job.