The employee influencer program checklist: 3 expert tips

Experts across content management platforms share the pillars of top-performing programs.
article cover

Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photo: TikTok

· 5 min read

In 2010, retailers’ influencer wish lists included sports stars, movie stars, and a Kardashian or two. In 2021, those lists are just staff rosters.

When store employees post unfiltered glimpses behind retail’s frontlines, they garner thousands, sometimes millions, of views and likes—social media metrics that aren’t too far from traditional influencers'. Recent hits range from a Starbucks barista running down new menu items (35.2k views) to an ex-Ikea employee roasting customers’ FAQs (5.2 million views).

That’s organic engagement that blue check accounts can’t buy. So retailers are trying to replicate it another way: by casting their store workers in new and HQ-approved influencer programs.

Formal employee influencer programs intend to convince workers that a retailer isn’t a regular employer—it’s a cool employer. They also build trust with customers: Jeff Zilberman, VP of client services at Brand Networks, the platform behind Walmart’s employee TikTok program, told Retail Brew big box stores see as much as 10% sales lift “as a direct result of these influencer programs.”

If retailers are going to join the growing employees-as-influencers movement, what should they consider? We spoke with experts behind employee ambassador platforms to find out.

(Brand) safety first

Retailers are just like pop stars: They want to control the narrative. Every platform expert who spoke with Retail Brew said brand safety is the biggest concern retailers raise when crafting an employee influencer program.

  • Courtney Morrison, marketing lead at EveryoneSocial, said her clients want to be perceived in a positive light...but they don’t want to “censor” their employees.

Yet across software platforms that host influencer programs, including EveryoneSocial, Brand Networks, and Tribe Dynamics, retailers can monitor and filter employees’ content for potential red flags; each platform has proprietary tools for approving employee posts.

Before letting anyone hit “Publish,” Zilberman recommends holding an “influencer university”: structured time for store employees to learn their brands’ preferred messaging and rules for posting.

Even before that, retailers should take a culture temperature check: “If there are a lot of unhappy workers, you're probably not going to like what you see when they're on social,” Jody Leon, marketing director at DSMN8, another employee content management platform, told Retail Brew.

Platform priorities

In conversations about employee influencing, TikTok gets the most mentions.

Take the program at Dunkin’, “Crew Ambassadors,” where store associates hand-picked by Dunkin’ HQ participate in TikTok challenges for prizes. Videos produced by the Crew are often reposted on Dunkin’s brand account, where they rack up hundreds of thousands of views.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.

For Dunkin’, activating on TikTok was a way to follow employees’ lead. “Particularly with Covid, we noticed how much more our restaurant team members started using TikTok to really share what life is like working at Dunkin’,” Director of Brand Engagement Melissa Cohn Rabino told Retail Brew.

But TikTok isn’t for every retailer’s program. Video content takes more editing chops than static posts, Conor Begley, cofounder at Tribe Dynamics, told Retail Brew.

Retailers can instead push their employees toward LinkedInfluencing, where posts are already “more focused on your professional brand than your personal brand,” Morrison said.

Zilberman also recommended Facebook and Instagram: Since they’re more mature social platforms, they can easily integrate with automated tools to monitor employee content.

Employee rewards

To keep content Whole Foods-organic, our expert panel said programs should never be mandatory. But there should be Instagrammable carrots for workers who want to participate.

  • At DSMN8 and Brand Networks, gamification features on internal dashboards allow retailers to tie rewards to completing content challenges.
  • That guarantees more employee participation, “because [workers] want to beat their peers,” Zilberman said.

Rewards for hitting the top of the leaderboard depend on the retailer. Execs we spoke with mentioned everything from branded T-shirts to early access to new products. (Direct compensation wasn’t mentioned.)

Dunkin’s Cohn Rabino said one of her company’s top rewards—scoring new followers from resharing employees’ content on larger brand accounts—is free. “Sprinkling fame is something that we've seen is such a powerful force on these platforms, specifically TikTok.”

Some Dunkin’ Crew members saw their TikTok followings triple after their posts were reshared by the Big Account, which has 2.9+ million followers, Cohn Rabino said. And the chance to gain more followers generates more interest in the program: Dunkin’ just closed a campaign to cast its next ambassadors...through a TikTok challenge promoted by its current ambassadors.

Bottom line: Retailers can’t cut and paste a competitor’s program, nor can they control 100% of the content employees post online. But if they can ID platforms where their employees already want to post behind-the-scenes content, they can build an influencer program employees can’t help but share.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.