How Lever Empowered Employees as Brand Storytellers - HR Open Souce
Founded in 2012, Lever is a fast-growing, venture-backed recruiting software company based in San Francisco. We formally launched our applicant tracking system in October 2014, and during our first year on the market, the number of customers using our core product grew from a handful to 600.
Looking ahead to year two, we needed to quickly double our team to support ongoing growth but we wanted to do it the Lever way, maintaining our strong commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workforce. Employees had founded Lever’s first Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) task-force when we were only 10 employees, and we had worked hard to achieve balance. By October 2015, 43 percent of our employees were women and about half were non-Caucasian. We knew we needed to scale, but were intent on continuing our D&I progress.
Why We Did It
Our key challenge? Attracting the right talent, given...
- Intense competition from better known, local competitors, both established (hi there, digital titans) and hot/emerging (what’s up, Silicon Valley unicorns?)
- Extremely limited resources relative to talent competitors, in terms of time, funding, and
- Limited understanding and awareness of Lever’s corporate and employer brand in the outside world
- The ongoing need to make tradeoffs: while tasked with hiring, we faced internal pressure to use every available resource to directly support gotomarket and engineering efforts
Despite those challenges, we did have some secret powers in our back pocket: namely, an extremely passionate, savvy and articulate team of ‘Leveroos’ (as we call Lever employees) who were fiercely proud of the work they were doing. But with that secret power came a further challenge: given our somewhat (read: mostly) nerdy culture, the team was largely introverted, and not necessarily inclined to share their employee experiences publicly.
We knew that if we could just overcome that nerdy introversion, we would improve our ability to attract and engage the right talent through a strong, authentic employer brand.
What We Did
In the absence of a newsworthy event (acquisitions tend to work for this, as do financial raises and, if we’re honest, a good scandal), it’s hard for a relatively new company to build an employer brand following on social platforms. We had already begun to experiment with our LinkedIn Company Page as a hub for Lever news, insights and career updates, but we also decided to devote more attention to activating our employees to tell their story.
The data supported the need for that focus: back in October 2015 we already had over 45,000 unique employee 1st degree connections on LinkedIn despite having under 1,000 company followers, and even as our company follower base has grown, we still have over 18x the number of unique employee 1st degree connections today.
Having established that the audience was there, we now needed to help our employees do their part. Given the reserved nature of our team, we knew we needed a programmatic way to encourage every employee to tell their authentic story of who they are and what it means to them to be a Leveroo. We knew prospective employees would be researching Leveroos and these stories needed to be easily found, as well as relevant and resonant.
How We Did It
We’d had success in the past in engaging our employees using lowtech, hightouch methods like training and personal communications, and we didn’t want to abandon what already worked. At the same time, we wanted to capture some of the benefits that high tech approaches offer, such as the ability to capture data, measure results, and scale. So we opted for a blended approach that combined the best of what high tech and high touch could offer.
We turned to Brand Amper, a platform that captures employee stories for use in recruiting and marketing, for help. Each Lever employee was given access to the Brand Amper tool and encouraged to complete a guided online exercise in which they were shown how to craft a simple, effective story about themselves.
Along the way, they were exposed to multiple Lever ‘brand statements’ and given the option to draw on one or more of them as ingredients in improving their professional story. We divided our employees into two groups based on their roles “technical” or “gotomarket” and gave them the set of brand statements that we felt were most relevant, with some statements being shared across both groups.
We didn’t walk into this project with a clear articulation of what makes Lever a great place to work. Rather, our Marketing and Recruiting teams worked together to come up with the brand statements, which we developed based on an analysis of language used in existing Glassdoor reviews combined with our hypothesis about which aspects of the Lever culture appealed to different groups of employees.
Importantly, we wrote these statements in conversational language, not corporate-speak. Once we’d drafted and refined our statements, we ran them by a small number of employees to confirm they resonated. Instead of a one-size-fits-all, generic approach, creating a bank of targeted and customizable statements gave us a way to test how our employees reacted to them, and iterate our employer brand in realtime.
Once employees had used the online wizard to craft their unique personal story, they then incorporated that story into their social presences, most notably in summary section of their LinkedIn profiles. We felt this approach gave us the best shot at influencing candidates because most modern job searches involve spending time on LinkedIn.
Prospects who are evaluating your company will check out employee profiles, and often form opinions about the organization based on what they see in profiles (despite this, most companies give little to no guidance on building compelling profiles). The data from the exercise was captured for later analysis.
Some aspects of our approach that made it successful:
- We collaborated and championed efforts at the executive level. Marketing owned the project, which ensured alignment of interests, but the heads of Recruiting and People Ops were also closely and visibly involved. For a few weeks running, every Meeting Monday (our company all-hands) featured a project update, during which our CMO highlighted one or two employees who had overhauled their profiles to tell their own authentic stories. We posted video and text messages in Slack to keep the momentum going between Meeting Mondays.
- We incorporated both Employer Brand and Corporate/Product Brand elements. While the two are separate entities, in reality the line between employer brand and corporate/product brand is increasingly blurred. Especially at the startup level, prospective candidates may be drawn to your culture, but are unlikely to develop serious interest unless they believe your company’s product or service has the potential to succeed. As a result, 70 percent of our brand statements skewed toward culture and Lever as a place to work, but 30 percent were focused on our product and company performance.
- We made it all about our employees. Employees were fully in charge of their own stories. The entire process was opt-in and customization of the suggested “Lever brand statements” was highly encouraged, as was combining statements or running with something else altogether. Another key element? Leveroos were asked to share a little something about themselves. Rather than just talk about their job and Lever culture, they had the freedom to talk about what they do outside of work. When considering your next career move, who your co workers are can be a key differentiator.
- We supplied the tools and training to support quality storytelling. In addition to giving all employees access to Brand Amper as the means to collect stories, our People Ops team ran optional workshops. They helped people think creatively about how to leverage their LinkedIn profile headlines to maximum effect and introduced other ways to leverage their stories, like using them to explain what they do and why at networking events.
- We encouraged employees to share their stories in a variety of places, including Glassdoor. We reminded everyone of the power they have to influence prospects on Glassdoor, and gently suggested that they share how they truly felt about working at Lever but we weren’t too aggressive with this call to action, as our intent was to sow the seed without forcing the issue. Through Brand Amper data we know that 17 percent of people who wrote stories clicked on the Glassdoor option. This has not translated into a huge spike in reviews yet, but it has not hurt either. We maintained our 5 star rating and will continue to encourage voluntary engagement.
Meanwhile, to build greater brand awareness (both corporate and employer), we dialed up our employee blogging efforts. We had had our “Inside Lever” employee blog for some time but given our early stage, our traffic was still relatively low. We decided to forego the short term SEO benefits of driving all traffic to unique content on our own blog, and instead blog ‘out in the wild’ to increase eyeballs and awareness.
It was important that all blog posts were authentic and genuine, not contrived, and supported the brand. Employees generated ideas based on their personal passions, and were given light feedback on writing style. Knowing the visuals are important, our team bought a ‘fancy camera’ and our designer took professional grade photos of the protagonist of each post, to make them more eye-catching.
On the blog side: by leveraging both LinkedIn’s publishing platform, as well as (when we were lucky) BusinessInsider and the LinkedIn Talent Blog, we were able to get exponentially more views on our content than by sticking to our own blog. We also put select posts on Medium, which yielded lower viewers but better engagement than our own blog.
Below are viewership stats from three pieces of Employee Generated Content our team crafted. Ciara from our customer success team offered some uncomfortable truths on diversity recruiting; Jordan from our sales team wrote on the need for more women in tech sales, based on her desire and ours to increase gender diversity on that part of our team; and our head of People Ops Jennifer Kim reflected on the realities of working for a startup. By cross-posting these three pieces alone, we saw a massive boost in views of this content.
Aside from encouraging these employees and several others to share their personal stories via blogs, we also decided it was worth divulging one aspect of our ‘secret sauce’: the personalized Lever welcome GIFs that we send out to every new Leveroo when they accept their offer.
In sharing, we wanted to drive awareness of our close-knit team and the seriousness with which we take our responsibilities to attract, hire, grow and retain amazing talent. That post ran on our blog but was also picked up by many other blogs and newsletters, including the LinkedIn Talent Blog, where it has had almost 8,000 views and 2,000 social shares to date.
As a result of our enhanced LI profiles and blogging efforts, the employer branding process became more leveraged and sustainable by:
- Linking Marketing and Employer Branding
- Engaging employees as ambassadors, storytellers, and recruiters
- Showcasing our commitment to diversity and inclusion
- Testing employer brand messaging for two critical employee segments
- Setting the foundation for a longterm, scalable solution
- 80 percent of our employees upgraded their LinkedIn profiles after completing the personal storytelling exercise including 70 percent of our technical team (Not even kidding. 70 percent of our deeply introverted tech team wrote personal stories. And they were amazing. #CodersCanWrite). 90 percent of our gotomarket team did the same.
- More than 50 percent of Leveroos self-identified as brand advocates (people who “raised their hands” and said they want to share company content, attend company events, etc.) during this process. We will be tapping into this group in the coming months for blog posts, event support and more.
- We got hard, realtime data on which of our brand messages resonate best with employees, both overall and across key employee segments. For instance, messages around diversity and inclusion were more than 4x as likely to resonate with our technical team, while messages related to industry impact were almost 3x as likely to resonate with our gotomarket team. These insights have positioned us to create more targeted hiring campaigns as well as determine which anecdotal hiring experiences represent trends we can build on.
- Our blogging in the wild efforts increased viewership by up to 241x, as seen by these metrics on those three posts:
- Our blogging efforts also delivered a sizable boost to our gender diversity recruiting efforts, particularly in Sales, as we recently found out in a survey of ‘Leverettes’ (women at Lever).
While several of our blog posts were cited as being influential, we heard from multiple survey respondents that “a HUGE part of the reason I joined Lever was because of Jordan Leonard's LinkedIn article about Women in Tech Sales :).”
Overall, during nine month period from October 2015 to June 2016, our employee base grew from 41 to just over 90 and our customer base grew from 600 to over 1,000. In that same period, women increased from 43 percent of Lever’s workforce to 47 percent, helped greatly by the progress made on the sales team above.
We believe that putting our collective best foot forward on LinkedIn and on mainstream blogging platforms was a key influence that helped us raise the profile of our employer and corporate/product brand, and therefore scale both the team and our business, all while improving our gender diversity.
Lessons learned from putting our employees front and center of our employer branding efforts fell into four areas: messaging, approach, executive impact, and content.
Messaging: Even at our small size, we don’t have a single, all encompassing employer brand. Employees’ experiences with the company are, by nature, individualized, and we now have the data to show how to create a segmented brand that unites the team while staying true to employees’ unique experiences. Data from the stories we collected showed that our tech team loves diversity, while our GTM team rallies more behind the fact that Lever is improving the state of the industry and even walking the talk itself as a company. (Jordan’s women in tech sales blog actually hits on both themes.) These insights will support our EB work moving forward and will make it easier for us to efficiently target, source, and recruit talented people who will fit well not just at Lever, but in the department where they’ll spend most of their time.
Approach. Personal touch matters! We all know that engagement doesn’t happen just because “it should.” Yet we were able to achieve incredible levels of engagement and zero need to police employees by resisting the typical carrots-and-sticks approach to “motivation”. Instead we opted to invite people in, provide resources, and give them flexibility in other words, we treated them like grownups.
Executive impact. Recruiting doesn’t have the span of influence to engage everyone, even in a small company... but Marketing does. While Recruiting ran the program in conjunction with our Chief of Staff, it was important for our CMO to visibly sponsor the project, and we got extra lift by having our CEO champion it. This executive air cover was important to signaling to employees that this was important and worth their time, not only now but as we continue to evolve and amplify our employer brand.
Content. While you potentially compromise the SEO value of your own site and content by doing this in the long run, we were able to exponentially increase eyeballs on our content by leveraging external blogging platforms. And given our goals of increasing understanding of our corporate and employer brand, this was absolutely the right tradeoff.
What We Got Wrong
- While several members of our executive team got involved and made major updates to their profiles, a couple of key execs haven’t yet taken action. Try to get every executive on board to set the right example, especially for new employees.
- Because recruiting numbers are still relatively small on a month-to-month basis, certain metrics are difficult to ascertain in a statistically significant way.
- We could have tried to measure the impact on candidate flow more directly. Anecdotally, our head of recruiting hears more candidates she speaks with mention LinkedIn research and the quality of the people and their stories. After Brand Amper, the content was so much crisper and engaging, this has been enabling engagement for us but we can’t yet quantify that. In future we should tag candidate profiles in Lever if they mention LinkedIn profiles or employee blogs, so we can better assess the impact.
- We should have stepped back to weave employee stories into other efforts. For instance, during this period we invested in setting up a Lever page on The Muse, including video content. The initial employee video interviews were fine, but not extraordinary, and after we gathered these amazingly rich and personal stories, we knew they fell short. As a result, we’ll be taking the time to reshoot those segments this Summer.
- Executive sponsorship is a must—if you can’t sell your executive team, you won’t sell your peers.
- Internal communications need to be thought through every bit as much as the program itself—build time in the calendar for nothing other than repetitive communications.
- Individuals needs to be the face of the Employer Brand in a way that is boldly transparent. Employees need the freedom to talk about the brand IN THEIR OWN WORDS (it’s really ok, marketing... and legal... and senior executive team... and brand standards manager...) and share a little something personal about themselves.
- High-tech/low-tech combos work! Just offering software is rarely enough. Lunches/informal training sessions cement and optimize engagement with the technology and overall project success.
- Making things measurable preserves the stories and insights while helping uncover new advocates and opportunities.
Brand Amper, free LinkedIn tools (publishing platform and profiles), Medium, Lever, Glassdoor, The Muse (stay tuned for the revamped version).