I recently read an excellent book called The Social Employee: How Great Companies Make Social Media Work by Cheryl and Mark Burgess. The book’s central theme concerns the concept of the social employee, which the authors define as someone who effectively cultivates his or her personal brand and thereby comes to play a key role as company representative in social media. The book makes a compelling case that social employees are becoming critical to a company’s success in the connected economy and provides some practical advice as to how firms can establish programs and processes that encourage the development of such social brand champions.
The book provides a good visual metaphor, which helps explain the significant impact that effective social employees can have in advancing the interests of a social business.
“Picture a ball and a bag of marbles side by side. The two items might have the same volume- that is, if you dropped them in a bucket, they would displace the same amount of water. The difference, however, lies in the surface area. Because a bag of marbles is comprised of several individual pieces, the combined surface area of all marbles far outstrips the surface area of a single ball. This expanded surface area represents a social brand’s increased diversity. These surfaces connect and interact with each other in unique ways, offering customers and employees alike a variety of paths towards a myriad of solutions. If none of the paths prove to be suitable, social employees can carve out new paths on their own.”
This passage appears in a quote from Ethan McCarthy, Director of Enterprise Social Strategy at IBM. McCarthy then goes on to say quite emphatically — “[E]mployees are the brand at IBM. Their value lies in the multitude of possible connections and ideas that over 400,000 marbles can collectively produce.”
Take a look at a brief video of the book that provides more insight into the importance of The Social Employee:
Now as is typical with such books, the discussion is focused primarily on Fortune 100 companies where social business strategies have already made the biggest inroad. The case studies discuss behemoths like IBM, Adobe, AT&T, Dell, Cisco – big players who have invested heavily in rolling out social networks that extend across hundreds of thousands of employees.
But as I was reading the book, I began considering what implications this has for today’s law firm. It has long been a truism of law firm marketing that clients typically don’t hire a firm — they hire an individual lawyer. That’s because the primary products of a law firm are knowledge, advice and confidence – intangibles that are always best represented and embodied in the professionals themselves. This means the individual lawyer – the personal brand – has always been a critical piece in marketing the law firm. In the age of social media this has become even more the case.
The mistake that most law firms seem to be making is that they completely overlook the individual in developing the firm’s social media presence. We saw strong evidence of this in the Social Law Firm study we undertook with Above the Law. Large law firms are simply approaching social media as one more marketing channel through which they promote the firm’s brand identity. This explains why large law firms are achieving such low audience engagement despite all the resources they are devoting to social media.
That is not to say that establishing your firm’s brand on social media is not important. It is. But you can’t hope to succeed as a social business unless the professionals at your firm — the people who actually do the work – undertake a direct and public role in the effort. In today’s social media landscape, the success of a firm’s social presence depends on the success of its employees’ individual brand presence. The power of one depends on the empowerment of many, as Cheryl and Mark Burgess have persuasively made the case.
Updated and republished June 23, 2017.