In social media, there is nothing more powerful than someone advocating for your brand. Advocates give their friends, families and colleagues trusted advice that is far more credible than any source of advertising. They defend a business against negative messaging in the countless small interactions that determine a brand’s health. They volunteer ideas for product and service improvements. And they do it all for free.

It’s no wonder, then, that just about everyone is looking for advocates. Companies are executing deliberate social media programs to find, activate and maintain these vital assets. Understandably, current engagement efforts are focused on making evangelists out of customers, widely considered the most authentic and valuable spokespeople. Influencers in the news media, academia and other fields are also cultivated. But while enterprises reach out to these external constituents, the best potential advocates hide in plain sight — their own employees.

Putting Social to WorkWhile not without its challenges, widespread employee advocacy is the surest, cheapest way to scale up a company’s social media reach. Instead of achieving linear growth in customer advocacy through incremental investments in social media teams, an enterprise can magnify its reach at very little cost by activating a broad cross-section of its existing workforce.

Each employee can be the first link in a long chain of intimate, person-to-person shares. By increasing the number of starting points for social sharing, a company greatly improves its chances of viral marketing success. Although many advertisers have sought the support of highly-connected “influentials” to initiate viral marketing campaigns, research indicates that the most likely path to virality is a “big seed” strategy. In this approach, viral ideas are seeded by a large selection of first-generation sharers, instead of a relative handful of highly- connected people.

Big-seed theory emerged from the computer simulations of sociologist Duncan Watts, but it has real-world evidence to back it up. A combined study of billions of page views by Buzzfeed and StumbleUpon found that “stories go viral when lots of people engage with their normal-sized circles to share content.” Marketing researcher Yuping Liu-Thompkins has also determined that when seeding content, “it is better to have a large number of easily influenced individuals than to have a few highly-connected hubs in a social network.”

Embrace your Company’s Thought Leaders

Follower and friend counts are only part of the story. When the impact of their social messaging is considered, employee advocates look like marketing powerhouses. The Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that 50% of the international public consider employees either extremely credible or very credible sources of information when forming opinions about a company. The numbers are even more impressive for specialized employees: 65% of respondents regarded “a technical expert within the company” as either extremely credible or very credible, just one percentage point less than an academic expert.

Enterprises strengthen their brands enormously by activating these internal thought leaders on social media. Employee blogs and social media profiles allow workers to build personal brands online and form public records of expertise that also reflect well on their employer. Hewlett Packard, for example, has leveraged the vast knowledge base of its employees by encouraging them to share their thoughts about computing and other topics on personal blogs. These thought leaders aren’t just executives, or project leaders, but people from all areas of the company.

It’s not hard to see why workers of HP, a technology giant, would attract an audience, but is that the case for employees in a grocery store? Or a car dealership? Or a hair salon? In fact, these hypothetical workers probably know more about organic vegetables, antilock brakes, or shampoo, respectively, than any of their friends. One of the first questions we typically ask a new acquaintance is, “Where do you work?” The answer to that question greatly influences what topics of conversation we are likely to pursue with them. Social networks make those conversations visible to a wide audience and confirm the employee’s knowledge.

Adopting these communication technologies for professional use is not a difficult transition for employees. Statistics show that people are embracing Twitter, for example, at the same rate personally as they are professionally.

Today’s workers see social media as a basic way to communicate, so they don’t miss a beat when companies introduce internal social tools like Yammer or HootSuite Conversations to help them collaborate and amplify external messaging on behalf of their brands. Corporate education programs can accelerate the workforce transition and turn typical employees into social media power users.