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.

64 Replies to “Breakdown: The Five Ways Companies Let Employees Participate in the Social Web”

  1. As you say, it’s tricky for firms to decide on the best strategy. I agree that much depends on the sector and the potential liability of mis-information. That said, we live in an information society where employees want to have their say, either officially or anonymously. Evangelist firms like IBM, Sun and HP may lead the way but then they are tech. What advice do you offer to firms in construction, brown goods, finance, professional services etc? Where’s the line between transparancy, authenticity and brand protectionism?

  2. Nice model for thinking about this issue! At BurrellesLuce, while our official policy encourages everyone to participate, in reality we are have a group of ten employees who blog and a cadre of Twitterers. On balance, I would rate us as a four.

  3. Jillian

    Thanks, that’s the analytical side in me.

    It depends on the culture of each company sophitication, and industry type. To be clear, companies that end up doing types 2-5 should still organize by Hub and Spoke model (see first link in my post)

  4. If only every company could have the courage to jump from Type 1 to Type 5. From, we are not sure what to do with this SM stuff, to let’s put a common sense plan together that trusts our employees, encourages everyone to participate, and supports them to represent the company well.

    Great list Jeremiah. How about a a rough estimate from you about the percentages of companies making up each type?

  5. Nice break down. I’d say we’re somewhere between 4 & 5, depending on the medium. Closer to 5 for Twitter and 4 for blogging, for example.

  6. Jason

    I have data (from over 120 companies) on ‘how they organize’ internally, but not on this particular breakdown. Would be good to measure in coming years.

    (note to self: follow up on this)

  7. Great post, Jeremiah. We are squarely in the type 3 camp, but with more documentation (need, best practices, etc.) could evolve to type 4. Really like the content presentation format: bullet points for pros, cons, takeaways. This style is working for you!

  8. Jeremiah (2nd time you’ve heard from me in 1 week). Good post — what I’d love to know is, if your company is at or near #5 more due to lack of guiding employee rules of engagement, how do you create those rules of engagement and cascade them through not only a corporate audience but thousands of people in the field, who, for example, might mean well when post a glowing comment on the brand’s Facebook wall, but failed to ID themselves as an employee because they did not know any better. Think this is a huge challenge in many large companies right now!

  9. Great article, I can really feel this as I am in healthcare. In fact, I think I’ll use this to reference. From where we are, to where we need to go. Thanks!

  10. Really interesting segmentation, Jeremiah. I read it twice, nodding, before figuring out what puzzles me most: in your analysis, you don’t seem to take into account the inner working/awareness of companies themselves, which in fact meets your last comment.

    I see two different points here:
    Your analysis mainly assumes that companies still operate as “enterprise 1.0” (which is alas mainly true), structure and processes driven. But what will happen when companies will reorganize into communities? Will they engage the same way as individuals? Or won’t we see different levels of involvement, with “engagement flows” being defined the same manner workflows are defined today(my guess)? This could deeply affect employees participation.

    Brands. There are a lot of companies of every size which don’t act as branded, but rather rely on CRMs and Excel worksheets to drive business. Whichever stage they are in, social media engagement is a crude task, and since they completely lack most of the important levers available in the space, their involvement is a kind of brownian movement where 90% of efficiency is lost. Proper (traditional) branding is a requisite for these companies, even before they dip a toe into social media. Problem is time runs fast and companies might not have time enough to realize that, so they might adopt a backward attitude.


  11. Your intro and concluding paragraphs both say there are only 3 models, while the rest of the article says there are 5. Also, in your paragraph for Type 4, your last sentence is only half a sentence – ends with “go”.

    I like the ideas, and second what someone else said about the value of listing pros & cons for each. Social media can be great sources of information as you mentioned on Twitter earlier today – but getting editing feedback on more formal postings decreases the perception of the poster as an “expert”… I think this could have used a little more polish before being posted.

  12. M Thalberg, in any of the 2-5 types you’ll need social media guidelines and governance. Make it clear what’s the best behaviors and what’s the worst. I hope you come back a third, and fourth time!

    Aaron, that makes me smile, that’s why I write –to impact companies, hope you pass this post around.

  13. Hey Jeremiah – great minds do think alike, eh? Thanks for the shout-out in your update. If I’m writing things that align with your thinking, I’m on the right track.

  14. Excellent post as always Jeremiah,

    I posted a short article today about cultivating a social environment within the workplace. I too was inspired by BesyBuy and BlueNation as outlined in Groundswell. Companies that can create a space for employees to channel the “I am bored out of my mind” updates on their Twitter and Facebook accounts while they are at work are progressively addressing the social platforms and fostering constructive dialogue and discussions about policy and procedures that may need revision.

    Integration of intranet tools like Yammer, for instance, could serve as an incubator for growing a healthy social engagement corporate culture. If a company conducts their day to day business in a social and collaborative manner internally, then external social interaction will be a natural progression moving forward.

    Now that’s something to get excited about!

  15. Thierry Most companies still act in a military structure, the top gives orders to the bottom. I don’t expect this to change quickly for years.
    It’s good to hear from you again, I hope to visit Paris soon.

  16. Just coming back to London from a recent trip to the Middle East, and reading your article, it is striking to see the geographical differences regarding the use of social media by companies. A geographical analysis would be as useful as an industry study. Thanks for the article!

  17. Very informative post Jeremiah!

    What would you recommend for broadcast companies that have their on-air talent tweeting and posting to FB? Should they have separate personal and work accounts, or should it be a careful combination of the two?

  18. Amanda

    That topic deserves a breakdown of it’s own. Let me put that in the drafts for a ‘to do’.

    It’s not just broadcast, but press, media, and analyst firms.

  19. I’m actually really interested in the process of supporting, managing, and measuring the impact of all those potentially involved (between models 4 and 5); wondered if you’ve talked with Whole Foods in how they are approaching the issue, as I see they now have 111 of their 280 stores with Twitter accounts and would be interesting to compare and contrast to Best Buy.

  20. You seem to have gone from “3 ways” to “5 ways” somewhere in the editing process. Am I right in reading it as “ways 1,2 of 5” are the “first or second model” of the final paragraph, while “3-5 of 5” are “the third model”?

  21. Great follow-up Jeremiah. Thanks for making it so simple. It seems like to some degree, organizations have to go through each of these “types”. While they may not be phased in this exact order, implementation takes some form of discovery. Our journey has led us through most of these.

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  23. Jeremiah,

    Individuals who have taken my social media classes have expressed similar attitudes towards being expected to participate in social media by an actual or prospective employer.

    Their response has been a range from “What would I say?” to “Wow! I see how I can use this!”.

    I would suppose the employee pool make-up could in fact influence the extent and depth a company would engage in social media. Major league baseball teams experience similar scenarios…how can they expect to lead the league in home runs when the roster lacks power hitters?

  24. Jeremiah, thanks so much for this post. I just took over as my company’s social media guy (building from the ground up), and I’ve been struggling to put this exact concept into words that our CEO can understand.

    We know that we need to grow into this realm, so I really appreciate seeing which direction(s) it can go.

    I got here via Dawn Foster’s blog. You’ve got a new fan!

  25. Hi Jeremiah, Great thinking on this important issue. Thanks.

    I am working with a large local government. I am putting together a strategy, guidelines, and resources to help them to adopt and to integrate social media into their culture, organization processes and strategic communications in an efficient and excellent way.

    Can you recommend a source or thought leader who could help me to find guidelines adopted by other public sector organizations?

    Best regards, Mark

  26. Nice Article Jeremiah, i am currently a student at ECPI and found this to be very informative and even cited your work in my “Communication in the workplace” paper. Thanks a lot, helped me understand a lot of what i was working on.

  27. Nice Article Jeremiah, i am currently a student at ECPI and found this to be very informative and even cited your work in my “Communication in the workplace” paper. Thanks a lot, helped me understand a lot of what i was working on.

  28. Nice Article Jeremiah, i am currently a student at ECPI and found this to be very informative and even cited your work in my “Communication in the workplace” paper. Thanks a lot, helped me understand a lot of what i was working on.

  29. Nice Article Jeremiah, i am currently a student at ECPI and found this to be very informative and even cited your work in my “Communication in the workplace” paper. Thanks a lot, helped me understand a lot of what i was working on.

  30. The previous company I worked for used the third method. Only designated people could have any social interaction. I think that is a a little behind the times.

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