Lauren Vargas

Title: Head of social media and community
Company: Aetna
Size: $29.47bn market capitalisation; 48,600 employees

THE ART OF SOCIAL: Marshalling the ground troops

Lauren Vargas’s first big lesson in the power of employee engagement was born of war. A sergeant groused on Twitter about quality of the burgers on a US military base in Kuwait. They were from Burger King and should be universally tasty, he said, no matter where they are served on the globe.

That morning in 2008, Lauren Vargas, a third-generation ”military brat” was “listening” from Dallas on the Pentagon’s first Twitter account. Within 10 minutes, she had acknowledged the complaint and promised a remedy. Ingredient-sourcing and cooking changes soon followed.

Her bosses at the US Army and Air Force Exchange Service were impressed. Armies do, after all, run on their stomachs. The episode helped catapult Ms Vargas, who was running direct-mail marketing, into new duties as manager of a community of millions of soldiers and military family members worldwide.

The hamburger tweet was “potentially a negative comment, turned into a positive”, she says, and the catalyst for broad service-member participation in social media.

Three years later, Ms Vargas joined Aetna as head of social media and community, where she is working to drive even deeper engagement by the Hartford, Connecticut, health insurance company’s 48,000 employees on the big four social networks: YouTube, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

Everyone is receiving at least some training under Ms Vargas’s phased plan. Those who receive only the most basic training are the ”white belt” team. At the end of June, more intensive training began for a “green belt” team of employees who are charged with social- or community-management duties or who identified themselves as brand advocates. By summer’s end, training will begin for the “black belt” team: employees who will develop strategic content, including senior managers with ambassadorial or thought-leadership roles. Meanwhile, Ms Vargas is continuously refining and updating a handbook of best practices.

“Like any form of change management, it’s a slow burn. It’s got to come from the top down and the bottom up,” Ms Vargas says.

Ms Vargas, who is 33 and loves hats, likes to call herself the “Mad Hatter” of Aetna because of “having to live and breathe community management in a constant state of change—and being a force of change for the company”.

Better social listening has already driven significant change in the company’s website, which has been cleansed of the legalese that customers despised. As more employees get more social, more change will come, she says.

But Ms Vargas is already looking ahead to her next challenge. Her deeper passions lie in museums and community-building in urban centres, the legacy of an overseas childhood spent on US military bases near major cities like London, where museums provided sanctuary. She recently finished a second master’s degree in museum studies, focused on marketing technologies, at Harvard.

Urban-planning principles infuse her thinking about how social environments should evolve. “We need to think about how we are building walkways or pathways between all of our social and digital assets,” she says.






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