How to Make Your Employees the Voice of Your Brand Online

BBQ Chain Smokey Bones Turns Staff Into Hosts of Web Communities With Thousands of Followers

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CHICAGO ( -- While many marketers are starting to understand that their employees can be their greatest asset, one small barbecue chain has taken it to an entirely new level. Smokey Bones, a 68-unit franchise concentrated in Florida and on the Eastern seaboard, has given some of its employees second jobs -- as its social marketers.

MAKING IT PERSONAL: Localized pages show specialists and events at nearest Smokey Bones.
MAKING IT PERSONAL: Localized pages show specialists and events at nearest Smokey Bones.
The concept is the brainchild of Smokey's agency of record, Push, Orlando, Fla. Push was tasked with rebranding the chain last year after it was divested by Darden Restaurants, which owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden. Smokey had previously sported a log-cabin, summer-camp look and catered to an older, barbecue-centric crowd. New owner Sun Capital, a buyout firm that also owns Boston Market, wanted to reinvigorate online communication and build a younger, hipper persona on a limited budget. The chain's sharper new look, both online and in restaurants, emphasizes the bar and shows activities by location.

A 'fantastic army'
"Essentially it kind of snowballed out of much bigger top-line idea of basically localizing a website," said Mark Unger, new-media creative director for Push. For each location, the chain selected someone who worked there to be a "web host." Each restaurant-employee-cum-spokesperson runs a web page for his or her particular location and communicates with that location's "Smokey Bones family" members (what one might call fans or friends on a social-media site). Each web host or hostess has a mirror site on Facebook and MySpace. Some restaurants have between 5,000 and 10,000 followers.

"It almost created this really fantastic army that's out there working hard on a local level," Mr. Unger said. "It's really changed the brand from being a very Darden establishment to be a very exciting place that's really relevant right now."

The specific restaurant pages, which consumers reach by entering a zip code at, list events coming to the location, games that might be on at the bar, drink specials or photos from recent events.

Since the new website and associated features went live in February, web traffic is up 50% and the chain's e-mail list has increased 30%, "to the six-figure range," Mr. Unger said. Building the e-mail database was critical for the agency, which will rely heavily on e-mail blasts for future marketing efforts. Across the Facebook, MySpace and corporate pages, Mr. Unger said, the chain is adding about 2,200 followers each month. The web launch was accompanied by limited print and outdoor support.

"Let's give them points -- they're doing something a whole lot of small restaurants aren't doing," said Chris Brogan, president of Boston-based New Marketing Labs. He added that while the initial e-mail list and fan base are encouraging signs, they don't necessarily equate to new customers, or repeat customers. He suggested building on the initial success with measures that will foster "true engagement," such as discounts associated with signing up online.

Perks of hosting
To get this far, Push and Smokey Bones identified staff members who were already web-savvy and put them through social-media training, complete with a handbook. The company owns its local social-network pages, which are distinct from the web hosts' personal Facebook or MySpace pages.

While each Facebook page carries the host's likeness, it may be called something like "Julie Web Hostess." The pages are monitored at the agency, corporate and franchisee levels. Since the chain, like any other in the restaurant business, has relatively high turnover, web hosts who leave the company surrender access to their pages so another staff member can take over. But Smokey Bones probably won't have trouble finding replacements, as it pays the web hosts over and above their regular salaries to run the pages.

Getting social: Four easy tips

So you want your employees to be your social-media advocates?

It's surprising more companies don't do this, noted Josh Bernoff, co-author of Groundswell and senior VP-idea development at Forrester Research, in an e-mail interview. "Employees speak for the company often at conferences, on sales calls and the like," he said. "Companies need to extend their policies to social media, but the principles are the same."

Whether you have a structured program like Smokey Bones or are just facing the reality that your employees are out there -- and talking about you -- here are a few pointers.

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. This is a tip cribbed from Intel's employee social-media guidelines. The company encourages full-timers and contractors to have a social-media presence but urges them to "stick to your area of expertise and provide unique, individual perspectives on what's going on at Intel and in the world."

BE HUMAN. If a big reason for social communication is to "humanize" a brand, for goodness sakes don't babble on in marketing speak and inside lingo. Encourage employees to speak in first person and be real.

KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRANSPARENCY AND ANGST. Everything an employee says could be heard by a customer, including the last one. So remember, being transparent and authentic doesn't mean they have to say everything on their mind. It's the difference between 'It's so hot outside," or "Do you think we should paint?" and "I hated those guys who just ordered lemonade," said Terry Dry, president of Fanscape, a Los Angeles-based digital word-of-mouth marketing agency.

BUILD AN ARMY. Make it part of people's jobs, said Forrester's Mr. Bernoff. "It's great for somebody to have a job as a tweeter. [It's] much better if tweeting, Facebook, blogging, etc. is part of lots of employees' jobs."

-- Emily York and Abbey Klaassen

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