Companies look to capitalise on ‘employee influencers’

Early in the pandemic, when Amazon loosened its rules around allowing smartphones on the warehouse floor, an employee now known as “thepackman123” saw an opportunity.

The 23-year-old, who works at a facility in New York and asked not to be named, started filming himself — with his face obscured — stuffing products into packages to be sent to customers. With entertaining flair, he swiftly constructs each box before sending it on its way.

At his friends’ suggestion, he began posting the videos on TikTok. Twenty-seven million views later, he received a message from Amazon’s human resources department. “I was like . . . I’m in trouble,” he recalls.

While major brands often clamour for attention from social media influencers, the relationship is complicated when that person is already an employee: a rank-and-file worker who has gained a following by sharing a glimpse into private operations.

“Employees are walking extensions of the brand, so when they post about the company on social media, it has the potential to feel really authentic,” said Lydia Cox, from global ad agency Digitas. “That said, it can also be detrimental when the peek behind the curtain doesn’t line up with the values and promises the brand preaches.”

Thepackman123 said Amazon had tracked him down via a packaging label visible in one of his clips. Amazon would not confirm this but said that it did know his real identity.

Despite breaking Amazon’s strict policies, to his considerable surprise, he has kept his job. He said he believed it was because he showed the company, and its much maligned warehouse jobs, in a somewhat positive light — at a time when Amazon is engaged in an unprecedented recruitment drive.

“There was a lot of hate towards the company,” he said. “But if you look in the comments, everyone was just like, ‘Oh, I want to do that job.’”

thepackman123, whose videos on TikTok have millions of views, and a video from the popular #walmartsocialchamps tag

“Employee influencer” accounts like thepackman123’s are littered across the major social platforms. With their winning authenticity, they often perform far better than the official marketing efforts. 

But employee influencers do not always attract the kind of attention companies want. Earlier this month, a different Amazon worker posted a clip calling the job “toxic” and “inhumane”, while a Target employee recorded a video of herself resigning over a store’s loudspeaker.

When companies find popular accounts, their reaction is often to shut them down, leaving fans bereft and the brands looking out of touch. Tony Piloseno, a 22-year-old who worked at paint company Sherwin-Williams, was fired after the company discovered his TikTok account, which showed the hypnotic process of mixing paint.

The posts attracted millions of views and Mr Piloseno, a marketing student, created a presentation he had hoped to show to the company’s corporate team. Executives refused to look at it, he said, and fired him shortly afterwards. The company also accused him of wasting its product, though he insists he paid for all the paint he mixed.

A wave of negative publicity followed his sacking. “People perceived it as the classic David and Goliath story,” he said.

Mr Piloseno now works for a rival, Florida Paints, having turned down other job offers at similar companies and a handful of digital marketing agencies. “We wish Tony the very best in the next phase of his career,” Sherwin-Williams said.

Some companies are now actively looking to harness the appeal of employee influencers, while minimising the reputational risk involved. A number of influencer management companies have moved into the space to guide their efforts.

UK-based DSMN8, which counts the likes of Ford and Huawei among its clients, offers software to help co-ordinate employee activity across public social media channels. A dashboard provides imagery and suggested topics to post about. Rewards, though not necessarily pay rises, are given to the best performers.

“It’s about finding that kind of dedicated, hardcore internal fan who is comfortable and willing to create content,” said Jody Leon, DSMN8’s marketing director. The end result is more interesting posts at a fraction of the cost.

“Let’s face it, [traditional influencers] don’t get out of bed for anything less than a few thousand these days.”

America’s largest employer, Walmart, has enrolled about 500 employees to be part of its own programme of employee influencers, known as Spotlight, first reported by industry magazine Modern Retail. On TikTok, the #walmartsocialchamps tag collates their best efforts, never straying from the company message.

But even these stage-managed efforts come with their own potential banana skins. Last year, when it was revealed that Amazon was paying some staff to tweet glowing remarks about its warehouse jobs, investigative site Bellingcat likened the behaviour to that of the trolls at Russia’s notorious Internet Research Agency. Twitter users mocked the accounts, suggesting they read like they were written by “hostages”.

Though the “fulfilment centre ambassador” programme still exists, thepackman123 insisted he was not part of it, nor had he been given any guidance on what to do when approached by the media.

His primary concern now, he said, was to build on his social media presence by finding ways to share more of his personality on his feed. But he said that every post that strayed from his packing formula lost him followers.

“A lot of people are like, ‘OK . . . why am I following this guy?’”

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