The biggest challenge for any communications strategy these days is to be heard above the vast amount of digital data sloshing around in the world. We are besieged all day every day by information and marketing messages, all vying for our attention. If you read our previous post, The Impact of Information Overload (and I highly recommend it if you haven’t), you will remember that we talked about continuous partial attention and an increasingly cynical, mistrustful audience. This is true whether you are speaking to the outside world or your own employees.
Communications strategy vs Information overload
So how can we plan our internal communications strategy to overcome both resistance and the digital noise? Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. You can’t wave a magic wand and make all the extraneous distractions disappear. The situation is only set to get worse. As internal communicators, we are not only victims but also part of the problem. We contribute to the daily information overload. What we should be doing is devising better, more effective internal communications strategies, identifying what sort of information our employees want to hear, how they want to hear it and when. The best way to do that is to break down our strategy into four parts: Why? What? When? How?
A great communications strategy starts with Why?
Whenever we are trying to sell an idea to a person or group, we need to lead with Why? Why we are doing something and why the recipient should care. Don’t fall into the trap, which we often do, of telling people what you do and how you do it. The key is to communicate why you are sharing this information and why they should listen. So start by asking yourself what you are trying to achieve with your message. What will the company get out of it? Are you simply fulfilling a legal obligation? Raising awareness of something? Are you trying to get people to change their behaviour, or maybe build team spirit or a sense of pride within the organisation? In actual fact, what we need to do is get into their psyche.
And this leads on to the most important part of Why – the emotional connection. Back in the 1990s, Harvard professor John Kotter explained that when we try to communicate with our audience, we are too analytical. We try to appeal to their rational brain but that very rarely works. If we are trying to instigate change, we need to engage with them emotionally. Help them to see and feel the need for change (which can be very difficult if you are relying on an all points broadcast via email, but we’ll come to that later). To make them prick up their ears, they need to immediately understand WIIFM, what’s in it for me? Is it personal development and increased job satisfaction? A better understanding of the business or a process? Or will it engender a sense of belonging or a feeling of being valued? No matter how short your message, it must build in some emotional connection. We are trying to win their hearts, not just their minds.
What you want to tell me vs What I want to know
When planning any internal communications strategy, remember, “The core is bore, be vocal with the local”. That is to say, we have to recognise that some of the messages we transmit are inherently quite boring. That is a problem because we need people to listen. We have pull information and push information. It is always the case that local information and local news are more interesting to your audience. Things such as holiday allowance, what’s on the menu for lunch or next year’s pay award are your pull information. It will always trump something dry and corporate, your push information. You could write it on a piece of paper, hide it in the basement and people will still find it. They actively seek out the information because there is something in it for them. Your pull communications need to be correct, accurate and easy to access, but it’s not where you should burn a lot of your time. However, to make sure your corporate, push communications are heard, you need to connect them to something that interests your audience. Make them compelling.
Content: Skim, swim or deep dive?
You’ve started with your Why. Now you need to plan your content. In a recent podcast, we spoke to Prarthna Thakore who explained that they divide their content into skim, swim and deep dive. Whether it’s an email, an article on the intranet or a post on internal social media, a large proportion of your audience will be skimmers. You need to get your message across in just a headline or a 280 character, Twitter-style, bite-size chunk. Then you’ll have your swimmers. They want a bit more information but they don’t go far below the surface. Finally, you have the deep divers who want to know everything. Think about your three targets and break down your messages so that they get the point across immediately but include more information for those that want it.
A very important part of any effective communications strategy – but one that is often overlooked – is when we communicate with our employees. This will depend very much on the organisation and the type of message. Does it have facilities in different locations and time zones? Does it have shift patterns? Is the message urgent? Would it be better at the beginning or end of their day? So your communications strategy needs to involve an element of empathy with your audience. When are they most likely to be reading emails, the intranet, or social media?
Synchronous or asynchronous?
At one time, email was seen as an asynchronous tool – people would open it when they were ready. Now, however, most of us have a device either in our pocket or on our wrist that tells us when we have mail. People expect us to check and reply straight away. There is also a compulsion to look, or the fear of missing out. So email has drifted into being synchronous. Even more reason to get the timing right.
Use your marketing tools
Obviously, you can’t send individual emails or texts at all times of day and night but make the best possible use of the tools available to you. Segment your audience. This could be by time zone, shift pattern, team, or any category that could affect the best time for them to receive your information. Use tags and schedule emails carefully. Use the tags to track email behaviour. Find out when most of your audience are using your various social media channels. Analyse when people are actually consuming your communications. Then use this information intelligently and empathetically to target your communications effectively.
We have talked about the proliferation of devices in today’s world. Along with that, we also have hundreds of different communication channels: Yammer, Slack, Trello, Zoom, Teams, Skype. And it’s not just digital channels that we need to consider. We also have face-to-face communications such as team briefings, stand down days, focus groups and one-to-ones. An effective internal communications strategy is all about knowing your audience and knowing your channels.
As internal communicators, most of us can’t decide the subject matter of what we communicate. You are asked to communicate something and that’s your job. However, you do have a duty to ask about the way things are communicated, to push back on the channels being used and to be innovative in the way you use them. Aim to become a trusted advisor in your organisation and ask, is this the right channel to use and are we getting the most out of it?
Text > Audio > Visuals > Video > Presentation > Discussion > Experience
Our internal communications will involve a layering of different media, from a noticeboard or intranet right through to focus groups and conversations. The most basic is using pure text. However, even the best-written copy usually needs a helping hand. The higher up the hierarchy you go, the more people understand and retain the information. The downside is that the further you go, the more time and money has to be invested. Having said that, lockdown has been quite liberating when it comes to video presentations. Many organisations have been using homemade videos (because they had no choice) and it has led to a lot more authenticity, a lot less polish, a shift in people’s expectations and acceptance of the imperfect.
You need to match the medium to the message. Do you want to implant an idea and get people to remember it? Or do you want to encourage conversation to make the information more sticky? If you want a really deep connection, email and audio probably aren’t going to do the job. Although, a word here on audio. It can be a great medium. It has a lot of the intimacy that video lacks because people tend to listen when they are out walking, in the gym, alone in the car. It does need to very good content though, otherwise people drift off and start daydreaming.
Avoid single use channels
Do not set aside a channel for one single type of communication. If you use Slack just for corporate updates, it will be very little used. There is no compelling reason for people to go there. Have a mix of content in one place. Our clients with the most successful communications strategies tend to add in personal interest categories – fitness forums, cooking ideas, etc. It then becomes a one-stop, frictionless way for people to flick between personal and local interest information and the corporate information you want them to see. Because they are already there, they are more likely to look.
Finally, be consistent in your internal communications. Be regular, reliable and communicate often.
Hopefully, you are now raring to go with your new internal communications strategy. Don’t forget to download your copy of our Communications Strategy quick reference guide, and happy communicating!