Kirsten Hamstra was one of the original digital natives.
Growing up in Fort Myers, Fla., she would use a dial-up modem to explore the brand-new Internet. Hamstra even fondly recalls the excitement of sending her very first email on AOL.
A world of possibilities opened before her.
“I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew that it was cool,” Hamstra said. “It blew my mind that I could search for things on the net and start conversations with people. Today, it still blows my mind how digital communication is changing the business world.”
Hamstra didn’t realize it back then, but those were her first steps on a career path. She now is a recognized leader in the employee advocacy field as the Global Head of Social Media at business analytics software company SAS. It’s also why she was a featured speaker at the inaugural Summit by Dynamic Signal conference that brought together communicators from around the world.
“Kirsten is terrific,” said Becky Graebe, a Dynamic Signal communication expert who previously worked with Hamstra as SAS. “She’s a powerful advocate for getting employees involved and helping people present themselves authentically on social media. It was amazing to watch her operate the SAS social program as a solo operation before growing it into a full-fledged team. She really is a trendsetter.”
Hamstra intuitively understands how brands can harness the power of social media, which in recent years had helped shape profound cultural changes. It was a shift Hamstra began noticing when she was with the Edelman public relation agency earlier in her career. She watched with keen interest as the firm’s annual trust barometer started showing how people place more faith in their social media networks than in brands. That, Hamstra thought, was an opportunity.
Six years ago, she got the chance to digitally mobilize the SAS workforce when she was named social media manager. The twin goals were to create greater awareness for SAS as well as help employees build their own brands.
SAS was an ideal company to embrace the social media revolution because of its employee-centric culture, Hamstra said. In fact, the North Carolina-based company has been recognized on Fortune magazine’s “Best Companies to Work For” list for 21 consecutive years.
“There’s a real understanding here of how employee voices can have an impact,” said Hamstra, who now manages a corporate social media team of six. “It has been incredibly rewarding to build something from the ground up that’s impacting the business across the board. It’s not just marketing or sales. Social is changing everything from soup to nuts.”
A good example of how Hamstra’s team transforms employees into brand ambassadors is “The 140,” an award-winning training program named for the former character limit on Twitter. Employees learn best practices about social media, so they feel more comfortable and confident online.
In just two years, more than 600 people have gone through the program. “The 140” is wildly popular because it’s all about the employees. They learn about cool topics like how to take compelling cellphone pictures at an Instagram Photo Safari. There are sessions on blogging, how to share content, and building audiences.
The goal isn’t to turn employees into brand robots, but rather to give them a platform to demonstrate their subject-matter expertise and provide greater value within their networks.
“We’re very clear that this is a voluntary program for the hand-raisers,” Hamstra added. “There are plenty of employees who want nothing to do with social, and that’s totally fine. We’re not looking to change their minds. But there is that percentage of people who are active on social, and we want to encourage more of it in a way that makes a big business impact down the road.”
Hamstra is amazed that she has made a career out of something that’s always been part of her life. In some ways, she still feels like that little girl first exploring the Intranet and seeing a whole new world. In other ways, though, it’s as if the rest of the world is catching up.
“I think even the most traditional leaders and marketers now realize that digital has changed everything,” she said. “It’s great to see that change and to be part of it.”
Global Head of Social Media at SAS
Summit Speaking Topic: Internal Communication for Social Media Success
Family: Husband Shane; son Asher, 7; daughter Rosie, who turns 5 in September
Home: Fuquay Varina, N.C.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English from Emory University and master’s degree in public relations from the University of Florida
Career: Before SAS, was on the digital and corporate reputation management teams at Edelman Public Relations in Chicago. Previously worked for CNN, Atlanta Magazine, Atlanta Press Club, and John Wiley & Sons Publishing.
Interests: Wine (especially Italian), food, running
Favorite Movie: “Dirty Dancing”
Favorite TV Shows: “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men”
Best Advice She Received: “Don’t ever lose your passion. I know that probably sounds a little trite. But I’ve taken it to heart, and I’ve always felt very wedded to what I’m doing.”
Fun Fact: Training for her first half-marathon in November
Follow: @kirsten on Twitter
Five Questions with Kirsten
What is the most significant communication challenge facing organizations today?
“I think it’s focus. Today, communicators are being asked to wear so many different hats as well as reach so many different audiences. The messages are becoming muddled. We’re trying to hit everyone at the same time, all the time. It’s too much. When we have the opportunity to hone what we’re trying to do, that’s when we can have the most success. Still, it’s hard to balance that with everything that leadership tells you is a priority.”
If you could share one piece of advice with communicators, what would it be?
“It comes back to defining your focus. I think employees want to rally around a singular idea rather than 20 ideas. If all the marketers and communicators at a company can get on the same page about the primary goal, everyone can collaborate toward it. That way we all feel a sense of accomplishment because each of us played a role in impacting a big company initiative. When more people are rallying around a common goal, you don’t feel like you’re alone and fighting an uphill battle.”
Where do you see Employee Communication and Engagement heading in the future?
“Most successful brands empower their employees with the core values that shape the identity of those organizations. That’s why I don’t think the rise of advocacy programs is a surprise. It’s a way for brands to show trust in their employees to make a difference. When employees know that leadership trusts them, it changes everything. It certainly powers our social media programs because leadership believes employees will make the best decisions for the company.”
Why is it critical for communicators to be gathering now?
“We all have to get outside of the bubble that we inadvertently create for ourselves. We need to hear different perspectives. Sometimes we all feel trapped dealing with the same challenges, over and over again. You need an event where you can have honest and candid conversations with others who are doing similar work. It makes us feel like we’re not alone because we share very similar struggles. But you don’t realize that sometimes until we’re all in a room, face-to-face.”
Why are you most excited to be attending the Summit?
“I love being around other communicators. You’re bringing the best of the best together. The tagline for the event is great: ‘Authentic Stories, Measurable Results.’ I want to hear other communicators be authentic about their situations. I want to hear real stories and the results they’re getting. Communicators are only really comfortable sharing when we’re in front of each other. I’m looking forward to open conversations where we hopefully can learn from each other.”