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Storyboard 18 | The rise of employee influencers and founder brands

Corporate India and the professionals from the advertising industry are expressing their opinions like never before. However, there are attendant perils.

September 20, 2022 / 07:39 PM IST
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In 2021, when Aditi Anand, a marketing professional, switched jobs and was looking for ways to break the ice and connect with her co-workers in a work-from-home world, she chose LinkedIn. She got active on the network designed for working professionals to express her thoughts on working remotely, write about trends that caught her attention, and gather views on what the marketing community was really thinking at large.

From 1,500 followers to more than 27,000 followers now, Anand was picked as one of the LinkedIn Top Voices of 2022. “I got appreciation from former co-workers, colleagues who I never met in my new job, peers and others from my network. I wouldn’t have got the exposure I have if I wasn’t on a platform like LinkedIn,” admits Anand.

She adds that as a marketer who has worked with some of the top consumer brands like Coca-Cola, Airtel, Nokia and Flipkart, posting and daily engagement on LinkedIn has helped her simplify her creative process. It has helped her express her points of view during brainstorming sessions with much more confidence and clarity. Anand has also been getting speaking opportunities at industry events and jury invitations for advertising award shows.

Move over, influencers of yore. Anand is one among many who found LinkedIn to be a means to express themselves. The network may have been launched in 2003 as a way to connect jobseekers with recruiters, and to widen professional networks. It has 830 million users globally who generate about 8 million posts and comments every day.

But over the last few years, LinkedIn has changed its algorithm, introducing newsfeed-like features. This has not gone down well with everybody, with some saying it is trying to be like other social platforms rather than a professional platform.

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“LinkedIn is slowly becoming like Instagram where you see videos of people dancing in suits, workation photos and creatives on leadership lessons that no one in particular is seeking,” says the chief marketing officer (CMO) of a multinational company on condition of anonymity.

The trends are similar on the microblogging site Twitter. The increasing habit of “oversharing” has led to many in corporate India and adland to open up and enhance their personal brands. But is it all getting too much? Is the pursuit to build personal brands and the race for clout clouding the platforms?

Building personal brands

Today, a set of creators who are hyperactive and catching a lot of attention on platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram happen to be entrepreneurs. In fact, this year image consultants and influencer management agencies are actively getting requests from CXOs, startup founders and even digital marketing agency chiefs to handle their personal accounts on social media and digital platforms.

These companies get paid anywhere from Rs 10,000 to Rs 2 lakh to manage these personal profiles. This includes creating content banks, pushing promoted posts to garner more followers and crisis management, if required.

Viraj Sheth, CEO and co-founder of Monk Entertainment, says entrepreneurs, especially the younger ones, have a different unabashed kind of energy.

“They’re not low-key, they’re not building in stealth. They don’t want to hide things or keep anything discreet. They want to be open about their progress and failures. They want to share their updates with their community. They understand the importance of having reach and followers on social media. Even if the founder has 5,000 followers on a social media platform, that’s 5000 people he can introduce his product or service to. That’s 5,000 fewer people he has to spend his marketing money on,” he says.

Bharat Chugh, a former lower courts judge and later Supreme Court//pl check// advocate who has a big online presence has similar views: “An employee influencer is not the average social media influencer on Instagram. They are employees who are also brand advocates. The soft brand influence by the employees themselves is common and effective online. Employee influencers bring a personal touch. They attract like-minded individuals who are interested in either the product/service or employment in the company they work for. Consumers also trust brands and companies who use their own employees as advocates.”

However, they do have a different set of rules to follow, a checklist they have to go through before hitting that publish button.

Perils of being vocal

Recently, a creative director of an advertising agency called out the founder of a Mumbai-based digital creative shop on LinkedIn for claiming a famous philosopher’s quote as his own. The founder quietly took the post down and moved on to his next content piece on creativity, advertising and everything in between.

“It’s ironic that some professionals who give creative advice to brands have plagiarised content on their timelines. All of this just for likes and shares,” says the creative head.

A marketing head of a tech startup has of late been seeing promoted posts without any disclaimer from a former colleague, who now leads a homegrown BFSI company’s branding.

“Building personal branding needs subtle strategies. The more aggressive you are with your content approach, the more people will stay away from engaging with you,” says the creative head quoted above. Another CMO tells Storyboard18 that several former marketers are moving to a heavy personal branding push. She observes, “It looks like they are using desperate ways to draw attention. You cannot bombard your community with weekly wisdoms and WhatsApp videos with captions that don’t make sense. Some of them have truly forgotten the basics of marketing. Be authentic. That’s about it.”

Mitesh Kothari, co-founder and chief customer officer of independent digital agency White Rivers Media, believes personal branding is more important now than ever before. He says, “It helps build credibility and strengthens your networks, leading to client retention and more syndication opportunities. As a brand’s backbone, C-suite executives must be vocal and establish themselves as thought leaders in their niche. Understanding that your personal brand is what people say about you when you’re in the room is essential. The best thing about that is you can make them think whatever you want by actively creating any environmental perception.”

Having said that, there are founders who stretch the point. Not so long ago, Shantanu Deshpande, CEO of Bombay Shaving Company, sparked a furore with a post advising youngsters to work 18-hour days in the formative years of their careers. Facing a severe backlash and trolling, he first apologised to the people who disagreed with him, and logged off from LinkedIn. But he returned in a couple of days to declare that the episode created over Rs 20 crore worth of PR for the company. Deshpande thanked all the people who sent him hate.

A former marketer says, “This episode is a classic case of why consumers have trust issues with influencers. You signed off a platform and returned in no time. So was this all a part of a plan?”

Planned strategy or organic, founders who represent their brand and the company’s culture also need to be conscious of what and how they communicate to their online communities.

The rulebook

There are several founders who are creators. They give a shout-out to brands that they like to support in the business community with no returns. However, many brands are targeting vocal employees and entrepreneurs whose opinions matter. Many popular marketing heads on LinkedIn that Storyboard18 spoke to indicate that they were offered brand collaborations from categories like BFSI, consumer durables, recruitment firms, and others. All of them have been politely refusing the offers due to contractual issues with their employees.

Chugh says that in recent times, many companies have even launched employee influencer policies. Some of these companies have been tailoring contracts for certain employees who have enrolled in such programmes, he says. According to him, it is advisable that the social media profile of the influencer is a professional or business account. “Be that as it may, in any event, all such brand-related content by employee influencers must strictly carry a disclosure,” he adds.

As per the Advertising Standards Council of India’s influencer guidelines, all advertisements published by social media influencers or their representatives on such influencers’ accounts must carry a disclosure label that clearly identifies it as an advertisement. A disclosure is required if there is a material connection between the advertiser and the influencer. Material connection includes employment relationships. Experts believe even entrepreneurs and employee influencers should strictly follow these rules.

“At times, employees also moonlight as influencers. In such cases, it is not advisable for the employer to control the employees’ use of their personal social media accounts. However, it may also be advisable for employment contracts (with such influencers) to clearly mention that such employer shall not undertake any activity that may harm or bring disrepute to the employer and/or the brand,” concludes Chugh.
Priyanka Nair is Assistant Editor of Storyboard. Storyboard is Network18's flagship platform focussed on the advertising & marketing community and a leading source of news and analyses on the business of brands
Saumya Tewari is Assistant Editor of Storyboard. Storyboard is Network18's flagship platform focussed on the advertising & marketing community and a leading source of news and analyses on the business of brands.
first published: Sep 20, 2022 07:38 pm
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