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The future of employee communications: putting the audience in the driver’s seat

Adrian CropleyAdrian Cropley·

I was thrilled to be asked by Poppulo’s Tim Vaughan to expand on an article I had written called “Blurred lines are an opportunity to focus,” where I explored how the lines between internal and external communication continue to blur, particularly when it comes to our audiences.

In the article, I explained why we need to understand audiences at a much deeper level because people make the choice whether or not to interact with our communication, not the organization. Let’s explore this principle on a deeper level.

The last couple of days have given me an opportunity to contemplate the difficult communication environment in which we operate.

I was attending a two-day conference in Jaipur, India. During the conference, speakers were given 10  minutes to present their research papers. Instead of presenting a few bullet points or images on three or four slides, text filled every single space on 20 slides and speakers talked at warp speed to cover their content.

As a result, the audience was either deep into their mobile devices or snapping pictures and sharing them as quickly as possible.

After the conference, I couldn’t help but notice the constant noise outside my hotel room as passing cars tooted their horns frantically, filling every space in the road to get somewhere as fast as they could.

That was a metaphor for the communication experience. It’s exhausting, but a snapshot of a moment in time in the world where we live. No matter how much we say, how much we share or how loud we get, it’s the audience who decides whether they will listen, interact, or engage.

In his address at the conference, Rohit Gandhi, Editor-in-Chief of India’s Democracy News Live, said, “the audience is slipping away.” He was referring to the news media in changing times.

This is true for all communication disciplines but especially for internal communication. Communicators keep broadcasting, but it seems the audience is not engaging.

The fact is, the audience is engaging with what they see as important or interesting. The audience drives which content they watch, read or listen to and not what the organization deems appropriate.

In my article, I explained that organizations continue to realign their thinking, focusing on purpose and the need for employees to have context and meaning driven by who they listen to, interact with, and trust through channels and messages. 

It has always been critical to know the audience.  Today, it’s fatal if we don’t. Disrespect the audience and expect to lose credibility, trust, and, importantly, relationship.

Let me share an example. Tools that automatically curate content like Nuzzel or Paperli, are fantastic for saving the time it takes to find content. However, they are used to push out curated newsletters at breakneck speeds. Lots of content. Some relevant and some not so much.

You have asked your audience whether they wanted to subscribe, but did you ask them whether they wanted everything on a daily basis?

Aside from those who are part of my contacts or have my interest, I delete emails from those filling my inbox with information I don’t need or want.  I unsubscribe from a newsfeed as quickly as I subscribed, because suddenly what might have seemed valuable has actually become spam. I’m not getting what I wanted.

Imagine how you would feel if you walked into your office one morning and 10 people rushed you with a pile of stuff they said you need to look at, without even a good morning!

Make no mistake. The audience is in control. Every piece of content, feed, or app can be turned on or off by the audience at any time. Earning initial attention doesn’t mean you will keep it. Blocking contacts or turning off notifications is simple and no matter how clever your communication is, you just won’t rate a mention.

Here are some simple things we can start doing:

Get insight on your audience

We must adopt ways of understanding our audience at a much deeper level so that we can communicate in a more personal, relevant, and targeted way. Strategically managing internal communication means we need to start using big data and analytics more than ever.

We need to understand where people go for information, how they consume it, who they are, and what drives their behavior.

In her article on digital marketing for the Centre for Strategic Communication Excellence, Louise Armstrong said “success in the digital realm requires sophisticated audience personas that go beyond household income, family makeup and hobbies to answer questions like: What are their core values and life goals? What’s the toughest part of their day? What do they worry about?”

She goes on to say, “If you haven’t fully fleshed out your audience, you’re not setting yourself up for content marketing success.”

We can apply this approach to internal communication. What do employee personas tell you? Who are they and what do they care about? What tools do you have in place to capture analytics and insights on their communication preferences and behavior?

Build a relationship

We need to put ourselves in the audience’s shoes! According to Edelman, among the most trusted sources of information is “a person like me.” However, the 2018 Trust Barometer shows an increase in trust among technical and academic experts.

People trust those they respect and those they have a relationship with. The greater respect and the closer the relationship, the greater the engagement.

Without a doubt, the new frontier of communication is personal connection and credibility. Can we find ways to connect with our audiences about the things they’re interested in? Are we actually talking their language? Are we sharing their interests? Are we helping them solve issues, get through their workload or making life easier? How do we know?

We should be using social listening tools and our regular feedback channels and monitoring behavior to give us more insight. Launch your dialogue and a real conversation through the channels the audience chooses to use or risk missing your objectives.

Let the audience choose

Choice drives all our behaviors. Let’s face it, we choose our channels to play on and work on and sometimes both at the same time. We choose whether we are notified or not and whether we want to be interrupted or not. We choose whether we read, watch, or listen to content and when we do it. We even choose when we don’t want to be connected with work.

It’s time to invest more in ways to provide choice, whether it’s technology-driven or face-to-face depending on the audience. Still, we need to be clear when there is no choice, for example with organizational health and safety messages. However, there is way too much invested in the must-tell-everyone bucket.

Focusing on strategy has never been more important. As internal communication professionals, we can build a new strategy for the future that catches and surpasses the marketers and sellers of the world who are using their insight to connect with their audiences. So, fasten your seatbelts and start your engine. It’s time to buckle up because the audience is in the driver’s seat.


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