It started with a simple question: “What’s the next big thing marketers need to focus on?”

I asked Mike Edelhart who runs the Pivot conference — a conference for senior marketers on the leading edge of the social media revolution. I expected Mike to respond with the usual suspects: big data, mobile, customer experience, media-specific social platforms, etc. Instead he replied, “It’s all about turning employees into a powerful force to advocate the company’s brand.”

Why companies need to care about employee advocacy

Mike was quick to point out that the new generation of employees feels more empowered than ever to decide who they want to work for — and why. It’s not the paycheck that matters most; it’s whether or not they align with the mission and values of their employer. Remember, these mobile, social, digital native millennials are brimming with confidence, and in many cases would prefer to launch a startup or consult to make a buck rather than toil away in cube farms.

This means it will be harder than ever for companies to hire and retain the best and brightest, let alone turn them into brand champions. With that said, the potential benefits of having an organization chock full of employee advocates is hugely compelling. For example, imagine if a company like GE, with hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide, could get its workforce to truly advocate GE brands and products. Talk about competitive advantage!

What makes employee advocacy such a big opportunity now?

No surprise — social media is the force behind this opportunity. It’s made it easy for anyone to share recommendations with family, friends and colleagues about what and where to buy. Doesn’t matter if it’s a smart phone, vacation package or enterprise software solution. Plus, we trust people more than brands. That’s why the quality of reviews and recommendations can make or break a business. So imagine all of your employees championing your brand’s offerings to their social networks. Good stuff, right?

Once this employee advocacy thing clicked into place for me, I realized I’ve been hearing about it for a while now. Not in an avalanche of “though leadership”… but as a growing drumbeat.

For example, Ted Rubin, a social media strategist and frequent keynote speaker, chatted with me about the power of the employee base over a year ago. At the time I tied his message more to why you should encourage (not prohibit) your workforce to use social media. Now I understand what he was really getting at.

And during a recent lunch with Meghan M. Biro, CEO and founder of TalentCulture Consulting Group, she essentially said the same thing to me. In her words:

“It’s not just hiring the best, it’s retaining them, too. And what’s the best way to get them to stick around? Turn them into employee advocates.”

Vendors have also gotten into the act. Well funded startups like Dynamic Signal and SocialChorus are now pitching employee advocacy platforms to enterprise companies. How do they help? By providing the tools and technology that make it easy to identify and mobilize employee advocates.

To be clear: this doesn’t mean the number of stars your business gets on Yelp or TrustRadius isn’t hugely important. It’s just that ratings from your employees on sites such as GlassDoor and are also a big deal. Or said another way, for marketers it’s still about customers and prospects … but it needs to be about employees, too.

How can marketers get started with employee advocacy?

Here are three recommendations:

1.  Partner with HR on employee advocacy

When was the last time you broke bread with human resources and asked how you can help? Like you do with the sales team, you need to arm the HR department with the messaging and collateral they need to spread positive word of mouth, but within the organization. For example, have you walked the HR team through the latest brand presentation and recent customer wins to help them understand why both customers and employees should be excited to work with your company?

2.  Find your baseline and set a goal with HR

How does your company rate with GlassDoor? This rating will provide a baseline for how your organization is doing with employee advocacy, and how it compares with competitors on this important metric (remember, they aren’t just trying to steal customers). Or maybe HR has done an internal survey or employee Net Promoter Score that gives a sense of how likely employees are to recommend the company and its products. With this baseline measurement in hand, you can now jointly own a goal with HR to improve employee advocacy.

3.  Make it easy for employees to spread positive word of mouth

A big part of marketing’s role will be to make it easy for employee advocates to get involved in and leverage social media on behalf of the company’s brand. This starts with getting your social media house in order by championing employee-friendly social media policies, developing in-house training and guidelines, reaching out to employees to participate, and establishing a social media approval process by which to make it all happen. This is where new social media tools and technologies can really help.

Now it’s your turn

How does your company rate with employee advocacy? Is your marketing team making it easy for employees to participate in social media on behalf of your organization? What technologies does your organization leverage to get employees involved in marketing your brand?

Social insights are key to understanding customers and employees better. For example, check out this social insights report:

How Top Marketers at Mid-Size Companies Engage on Twitter