Research is at the heart of successful social media training

Posted on May 11, 2012 1:50 pm by | Internal | Social Media

Social Media Training ResearchThis is the third installment in a series on social media training

The best social media training effort is one that has been tailored to your organization’s requirements. Off-the-shelf training programs may cover the basics, but the basics will get you only so far. The payoff can be huge if you invest the time and effort to get the information you need to make sure your training addresses the unique circumstances of your company—and every company has unique circumstances!

That’s why research is the most important phase of the training development process.

What you need to know

Everything from the content of your training to the means by which you deliver it will be determined by the information you gather from various parts of your organization. While the nature of your business and the composition of your employee population may lead you to come up with additional questions, here’s a rundown of what you want to know:

Employee readiness

Just how steeped in social media are your employees? It’s dangerous to make assumptions. You may believe pretty much everybody in the company is on Facebook; research may prove different. Knowing what parts of the population are and aren’t using social media, and which tools they’re using, can help you determine how deep you need to go into fundamentals.

Knowing which levels of the population are and aren’t using social channels can also help with your planning. For instance, if front-line employees are engaged by managers and supervisors aren’t, you’ll know that some training targeting middle levels of the company may be appropriate.

It’s also important to know how employees are using these tools. For example, are they more likely to use social media from a mobile device than a computer?

There’s more to assessing readiness than determining employees’ social media competency, however. There’s also the matter of comfort. For instance, while they may be adept at using Facebook, they may be less comfortable sharing company information with their communities. That may be because they want to keep their personal and work lives separate, or it may be that they’re not all that engaged at work.

You may be inclined to think that your company’s employees are a mirror of the general population, but more often than not, that turns out to be a dangerous miscalculation. Company cultures can have a strong influence on behaviors and every company’s population is different to a greater or lesser degree.

Company policy

Embarking on a social media training journey starts with having a policy in place. Assuming it is, you need to review it to make sure it doesn’t serve as an inhibitor all by itself. You can make that determination just by reading it: If it is filled with a lot of don’t statements and warnings of the consequences of misbehavior, employees could read it and determine that it’s just not worth the trouble to engage, even if the company is asking them to. Asking employees about the policy can confirm that notion.

Asking employees can also determine that the policy may exist but employees are unaware of it. At one company where I helped develop a training program, only 35% of employees were aware that a policy existed. Where most employees are aware of the policy, you can devote most of the training to other topics and provide a basic overview of the policy. With 65% of the population unaware, however, the training clearly will represent the first time most mployees have been introduced to it, meaning that you’ll need to balance the training between policy and other topics.

Opportunites for engagement

Assuming your training isn’t strictly a policy review, you should devote a fair amount of the program to how employees can engage on behalf of the company and what the rules of the road are for that kind of interaction.

At the above-referenced company, it was top leadership’s commitment to its corporate social responsibility (CSR) platform that drove the training in the first place; leaders were enthusiastic about the potential of employees authentically discussing and answering questions about the company’s commitment to sustainability, talent diversity and other CSR categories.

Our research revealed that most employees—more than 60%—had already been asked questions in their social neetworks about their employer. Some dealt with CSR, some with references to the company in the mainstream media and a lot with employment opportunities and queries about what it’s like to work there.

These inquiries directed at employees via Facebook and other channels represent a singular opportunity for employees to respond to questions aleady posed that reflect the company’s values and messages. Yet the same research reflected a reluctance to respond.

You may not be fortunate enough to have a C-Suite already exicted about employees participating in social media on the company’s behalf, but there may be business initiatives or challenges where employee engagement could have a significant positive impact (assuming, of course, that employees are trained and have access to resources that help them answer accurately).


Research will also surface barriers to implementing training and the online employee participation the training is designed to promote.

You could, for instance, find out that front-line employees are enthusiastic about sharing company information within their communities but that their managers are opposed to it. You can also find out why they’re opposed. For example, is it that supervisors don’t want employees wasting work time on social networks that they believe have nothing to do with work, or it is a more specific issue?

Research can also help you determine if those managers objecting to social media are open to learning or are digging in their heels.

Research will also identify whether employees are uncomfortable—or even downright afraid—to mention work in their networks. If that’s the case, you’ll now now why and can address those issues in the training. In the case of the client previously mentioned, front-line employees uniformly felt more comfortable sharing links to official resources that contained authoritative answers than they were in crafting answers in their own words. The problem was, they didn’t know where to find those pages, given the company’s multitude of websites. As a result, the company worked with a taxonomist to develop a one-page listing of links to the various categories of information employees were most likely to need when responding to a query from the community. The training introduced them to the resource.

In other companies, research has determined that employees were more likely to share tweets and status updates prepared by the company (and disclosing the source) than in creating original comemntary.

Leadership/management buy-in. (Unofficial spokespesons) Fear and discomfort (concern over what people might say about comments). Lack of knowledge (e.g., where to find correct information). Lack of resources (e.g., no material available for sharing).

Between the interviews and focus groups, and the identification of obstacles, you should also be able to figure out whether a voluntary or mandatory training program is most appropriate. For example, in a highly engaged workplace, a voluntary program is probably adequate since most employees would be inclined to take it. If your company has employees who are mostly actively disengaged, you’d be better off with a mandatory program, since few employees would be inclined to go out of their way to make that discretionary effort on behalf of their employer.

The training environment

A lot of organizations are inclined to make assumptions about the nature of the training they will deliver. For example, you may think it’s a no-brainer to put the training online. But what if a significant portion of your population works in a factory and is unionized with a contract stipulation that they are not required to engage in any work activities outside of contracted hours? And what if plant managers oppose giving employees an hour away from the line to participate in training?

Even if your employees can access online training modules, do you have a learning management system (LMS) that will accommodate training? You’ll need one if, for example, your training or HR department insist that your training include a quiz, recording the results to determine who has completed the training and how well they absorbed the material. What’s more, some LMSs handle multimedia better than others.

If your training is face-to-face, is it classroom style or, as it is at Dell, more of an open forum?

How to get the answers you need

To assemble all the information you need to develop your training program, consider the following four distinct activities:

  • Review existing data—Your company may have already conducted some research, ranging from employee engagement surveys to technology audits. Get your hands on them and review them. Read the policy—and all related policies—and ask around for any other resources that can help you better understand the environment.
  • Interviews—The more interviews you can do, the better. Your goal is to learn everything you can about the policy, the reservations that key players might have that could torpedo your effort, the training environment, perceptions and opportunities. At a minimum, talk to the head of training, Human Resources, legal, IT, customer service, compliance and PR/communications. Ideally, you’ll also be able to talk to key C-suite members, the head of sales and marketing leadership.
    Focus groups—Focus groups have gotten a bad rap lately, but as an internal communications research tool, they remain invaluable. Asking straight-ahead questions about employee use of social media, how they use it related to their jobs and what their concerns are will raise categories of feedback you can test in a survey.
  • Survey—You never know until you ask. Surveying a representative sample of employees will produce statistics you can use not only to guide the development of your training effort, but to convince leadership that the approach is appropriate. After all, leadership loves numbers.

Post-training research

One other benefit of reserach is the establishment of baseline metrics for determining just how effective your training was.

I was heavily involved in the research leading up to the development of a training program for PepsiCo (as well as developing the training itself). That effort will be honored at the IABC World Conference next month with two international Gold Quill awards. Among the results PepsiCo was able to demonstrate:

  • Ninety-eight percent of those who took the training said they understood the social media policy (compared to 34.5% who reported they understood it before taking the course). A majority added that the training gave them the permission to participateb based on their new appreciation for their obligation to be transparent, ethical and honest in their online dealings when talking about work.
  • By incorporating a feedback mechanism into the training, PepsiCo was able to identify 2,000 employees who wanted to learn more and/or get more involved. The training thus served as a recruiting channel for the company’s evolving ambassador program. Those who sought only additional information said they felt empowered with their new knowledge to supplement discussions with consumers, friends and family with the information the company made accessible to them.
  • Eighty-four percent of those who completed the trainingsaid they would be willing to share PepsiCo information with their social communities at least monthly. This group of employees wanted additional information on products, social media and nutrition, suggesting they would be better equipped with this information to engage to the company’s benefit with their social networks.

Resistance is not futile

You may feel some pressure to opt for an off-the-shelf training solution based solely on cost. You should be able to resist based on a business case for equipping your employees to engage on behalf of your company—with the positive results employee engagement can accure—rather than simply provide a generic introduction to social media.

Have you conducted research about employees and social media at your organization? What did you learn that surprised you or led you to adjust your training in a way you didn’t expect?

Social Media Training Series



  • 1.Thank you Shel for a helpful article that remind us that social media along with most communication programs should be applied within the context of a situation. The opportunity of shaping behavior and attitudes is found in understanding the culture, the individual values and the work place structures and processes.

    In communications there is not one best practice but a series of tools and approaches that may or may not work given where and how you are applying them. For any program to be strategic it needs to support the mission of our organization.

    Interviews with leaders allow the customized design to reinforce their strategy and increase the value of the program. Connecting with the end user support both their ability and motivation to participate in the program. To connect with our role as communicator, it is also helpful to assess our passion and skills as change initiator. Who we are will impact how we teach and facilitate social media training. Good planning research will address these three separate needs of strategists, initiator and learner. I know my learning and growth has come through understanding others and their needs.

    Ryan | May 2012 | Vancouver, BC

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