It seems like every year brings a new social marketing trend that promises to upend conventional thinking and change the way brands and businesses position social as a marketing channel. For those of us in the thick of it – social media professionals like me – this year’s buzziest term is ‘employee advocacy.’ As in, “Employee advocacy is the new influencer marketing” or “Employees are the latest source of UGC.” But does one of the top marketing trends of 2018 really live up to the hype? I recently attended an employee advocacy conference find out.

“Employee advocacy”: all that and more

Now, I don’t want to sound petty, but perhaps the most important thing I learned at the “employee advocacy” conference was that “employee advocacy” is truly a buzzword that the industry landed on years ago when it tried to articulate a handful of things. Ultimately, the term employee advocacy is trying to put a name to the solution that addresses many challenges social and digital marketers face today. It’s a collection of a few different things: personal brand building, social selling, and amplification — but all of that boils down to enabling people to build relationships.

Employee advocacy is the next iteration of influencer marketing

While influencer marketing has been a hot subject for digital and social marketers in the past few years, people like Chelsea Frischknecht of Tricentis and even companies like Sprout Social have made the claim that influencers are like, so last year. Influence is still key to persuading consumers and businesses, but the real influencers are not big celebrities or Bachelor/Bachelorette contestants, but your employees. Why? Because ultimately, familiarity = trust, and who’s more familiar to you than the people you already know and have relationships with?

Make it stick by making it personal

While employees are the most impactful influencers you have, it’s often difficult to get them to start sharing. We heard from a lot of individuals on how to engage your workforce to share, but the key everyone kept coming back to was that you had to make it personal. As an employee advocacy program leader, you must clearly define the value of sharing for your employees, not the company. For Steven Dickens, Sales Leader for LinuxONE at IBM, his personal reasons came down to a couple things. First, he said, “I didn’t want to be the middle aged dad who didn’t know how to use the tools.” This, his ability to connect with his kids, was personal. And in more of a business sense, he wanted to find ways to engage with his customers in a meaningful way.

Overcome fear with education

Even if you get your employees to understand the value, many are still sidelined by fear. They’re worried they’re going to post or share the wrong thing, or simply don’t have the knowledge to share. But as Jenna Kempie of Xerox said, “Social isn’t this big scary thing. It’s doable and achievable.” We just have to make it that way. Create guides and provide tools and training to enable even the most un-savvy social user to tweet with ease. Educate, don’t police. “Make it so easy to work with you that it’s harder to work without you.” Thanks for that one, Lindsey Sanford.

Find your champions and enable them

While some will be hesitant, you’ll inevitably have champions who get it and run with it. Identify the champions and share their story with others in your organization. In addition, empower them to create their own content and curate for their teams. In the short term these champions will look enticing to other companies, and in the longer term you can continue to encourage your employees to build their personal brands. While you may lose a few along the way, recognize that the greater benefit of engaged employees and a strong brand outweigh the loss.

You’ll also have champions who don’t work for your company: Individuals who believe in your brand and are an authentic fit with your brand can be great influencers, like Dee-1 and Sallie Mae. Whether it’s your employees or outside talent, it’s important to educate them and provide them with guidelines, but also give them space to build their own brand and engage with you in an authentic way.

More than individuals, it’s a culture

The common thread that runs through every successful employee advocacy program is that all of these pieces are not just a “social media” effort; employee advocacy is built into the culture. Everybody, from leadership on down to the entry-level employee, needs to understand the value and be engaged. If you can’t get leadership on board, aim for the groundswell to convince them of the value.

The lines of social are starting to blur

Social media is continually proving that it’s here for more than just retweets and likes. It’s proving influential in every part of the organization and we’re starting to see more and more departments that want to understand how to leverage social to achieve their goals. HR is using it to engage employees, sales organizations are embracing social selling and PR and marketing are starting to see the full impact it has on a brand. As Kempie said, “Social isn’t a standalone strategy. It has to be part of your marketing mix.” Incorporating and understanding the full value of social can have major impacts. Kelly Shelton of Boostability said, “The overall transformation of our org can be traced back to the launch of our employee advocacy program.” That’s big.

As I left the conference, my mind was spinning with so many new ideas and ways to improve social and employee advocacy at my company. And that’s where the true value lies. As Dee-1 said, “The world is better ’cause we’re all trying to perfect our crafts.”