The power of an employee ambassador program for banks

Encouraging employees to represent and promote the bank brand, values and culture in an authentic way can amplify important messages to wider audiences.

By Karen Kroll

In 2022, Zions Bank participated in American Bankers Association’s #BanksNeverAskThat campaign, which uses humor to effectively point out types of information banks won’t ask for, so bank customers are less likely to fall victim to fraud.

The campaign “reached an additional 194,000-plus people thanks to our brand ambassadors engaging with and sharing our brand posts,” says Rob Brough, EVP, corporate marketing and communications with the Salt Lake City-based institution. When 74 employees shared a post about the opening of Paycheck Protection Program applications in early 2021, they reached 71,167 people, Brough adds.

Through an employee ambassador program, employees are empowered to represent and promote an organization’s brand, values and culture in an authentic way, says Regina DeMars, director of content marketing and social media strategy with First National Bank of Omaha. Employees can “amplify a brand’s message and visibility to engage with a larger, more diverse audience,” she says.

These initiatives can span offline and online channels, such as social media and customer networking events, says Hemal Nagarsheth, partner in the financial services practice with Kearney, a global strategy and management consulting firm.

Why consider an employee ambassador program?

Bank marketers brought plenty of ideas to the topic during a session at the 2023 ABA Bank Marketing Conference. No matter the size of the bank, its marketing and executive teams can’t be everywhere, says Marisa Ellis, assistant VP and director of marketing with Peoples Bank in Washington. Making use of employees already in the community enables a “bigger, broader reach,” she says.

Moreover, posts from personal accounts often come across as more persuasive than those from a company itself. Just over half of respondents to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer indicated they found a person like themselves very or extremely credible as a source of information about a company. This was second to academic experts (57 percent) but ahead of CEOs, who were cited by just 40 percent of respondents. A structured program can make it easier for employees to share thoughtful, compliant content, Brough notes.

Employee ambassador programs also offer “an authentic way to build buzz around not only products and services, but what it’s like to be an employee,” DeMars says. When ambassadors create content and share stories of what it’s like to work at FNBO, they help burnish FNBO’s positive image, she adds.

These programs can be cost-effective, DeMars says. “We provide our brand ambassadors with cool swag and on-trend branded items, but the cost is minimal,” she says.

Employees can benefit as well. A a strong employee value proposition — that is, the benefits, experience and training provided by the employer — can help employees feel valued, rewarded, respected, and engaged with the company, Nagarsheth says.

Building a successful employee ambassador program

Several steps are key to developing an effective employee ambassador program, including:

1. Define the program’s purpose and goals. “Employee ambassador programs can work well when the bank has a clearly articulated purpose that spans customer needs, employee needs and community needs,” Nagarsheth says. A defined purpose helps ensure the program’s actions align with and promote the bank’s overall objectives, he says.

2. To start, identify employees who are already enthusiastically talking about your brand and aligned to its values, DeMars says. An employee ambassador program can then amplify their efforts to engage with a larger, more diverse audience, while also helping to humanize your brand in an authentic way. To gain even more from the program, employees can be encouraged to post across a range of channels and in different formats, DeMars says.

3. Address compliance and regulatory concerns through training, monitoring and by collaborating with relevant experts. Training should help employees understand what they can and cannot say on social media, especially when promoting products and services, DeMars says. Program leaders also need to watch for and address activities that could be perceived as providing improper recommendations or endorsements. If a question on any material arises, DeMars’ team works with the compliance and legal areas to address it, she adds.

At Zions Bank, Brough and his team were required to develop training that includes information on the bank’s social media policy. Brand ambassadors complete a participation agreement in which they agree to comply with the procedures of the ambassador program, among other commitments. To ensure employees are transparent about their status as employees, they use the branded #ZionsBanker hashtag on their posts, he adds.

4. Make participation in the program straightforward. Zions’ online training module can be self-assigned and completed on demand, Brough says.

5. Look for areas in which employees can best represent the company’s products and services, Nagarsheth says. For example, most employees can authentically represent the experience of being a retail banking customer. However, “products aimed at small businesses or corporations might be better fits for actual customer testimonials,” he says.

6. Identify a technology vendor. This company should provide a robust social media offering, be committed to continuous improvement, and understand the heavily regulated environment in which banks operate, Brough says. “Look for features that help you meet regulatory and compliance requirements,” he says. One example is the ability to lock posts, so approved copy can’t be changed.

7. Start with a pilot. This provides an opportunity to work through any bugs before rolling out the program companywide, Brough says.

8. Provide compelling and engaging content for ambassadors to share, Brough says. In approving content, you can lean on established processes, he adds. For instance, bank leadership might decide that no review or a limited one is required for general thought leadership articles, while product or service posts require compliance approval.

At FNBO, DeMars and her team provide a range of content. For mortgage loan officers, they’ll offer mortgage-specific content that can be shared to help drive leads and closings. For relationship managers, they’ll post a variety of relevant, share-able content that highlights the bank’s expertise as thought leaders.

9. Offer incentives to encourage employee participation. Zions Bank employees who complete ambassador activities earn points that can be redeemed for prizes. This part of the program is approved by the incentive compensation department, Brough says. Some active ambassadors earn enough points to gain Apple watches and other desired prizes, he adds.

10. Monitor, measure, encourage and adjust. To foster the sustained success of their employee ambassador program, banks need to establish robust metrics that indicate how well the program is engaging customers and prospects, Nagarsheth says.

FNBO’s brand ambassadors meet monthly month to share content ideas, discuss company initiatives coming up, and offer shout-outs to team members who created highly engaging content and provide inspiration for the group, DeMars says. “Monitor, evaluate and evolve the program to stay relevant and be successful,” she adds.

Employee ambassador programs on a budget

Ellis of Peoples Bank says who would love to roll out an official ambassador program and toolkit to all employees, but that isn’t currently realistic. Instead, over the last two years, her department opted for small, achievable steps they can later expand.

One initiative is what Ellis calls “Marketing 101.” This training occurs several times each year and provides an in-person introduction to the marketing department. Employees from other areas of the bank gain a better understanding of which marketing employee handles which functions, such as developing flyers or arranging photo shoots.

Ellis and her team also discuss marketing goals and plans for the year. “It’s not a huge focus, but enough to show the rhyme and reason” behind different initiatives, she says. Her team also shares the branding guidelines and helps employees understand the types of events the bank can sponsor.

Across all these initiatives, Ellis takes care to include employees across the company, and not only those who interact directly with customers. Employees working in, loan operations, for instance, may be heavily involved in their communities or have great marketing ideas, she says.

Feedback on the program has been positive, Ellis says. While it’s not unusual for employees to be forgotten “in lieu of flashy external advertising campaigns,” everyone who works at a bank should be considered a potential ambassador of its services and products, she says.

Karen Kroll is a frequent contributor to the ABA Banking Journal.