A recent article in the Harvard Business Review – which continues to provide solid contributions to the analysis of social media’s impact on culture and industry – argues that many marketers are using an outdated model and spending money and effort in the wrong places. The article states: Consumers still want a clear brand promise and offerings they value. What has changed is when—at what touch points—they are most open to influence, and how you can interact with them at those points. In the past, marketing strategies that put the lion’s share of resources into building brand awareness and then opening wallets at the point of purchase worked pretty well. But touch points have changed in both number and nature, requiring a major adjustment to realign marketers’ strategy and budgets with where consumers are actually spending their time. [I added the bold for emphasis.] The authors take a fresh look at the “funnel” marketing model where awareness drives consideration which drives purchase. According to their research, today’s consumers take a much more iterative and less reductive journey of four stages: consider, evaluate, buy, and enjoy, advocate, bond.

Variations of this new theory have been around for a while, but what I found interesting is questioning if and how this critical analysis would apply to communications – both internal and external. In other words, are we focusing our communication efforts in the wrong places and events, and perhaps also using the wrong channels and tools? Let’s take internal communications as an example.

Traditional employee communication “touch points” have focused on seminal events like orientation, staff/company meetings, quarterly updates and annual workplace campaigns like benefit enrollment. In terms of channels, many companies still favor traditional, formal push formats like email, memos and staff meetings – though many are exploring more interactive, virtual channels and transforming their intranets into dynamic social platforms. In fact, the bulk of internal communication seems to be event-driven and episodic, rather than an ongoing dialogue. The question all communicators should ask is: are these the right “touch points” to reach our employees, and are we using the right methods to interact with them? When are our employees most receptive to information? When are they likely to discuss news with peers or leaders? When might they want to add their own opinions or ideas to the mix?

Using the proposed HBR paradigm, I suggest that most internal communication programs are lacking in the following areas:

  • Consideration – Organizations devote considerable effort to attracting talent and even branding the work experience (or the employee value proposition) but I would argue too many consider the “sale” completed once the employee is hired. That approach is short-sighted, given the chronic percentage of disengaged employees and the attrition of key talent at many companies (particularly after the initial honeymoon year.) Like consumer brands, companies need to pursue a sustained approach that seeks to keep employees engaged well past the point of hiring.
  • Evaluation – Though employees are in some ways a captive audience they are likely to engage in the same evaluation process as consumers, and may seek input from peers, third-parties and even competitors when assessing the relevance and credibility of internal messages or even the quality of their workplace. This evaluation is also likely to generate questions and comments from staff. From my observation, few companies provide an adequate process to manage this deliberation process, presumably assuming employees will simply accept the information (and directives) at face value. Another point that probably fits here is that evaluation by employees should ideally allow ways for them to contribute their own ideas and feedback to company programs and policies.
  • Advocate – While most companies devote considerable resources to identifying and leveraging their consumer fan base, far fewer take a similar approach with their internal advocates. Progressive companies need to consider not only how to leverage their influential ambassadors inside the company, but also how to mobilize their staff outside the firewalls. In my experience, many companies aren’t even aware of the profile and actions of their employees on networks like Facebook and Twitter, and even fewer have a proactive program to harness staff and alumni as informal advocates with external stakeholders.
  • Bond – While many companies are exploring new ways to drive internal collaboration under the guise of productivity, few are focusing on helping their staff network and share content for the sake of cultural alignment and personal connection. If we’ve learned nothing else from the explosion of social media, it’s that people want to connect with each other. Still, some companies make it difficult for staff to communicate – or even identify each other – using corporate channels, probably due to concerns the chatter will be a distraction. And company email doesn’t make the cut in this regard.

An additional observation that doesn’t fit in the HBR model is that many companies focus only on their own formal communication channels to communicate with employees. Given the explosion of mobile technology and prevalence of social networks, a better approach would be to assess how employees communicate inside and outside the company and find relevant ways to participate in that digital conversation. Continuing to push out information through enclosed channels that may be an after-thought to most employees is not a viable solution.

Perhaps the best approach for companies is to treat their employees as consumers – or even free-agents – who require the same sustained attention as people considering brands and products. Keeping staff informed, productive and loyal is a full-time marketing challenge.