Employee engagement in a social media world

Retailers are now well familiar with social media as a means of engaging consumers, but may be less familiar with using this means of interactive dialogue to engage employees. And, yes, even those employees out on the sales floor. Why is employee engagement so important? Because profits are important.

In study after study, research shows that employee engagement boosts productivity, cuts costs and builds revenues. For retailers, having engaged employees can have a significant impact on sales. That’s one of the primary reasons employee engagement (an integral part of internal communications) has become a priority for so many CEOs.

Reaching Sales Associates

Many companies rely on their intranets and email to reach employees. But the challenge for retailers is that only a small percentage of employees are sitting in front of a computer all day. Besides, you want sales associates out on the floor, not checking their email. 

Geography is another challenge to employee engagement for large retailers. How do you build an engaged community of employees in stores spread out geographically – even across the country or the globe? When you don’t have the benefit of face-to-face interactions, there is nothing better than social media for building communities.

Internal Vs. External

Some companies express concerns about social media being a public forum that’s visible to consumers. Others worry that social media will encourage the airing of employee complaints or expose sensitive company information to the competition. And will upper management lose control of the message?

The good news is that early adopters of social media for employee engagement, such as IBM, Quicken Loans and Nokia, have found little to no issues with any of the above. Quicken Loans launched The Diff, a public-facing blog written by employees in 2006. IBM, however, has chosen to keep their social media in house by starting Blue Twit and Social Blue, their own internal social media networks that mimic Twitter and Facebook. Nokia developed Socialcast, an internal hybrid of Facebook and Twitter. 

If the C-suite remains concerned about keeping employee communications under wraps but is not inclined to invest in a proprietary social network, you might try a free private social network like Yammer, which is used by many Fortune 500 companies as well as 7-Eleven, Darden Restaurants and Supervalu. The only people who can see your content on Yammer are those with the same company in their email address. 

With a more familiar platform like LinkedIn, an often overlooked tactic is the ability to create a closed group. In other words, you start a discussion group for employees of your company on LinkedIn and use the setting ìRequest-to-Join.î You can allow group members to invite other employees, but someone in your company must approve all requests, thus maintaining company-only membership. 

However, as in other areas of business, the trend is toward transparency – including being comfortable with the transparency of internal engagement on externally facing sites. UPS, for instance, has a Twitter account to keep employees updated, but many followers are from outside the company. Zappos allows anyone to speak on behalf of the company and has over 500 employees who tweet about Zappos regularly. 

Online On Their Own Time

Another challenge is to create compelling content that employees not only need, but also want, especially since many retail employees will be engaging with your social media after hours, at home or maybe in the coffee shop. 

That’s where sites like Pinterest come in. Pinterest is a social network that operates like a virtual bulletin board, enabling users to share photos and other images. Although a number of brands, primarily retailers – from Nordstrom to Ann Taylor to Michaels – have already created a strong brand presence on Pinterest for consumers, we have yet to see all the ways Pinterest can engage employees. But that dam is about to burst.

Particularly if your retail brand employs a large percentage of females, Pinterest will be even more important for you because of its heavy skew towards women. Retailers are especially well poised to take advantage of this powerful new social networking tool because they can show the things they can sell.

If it’s women’s apparel, employees might create boards of how to pair their favorite pieces from your collection, or what they are packing for an upcoming trip. If you sell home improvement products, employees can pin their own personal projects that use your materials, along with instructions on how they did it. 

Of course, Facebook remains the dominant social networking site, and provides an excellent venue for employee engagement – not just for your consumers. When employees ìlikeî the brand’s fan page, it allows that brand to contact them directly. Blogs expressing leadership vision, training and tips, employee spotlights and more can be shared on the company page.

But even richer engagement occurs on Facebook in the news feed. When individual employees post company happenings or news, the impact can be more meaningful. Exponential, even. This can be one of the most valuable aspects of having brand ambassadors within your employee population. Those who are already engaged with the brand can be strong influencers on employees with low engagement. These same ambassadors impact recruitment and retention by expanding positive word of mouth throughout the world of social media.

Think of it as the difference in brand advertising and word of mouth. Consumers tend to give more importance to reviews and comments from other consumers than information that comes from the brand itself. By activating employees through social media, you’ll be growing that all-important word of mouth channel.

Mobile Advantages

In addition, don’t forget about mobile technology for reaching retail employees during the workday. Much of the engagement you might hope employees will get at home via computer can just as easily be done at work with a Smartphone. Applications for Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn all enable retail employees to check in on company news on their breaks. 

Generational Preferences

Keep in mind that the younger generations of employees don’t place the same sort of boundaries between their work lives and their personal lives. It can feel completely natural for them to get work communications through the same information pipelines they use for their personal interests.

Additionally, younger generations are accustomed to communicating through social media. It’s so ingrained in their lives that they don’t even think about it. Brands that don’t embrace social media will be missing the boat on the media preferences of many employees. 

For forward-looking retailers, social media provides rich engagement opportunities to build communities of employees by sharing company news, knowledge transfer and best practices. 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin is president and CEO of Tribe, an internal communications agency that works with national and global clients. She is the author of several books, including the Amazon Top 1000 Bestseller “How to Run Your Business Like a Girl; Successful Strategies from Entrepreneurial Women Who Made It Happen.” She blogs on employee engagement, professional performance and quality of work-life at www.goodcompanyblog.com.

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