Sprout Social just released the 2018 Index—and it’s chock-full of thought-provoking stats and insights.

The index highlights the most compelling findings for the year both in the social media industry and in marketing as a whole. With a predicted 2.77 billion global users taking to social media by 2019, it’s safe to say that social media has carved out a permanent space in the marketing landscape.

The trouble is, while many companies understand the value of social media, they struggle to measure it. As Sprout outlines in this year’s index, organizations are still grappling with the concept of ROI and what it means in the social landscape. To better understand this value, we approached 2,000 social marketers to ask about their priorities, accomplishments and challenges.

So, what did we find?

A Social Marketer’s Top Goals in 2018

It seems that social media is still a highly personal platform—primarily used to bond with family and friends, build relationships and make new connections. However, what’s even more interesting (in our opinion), is how social marketers are leveraging that affiliation with the power of employee advocacy.

In fact, we went as far as to say that employee advocacy is the new influencer marketing.

Not only is advocacy more cost effective than standard influencer campaigns, it’s also just more effective in general. 61% of consumers say that they’d be more likely to look into a service or product recommended by a friend, than one suggested by influencers/celebrities.

In the past, organizations used social media as a bolt-on to their existing advertising strategy. They didn’t consider the unique nuances of the platform. Ads ran alongside the news feed, often going ignored or unnoticed by the public. Now, changing customer trends, and evolving algorithms have forced companies to approach their customers in a new way.

Transformations in the nature of social media mean that marketers are starting to look at ROI from a new perspective. It’s not just about pushing traffic to a landing page anymore.

According to the Sprout Social Index, the biggest goals of 2018 are:

The good news?

As challenging as it can be to effectively distribute content, support customers and increase brand awareness (all while running a profitable business), there’s one component that supports most of the targets today’s marketers are aiming for—employee advocacy.

Employee advocacy leverages the trust and strength of employee networks to increase brand reach and exposure, impacting engagement and ultimately, lead and customer acquisition. It can transform standard influencer programs by activating more than just prospects, giving you the content distribution solution many teams are searching for.

So, how can you use employee advocacy to accomplish the big goals in social media marketing this year?

Increase Brand Awareness

80% of respondents in the Sprout Social Index said that “increasing brand awareness” was their biggest target this year.

To improve awareness, you need to spread your content as far and wide as possible. Unfortunately, developing a solid presence in this era of ad blockers and complex algorithms isn’t easy. That’s why it’s so important for marketers not to underestimate the power of their employees for content amplification.

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Think about it: Not only does employee advocacy humanize your brand with the voices of genuine people, it also pushes your content to personal feeds—feeds your brand would otherwise not have access to. The average number of connections a user has on Facebook alone currently sits at 338. That means even if you had 1,000 employees and 10% of them were sharing your content on Facebook (not to mention other channels like LinkedIn or Twitter), you’d still reach an additional 33,800 people.

Employee advocates can even support a multi-channel or omnichannel marketing campaign by sharing branded content across various platforms. Since 42% of social marketers say that this cross-channel success is one of their biggest challenges, it helps to have an advocate army to take some of the weight off your shoulders.

As well as boosting your visibility online, employee advocacy can also support your engagement efforts by giving you a more personal and tailored way to connect with audiences.

The unfortunate truth is that customers don’t trust brands. Many people struggle to build authentic connections with a faceless corporation, so they’re left to search elsewhere—in each other—for signs of credibility.

Employees can help you to develop that missing trust because they’re human (not companies). Your customers naturally see your employees as less promotional than your company, and more authentic. Of course, they need the right content to share if you’re going to leverage that human side.

A handful of employee advocates can do wonders for your company. Not only do they supercharge your marketing efforts, but 6 out of 10 employees will go out of their way to defend their employer online. That means extra protection for your brand reputation.

Key Tips to Remember:

  • If you want to get the best reach from your employee advocacy campaigns, make sure that you start your strategy with people who are already comfortable and content on social media. Those leaders can then train others on your behalf.
  • Provide employees with guidelines they can use to share content without damaging or risking brand reputation. You can even curate content on a social channel like Bambu if it helps.
  • Make sure your brand tone, image, and messages remain the same across all channels in a cross-platform campaign.
  • Monitor your campaigns and adjust them to suit the needs of your employees and audience.

Increasing Traffic

Increased traffic has long been an important goal of employee advocacy and social media marketing. Today, 54% of respondents say it’s a key goal in their strategy. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to boost your traffic with employee advocacy.

First of all, the authenticity of advocate content means that your customers are more likely to click on the links leading back to your website. Today’s consumers might not trust companies, but they often believe that the content shared by their social friends and peers supports their best interests. Employee advocates can build a relationship with your target audience that drives click-through rate.

Additionally, employee advocacy can also be a powerful addition to a strategy for SEO and organic growth. Social presence and backlinks are both important metrics that Google measures when determining how to rank companies on the search engine results pages. When you work with a team of advocates, it’s not just you linking back to your page; it’s an entire network.

Sprout’s Social Index suggests that the content priorities of today’s brands don’t align with consumer preferences. Marketers are creating content that teaches (61%), inspires (53%) or tells a story (58%). On the other hand, your customers want details of discounts and sales, showcases of new products and an education.

The best place to focus your employee advocates is in the overlap on “posts that teach.” Focus on curating content that educates and enlightens your customers, and you may be able to drive more engagement from customers who trust and appreciate your brand.

With each new content piece and link shared by your team, you’ll see greater traffic. If you continue to generate and curate valuable, and educational content, then your new leads will engage with your brand. You can even develop your strategy to use hashtag campaigns so that your employee advocate efforts extend out to brand ambassadors.

The more your employee campaign grows, the more new audiences you’ll connect with. Additionally, because your brand name and content appear in multiple locations across channels, brand awareness and familiarity grow too. The more you place your company name in front of people, the more those customers will become curious. This means they’re much more likely to search for your brand in search engines when they’re looking for information or reviews.

Key Tips to Remember:

  • Curate and share content through your employee advocates that will drive people back to relevant pages on your website.
  • Create effective call-to-action posts that help to promote action, without making your advocates seem too promotional—you’ll need to maintain their human appeal.
  • Use hashtag campaigns, lead magnets and free downloads to generate attention from your customers.
  • Develop thought leadership through entertaining and educational posts, so your customers see your advocates (and brand) as industry pioneers.

Generating Leads

Sprout Social’s index notes that the biggest challenge for social marketers today continues to be the issue of “ROI.” Return on Investment is a common concern for 55% of social marketers. Part of the reason for this is that marketers don’t know how to define ROI in the social sphere, to begin with. The other issue is that they simply don’t have the right content distribution strategy to generate conversions.

Because employee advocacy helps to boost awareness and traffic, it makes sense that it would boost sales and leads too. After all, the more fully-informed and engaged people come to your website, the more likely you are to get conversions.

To some degree, it’s the trust and transparency that employee advocates generate that make them such a valuable lead nurturing tool. Remember, according to the Edelman trust barometer, employees are the most credible voices in the marketplace right now.

At the end of the day, even if you’re getting amazing interviews for your CEO or you have a press release strategy that can’t be beaten, nothing is better at generating leads than your employees.

In addition to improving brand awareness and customer engagement, employee advocacy has a significant impact on revenue. It’s the “always on” marketing channel that can provide up to 25% more leads. What’s more, according to LinkedIn, salespeople who use social media outsell their peers by 78%. That means you don’t just get more leads, but more profits too.

Key Tips to Remember:

  • Educational content will help your customers to feel more informed when they pursue a purchase from your company. Share plenty of informative posts through your advocates.
  • Remember to share content about new products and services alongside your educational information. 60% of customers want posts that showcase new products, while 72% are looking for discounts and sales.
  • Implement social selling strategies to get the most out of your employee advocacy campaigns. However, be careful to stay compliant with data protection laws.

Distributing Content

Most social media marketers know that great content is the key to their social strategy.

Of course, even the best content in the world won’t do much for your brand if it’s not reaching the right touch points. Companies that don’t invest in employee advocacy only have limited avenues for content distribution. You’ve got your branded channels, your website, and that’s it. On the other hand, if you can build a social advocate army, then your touchpoints multiply dramatically.

Employees can be both a source of content creation and an avenue in your distribution strategy. After all, many of your employees will already have thought leadership insights that they’ve developed in their position with your company. Even if your team member isn’t a great writer, you can still tap into their expertise, particularly as consumers begin to crave more video content.

The Sprout Social Index suggests that consumers enjoy a wide selection of different content types from brands and advocates. However, while anything from a picture to a link could generate attention, there are few things more appealing than video in the social sphere today.

If you want to tap into your employee advocates’ abilities in a new and engaging way, then you can ask them to distribute video content on your brand’s behalf too. Advocates can be a particularly useful source of video information and vlogs when higher-up industry leaders don’t have the time to create highly refined videos.

Consumers expect posts from everyday people on things like Facebook Live to be raw and edited. In fact, the natural nature of the post could make your advocates appear even more credible. On top of that, you can access their thought leadership potential by engaging in things like staff Q&A sessions or interviews.

Key Tips to Remember:

  • Customers don’t appreciate an “ad-like” approach in videos. However, employee advocates can make natural references to products and services without appearing overly promotional.
  • Your content must be capable of entertaining, inspiring and educating your audience. Make sure not to focus exclusively on sales.
  • Behind-the-scenes content from employee advocates works wonderfully to generate trust and demonstrate transparency.
  • To get the most out of your content distribution team, encourage them to share messages on a range of channels, embracing the nuances of each platform. This means sharing videos on Facebook, pictures on Instagram, and articles on LinkedIn.

Growing the Influencer Marketing Program

Of the respondents in the Sprout Social index, 15% said that “growing their influencer marketing program” was a key goal for 2018.

Influencer marketing has grown into an important consideration for anyone in the social media marketing industry today. However, the most successful influencer marketing doesn’t come from celebrity posts and huge budgets. While celebrity endorsement can certainly have an impact on brand awareness, the best way to influence any audience is with people just like them.

Peer recommendations influence 70% of millennial customers. In fact, they’re more likely to purchase a product recommended by a “micro influencer” than a celebrity.

In the quest for more effective influencer marketing that delivers on ROI, employee advocacy could be the answer. It not only brings authenticity back to your social strategy, but it also helps you to raise awareness and engagement with stronger relationships between your branded content, and your target audience. With high-quality content, your high-reach employees can give you the influencer results you’re looking for.

Employee influencers can develop real connections with your audience by showing them that they share the same values. Since emotion drives most customer decisions, not logic, it makes sense that today’s companies would need to think more about how they make their audience feel.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of technology out there that helps employee advocates to make the crucial connections that add value to your influencer marketing. Solutions like Bambu help organizations to curate the content they need to empower employees and provide those staff members with essential social guidance.

Key Tips to Remember:

  • Replace expensive influencer marketing campaigns with micro influencers and employee advocacy. Focus on developing intimate relationships with your customers through people they can resonate with.
  • Embrace the power of brand affinity in your influencer campaigns and show your customers that your advocates share the same values with useful, educational content.
  • Use social media tools to schedule posts appropriately, curate content for influencers and help them to manage their social strategies.

Supporting Customers

Finally, now that 62% of companies view customer experience as a competitive differentiator, it’s important to reconsider how you serve your clients. Over the years, social media has emerged as more than just a place to connect with family and share pictures. It’s also the first channel that customers go to when they have an issue. According to the Sprout index, 45% of consumers have turned to social for help when they have a question.

So, how can employee advocacy help with supporting customers?

Your employee advocates can share and produce content that answers common questions for your customers. By analyzing the questions you frequently get from clients, you can figure out what information they need most from you.

You could also set a handful of your employee advocates up as support assistants, checking social feeds for disgruntled or confused customers and address their questions and comments. This could help to reduce the risk of disappointment when issues go unresolved.

Looking for ways to support your customers through informative content and employee advocacy service is a great way to boost your brand reputation, and your bottom line. Remember, 21% of customers are more likely to purchase products and services from the brands they can connect with on social media.

Key Tips to Remember:

  • Provide your employee advocates with guidelines to follow when they’re replying to customer comments and concerns. This will help to maintain your brand tone throughout channels.
  • Help employees to share useful curated content that answers common questions for your audience. This can include links back to website content that improves your SEO strategy and boosts traffic
  • Ask your employees to act as additional eyes and ears in your social listening strategy – drawing focus to any issues that could damage your brand reputation.

Improving your Social Media Strategy: What You Need for 2018

Perhaps the biggest point that the Sprout Social Index makes is that social media is more important today than its ever been. In an environment where customers no longer trust outbound marketing and block every obvious ad they can see, companies need to start making real connections with their audience—using social channels people use every day to strengthen their community relationships.

That said, many social media experts still don’t feel that they have the support or resources to thrive in this socially-focused world. Only about half of the respondents in the Sprout Social Index said that they have the software they need to excel.

It’s safe to say that companies who want to thrive need to invest more in analytics, dedicated content resources and software. However, for the sake of developing those all-important connections, the most powerful resource you have might already be sitting in front of you.

Employee advocates are the answer to many of the concerns today’s social teams deem the most important goals in their social media strategies. Advocates can develop trust for your brand, bringing the intimate, personal experience your customers are looking for back into the marketing conversation.

In short, employees are your best bet in 2018 for reaching, engaging, converting and retaining your audience.