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What big corps can learn from small biz about social media and employee engagement

May 13, 2009

Last night I attended the monthly meeting of the Social Media Club South Florida, where @Ines – author of – was the speaker. She gave a great talk about how she uses social media to grow her real estate business.

She listed, in order of importance to her marketing efforts, her blog, Twitter, Facebook, online video tools, and LinkedIn. In the process she did a great job balancing explanation for the uninitiated with actionable tips for the early adopters.

Most of us had never heard of but within 24 hours a two-time Pulitzer prize winning former Miami Herald employee tweeted her own experiment with that Twitterlike video tool, and I was ready to try it out myself.

Lovely information, you say, but why is this coming up on a blog about engaging employees?

I bring it up because I learned a lot last night that I felt I could put to immediate use for my own @angiemoncada Twitter account and the @addventures account I direct at work.  In fact, I already have, including my favorite: listen more and broadcast less. At the same time, I kept wondering about the big companies whose PR folks are chomping at the bit to get in on the social media game. What could they – with their understandable aversion to risk – learn and put into practice?

After some thought, here are a few ideas:

1) People want to see a person behind the brand.
While this may feel a bit like letting the world look at the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, it is true, and actually a bit refreshing.

I frequently bring up the example of a tweet from Southwest Airlines (@SouthwestAir) that offered the perfect mix of humanity and brand. The employee posting that day mentioned with genuine excitement the Mardi Gras parade that just went past their desk in the middle of the day. In less than 140 characters, I had an immediate emotional connection both to the culture of Southwest and to that employee who was literally living the brand.

Not every company has as clearly defined a culture as Southwest, and few have committed such a stake of their value proposition to customers on culture. Smaller companies often have the benefit of a closer proximity to the founder and his or her vision, allowing for a purer expression of the humanity and personality that social media demands.

Large companies can learn a lot by following the lead of Southwest – and millions of small companies who also get it right – and revealing an actual human being or team of them that speaks in the first person about brand-centric experiences.

2) Foster, don’t fear, the entrepreneurial spirit.
So many of the really transformational implementations of social media tools begin as under-the-radar, black ops of individual departments or business units. Scrappiness is essential to entrepreneurs and can also do wonders for big brands if given proper guidance and support.

When you have an employee who goes cowboy on you, realize that it is frequently their way of telling you they’ve got ideas that are bigger than the options or roadblocks they’re seeing in front of them. As communicators, we can be the arbiters of opportunity by recognizing the seeds of talent and initiative that are the bread and butter of successful small companies but often get squelched by hierarchy and process in larger corporations.

By tapping into the experiments of alpha employees we can find unexpected paths to progress.

3) Try it – it just might work.
Leaders in large organizations are often handcuffed by the very strategic plans and careful processes that otherwise drive their effectiveness. Big budgets of the past led to big investments with mixed returns. In the current economy, when cash is short, ingenuity has increased in value.

Some of the best campaigns started with the notion that there was no budget for advertising. A series of YouTube videos promoting an ultra high-end blender by throwing in everyday objects and even an iPhone led to enormous exposure and unprecedented sales. Yes, it was cheesy and underproduced by corporate standards, but it worked.

4) Listen any way you can.
We are all in uncharted territory here, and in moments like these it may be time to go with the best ideas on the table. In many cases these great ideas come from the front lines – from employees who listen to customers and hear what it is they really need.  I recently heard a panelist from Medtronic, who said that their medical devices have a life cycle of about 18 months, so they constantly rely on the team that interacts directly with doctors to tell them how to improve their products.

Small business owners have the luxury of a shorter distance between their ideas and the end users. Social media tools, in the hands of employees who are trusted and who trust us, can shorten the distance beteen a customer and a CEO in realistic, manageable ways.

To close, I’m interested in hearing from communicators and entrepreneurs about how you’re empowering employees to utilize social media on behalf of your brands.  Has it been scary? Successful? I’m betting a bit of both.

One Comment leave one →
  1. David Fields permalink
    May 14, 2009 8:36 am

    In your final statements, you note the trust issue. Often, Companies are exceedingly fearful to allow employees to speak publicly.

    I find this ironic since many companies have associates speaking daily to the public while they sell product. I understand the general fear displayed by larger companies. They fear PR problems. One issue with associate engagement however, is associates feeling that the associate is merely cogs in the machine.

    If companies were to allow associates to give voice publicly, (even if moderated) said associates would feel like they are contributing and become more involved.

    Trust is a mutual activity. If we do not trust our employees to speak well of us, then we should not have them speaking to the public at all. Likewise, if we treat our employees with trust and respect, then a vast majority will return that trust and respect.

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