Tap Employee-Creators to Transform Your Social Media Strategy

Businesses that help employees become social media stars have a cost-effective way to generate enormous brand visibility.

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  • James Yang/theispot.com

    On Jan. 2, 2023, 19 refugees from Cuba who were adrift on a makeshift boat in the Straits of Florida were spotted and rescued by the crew of the Celebrity Beyond, a passing cruise ship. Rescuing stranded refugees has become surprisingly routine for cruise liners during an intensifying global migrant crisis. What made this rescue unusual, however, was the way it rippled across social media when the captain of the Beyond, Kate McCue, documented it on TikTok.

    McCue is well known in the industry for being the first American woman to captain a mega cruise ship (one that can accommodate more than 5,000 passengers). She’s also known outside the industry as @captainkatemccue, a TikToker with 3.6 million followers (and another 900,000 or so followers on Instagram). McCue’s 67-second video about the rescue generated nearly 30 million views on social media, creating the kind of positive exposure for Celebrity Cruises that any CMO would pay dearly for. Only in this case, it cost almost nothing.

    For the sake of contextualizing that value, if Celebrity Cruises had wanted to advertise to the largest TV audience in the United States, the company would have had to spend approximately $882,000 for a 30-second spot during a Sunday night NFL game, watched by an average of 18.3 million people. That’s 60% of the reach and half the engagement time of McCue’s TikTok video. Even if we were to decide that a viral TikTok doesn’t carry the same branding value as an NFL ad, McCue’s millions of followers clearly bring amazing visibility to her employer at an almost negligible cost. It’s enough to make one wonder whether every company should want its own Capt. McCue.

    As a researcher who studies the emerging phenomenon of social media creators who produce and share content about their jobs and employers, I’ve spent the past few years talking to organizations about how they should be adapting to the rise of employee-creators. This article shares what I’ve learned about how savvy executives can tap into the vast potential of employees who amass large social media followings by encouraging, supporting, and even training willing team members on how to become successful employee-creators.

    Creators With Two Careers

    Employee-creators are employees who produce content on their personal social media accounts in ways that deeply entwine them with their employers. They’re not just publishing content while at work, which plenty of creators do (often while trying to hide where they are employed). Instead, they have explicit or implicit support from their employer to post about their job and, as a result, publish content for themselves that simultaneously markets the company they work for.

    The following are notable examples of employee-creators besides McCue:

    • Cody Rigsby, a cycling instructor for Peloton who has a following of 1.7 million people across platforms. He has tens of thousands of dedicated fans who bought out the nearly dozen stops on his book tour, passionately cheered for him when he was a contestant on Dancing With the Stars, and, of course, keep paying their $59 monthly Peloton membership fee.
    • Dr. Austin Chiang, the chief medical officer of Medtronic Endoscopy and director of Thomas Jefferson University’s endoscopy bariatric program. He’s a triple-board-certified gastroenterologist with more than 600,000 followers. He regularly posts informative and humorous content about colon and gut health. As one of the leading producers of medical devices, Medtronic likely gains a significant benefit from Chiang’s content on gastrointestinal health and advocacy for procedures that protect against diseases like colon cancer.
    • Aaron Dinin at Duke University (that’s me). I am a faculty member in the Innovation & Entrepreneurship program at Duke University, who, four years ago, regularly began posting articles about startups on Medium.com and have amassed an audience of nearly 100,000 followers on that platform. I have expanded that work to another 150,000-plus followers across TikTok and Instagram, where I regularly post videos about my entrepreneurship classes and collaborations with students. In 2023, my content reached well over 20 million unique users.

    Despite the increasing prevalence of such employee-creators and the value they generate, they are still uncommon. Many employers want to have total control over their brands and worry more about the risks that come with employee-creators than about missing out on their value. But even in companies that are open to employee-creators, they are rare for two reasons: Employees are often unsure of how or whether they should post about their jobs, and employers assume that they have to passively wait for employees to build large followings on their own. Both of these issues are resolvable with the right approach.

    Here are the seven steps I encourage businesses to take when they engage me to help them cultivate employee-creators within their organizations.

    Step 1: Facilitate creator training.

    Despite the often casual tone of the finished product, effective social media content creation is a time-consuming endeavor that requires practice, patience, persistence, and a willingness to experiment.

    A company that is serious about leveraging employee-creators for its marketing efforts should speed up the process by hiring creator training professionals who are able to identify promising talent within organizations and teach fundamental principles for creating engaging content.

    Hiring professionals to train your internal creator talent also helps ensure that the creators you nurture are well integrated into your brand from the beginning so that their content and growth more smoothly align with your brand’s desired public-facing image.

    Step 2: Set clear content expectations.

    Because brands are both valuable and delicate, encouraging employees to create personal social media content that reflects on your organization’s brand can be frightening. However, when organizations I work with express concerns about possible brand risks, I like to remind them that the risk of employees creating problematic social media content already exists. Proactively supporting and discussing your organization’s content creation policies reduces that risk by allowing you to explicitly address topics such as:

    • Expectations for the kind of content shared.
    • How to divide time between content creation and other job duties.
    • Mechanisms of creative oversight and approval (if any).
    • Integration with internal marketing efforts.
    • Ownership and usage rights of content.
    • Protection of the company’s intellectual property.

    Remember that if you don’t set firm guidelines and educate employees on your policies, the ones most likely to post content are the kinds of risk-tolerant people who are also more likely to post problematic content. In contrast, establishing clear policies and educating employees creates helpful guardrails so that more of them can feel comfortable sharing online in ways that will reflect positively on your brand.

    Step 3: Provide production resources.

    Effective content strategies rely on an array of production skills (such as videography, photography, editing, lighting, and audio engineering) and expensive equipment (cameras, microphones, lights, and production software).

    Creators can learn production skills on their own, but companies can help by providing training on relevant technical skills as well as access to equipment, software, and facilities that can enhance and speed their outputs. In some respects, this kind of training is similar to the kinds of learning benefits that companies already offer, and using these types of benefits to help employee-creators has a similar payoff of creating value for the company.

    In addition, once employee-creators begin seeing meaningful audience growth, I encourage companies to consider hiring additional staff members (such as editors and producers) to help them scale production. It’s a relatively low-cost way to quickly get more value from a uniquely effective marketing asset.

    Step 4: Nurture a supportive community.

    Despite the public visibility achieved by successful content creators, content creation is a challenging and isolating process. Creators who aren’t well supported can burn out, which, in the case of employee-creators, can result in the company losing both a valuable marketing asset and an effective employee.

    These outcomes can be avoided through proactive policies and structures that establish a supportive creator community. This includes giving sufficient time for employee-creators to produce content alongside their other job duties, ensuring that others in the organization know and understand why creator work is happening, and even having multiple people in the organization create content as part of a community.

    In my early days of helping companies train employee-creators, I was often hired to coach a single executive. Progress for these individuals was so much slower than when I trained multiple people in an organization simultaneously that I have found this type of training to be worthwhile only when directed at a community of participants.

    Step 5: Define clear value metrics.

    Because cultivating audiences takes time, the value of emerging employee-creators won’t be immediately apparent. Organizations should track the number and frequency of posts, audience growth, and content engagement to measure the impact of the initiative over time.

    Companies should also find ways to measure the value of an employee-creator marketing strategy through metrics other than revenue growth. For example, Celebrity Cruises might track booking patterns related to the ship being captained by McCue.

    Step 6: Establish compelling incentives.

    The most common question I get from corporate leaders considering this strategy is, “What if we commit lots of resources to this and our employees become so successful on social media that they leave the company?”

    This question is flawed. If an employee creates social media content promoting your organization for, say, five years and becomes successful enough to leave, it means that the employee created enormous value for five years. Every marketing strategy eventually ends, and an employee-creator strategy is no different.

    Instead of focusing on losing employee-creators, I encourage the companies I work with to create incentives that reward success. Remember that successful employee-creators generate enormous brand value. They should be properly compensated and incentivized in the same ways organizations reward all great talent.

    Step 7: Prepare for success.

    When considering the strategy described in this article, remember that if the public profiles of specific employees are massively elevated at the kind of scale that’s possible on social media, it can lead to unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable outcomes. Effective employee-creators reach millions of people, and nothing that reaches that many people is ever without controversy. A look at the comments section of McCue’s refugee rescue video demonstrates this challenge, as commenters with strong views on immigration, the cruise industry, and a host of other issues made their voices heard. Alongside the positive publicity, McCue and Celebrity Cruises also had to endure some criticism.

    Still, on social media, even negative engagement can be a powerful strategy for reaching larger audiences, and responding to direct feedback can be an opportunity to champion values aligned with the brand. McCue provides an instructive example. One of her other most viral videos on TikTok is one in which she creatively deflects and devalues a sexist comment about her being a female ship captain. It demonstrates how McCue’s enormous audience gives her — and, by extension, her employer — the power to speak out in ways traditional marketing and brand advertising don’t allow.

    McCue’s powerful response to misogyny is a great reminder that, in the age of social media, employees represent more than just a source of labor. They are human embodiments of your company’s brand and purpose. Expect to see more and more of your employees creating content about their work, regardless of whether you encourage them to do so. Choosing to partner with them by cultivating a community of employee-creators within your organization empowers your most valuable assets — the very employees doing the work — to become your brand’s most influential and effective ambassadors.


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