The 11 vital internal communications trends you’d be crazy to ignore

Posted on October 30, 2013 4:41 pm by | Visual Communication | Internal | Intranets

11 Vital Internal Communications Trends

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A client recently asked me to put together a webinar for the company’s internal communication staff on hot trends in internal communications. In addition to listing the trends that were already top-of-mind for me, I sought out thought leaders in the internal communications space to see what was on their radars. Here are the 11 trends that every employee communicator should bear in mind as 2014 approaches.

1. Mobile

To read some of the tech trades, you would think that BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) was an IT initiative designed to protect the integrity of company data on employees’ personal mobile devices. The truth is, BYOD is a grass-roots movement that is happening in your organization whether you like it or not.

Employees are using their personal devices for work simply because they’re better than the devices distributed by the company (if, that is, they were among the employees who actually got company phones) and they’re able to use those meatier features to fuel their own improved efficiency.

Regardless of the motivation, however, there are opportunities to reach employees who were relegated to the have-not class when companies abandoned print for the cheaper (but not necessarily more strategic) intranet.

2. Video

According to one study, 72% of internal communications teams are planning to increase the use of video as a means of communicating with employees. That dovetails nicely with the mobile trend, since YouTube recently revealed that mobile devices account for 40% of the videos consumed on its site.

More and more companies are adopting a YouTube-like approach to video, introducing video libraries that let employees search for videos, comment on them, tag them, embed them and (importantly) upload their own as a means of sharing information and knowledge.

If internal communications uses of video interests you, be sure to listen to Ron Shewchuk’s new podcast, TV@Work.

3. Communicating for engagement

Employee engagement has always been the province of Human Resources, but research from the PR Academy supports the notion that good communications contributes to higher levels of engagement.

The focus on engagement is being accelerated by articles in communication publications and sessions at conferences from communicators who have been able to connect the dots. The mandate is clear as alarmingly low engagement levels lead executives to wonder why their communications departments aren’t doing more to correct the problem. Gallup, which more or less invented the whole concept of engagement, found that only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work.

There are ample opportunities for communications to bolster engagement. One is to improve the channels through which employees’ collective and individual voices are heard. Another is to recast communications based on the stakeholder groups with which employees self-identify: work groups, project groups and the employee-supervisor relationship. A lot of executives believe employees don’t care about the issues that keep them up at night, but employees do care—deeply—when those issues are articulated in the context of these stakeholder groups.

4. Social software adoption

While social software has been deployed in many organizations, employees generally haven’t adopted it. Adoption is critically important, since businesses that don’t migrate to social software as a conduit for day-to-day business will be mangled by their savvier competitors. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates productivity improves by 20-25% in organizations with connected employees, and the potential for revenue amounts to $1.3 trillion per year.

Yet, according to Prescient Digital Media’s 2013 social intranet study, only 13% of employees participate in the social intranet on a daily basis while 31% rarely or never do.

Given the focus on engagement and some other key internal communications trends, communicators will take a more active role in promoting the adoption of internal social media, which will require a strategic pivot away from the vice-like grip email has on most employees’ communication practices.

5. Activity streams

Nothing succeeds like success. When organizations focus on adoption of social software, the tool that gets attracts most employees is the activity stream (the equivalent of Facebook’s news feed on your intranet). With employees able to see instantly what their work team peers, project peers, bosses and other employees are doing, they feel more connected and, as a result, get more engaged.

Within organizations that have adopted the activity stream as the dominant homepage feature, communicators are giving up their magazine-style approach to sharing news and simply injecting their articles and other content into the stream. At least three organizations I know have seen this approach result in three or four times the views of their content. That’s right: Getting employees to “follow” or “like” the communications profile leads to more consumption of communications content than the traditional approach of listing headlines on the homepage.

Activity streams also provide internal communicators with a real-time view of issues and interests on employees’ minds, which can be converted into articles and other content that addresses those issues and interests, answers questions and increases the relevance of the internal communications team’s contributions. Think of the activity stream as Radian 6 for the enterprise.

6. Employee ambassador programs

From PepsiCo to Sprint, internal communications departments are taking charge of initiatives that connect employees with customers to solve problems, answer questions, engage in conversations and raise the company’s profile.

7. Social visual communication

Images are dominating shared content, and with good reason. Engagement levels and interaction with images are significantly higher than narrative text as content consumption shifts from fixed desktops and laptops to mobile smartphones and tablets. While I’m hesitant to call this an internal communications trend—I haven’t seen it manifest yet inside any organization—it is inevitable. Smart communicators will get ahead of the trend and innovate ways to use images to tell stories and deliver messages, along with the channels for delivering them. I wrote a post recently suggesting six ways communicators can use images for internal communications.

8. Digital signage

This is one of those trends I hadn’t included in my original list but added based on input from my peers. Considering the adoption of digital signage I’ve seen at places like Dell and Cisco Systems, it should have occurred to me. We’re not talking about the old-school flat-panel monitor projecting a looping PowerPoint deck. These devices are activated by touch or motion, incorporate video, and can be tailored to deliver relevant information to employees based on their location, even floor-by-floor. Here’s just one case study from a freight company.

9. Gamification

Gartner projects that most big companies will employ gamification by next year. It’s already evident in wellness and training programs inside a lot of companies, but we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface. Gamification, stated simply, makes it fun to do things that usually are mundane and tedious by applying one or more of the elements of game-play. These typically include badging, leveling, leader boards, and completion bars.

Communicators who acquaint themselves with the principles of gamification will be able to apply it to communication challenges. Why not, for instance, reward employees who consume a lot of internal communications content with recognition on their intranet profiles? How about quizzes on key communications with a leader board recognizing those who scored best? The potential to gratify human desire for intrinsic reward in the context of internal communications goals is pretty massive.

10. Print

Was that a double-take I just saw? Yeah, that’s right. I said print.

The abandonment of print by most companies was a budgetary decision, not a strategic one. The simple fact is that employees don’t use the intranet the same way they used the company publication. While the periodical all-employee publication isn’t making a comeback, niche uses of print that are based on achieving measurable objectives are making a comeback in many companies. Hospitals, for example, are returning to print to get messages to nurses and other staff who don’t have access to the intranet. Yes, it’s costly. Yes, it has long production lead times. But it also works.

11. Employee influence measurement

As employee-to-employee communication moves into the jurisdiction of internal communications departments, identifying and tapping into those employees with high levels of influence will grow more important. The folks at Microsoft recognize this; it’s why they’ve done a deal with Klout to have an influence score appear on their Yammer profiles based on their internal Yammer activity. I have little doubt that Chatter and other internal networking tools will follow suit, but in the absence of such automated scoring, communicators will find other ways to figure out which employees to tap for advocacy and ambassadorship roles.

Which of these trends are you your radar?

The client to which I presented these trends told me the list served to validate the work they were already doing. How about you? Which of these is already part of your internal communications plan and which caught you by surprise? Do you disagree with any of them? Did I miss any?

 

Comments

  • 1.Great list, Shel. What about hyper-segmentation based on audience understanding analysis and insights?

    Christy leonhardt | October 2013 | Oregon

  • 2.Hi, Christy. That's a trend I'd like to see! Mostly, I'm seeing some segmentation based on generations and their distinguishing values and expectations, but there are so many other ways to slice and dice audiences based on everything from geography to hierarchy. Most companies may extract that data from communication or engagement surveys, but I honestly don't see them doing much with it. Do you?

    Shel Holtz | October 2013

  • 3.Terrific list, Shel. Can't think of anything to add, other than this: The line between internal and "external" is blurred, when it exists at all. Employees are your spokespeople now, they are the media as they write on their social media platforms, they are your customers and the community. Companies that have internal comns in one building and external comms in another one are missing the boat.

    Steve Crescenzo | October 2013

  • 4.One item worth watching, though not necessarily a trend, is "the potential de-professionalisation" of internal comms, accelerated by the proliferation of enterprise social networks.

    As individual parts of organisations take on initiation and ownership of communities, and as more and more lateral communication takes place through enterprise channels, a shift towards lay or amateur communicators becomes inevitable. What can the professionals do to stay ahead of this?

    Mike Klein | October 2013 | Copenhagen and Amsterdam

  • 5.Great list of comments and I'm pleased to see print on the list. While counter-intuitive, for many organisations it has surprising cut-through - but still demands great design and solid content management, plus incorporate some online reading principles ie make it short and easy and direct people elsewhere for more.

    Darryl Mead | October 2013 | London

  • 6.Thanks for the comment, Steve. I agree wholeheartedly; it's why the ambassador programs trend is on the list, although I also believe in all-employee training on social media -- based on a solid policy -- that encourages employees to engage both internally and externally.

    Gerald Baron -- Crisisblogger -- also says that more and more companies are revising their media relations policies. You know the ones I'm talking about, the policies that say employees can't talk to the press but rather have to refer calls to the Media Relations department? Taking a lead from the Coast Guard Incident Command (following the Deepwater Horizon crisis), companies are starting to inform employees that they CAN talk to the press -- about their own areas of expertise, their own jobs. It's only when questions venture outside their areas of expertise that they're asked to make the referral. That's a smart policy, given the widening definition of "media" (to include bloggers and the like). But I'm not sure that's an actual employee communications trend, so I didn't include it in the list.

    Shel Holtz | October 2013

  • 7.Mike, I hope that's not the case! From my perspective, it's important for employee communications to continue to fulfill its professional role -- alignment of employees' work with high-level business goals -- while now taking responsibility for the adoption of processes that grease the wheels of employee-to-employee communication. We also need to monitor the conversations in order to react in real-time (or close to it) based on what we're hearing. In other words, the role of the professional internal communicator is expanding, not contracting!

    Shel Holtz | October 2013

  • 8.Nice list!!! I loved sourcing news and designing print...and turned an ordinary status-report into something newsy early 2000s. I noticed employees printing it out and others reading it on the D.C. train! But no, someone's opinion a few years later about it being passe' and no longer a trend at corporate level ended a sweet tool ! Never did we ween them...how rude of the IRS...

    Also, I introduced segmentation to my internal communications workgroup and also corporate in 2010, but they weren't ready to bite let alone chew...

    Pat | October 2013 | San Francisco, CA

  • 9.RE: Segmentation. I agree that too many companies take the easy route of using demographics, or still rely on one-size-fits all. And segmentation can sound scary to some. But with the advent of internal social networks and more sophisticated HR data analytics, I’m seeing more communications tailored to groups based on their common experiences. For example, recruiting volunteers from enthusiastic new hires; promoting the magic of compound interest to those who are underfunding their 401ks; developing eldercare benefits for GenXers who have formed a support group online; asking product experts with active Twitter followerships to become social advocates/ambassadors, etc. This plays into Mike’s comment about the future of professional communicators: we need to be more active listeners and conversation facilitators, so that we can create and deliver messages that are so finely tuned, people will hear them through all the competing noise generated by our audiences.

    Christy Leonhardt | October 2013 | Oregon

  • 10.LOVE the idea of Activity Streams integrated into the company website or RSS. I would go beyond saying that it keeps employees engaged to say that it creates and strengthens community. A strong community is huge for employee retention and happiness. I'm so glad to see this is a trend on the rise!

    Andy Ptacek | November 2013

  • 11.Agree with Christy's observation about segmentation. The scary part for some is thinking about being exclusive, rather than inclusive in their communications. I propose taking a cue from marketers and developing employee personas. They can be sliced and diced what ever way works best for the organization. As a communicator, I'd look at how a group consumes information and develop personas based upon that, i.e., call center employees are very different that those on the shop floor. Think about ages, experiences, work environment and how messages best reach each group. Then you truly can tailor communications and delivery in a way that may make sense for leaders.

    Mark Mills | November 2013 | Columbus, Ohio

  • 12.Fantastic list, Shel. Your comment on activity streams really caught my eye: "At least three organizations I know have seen this approach result in three or four times the views of their content." That is a stunning result! Are these examples you can share?

    Jeremy Schultz | November 2013 | Portland, OR

  • 13.We have found activity streams, specifically Basecamp, to be incredibly useful. It keeps everyone on task and up-to-date of the overall progress level of which projects need the most love.

    Bernie Clark | November 2013 | United States

  • 14.Excellent list and one particular thing which stands out for me is the Social Software statistics in Item 4.
    From experience of this I would suggest that rushing to introduce a poorly structured social software system actually isolates more employees than it includes. Silos are built around communities and without a formal structure information becomes increasingly more difficult to find unless you're 'one of the team'.
    Don't get me wrong here I'm not saying we shouldn't have an element of social media in our communications portfolio, I just think structure should be a key part of building a social media network, after all you wouldn't build a company out of teams who didn't talk to each other because membership was restricted - would you.....??

    Richard Webster | November 2013 | UK

  • 15.I love the idea of using video to communicate with staff. It breaks through a lot of barriers that emails don't provide. It's also take a lot less effort to get staff to actually provide updates. The key is integrating the video technology component as part of the internal communication process or network. If it's not point and click the chances of adoption are slim.

    Great post Shel!

    Jason Verdelli | January 2014 | Hershey, PA

  • 16.Great post! Been reading a lot about business communications. Thanks for the info!

    business Communications | March 2014 | Columbus

  • 17.:-) No way! SHEL HOLTZ..!!!! I have almost forgotten about you! And suddenly I found myself now reading some material writen by you!

    Let me tell you... when I just started studying communications ('93), I came across with material you wrote, and it was so so so helpful for me, that I remember writing you to thank you, since you were one of the very few people in "that" internet (we were fewer people than now around the World Wide Web...) that was writing about internal communications. I remember reading about something called "blogs" in companies! hehehehe Life changes so fast, now we're talking about social networks, digital billboards, mobile applications, VR. Anyway, I am SO happy to come across with you again!!! It's so cool! Thank you Shel and thank you Universe :) I'll keep on reading you now that I found you!

    Ana | June 2014 | Buenos Aires, Argentina | Miami, USA

  • 18.Great post. Loved it. Lots of helpful insight, information and reminders. I recently blogged about the continuing value of print... It has its uses! Check it out: http://wp.me/4aJQT

    Jay Croft | June 2014 | Atlanta

  • 19.Thanks for sharing the trends in IC channels which are all valid. What about a deliberate structure/format where leaders are expected to be a channel of communications to employees to build trust. This can be reinforced by expecting leaders to hold 'connection' sessions with a group of employees whenever they travel to a particular office/site so that informal two-way chats can take place and it builds more trust versus social media alone. Defining the frequency and allowing the format to be free-flow is easy to do. Some leaders may frown at it as they see no value but it has paid off too many times.

    Caroline Thomas Lingham | July 2014 | Singapore

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