Look inside for your best brand ambassadors

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Seeking to address lingering perception problems about the quality of its customer support, Sprint Nextel decided to leverage its most accessible resource to improve customer relations: its own employees' social interactions. The communications equipment provider launched an ambitious program to equip thousands of its people with the tools they needed to evangelize Sprint Nextel products to their friends and to answer customer support questions via social media. Using live workshops, an internal online community and continuous education seminars, the company has “graduated” more than 2,000 people from its Sprint Ninja program and introduced a Product Ambassadors program to equip select employees to help launch new products. The results: Metrics tracked by Reputation Institute saw significant gains across the board, and 88% of employees now say they're comfortable explaining Sprint products to family and friends, said Jennifer Sniderman, the company's manager-corporate communications. “If you visit the Sprint Facebook page, follow interactions on Twitter or check out online user forums, you are likely to encounter a Sprint ninja,” Sniderman said. PepsiCo Inc. had a similar idea. Internal research revealed that 60% of employees were regularly fielding PepsiCo-related questions online, but few believed they had permission to discuss the company with family and friends, said Sharon McIntosh, senior director-global internal communications. PepsiCo had a social media policy, but few people were aware of it; so the company created an online course called Social Media and Responsibility Training University (SMART U) on its intranet. The program provides a concise overview of PepsiCo's standards and a quiz to verify understanding. Participants are rewarded with permission to link to a variety of PepsiCo content. “We wanted people to know we think it's absolutely wonderful to talk to their friends about PepsiCo as long as they abide by our policy,” McIntosh said. More than 4,000 of the company's 110,000 workers have completed the training, with 93% saying it has given them more confidence to talk about PepsiCo online. You're going to hear many more stories like this. In a world in which every customer is now a potential media influencer, employees are your best brand ambassadors. Keep a few rules in mind, however, because these programs grow in complexity with the size of the employee population:
  • Have a social media policy. It should be written and customized to the unique nature of online interactions. Employees should read and sign it before speaking on your behalf.
  • Adopt a low-pressure style. Don't demand or even ask employees to use their personal social networks on your company's behalf. These are private spaces and should be treated with respect. Use incentives but not mandates.
  • Encourage free expression. Provide talking points but don't script the message. Most people are proud to work for your company. Let them tell the story in their own words.
  • Reward, don't punish. A free flow of information invariably carries some unintended consequences. As long as people stick to the policy, they shouldn't be penalized for the way others may interpret what they say.
  • Look out for land mines. Companies in regulated industries or with large unionized workforces need to think about how freely they let information flow. In some industries, it's still best to restrict the number of authorized spokespeople.
Paul Gillin is an Internet marketing consultant and the author of three books about social media. He also writes the New Channels column in BtoB.
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