Is Employee Advocacy the Next Big Thing for Marketers?It started with a simple question: “What’s the next big thing marketers need to focus on?”

I asked Mike Edelhart who runs the Pivot conference -- a conference for senior marketers on the leading edge of the social media revolution. I expected Mike to respond with the usual suspects: big data, mobile, customer experience, media-specific social platforms, etc. Instead he replied, “It’s all about turning employees into a powerful force to advocate the company’s brand.”

Why companies need to care about employee advocacy

Mike was quick to point out that the new generation of employees feels more empowered than ever to decide who they want to work for -- and why. It’s not the paycheck that matters most; it’s whether or not they align with the mission and values of their employer. Remember, these mobile, social, digital native millennials are brimming with confidence, and in many cases would prefer to launch a startup or consult to make a buck rather than toil away in cube farms.

This means it will be harder than ever for companies to hire and retain the best and brightest, let alone turn them into brand champions. With that said, the potential benefits of having an organization chock full of employee advocates is hugely compelling. For example, imagine if a company like GE, with hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide, could get its workforce to truly advocate GE brands and products. Talk about competitive advantage!

What makes employee advocacy such a big opportunity now?

No surprise -- social media is the force behind this opportunity. It's made it easy for anyone to share recommendations with family, friends and colleagues about what and where to buy. Doesn't matter if it’s a smart phone, vacation package or enterprise software solution. Plus, we trust people more than brands. That’s why the quality of reviews and recommendations can make or break a business. So imagine all of your employees championing your brand’s offerings to their social networks. Good stuff, right?

Once this employee advocacy thing clicked into place for me, I realized I’ve been hearing about it for a while now. Not in an avalanche of “though leadership”… but as a growing drumbeat.

For example, Ted Rubin, a social media strategist and frequent keynote speaker, chatted with me about the power of the employee base over a year ago. At the time I tied his message more to why you should encourage (not prohibit) your workforce to use social media. Now I understand what he was really getting at.

And during a recent lunch with Meghan M. Biro, CEO and founder of TalentCulture Consulting Group, she essentially said the same thing to me. In her words: