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During SXSW a few weeks ago I had the good fortune of meeting a number of my former colleagues from Dell, where I worked from 2002 to 2006. During my stint there I had the incredible good fortune of working on the team that would design, develop and manage Dell’s then new – and since much lauded – social media program.

But our conversation didn’t dwell so much on the good old days as the realization that years later many companies are still hesitant to embrace, or even explore, the full potential of social media technology. This despite the dramatic increase in cheap, user-friendly technology to support everything from targeting to analytics to collaboration. In fact, outside of some perennial leaders – many of them in the technology industry – many organizations are still grappling with the same questions and fears we saw almost ten years ago. And this is particularly true of companies exploring a social strategy inside the enterprise. (As just one example of this slow going, the folks at Prescient Digital estimate that only 4% of companies have a truly social intranet system.) After comparing notes about our respective clients and consulting gigs, we concluded many of the original arguments, tools and basic social media models we developed in those early days were still relevant, and very much in demand.

So why the uneven, reluctant adoption of new approaches and technology?  While many have focused on potential fixes for PR teams and their clients (check out this excellent blog post by my former Dell colleague Richard Binhammer) I am more curious – and perplexed – about the barriers to progress in PR. Why is a business filled with smart , accomplished consultants so slow to adapt? Based on my perspective the past few years, I offer a few suggestions:

  • Bunker Mentality – There’s no way to escape the dramatic tectonic shifts in new technology and the related impact on entire industries, including news media, advertising, retail, music, and not least communications and PR. The dizzying pace of new products and functionality makes it even harder to keep up with change. While some organizations seem invigorated by these shifts and flood of new opportunities, many have reacted with grudging, superficial tactics without changing their strategy or business model. In many ways, they are still in denial.
  • Inertia – The sad reality in any corporate setting (indeed, perhaps even in human nature itself) is that there is very strong momentum for doing things the way they’ve always been done, particularly in times where staffs are lean and driven by short-term objectives. And despite all the hype around innovation and risk, very few organizations have cultures that encourage, or even allow activity outside the norm. Often, companies need a major event like a new strategy or leader to encourage a shift in direction. Without that, it’s difficult to change old habits.
  • Functional Insularity – Functional departments that would typically help spark and support innovation and change – or at least be the sources of new ideas and information – are often the most insular, reactive ones of the bunch. HR and IT, for example, are in many cases reluctant bystanders to progress and sometimes surprisingly uninformed about new technology or trends. (In some of my social media projects, in-house IT departments are either reluctant partners or standing on the sideline.) The one department that seems to have embraced change, albeit sometimes reluctantly, is marketing. PR is often caught in the middle of this dynamic and too often unwilling or unable to drive its own momentum.
  • Boomers Dominate Leadership – Though statistics suggest boomers are among the fastest growing users of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, many older workers are less familiar and comfortable with new technology, social or otherwise. This helps explain anachronisms like the CEO who refuses to use email or others who shun any type of digital discourse. The grizzled leadership in many PR companies has the same generational anxiety about trying new tools and approaches. This trend should change as younger, much more tech-savvy workers gain leadership roles.
  • Tyranny of Today – Many communication professionals operate at a hyper pace and in a routine that leaves little room for introspection or learning. In that context, it’s easy to simply continue focusing on immediate projects and put off professional development – both formal and otherwise. Add to this the reality that many clients and peers are also focusing on their daily priorities, and paying little attention to broader issues outside their immediate tasks. Perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from peers struggling to understand and incorporate new technology is “I just don’t have time.”
  • Knowledge Gap – Save perhaps for a few precocious millenials, very few of us in the PR industry start with a deep base of knowledge in social media or related technology. What we know is what we’ve learned in the past decade or so as social media has become more prevalent in our lives. So it takes effort and commitment to remain in learning mode and stay current on major trends and new platforms. Unfortunately, it seems too many PR pros are counting on a few resident tech nerds or outside experts rather than upgrading their own knowledge base.

Taken together, these factors help explain the myopic outlook and slow adoption of social media in PR. And I’ve experienced every one of these barriers, so I have some understanding for the challenges in our business. But they shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. I don’t want to be having this same discussion in 5 years.

A few weeks ago I spent time with an old friend who worked in a company that by all appearances was a dynamic, successful industry leader: steady profits, stable leadership, healthy prospects, and a supportive board of directors. But if you asked my friend, or likely many of his colleagues, the description of working at this company would be much less positive. In fact, many of them hate going to work, and they spoke of a palpable malaise inside the company. The reason: a detached CEO who is largely dismissive of communication and culture.

This anecdote brought to mind the old medieval adage that as the king goes, so goes the country.  It’s pretty well accepted as a truism that CEO’s have a direct and enormous influence on their companies, of course. They direct and deploy workers in an organization much like a general in battle. But the twist in this story suggests that their impact goes beyond the most obvious elements (and requirements) of corporate success – such as organization, logistics, strategy and financial performance. A company (and leader) doing all the basic things right – at least according to the MBA playbook – can still be horrible workplace, with disenchanted and disengaged employees.

According to my friend, the CEO at his company has a blind spot when it comes to communicating with employees – grudgingly allowing only perfunctory, formal outreach and avoiding genuine, personal interaction as much as possible. Probing employees for ideas and opinions is limited to a typical annual “culture survey”, which apparently drives little discussion, response or change. Needless to say, convincing this CEO of potential investment or innovation in communication is a losing game.

The CEO also apparently sees little value in fostering a positive, distinctive workplace culture. Sure, the typical HR activities are in place – ostensibly to motivate and reward workers – but there is no leadership interest in truly exploring and improving worker morale and satisfaction. And the corporate identity is muted and generic, with little to inspire pride or discretionary effort. In other words, employees should do their jobs and be happy they have one. Since this company is located in a relatively small job market – with limited options for senior executives – there’s no immediate risk of an attrition of top talent. And with the company regularly hitting its numbers, the CEO sees no reason to change anything.

This anecdote raises some interesting questions for communication and HR professionals. Does it really matter if employees are happy at work? Is it important for a company to have a distinctive, engaging culture? Is the recruitment and retention of talent really an issue in smaller, stagnant job markets? And what is the ultimate metric for leadership and corporate success?

I propose the answers to these questions all revolve around the central issue of the core purpose of the company. Some would say that making money for shareholders and paying employees for good work is the baseline. I would argue that that viewpoint is shortsighted, and certainly not optimal for talented employees seeking a fulfilling career and perhaps even a higher purpose. In other words, employees don’t just need to know (and believe) what the company does, but what it stands for and what it hopes to achieve beyond driving profits. Without that deeper affinity and sense of purpose, most workers will remain steady (if unspectacular) performers and jump ship at the earliest chance.

A prominent topic for many of us involved in employee communications is engagement. Engagement has become a proxy for everything from evaluating the effectiveness of internal communications to assessing the psyche of contemporary workers. For the past few years, the news about employee engagement has been mostly negative, with the economic downturn making working conditions tougher than ever and employees feeling increasingly overworked and disillusioned. That may be changing. With the global economy slowing improving it appears employee engagement is also slowly turning the corner. Indeed, recent global surveys show some positive trends in employee engagement, with several studies showing slight improvements in overall engagement. Still, the picture is far from idyllic. Despite pockets of improvement there is still a stubborn, sizeable minority of passive or actively disengaged workers; Aon Hewitt puts this at 4 out of 10 workers. And the gap between the best companies (with the most engaged and productive employees) and the global norms is still substantial. Read the rest of this entry »

This article by the folks at Hay Group argues that the next frontier for HR is harnessing “big data” to drive engagement with employees and improve talent management – the holy grail of many HR teams. The author suggests there is a stark contrast between the massive explosion of data and real-time analytics in fields like marketing and retail with the halting, uneven progress in HR. For many HR teams, the promise of big data is still more potential than reality – notably in the area of talent development and succession planning.

This assessment is in line with what I’ve seen over years of working closely with HR teams in a wide range of organizations. Despite the emergence of powerful tools and technology – and access to related data on employees and their performance – too many HR departments are still struggling with rudimentary challenges like creating clean, dynamic staff directories and are barely scratching the surface of data collection and analysis. Though in theory HR departments know a great deal about their employees, I haven’t seen (or heard of) many teams that are consistently collecting and analyzing data and using their insights to direct their policies and programs. (To be fair, the one area that seems to be evolving for the better is online performance management. ) In fact, it’s not rare for me to encounter HR teams still using written records or forms for many of their HR transactions – which obviously limits their ability to quickly collect, update and review the information.

Here are a few examples where big data – used to its full potential – could dramatically improve engagement and results beyond talent management:

  • Virtually all leading organizations conduct some sort of engagement or culture survey. Many of these surveys, however, remain superficial (often formulaic) annual surveys more useful for benchmarking than driving real change – including responsive program and policy adjustments – across the organization. Often these surveys are outsourced and the information is reviewed once to develop the final report, and never seen or used again. With all the enterprise social media platforms and real-time analytic tools available, would it not make sense to implement a more sustained, detailed and actionable research program with employees? At minimum, companies should track the content of internal conversations (on the intranet, blogs or other discussion platforms) with the same level of sophistication and follow-up as they do with external platforms. Listening should not be a one-time annual event, but a full-time contact sport.
  • Though some companies have mastered the art of knowledge management and make it easy for their teams to identify and contact peers for collaboration, others still struggle with relatively simple profile information that would allow employees across all levels to search for peers with specific skills, expertise or experience. Having this data readily available would also help leaders develop ad-hoc project teams and make informed staff assignments.
  • While consumers are repeatedly probed for their opinions and preferences on topics like communication and marketing, employees are not consistently asked about company communications. Though some companies conduct robust, actionable internal audits designed to assess the effectiveness of their communication efforts, many rely on piece-meal efforts that are often event-driven, sporadic and informal (qualitative.) Others don’t take full advantage of the built-in tracking devices on their intranets or corporate email tools, which can provide a rolling update on key metrics like traffic, page views and comments. This is a relatively easy fix that can help to make corporate communications much more relevant, resonant and impactful.
  • Though it’s not employee data per se, harnessing the ideas and collective wisdom of an internal audience can be a major driver of innovation and engagement. Companies like Dell and RBC use an internal crowd-sourcing platform to solicit and rank employee ideas on a range of topics, and incorporate the best suggestions in their operations and planning. Several vendors provide user-friendly platforms that do most of the work behind the scenes and allow users to focus on the ideas and the outcomes.

Much like IT’s reluctant acceptance of social media and new technology, I fear HR’s slow adoption of data collection and analytics will decrease its relevance and credibility in the coming years. The result will be the exact opposite of what the HR teams seek; prospective employees raised on social media, ubiquitous communication and all-digital content are unlikely to be impressed if the very team responsible for managing talent and fostering a dynamic culture is so clearly out of sync with social and technology trends.

One of the ongoing challenges of my consulting work the past few years has been to convince clients to engage their employees in their external social media efforts. The argument for doing this is very solid – see this excellent post by Dion Hinchliffe of Dachis Group on the benefits and requirements of using employee advocates through social media. Perhaps the best argument for activating employees is that they are highly trusted by consumers and customers alike. So why is this not happening more often?

In my experience there are several answers to this question. For one thing, many organizations are still reluctant to engage in any social media activity – external or within the enterprise – so it’s understandable that their employee outreach strategy would also be nascent. Others are extremely concerned about rogue employees who can compromise the reputation of the company in one tweet or YouTube video, and can bring up several recent examples to support their position. A surprising number of companies (from my experience) prefer to wait and see, despite the fact they know their employees are already active on social media platforms (such as unofficial company Facebook pages) without the benefit of clear direction, guidelines or training. Companies react differently to these unsanctioned sites and posts – some prefer to turn a blind eye, while others try to quell the comments through punishment and/or additional training. I’ve also seem the other extreme, where cherry-picked employee advocates stray too much into cheerleading (think obnoxious, repetitive Twitter hype) and lose the authenticity and credibility their role demands.

But perhaps the biggest reason – and unspoken truth – is that some company environments are poisoned by distrust, disillusionment and woeful lack of engagement. If many of your employees are unhappy and discouraged, does it make sense to give them full license to represent the company with consumers and customers? Of course, the answer is no. Or at least, not all in one shot. These companies need to fix their workplace culture and foster engagement and collaboration within their walls before they think about activating their staff on social media platforms. (In fact, disgruntled employees can damage a company’s reputation through their actions and comments whether or not they are using social media.) But that’s not an excuse for complete inaction. A social media strategy can allow for a smaller team of ambassadors at the outset, who are selected for specific roles and expertise, provided ample direction and support and highly trained. Real-time monitoring is also critical, not only to assess impact with consumers but also to identify potential issues and ensure ambassadors don’t operate outside the guidelines.

Ultimately, companies need to realize their employees represent them – whether formally or otherwise – and will often be active on social media platforms with or without formal guidance or consent. The best approach is developing a realistic plan to ensure employees are informed, directed, trained and supported to represent the company in a positive light. Using a proactive strategy will allow companies to deploy their best marketing and PR asset – their team members.

Earlier this year Forrester came out with another study commenting on the trend towards increased mobility of technology, and the important implications for marketers. (Here’s another good summary on enterprise mobility trends.) In fact, mobile access to digital information and tools is becoming almost ubiquitous in some developed countries.  As Forrester notes in the report: With more than 1 billion smartphones in consumers’ pockets at the beginning of 2013, mobile is driving a second Internet revolution that’s even more profound than the first one. Mobile creates new value for consumers and businesses, alters cost structures, and disrupts ecosystems. That’s why marketers must move away from tactical mobile efforts to more transformative mobile marketing strategies in 2013.

This disruptive technology is changing how consumers conduct a wide range of activities and use an expanding array of applications and tools – from accessing their email, to banking to downloading an e-book or watching a movie. And the trend is still evolving in both scope and amplitude; in fact, the very definition of mobility is changing. It’s not enough to just address the use of smartphones, or even the booming use of tablets. The recent emphasis is towards “wearable” devices (like Google Glasses) cars and TVs that extend the mobile experience.

Is this mobility trend another example of how internal communications, and employee engagement efforts, lag marketing trends  or externally focused practices? There are huge potential benefits to a robust, relevant internal mobile strategy for organizations. In a mobile environment, the traditional hurdle of access to information and communication sources – which for many workers remains elusive – becomes irrelevant. Furthermore, communication teams can personalize content based on device, role, context (time, knowledge, location) and even personal preference. Mobility provides unique convenience and immediacy – potentially giving employees the ability to do “anything, anywhere and anytime.” It can also provide workers with access to real-time data, a critical benefit in many occupations.

Yet, my personal experience suggests many companies have rudimentary or nascent mobile strategies to reach employees; many appear to still be struggling simply to make their intranet or other digital sources available to their workers. Few are adequately addressing the booming use of smart phones – still debating BYOD issues and/or not distributing smart tools broadly across their workforce. Even fewer organizations outside technology circles are focused on tablets, which are the biggest growth area. Even those considering how to share content across mobile devices do little to help employees create or share content, or collaborate using these same mobile tools. I recognize companies have to address the security, support and cost issues associated with a shift to mobile, but those excuses are wearing thin after several years of discussion.

Some observers are more optimistic about enterprise adoption – check out this article – arguing that the gap between personal use of mobility and work use will continue to narrow. This blog post suggests the expanded use of personal devices in the workplaces (extending to non-executive staff) will continue to drive adoption of mobile applications inside the enterprise. What both of these articles make clear is that even companies reluctant to jump on the mobility bandwagon need to evolve their reliance on their internal “network” (typically secure corporate email, LAN network and intranet) or they risk seeing those corporate channels becoming irrelevant.

I’ll be watching with interest to see if and how companies move towards this mobility trend to improve their workplace communications.

The recent decision by Marissa Mayer to abolish telecommuting at Yahoo has sparked a firestorm of criticism and debate in social media platforms and executive suites, and put a spotlight on the increasingly accepted practice of virtual work. You can review a good summary of the polemic here.  Certainly, at first glance the policy change seems to go against prevailing workplace trends and HR logic – where maximized work-life balance fosters more happy, productive employees. Telecommuting is a growing trend and seems a boon to both employees and companies alike (statistics I’ve seen suggest productivity increases with flexible work arrangements.)

This response – from none other than Richard Branson – is fairly typical of the strong negative reactions to the Yahoo move, which suggest the blunt directive is anachronistic and short-sighted. Some of the criticisms have even questioned Mayer’s feminist bona-fides – such as Maureen Dowd’s column suggesting Mayer’s gilded work arrangement may be clouding her understanding of the needs of other working women. It should be noted not all the comments were negative. Several like this one featured Yahoo insiders who praised the move, suggesting there were too many slackers taking advantage of the loose workplace rules. Other commentators argued that the company’s growth and survival trumps any workplace conveniences.

One of the realities that I found missing in some of the comments is that in all flexible workplaces – in particular those promoting working from home – there’s always been an implied, or formal contract, featuring one or all of the following requirements:

  • There’s no blanket policy – Each job/role should be evaluated if and how it lends itself to telecommuting, and in many cases senior leaders or group leaders understand their roles preclude being based off-site for extended periods of time.
  • Productivity trumps convenience – If a case can be made the efficiency and output of employees is suffering due to telecommuting, then the policy should be revisited.
  • It’s not all of nothing – Most people I’ve worked with over the years operated in a blended routine that includes both virtual work (from the home or other outposts) and occasional face-to-face interaction, such as quarterly meetings or special retreats.
  • Circumstances change…and so may your job – Employees must recognize that workplace policies are fluid and can (and must) change to ensure they remain viable and relevant in the context of the company’s evolving performance and objectives.  The fact that telecommuting is a policy now is not a guarantee or excuse for keeping it in perpetuity.

In defense of Yahoo’s blanket ban on working from home, many of the negative comments seem to conveniently ignore the company is on a steady downhill towards irrelevance and possible oblivion. Yahoo’s leaders made a strong case that business as usual wasn’t working and dramatic change was required not just to boost productivity, but also collaboration and innovation – both of which benefit greatly from sustained in-person interaction. Furthermore, company leaders are leaving the door open to further adjustments, saying this is the right solution for right now.

As I thought further about this issue, however, I looked at my own situation, where work with global partners via Skype or other interactive platforms is the norm, and productivity rarely seems compromised by the lack of face-to-face interaction. In fact, the inherent flexibility of a virtual team has often been a boon to our performance – with more than one Skype call featuring folks at the breakfast table or quietly baby-sitting their children. Is it helpful to have in-person meetings on occasion? Certainly. But does that prelude a balanced model where virtual work is allowed for more routine work and collaboration. It should not.

In the final analysis, I believe Mayer could have taken a more nuanced, incremental approach, starting with a more disciplined policy and closer monitoring to weed out the worst abusers, but she likely felt that lacked the urgency the dire situation required. Ultimately, I think her blunt approach will backfire – if she doesn’t retreat from the decision altogether. (They left the door open for future changes in the policy, so this is perhaps the most likely outcome.) The unintentional  message it sends to employees and prospects is that they can’t be trusted and don’t merit the same flexibility and options that are given to most other technology companies – particularly those based in Silicon Valley. After all, though productivity is certainly paramount it cannot be achieved without employee engagement and goodwill. Given this context, Mayer may win the immediate battle for innovation, but lose the longer war for talent.

Over the years, I’ve had many clients and peers ask me about the best strategy for true, lasting employee engagement…the holy grail of internal communications. Like many, I’d tell them about the importance of two-way communication, robust workplace programs, strong leadership and a vibrant culture.  But often I’d also relay my “Amazon” story – which was based on my short but formative consulting stint with the internet giant when it was still a brash start-up.

My Amazon story was about the incredible energy, drive and productivity of their Seattle team despite tough odds, persistent criticism from pundits and brutal, round-the-clock working conditions (this was not a place to ask about office hours.) Sure these guys worked in a funky renovated hospital and defined the casual workplace, but they worked incredibly hard and seemed driven by a greater cause, a belief they were inventing a new business and creating a better customer experience. In hindsight, there were right, and they continue to blaze a path in the evolving world of internet commerce.

The lasting lesson for me – and the point of telling my story to clients – is that doing all the right things is usually not enough to get employees to operate at the highest level, and that the most successful companies are the ones where employees believe their work has higher meaning beyond the obvious imperatives – fill a customer need, sell services or products, make money and please investors. All of us want to do something that really matters, or at least appears to be useful, relevant and timely.

As it happens, I’ve had the opportunity to put this theory in practice in a recent client engagement. This company was in the midst of a classic “transformation” exercise designed to improve efficiency and profits. In short, they needed a major reboot. After months of relying largely on logical arguments and data – the usual practical, empirical rationale for change and list of potential benefits – we started to focus more on the meaning of the company and its unique heritage. Luckily for us, this client was a legitimate pioneer in its industry (helicopter services) and had a very compelling, unique story to tell about getting customers to/from the most remote places on earth safely and on time. In short, this company was cool, did something very special – even dramatic – and had a lineage going back to the creation of helicopter flight. Not surprisingly, this storyline – translated into various media and injected into the brand identity – has resonated much more than the balance sheets and market studies that were initially the focus.

I’m glad to say the smart folks at McKinsey have landed on the same conclusion. This recent article makes a compelling case for why this quest for meaning is critical for tangible and lasting employee engagement. The article acknowledges one of the challenges inherent in this aspiration– some companies will naturally have an easier time identifying and promoting their distinctive pixie dust; either because they are pioneers, uber-cool, game-changers, or have an obvious altruistic bent that fuels that sense of “meaning”. Think Google, Kiva, Facebook, Body Shop or Apple. Much tougher to imagine, and implement, if you work for a company that produces ball-bearings or book shelves.

But the McKinsey folks argue there are strategic steps and tactical tools that can allow even the most mundane, uncool business to foster a sense of meaning among their employees. I particularly like their concept of holistic storytelling, which suggests companies go beyond the typical turnaround or “good to great” narrative – which is inherently focused on company benefits – to encompass other impacts:

Our research shows that four other sources give individuals a sense of meaning, including their ability to have an impact on:

  • society—for example, making a better society, building the community, or stewarding resources
  • the customer—for instance, making life easier and providing a superior service or product
  • the working team—for instance, a sense of belonging, a caring environment, or working together efficiently and effectively
  • themselves—examples include personal development, a higher paycheck or bonus, and a sense of empowerment

Ideas like this can provide communication professionals with additional justification, and potential approaches, to foster engagement that comes from deep employee alignment and commitment.  When employees are in the zone, as McKinsey says, there is nothing they can’t achieve. It’s our job to help them do that.

Each year at this time the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show occurs in Las Vegas. This is like the Super Bowl of the technology industry with equal parts hype, illusion, innovation and debauchery in the program. What strikes me every year, however, is not necessarily the news or products coming out of CES – here’s one summary of the key trends at CES – but that the event is virtually ignored by the PR industry.

As I read article after article in the business, marketing and technology media outlets, there is nary a mention in PR industry publications. (PRWeek US does have one article, but it focuses on how brands are adapting their promotions to drive buzz at the event rather than the actual technology.) There’s a similar trend on popular PR blogs and discussion groups, with those leaning on communication (or broader, related topics like engagement and dialogue) virtually ignoring the event and related discussions.

This lack of interest, and coverage, reflects a dangerous blind spot for the PR industry, which still focuses on churning out content and traditional techniques and tools and lacks interest and expertise in emerging technologies. I’ve witnessed the same “leading from behind” trend with the industry’s uneven, tentative reaction to the social media revolution, which has resulted in sporadic deployment and glaring knowledge gaps across the industry. It’s as if the technology side of the equation has been outsourced to digital agencies or even IT teams (though the latter also lag badly in some organizations.)

I recognize CES is about consumer technology and products, but I believe the concept of marketing to consumers carries some relevance to marketing – or communicating – to other audiences, including employees. At minimum, should professional communicators not track what new technologies are impacting various products and industries – particularly those directly grounded in communication areas like digital content and collaboration?

This is one area where marketing and advertising firms seem to have the upper hand. They realize, it seems, that they risk irrelevance and oblivion if they don’t seek to understand and implement new technology to inform and engage customers. I like the approach of the Starcom/Publicis agency team, which hosted hundreds of clients at CES to expose them to emerging trends and partner in discussions on the implications for marketing. Their message on the event is perceptive and telling:

“CES is about more than just technology.  The agency views it instead at the Consumer Experience Show. […] One of the underlying messages from CES is that technology is a major contributor to a culture and business climate that is evolving at warp speed. Ultimately, creating a compelling experience is what we’re all struggling to do.”

I keep hoping that the PR industry will stop playing catch up on these major trends. Maybe I’ll see more interest and participation at SXSW in Austin, which is ostensibly more relevant to PR professionals. Getting informed and engaged is in the interests of our industry, and our clients.

I recently attended a conference in Austin that focused on social media best practices, and more specifically the merit of word-of-mouth in driving brand reputation and preference.

Wordofmouth.org’s Andy Sernovitz makes a compelling and deceptively simple argument that love – or making your customers happy – is the fuel for positive, robust word-of-mouth conversation. This positive buzz, in turn, provides the essential element for a lasting, mutually beneficial relationship between customer and company that typically translates into customer advocacy and, ideally, purchase.

In short, companies need to give their customers a good reason to like them, and talk about their products or services. Making customers happy – best done by doing things big and small that are remarkable, or special – helps spark and spread the conversation, and also ensures the buzz remains positive – which is critical since we all know that a lover scorned can make a great deal of bad noise. Sernovitz has a funny line in his presentation that advertising is the price for not having good word-of-mouth; companies without a robust, active fan base need to pay to broadcast their message to generate the same awareness and interest. Another key point here is that this goes well beyond the actual product or service the company offers, it’s also about how they treat their customers.

In an era when personal recommendations carry considerable weight in consumer consideration and purchase, the relevance, emotional heft and organic credibility of word-of-mouth is critical. This observation intuitively makes plenty of sense to me. I’ve experience first-hand how simple steps taken by companies – both good and bad – have dramatically impacted my impression, commentary and likelihood to recommend them to others.

So here’s the question I asked myself walking out of this conference: does this same logic, or model of loving your target audience, apply to a corporate context? More specifically, could it help to make employee communications more relevant and compelling, and help to address the malaise and detachment that seems widespread in so many organizations?

My answer is…a qualified yes.

On the one hand, I can see how this model isn’t a perfect fit for the corporate world.

  • First, information like quarterly earnings, strategic priorities or leadership changes does not exactly fit the mold of content that can delight and surprise the audience. Corporate news can tend to be dry and formal.
  • It’s also important to remember that content must match the situation and audience, so a more informal, conversational and/or humorous approach may not be appropriate for all companies or employee segments.
  • While companies can reach and engage new fans and customers every day, they typically have a much more limited and stable internal audience. Dealing with employees, therefore, doesn’t allow the same experimentation or re-invention you can have with consumers.
  • Finally, love must be earned through both deeds and words. In an era rife with company layoffs and cost-cutting, an approach that appears contrived or disingenuous may foster cynicism and even anger rather than love.

Still, I think there are important lessons here for communication professionals:

  • Never think of employees as a captive audience that have no choice but to absorb and use the information you share. The more you think of employees as internal customers – with their own preferences, habits, concerns and, yes, distractions – the more you can customize your outreach to increase relevance and impact. A good mindset is to remember you are competing for eyeballs just as you would in a marketing context.
  • Though corporate information and news can be dry and technical, there is plenty of opportunity to make communication more original, smart and…yes, more remarkable. There are many internal campaigns and messages that use the best elements of marketing – including sarcasm and humor – to break through the clutter and start positive conversations. Maybe the best opportunity is the element of surprise – doing something (positive) your employees don’t expect.
  • Don’t underestimate the small touches – whether informal manager recognition or a CEO responding quickly to an employee email. Employee opinions are shaped by these small, daily interactions as much as the formal HR policies and benefits.
  • Listen to your employees. Really listen. That means not just the usual annual surveys – which often have a dubious reputation – but addressing questions and concerns through all available channels. Even better, try to fix issues that need fixing.
  • Remember that this is a conversation, not a monologue. By its very nature, word-of-mouth must be allowed to flow freely with minimal restriction. If you want to start some good buzz, don’t strangle it with onerous legal hurdles or by stifling legitimate criticism.
  • Remember that line about “advertising is the price of not having good word-of-mouth”? Use that same logic to calibrate your communication output to focus more on how your employees are reacting to your activities, and how you can improve that response, than simply increasing the volume of your outreach. Better to do less communication that works.
  • Identify and nurture your influential supporters. Much like on the web, the comments and opinions of employee peers will play a big role in the water cooler discussions.

Perhaps the biggest lesson here is that your communication approach must consider both the head and the heart. It’s almost a professional cliché, but despite that too many organizations emphasize fact over emotion and productivity over opinion. Think of your employees as individuals that will be more engaged and supportive if they feel appreciated and relevant. Maybe you do need more than love in the business world, but you probably won’t be successful without it.

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