During some research for a client project a while back, friend and HAPPO champ, Justin Goldsborough referred me to Sara Folkerts at Sprint. I was researching employee communications programs that had social components to help staff share coupons/deals on behalf of the company/brand. In case you haven’t worked in this area before, there’s not a lot of case study-type information in this area (employee communications)–mostly because most organizations try to keep what’s said behind the firewall tight to the vest. In this case, Sara was open to talking with me at length (thanks, Sara!). And, it’s a pretty interesting program, so I thought I’d share some of the insights I learned about this program through a short interview with Sara. Enjoy.
You’ve created a pretty unique employee advocacy program that primarily uses social media platforms in “Sprint Ninjas.” Can you tell me a little more about the program and how and why it came about?
Creating a social media program that empowered our employees made sense for Sprint for many reasons. First, just at the time where Sprint as a company was turning around (financially and in customer satisfaction), social media platforms were taking off. Second, although we had a formal outreach strategy in place, there were many more customers asking for help than we could get to. And third, our employees were the ONE group who saw this turnaround first-hand and were the best to speak to it. Plus, our employees are very knowledgeable and capable of helping customers, they just didn’t feel like the company had said to them, “Yes, please go out there and do this.” So, that’s what we did with Sprint Social Media Ninjas.
To date, you have more than 1,800 Sprint employees who participate in this program. How do you incent and motivate those employees to participate and keep participating?
What’s great about employee advocates is their knowledge and passion for the company. Sprint obviously hired the right people, because they were just waiting for someone to say “go!”
To ensure they feel supported, we share suggested tweets and status updates regularly through our internal blog site. We will also share “news you should know” through the blog and even through email. And lastly, we have created a community where Ninjas can talk among each other and share knowledge and tips. In our community, they automatically get points for participating and doing helpful things, like sharing the correct answer. All of these tactics ensure the Ninjas are on top of the latest news, know what Sprint is saying about it, and have a network of thousands they can draw upon for help.
But we also have a program just for our best Ninjas. It’s called Product Ambassadors. We’ve partnered with our friends in Product Marketing at Sprint to provide our “black-belt” Ninjas with our latest devices. The phones are theirs to use, all we ask is that they get to know it and then tell others about it. Because they are such a passionate and capable group, they educate thousands of Sprint employees about the phones (it’s important to note that not all employees such in-depth training and support on our phones like our Product Ambassadors) and then they help customers in online forums all around the Internet. The big incentive is that the phone is theirs to keep. You can imagine we get a lot of applications for this program, and we only take the best.
As part of this program, you put these “ninjas” through a two-hour workshop to provide them education and context around the initiative. Can you talk a little about what’s involved with these workshops and how it’s worked out so far?
Sure. At the end of our two-hour workshop, we hope all of our Ninjas come away with three things: 1) They know what Sprint is doing in social media. 2) They know what is expected of them as a Sprint employee when they participate in social media. 3) They know where they can find help if they experience issues in social media.
We like the workshop approach because it’s dynamic and can be topical or tailored to a specific group, but we are working on developing “off the shelf” social media training for all employees in the coming months. Today, the only other training that includes social media education is compliance certification courses; things like “don’t share a customer’s account number online.” While necessary, those courses only deal with a very few and specific social media interactions. We want our training to focus on how to do social media well in general and focus much more on the “do’s” versus the “don’ts.”
What’s the larger business case for Ninjas? How does the Sprint Ninjas program support your overall business and communications goals?
My recommendation for anyone who is thinking of creating a program like this is to find whatever it is that’s keeping your SVP (CEO, etc.) up at night, and find a way to solve that problem through your program.
We use the Ninjas program to reach the thousands of customers we don’t hear from in formal channels or can’t respond to through social media outreach. We also use Ninjas as a bell-weather for hot issues in social; and they let us know when our messages aren’t playing well in the forums. Ninjas are also great help when we need a local spokespeople who knows a device in and out, or knowledgeable guest blogger for partner websites.
How are you measuring success for the Sprint Ninjas program? Have you met or exceeded expectations so far?
We set out to accomplish a few things in 2011 with our program. First, we wanted to reach 2,000 Ninjas. We felt just short of that goal, but 1,800 isn’t too bad. Second, we wanted this program to be a differentiator for Sprint; we wanted this program to make it into advertising. We reached that goal with our Sprint customer newsletter, Sprint Connection, included an ad for our Ninjas program. It let our customers know that they may just run into a Sprint Ninja in “social media land,” and we were prepared to help them.
What’s next for the Ninja program? Where do you see it a year from now? 3 years from now?
We haven’t started our 2012 planning yet, but we know we are out to accomplish a few things. We definitely want to grow our Ninjas numbers. Ideally, we need 8,000 Ninjas. We are also excited about the opportunity to provide better social media training more broadly through our program. This will help us reach all employees, particularly those who are customer-facing; and those employees are the ones who can make the biggest impact for us in social media because of their phone knowledge and customer aptitude.
We also have big goals for making Sprint as a business more social, and integrating social insights into everything we do. My guess is that in three years, Sprint is going to grow its social media presence and become a shining example of a “social business.” And we’ll be able to look back and see that Ninjas played a key part in this change.