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.