AT&T Networking Leaders Academy leverages 'internal ambassadors'

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Trish Nettleship, social media lead for AT&T Business Solutions, knew what she wanted to do—to better connect AT&T's deep pool of internal expertise with the company's b-to-b customers—but she wasn't sure how best to do that.
That is, until she came up with AT&T's Networking Leaders Academy.
The academy concept is a new type of social media outreach that's popping up throughout corporate America. For AT&T, the idea was simple: After recruiting internal thought leaders to write for the company's Networking Exchange Blog, launched in December 2010, the company launched its Networking Leaders Academy in July.
The goal of the Academy program: to encourage these internal ambassadors to promote their blog entries via their personal social channels.
“It was about humanizing the brand,” Nettleship said. “We have a lot of expertise, and I wanted to expose that to our potential clients. It's about trust. It's easier to trust individuals than a brand.”
Because the original Networking Exchange Blog was a relatively new project, the idea was to keep the effort small and tightly focused. It focuses on only three specific b-to-b business areas—cloud computing, security and mobility—and the company's internal bloggers were encouraged to promote their posts on their private social networks to the degree that there was some overlap between these topics and their personal connections.
Further, the project wasn't a typically controlled corporate marketing effort. According to Nettleship, transparency and even debate were important.
“We're a pretty risk-averse organization, but we wanted to encourage debate,” she said. “We've had a few posters with differing opinions, and we wanted to open up comments.”
Nettleship said AT&T's legal department initially was concerned about allowing this degree of openness, “But we've managed to keep it open,” she said. “We filter for spam and profanity, but that's about it. There have been a few comments I don't like very much, but we haven't had any real problems yet. The point is to be open.”
The program is also low-cost. Blogs themselves are basically free since AT&T doesn't compensate any of its internal participants for writing.
“It's 100% percent volunteer,” Nettleship said, which means she's actually courting two audiences at once: an internal one of potential experts who lend their names and time for free and promote their efforts through their private networks, as well as an external audience of potential customers.
Nettleship said noted that AT&T offers its bloggers education in personal networking and how to build a personal brand. As a result, some of her bloggers have received speaking offers.
“Our motto internally is: "Helping you become a better networker,' ” she said.
The program shies away from product-specific posts. Instead, the company focuses on its blogging ambassadors being expert in specific areas.
“We're not really looking for huge numbers on the blog,” Nettleship said. “We're looking to focus very tightly on customer needs and thought leadership.”
Nevertheless, the Networking Leaders Academy, just five months old, has had a big impact on the company's Networking Exchange Blog.
“Launching the Networking Leader's Academy ambassador program was like flipping a switch,” she said. “When we launched it, we didn't expect much since it was the summer. But we saw an immediate increase in visitors and shares.”
In all, Networking Exchange Blog traffic rose about 50% in the first five months of the internal ambassador program compared with the previous months when the blog didn't have benefit of the internal ambassador program.
For companies that want to pursue internal ambassador programs, Nettleship has the following advice:
“Focus your effort, find a good mix of people who have expertise and are good networkers, make sure whatever you're doing is tied to your business objectives, and definitely get executive buy-in,” she said.
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