Breakdown: The Five Ways Companies Let Employees Participate in the Social Web

Consider this a supplement to my latest report on “How Companies Should Organize for Social Computing“.  I continue to get questions from clients, and have spent time with more large brands are connecting with customers.  Diving in further, I’ve noticed that there are five ways that companies allow employees to participate. Update:  On a related note, I gave my thoughts to CNBC about the roles of social within corporations.


Breakdown: The Five Ways Companies Let Employees Participate in the Social Web

Type One:  We Have No Clue
This model, where brands have no rules, no guidelines, and therefore no resources to help employees –it’s a freefor all.   I often see companies that are just waking up to these impacts be exposed and naked, without any formal process or plan in place.  Listening out names isn’t going to help here, as every company will have gone through this in the preliminary stage, it’s natural.

  • This is similar to: The mid 90s when many employees in a large company were creating the corporate website –often running off a personal computer under a desk.
  • Upside: Ignorance is bliss.
  • Downsides: This is the most risky, as companies are liable with no plan, no resources, that leave brand, employees, and customers exposed.
  • Takeaway: Get out of this phase as quickly as possible, choose types 2-5 accordingly.

Type Two:  Shut it Down
Fear is the primary motivator here, but in some cases, this is to protect employees and the company from liability.  Some brands, often in conservative industries like Finance, Heath Care or Pharma, choose to shut down all social activities from employees.  In some rare cases, I’ve met some Pharma companies that would not allow their employees to read blogs or social networks, as if they read about an adverse effect of a drug, they were liable.  Those employees just ended up surfing the web at home after hours.

  • This is similar to: Not allowing any outside communication including personal email, or accessing non work internet sites
  • Upside: Keeps the brand safe from employees causing risk in the social sphere
  • Downsides: Employees can access the social web from mobile devices (unless those are banned too) or certainly access it from home.  Secondly, opportunities to connect with customers is certainly at risk.
  • Takeaway:  Brands should at a minium listen to their marketplace, and not completely cut off what’s being said.  For those in highly regulated industires, you could be liable for not paying attention to what customers are saying (wisdom from Josh Bernoff) so you should be proactive here.  Slowly move into type 3 as you evolve.

Type Three: The Corporate Represenative
Some companies setup only small groups within corporate communications, or polished executives to be on blogs. Sony Electronics has their CMO as a blogger, SUN’s CEO is a blogger, as is GM’s chairman, and often the corporate communications teams are involved in the content process, curation, and editing. I was part of the team that did this at Hitachi Data Systems, where the CTO, CSO, and other corporate spokespersons are blogging

  • This is simlar to: The formalized corporate representative, the only difference is they’re using social tools.
  • Upside: It’s safe. These are often trusted members of the company who can give their thought leadership using social tools
  • Downside: Questionable if it’s authentic. We already know that consumers don’t trust corporate blogs (data) –as many just rehash corp-speak
  • Takeway: There’s a time and place for corporate social media: to help give official stances on issues, product releases, and fact. There’s also a need for more granular conversations that customers are already having at conferences, online, and at cafes –you gotta be in both places.

Type Four: Common Employees Blessed For Social
Last night, I shared the stage with Intel’s Michael Brito at Stanford’s continuing education program on web 2.0, he shared that Intel has a SMP program, which stands for Social Media Practioner. The different from the ‘tower’ model listed as type 3, is that this can include other regular employees beyond the refined executive. This is a formal training program where those that want to represent the Intel brand in their social media activities have to undergo. Likely, there are guidelines, best practices, and hopefully a support network setup that gives them the tools they need to be successful. Programs like this are go

  • This is similar to: Formalized executive speaker and company representative programs that corp comm teams have setup for decades (type three) the difference is: they can now be employees from any walk or level.
  • Upside: Formalized social media programs for employees who want to represent the company are a great resource to help companies. In some cases, engineers and developers may be more trusted than executives.
  • Downside: What about the rest of the employees? from support, to engineers to the janitor, given the direction our technographics are measuring, many will participate –not just the savvy communicators. (BTW: We’re going to update the data with 2009 data soon)
  • Takeaway: This is also a good weeding ground to see who has the real fortitude to stay committed to the conversation. There’s nothing worse than engaging customers in any location then walking away.

Type Five: Everyone Is Encouraged To Be Involved
Some companies that have active employees in the social sphere can benefit from having every employee involved. Sun, HP, IBM, are tech companies that encourage their employees to get involved. They have guidelines, some strategy, and some resources to encourage this behavior. Take Best Buy for example, that even has a “CMS” system called Connect that let’s verified employees tweet on behalf of the corporate Twitter account. As a result, all employees become an army in the social sphere –the goal? to reach with customers in as many touchpoints as possible.

  • This is similar to: Teaching employees to sell, evangelize, products and the brand to friends, family, and strangers
  • Upside: Empowering the entire workforce, a collective voice and scale.
  • Downsides: This could create confusion in messaging and a unified customer experience. Employess could become confused as personal and work content could be mixed, and legal ramifications from the mixture of work and personal.
  • Takeaway: This is ultimately going to be the future, but having a free for all isn’t an excuse for having a strategy, guidelines, and resources to support the brand and employees.

Culture impacts how companies choose
So which model is right for your brand? It really depends on your industry, culture, and employee behavior.  While many companies may select the third or fourth in the next few years, in the long run –as Generation Y enters into the workforce, it’s undeniable that the fifth model where everyone is a participant of some form is most likely.

Update: Hutch Carpenter, who I’ve met and really enjoy is thinking way ahead of me. He’s graphed out a similar way of thinking about this, in fact, he sees the same exact 5 types. I didn’t copy him, swear.