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Internal communications as supply and demand


Internal communications as supply and demand

Imagine you run a small shop, filled with things you think people should be buying: fresh vegetables, sustainably-sourced furniture, handmade cakes, fair trade coffee. But it doesn’t sell. People might even tell you that’s what they want, but then don’t buy it. Even worse your shelves now have no room to sell anything else.

It’s the basic challenge of supply and demand, and it can be useful to think about internal communications this way. I sometimes see intranet homages loaded with worthy content but nobody consuming it, for example. The content is all supply-driven, without looking at demand or delivery challenges. The customers are frustrated to – they want things, but they have to work their way past your stall to get to what really interests them.

Identifying communications demand

We talk a lot about measurement in internal communications, but few organisations measure systematically, and even fewer are clear about what actions to take when the data comes in. It’s like seeing a product sells well one week but not changing your supply tactics to repeat it.

Demand can often be very localized too. Think of Yorkshire Tea, Philly Pretzels or Korean kimchi. None of these are big global sellers, but they do have strong local markets.

Comms teams that have global metrics dashboards risk smoothing out insights by looking at data that is too broad-brush. For example, if you only ask, “What was our most-read news article?”, it will most likely be a corporate-wide one just because it has the biggest potential audience.

Wouldn’t you be more excited to see that 80% of a small target audience read a story rather than 5% of a large audience? Demand for news that has a local context can be higher because the likelihood of impact on the reader is higher, even if the significance company-wide is lower. Comms teams should be sure to have local dashboards as well as global ones.

Connecting comms with consumers

Sometimes the supply is there but people don’t see it. Like delivering to the depot but not putting the product on the shelf. This is where personalisation can come in. It’s like walking into a shop and the end-aisle promotions automatically changing to meet your interests. The stock is already there, but now it catches your eye.

What we can also learn is that the best connections are made when people are already motivated to go there. This is why including transaction and collaboration in an intranet also makes it more viable as a communication channel. If you’re purely trying to drive people to an intranet to see a communications message, it’s like bussing people to see a billboard in the desert rather than erecting it on an already busy highway.

Get your comms distribution right

It used to be that internal communicators would ask “How can I make my intranet a one-stop shop?”. The implication being that success was somehow linked to shutting other channels down. This is a battle long lost on the internet, where content exists in a network of sharing and re-use. Consider, for example, how many stories from newspaper sites are consumed directly within Facebook.

On an intranet, you can still publish news there, but you have to market it in other channels, such as enterprise social networks, digital signage and potentially process-specific tools such as CRM systems and point-of-sale terminals. In my consulting we’re, we’re seeing a big uptick in apps dedicated to delivering mobile communications, such as SocialChorus and APPrise.

If you can’t meet demand?

Especially in times of change I hear employees complaining that “managers never tell us anything”. The implied assumption is that the decisions have all been made, but managers are keeping staff in the dark. The inference then is that they don’t care or are doing it as a display of power.  Neither of these are good conclusions for your people to reach.

In reality the decision probably hasn’t been made, and consultations are still going on. Sometimes those directly affected are told face to face before a general announcement – counter-intuitively the silence is because management want to do right for the employee.

So, what do you communicate in this phase? This is where social channels come in (and where possible, face to face still counts). You wouldn’t do a formal news article saying, “We’re still thinking”, but openness about where you’re up to in the decision-making process is usually appreciated.

The head of one recently-acquired company told his team “Don’t let anyone from our new parent company tell you that your department will be moving over to somewhere else. Nothing has been decided yet, so if I don’t know it, they certainly don’t know it either. But when I do know, I’ll tell you myself”.

I admire that candor. The image of leaders having to have all the answers is antiquated. Saying you don’t know yet may not fully put people’s minds at rest, but nor does keeping people in the dark. And who knows, sharing what you don’t know may invite an unexpected answer.

I’m grateful to Liz Carlile from IIED for inspiration for this piece via Making communication count: a Strategic Communications Framework.

A version of this article was first published over at CMSWire.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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