1. Forget about traditional notions of ownership
Bree Mitchelson, principal sourcing strategist at The Strategist Group, says that companies will always own their brand - including images and trademarks - in the legal sense, but where it matters, in the brand value, Web 3.0 and social networking has taken the balance of influence away from the company to the employee, the candidate, the general public. "The spread of brand perception, good and bad, through these mediums is much faster and far reaching than has ever been possible before," she says.
Mitchelson adds that the process is largely the same as historical word of mouth - in particular the old maxim that positive feedback is rarely spread but people will tell five others of a bad experience. Today, in 140 characters, you can tell potentially thousands through your Twitter follower base, LinkedIn connections and Facebook friends, likely through one API (application programming interface) service that integrates and updates all the networks in a matter of seconds. On the plus side, Mitchelson says, it can be a powerful, real-time market research and feedback survey waiting to happen for organizations receptive to engaging with these mediums to maintain influence over their brand and respond to the feedback.
"To own and control brand going forward will be about an organization's ability to engage with their audience and align what the organization does and says with public experience and perception. Transparency is a must!" she says.
Brett Minchington, chairman and CEO of Employer Brand International, adds that ownership is usually about control and power and this is where Web 3.0 and social networking presents a major issue for companies. Minchington advises that success in this arena requires a focus on short-term goals as well as on long-term goals such as brand building, but this is in conflict with strategies which are usually focused on short-term goals. "Brands evolve over time and your employer brand is shaped by the interactions between your key internal and external stakeholders which make up your community," he says.
Candidates, employees, customers, suppliers and investors all contribute to how your company is perceived as a place to work.
2. Think long-term
It's evident that the demand/supply relationship in the employment market has flipped in favour of the employee once again. Mitchelson notes that where once the employee had to 'market' themselves, now it's the employers that must put some shine on their resume equivalent - the employer brand, also commonly referred to as Employer Value Proposition (EVP) - to compete.
How to do this? Mitchelson suggests starting in the same way that the marketers - and a growing field of proactive sourcing professionals - would. That is, with sound market research from which to develop strategy and brand. "Be creative in approaches to sourcing talent and the various mediums available to communicate, build and engage with talent communities, then continuously measure and review results," she says.
How the strategy is viewed and developed will also generally resolve issues of ownership. "If you think HR owns the employer brand, you will take a narrow focus; if you think your community owns the brand you will develop strategy that looks at the bigger picture where contribution of stakeholders becomes more important than ownership," Minchington says.
However, Minchington adds a word of caution about utilizing the services of external recruiters, who may not be familiar with the company culture and who may be driven by sales focused short-term goals rather than long-term goals such as developing and nurturing rich talent communities. While it's highly unlikely that HR teams would consider putting the development and management of the brand into the hands of external recruiters, the brand has many touchpoints, and recruiters are often 'brand ambassadors'. How they present the brand to the external market is a key consideration.
"With a focus on short-term goals what you then see are messages being crafted and broadcasted to the masses which are not authentic or reflective of the employer brand. Unfortunately this approach gets noticed and impacts not only on the recruiter but also the company they work for," Minchington says.
3. Let the brand 'breathe'
This "bigger picture" view must also include input from candidates, employees, ex-employees, analysts, and scores of other people who can now shape how the brand is viewed by the world. It does raise a question, however. Is this a disturbing development for those looking to keep their brand close to their chest?
A brand, by definition, is intended to engage with an individual, whether it be to motivate a purchase and brand loyalty, or a career move and employee loyalty, known as employee retention in the HR realm. Mitchelson feels it's only a disturbing trend for those who don't understand the mediums or have reason to be uncomfortable with a degree of transparency that is required by social networking interactive nature.
Statistics from consumer brand research back this up: One word-of-mouth conversation has the impact of 200 TV ads (BuzzAgent); Social network users are three times more likely to trust peer opinions over advertizing when making purchase decisions (JupiterResearch); 87% of consumers trust a friend's recommendation over a review by a critic (Marketing Sherpa)
Mitchelson says the same principals apply to the employer brand. Evidence shows that individuals who are becoming more savvy and resistant to advertizing messages prefer the reality they get through social media feedback where a tolerable negative can add positive weight to a brand.
"Individuals know that no job is perfect, but if they can get a balanced view of an employer and the reality of a job it can work in the employer's favour. It holds companies accountable to being true to the messages they present to their audience. At the end of the day, it's still about being perceived as more appealing than the competition, not as being perfect," says Mitchelson.
Minchington believes that in today's hyper-connected world, technology has driven a paradigm shift where authenticity, engagement and relevancy are now at the forefront of how people perceive products, the employment experience and investor attractiveness.
"An employer brand strategy which provides clarity to all levels and where employees on the frontline are empowered to make decisions that best fit the situation at hand and leaders at the top focus on understanding trends and evolving the strategy is one which will result in a building a culture that shapes a brand that is aligned with your long-term strategic objectives.
"Unless managers let their employer brand 'breathe' rather than trying to control it, we are likely to see disengagement, stagnation and costly turnover become the norm. Control in the workplace is becoming an unwinnable race - collaborate or die!"
4. Balance the tools with the strategy
In many ways, technology is driving this race. Brand creators are using the same mentality that they use on their personal brands. Earlier this year Facebook launched its 'Community Page', which is a mix of Wikipedia content and posted content from across the web to create a 'profile' of brands, places and organizations. As Minchington points out, tools are evolving at a much greater rate than the strategy that supports them.
"Social media giants such as Facebook are still trying to work it out as well," he says. "It's a constant evolution and it's only going to get faster. We're operating at the edge of chaos in web 3.0 and the most effective strategies will evolve over time."
Indeed, Minchington believes the problem lies with companies becoming fixated on measuring ROI - but this mentality is at odds with how social media is most effective. "I like to call it community media because social media is supposed to be social!" he says. "Make no mistake, companies have rushed into social media and are trying to use the tools which support it to increase revenues, margins and growth whether the focus is on products or talent. Most of the time there is no strategy to support it."
However, when it comes to brand management, organizations at least need to be monitoring anywhere their brand is. For targeting audiences for the purpose of recruitment, Mitchelson says market research and understanding how your audience wants to interact with you is key. For example, users may go to Facebook Community page to 'research' a potential employer, but as a general rule individuals want Facebook to be a personal, social tool, where LinkedIn is a more acceptable tool to be communicating and engaging with individuals regarding career opportunities.
"Employer brand strategy value is driven through sound market research, planned campaign management targeted appropriately for audience profile, with measured results," Mitchelson concludes.