The (Often Overlooked) First Step of Internal Communications: Get to Know Your Audience
— May 19th, 2019
One of the first rules of effective communication of any type is to know who you’re talking to.
We all understand that well enough when we travel to another country and have to tailor our communication to the language and customs of the place we’re visiting.
But when it comes to employee communications, too many businesses figure they know well enough who they’re talking to and skip the step of taking time to learn who their employees really are.
This is a mistake. And one that many businesses don’t even realize they’re making, because they don’t know to see it as a problem to begin with.
This was one of the points Chris Hill, the Communications Lead at Unilever, made at a panel discussion at Poppulo's Communicator Forum in Dublin. “There are a lot of assumptions in businesses that we know our audience, they’re employees and it’s a homogenous group, but it’s not.”
If you’re talking at your employees without bothering to learn who they are and the kind of messaging that will resonate with them, then you’re not really communicating. You’re just talking.
Why You Must Take Time to Learn About Your Employees
Internal communications professionals often figure that employees will respond to the same types of communication you like to receive. If you spend most of the day looking at your computer or phone, that means technology. You figure you need a good, efficient way to get emails or texts out to people.
During the panel, Jeremy Petty, Managing Director of Scarlott Abbot pointed out the error in that kind of thinking. “ Digital is a fantastic enabler and it absolutely has a role to play. But it is an enabler—it’s not the outcome.”
Technology may be part of the solution to communicating effectively in your organization, but you can’t just assume that. You have to make sure it’s the right solution for your particular audience.
“We spend a lot of time talking to clients who come to us and say, we need an app or we need a piece of technology. Well, what behavior change are you actually trying to achieve? Because maybe it’s not fit for [that] purpose or for different audiences,” Jeremy added.
Adding to that point, Chris described a time he realized clearly that technology wasn’t the answer. “I remember going...to one of the ice cream factories that we own and when I went there I suddenly realized how insignificant what I did was because this was a really, really serious environment where health and safety and efficiency were what it was all it about.”
Sending emails to those workers from people in the company they didn’t know didn’t accomplish much. That form of communication just wasn’t a fit for the way the factories worked.
But the visit showed Chris a solution that did make sense for that audience. “So, knowing the environment, the audience, and knowing the channels—what I understood is the general manager of that factory, he was seen almost as a father figure.”
Understanding that, they crafted a strategy for communication that centered the managers. By supplying them with materials they could use to communicate important information to the workers, they knew it would come from a source they trusted and paid attention to. For that audience, that was far more effective than an email.
How to Learn More about Who Your Employees Are
Acknowledging that you don’t know your employees as well as you think puts you ahead of a lot of internal communications departments, but what matters more is what you do with that information. You need a strategy to get to know your employees better and apply that knowledge to how you communicate with them moving forward.
Use your data
According to Mairéad Maher, Poppulo’s VP of Marketing, “for the internal comms function to be the audience experts, to really understand the employee base—the profile of them, the channels they use, what’s the right content, what does relevance mean for them—all that richness, that insight comes from the power of the data”
You can learn a lot about who your audience is, what their days at work look like, and the types of communication that are most effective for them by looking at the data you have. This includes the obvious data sources you’d think to pay attention to, like email opens and video views. But make sure you cross-reference that data with other information you have, like job titles, departments, and geographic locations.
Your data can provide insights on communications tendencies across departments and job types, as well as the specific preferences of each employee. If you have some employees that learn better by watching videos than reading articles, you can tailor which types of resources you send them for better results. And if you see that a specific department or job type routinely fails to engage with the type of communication you use now, you know you need to dig deeper to learn why, like Chris did with the ice cream factory workers.
Give them the chance to tell you what they care about
Have you ever signed up for an email list that you gave you the choice to select topics you were interested in? It’s a smart idea. It ensures you only get emails that are relevant to your interests and vastly increases the likelihood you’ll engage with the content they send and stay on the list for the long term.
There’s no reason you can’t bring that idea into your internal communications.
Chris does this with the new employees at Unilever. “I would have people who join the business when they’re onboarded... choose the topics that you might be interested in.” By making it part of the normal onboarding process to ask a simple question, he now knows what types of communication each specific employee cares about.
This is a very easy option many businesses simply don’t think to do. Send your current employees a short survey asking them what kind of communications they like to receive, when or how often they like to receive it, in what format, and on what topics. It will take five minutes or less of their time and you’ll gain a wealth of data on how to provide employees with communication that suits their personal preferences.
Learn about them as people, not just employees
“Mirroring an employee’s experience for communication in their personal life to that of their work life is utterly important,” Kieran Ivers, Senior Communications Specialist at Poppulo, insisted during the panel.
Obviously, the role an employee plays in your company is an important part of understanding how to successfully communicate with them about work matters. But every employee you have has a life outside of work that influences what their days on the job look like and types of communication they’re most used to in general life.
Keep track of information you have about your employees’ general interests, communications habits, and life obligations. An employee that spends hours a day on their phone may respond well to text communication or an internal communications app, and an employee that’s into sports is more likely to appreciate an internal article that employs sports metaphors. Both of those are good things to know!
Understanding who they are beyond the work they do, and connecting with them as fellow people will bring a whole new level of effectiveness to your communications.
How to Apply That Information to Better Internal Communications
With a couple of extra steps, you can use the information you gather to shape your communications strategy for better results.
An idea that’s worth borrowing from your marketing colleagues, developing personas based on the data you have is a valuable exercise to help you get inside of the minds of your employees. Since, as already established, your employees are not a homogenous group, you’ll want to create a number of different personas here that take into account the various types of work your employees do, and the different habits and preferences you discovered in your research about them.
Choose the right channels
As the ice cream factory example above demonstrates, the most obvious channels to you won’t always be the most effective ones for your audience. The information you analyzed should give you some insights into whether the channels you’re using now are working for each category of employee.
For the employees, you aren’t effectively reaching now, dig into the data to analyze and learn why, so you can customize your strategy based on what does work. If your emails are failing with employees that spend the day away from a computer, you need to move your communications strategy offline for them. If your design team never bother to read the written content you send, work on resources that communicate the same information in a more visual format.
Personalize your communication
Every employee you have has unique tendencies and preferences. When you can match the way you get a message to them with the way they learn best, you vastly increase the odds that they both pay attention and actually process the information.
Even at huge organizations with thousands of employees, this kind of targeted communication is now possible. It’s a matter of collecting the appropriate data, organizing it effectively, and segmenting your communications based on the data you have.
That sounds like a lot, but with the right process and technology, it’s manageable. And in a world where people value relevance and increasingly ignore messaging they don’t find useful or interesting, this type of personalization is becoming a necessary part of successful communications—internally and externally.
Communicate with the Employees You Actually Have
It takes work to get to know your employees, but more than that, it takes a shift in perspective. At most organizations, you can’t keep doing internal communications the way you do now. You need to switch to a culture of asking your employees their preferences, actively measuring all of your internal communications, and tailoring the messages you send based on what works for each person.
When you reach the point where every piece of communication an employee receives is relevant to them and the way they process information best, the difference will be significant.