Christine Moorman (Duke University), Katie Campbell Dettmann (Duke University), Becca Ramble (Deloitte Digital) and Aaron Lavin (Deloitte Digital)

Ever since marketers started putting up Facebook fan pages and creating Twitter accounts for their brands, they have recognized the benefits of social media. Here are channels that help them directly engage with customers, build brand affinity and share content such as articles, photos and videos at low cost. Marketers continue to make social a priority and will boost their social media investments from 10.6% to 20.9% of budgets over the next five years, according to the most recent results of The CMO Survey.

But social media is moving beyond just marketing. According to the survey, more than a quarter of marketers say their companies will make social media investments for activities that typically fall under the human resource department’s purview—such as employee engagement and talent acquisition. We interviewed leaders from a range of organizations to get insights into the nature and effect of these investments. We discovered what we call the social media multiplier effect: Social media investments impact important employee and customer activities that spill over to benefit the organization in many important ways. Below are some examples of the social media multiplier effect, and brands that are getting it right.

 Igniting Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is the foundational element activating the social media multiplier effect. Our research reveals six ways organizations use social media to create, nurture and express this engagement:

1. Bringing the brand to life: Given its public status, social media offers employees an opportunity to represent the company’s brand to the outside world. Reebok recently launched #fitasscompany, an externally focused social media initiative that encourages employees to show how they live the brand’s promise in their work and play. Posts such as “See ya soda” or “See ya never body contouring! We honor our bodies & earn the muscles we create!” allow employees not only to live the brand but also to develop it in authentic ways.

2. Building brand ownership: Social media use also encourages employees to manage the company’s brand as if it were their own, meaning that through their publicly shared stories and content, they take full responsibility for the success of the company. As one Reebok manager posted, “That’s my #FitAssCompany!”

3. Sharing the company’s story: Maersk Line, a Denmark-based shipping company, used social media to share the company’s rich history. Photos from the company’s digital archive were selected to tell the company’s story, including video of Clara Maersk and Maersk ships involved in the rescue of more than 3,000 Vietnamese fugitives in 1975. In the first 11 months, Maersk Line attracted more than 400,000 people to its Facebook page—many of whom were its own employees participating in this public forum who not only learned a great deal about the company, but shared photos from Maersk ships around the world.

4. Crowdsourcing an electronic water cooler: Internal social media networks can improve employee communication across roles, functions and geographies, especially in large complex organizations. For example, Best Buy created Best Buy Connect, which aggregates tweets, feeds and blogs from across the Best Buy digital communities and delivers them to a centralized location where employees can learn from one another to solve customer problems.

5. Fostering an internal community: Even beyond information, internal social media helps build communities by fostering communication, comaraderie and collaboration within companies. L’Oreal launched the #LorealCommunity to give employees the opportunity to share their successes and positive experiences with one another both inside and outside of work through Instagram.

6. Creating thought leaders: Social media can be used to tap and support a few budding thought leaders who might otherwise go unnoticed. Even C-suite executives with status can emerge as thought leaders using social media. For example, Peter Aceto, CEO of ING Direct Canada, has evolved to grow with the brand over his three years using social media.

How the Social Media Multiplier Pays Off

While the direct effect of social media on customer outcomes, such as increased engagement or referrals, has received more attention from practitioners, the pathway through employee engagement is less understood. Here are four different human capital outcomes that can result:

1. Enhanced talent acquisition: When current employees are active on social media, potential employees notice. They notice the brand and see that the company trusts its employees to act on its behalf and share their voice. For millennial candidates, this trust is valued and plays a role in job decisions.

2. Improved employee retention: When social media investment in employees fosters brand engagement and ownership, employees find work more rewarding and fulfilling. Engaged employees are more attentive and vigilant. They look out for the needs of their coworkers and the overall enterprise because they personally own the result of their work and that of the organization.

3. Increased employee productivity: Social media-inspired collaboration and best practice sharing improves employee productivity. In fact, 39% of workers believe access to social media results in increased productivity. Time and frustration are saved when employees can cut through problems using support from social media.

4. Enriched company culture: Social media investments that serve employees and ignite their engagement help build and reinforce a company’s culture. Company culture, in turn, drives the talent acquisition and employee outcomes we have discussed.

Social media engagement programs are not without risk, and many of us can quickly recall at least one story of employee activity on social media gone wrong. Organizations that recognize this and create programs that include training and social media policies to guide employees, as well as governance and work flow to manage risk, create a better environment for employees and leadership to achieve success.

The power of social lies in acquiring and delighting customers. Engaging employees in social media creates an indirect but equally powerful pathways to impact. These benefits, in turn, spur crucial human capital outcomes linked to talent attraction, productivity, retention and culture, which benefits customers, employees and the bottom line. There is no way to firewall part of the company from the effect of social media—that’s the social media multiplier effect.

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