Getting internal communications right is a pressing issue for HR professionals, particularly when it comes to driving better uptake of employee benefits schemes with the aim of creating higher levels of employee engagement. HR departments who are tapping into marketing techniques are seeing most success.
The world of marketing has evolved rapidly with the explosion of digital content and communications. Marketers are driving massive customer engagement advances by customising communications and personalising what’s on offer to suit individual preferences. This begs the question are there specific techniques being deployed by marketers that should be considered by HR professionals in order to drive engagement in the workplace?
Retailers and technology providers specialise in audience segmentation and distributing communications in a timely and appealing manner and HR has a lot to learn from this. The best marketing communications are human and personalised and this applies to internal HR communications promoting benefits or a set of values just as much as retailer communications with customers aimed at building a brand or shifting product. Organisations who market effectively to external customers often communicate poorly with staff and a shift in mind set towards viewing employees as internal customers is a key starting point.
Iyer and Israel (2012) identified internal communication as a key driver of employee engagement and communicating vision and values is key to tapping into employees’ intrinsic motivations. Employees who value a sense of purpose at work and who buy into the vision of their organisation will be more engaged. Research has found that people who are ‘purposeful’ at work are much higher performers and are far more likely to recommend the organisation to others1.
HR is a sector going through rapid change and departments range from those that are policy and procedure-focused through to those that are more broadly focused on employee engagement. However all types of department can benefit from a marketing approach to employee communications. Even policy and procedure-focused HR professionals can take a lead from the insurance industry, for example. These days, insurers use plain English in their documentation, making it easy to read and accessible, and send customers clear alerts as to what they need to act on and what it is important they should read and why – perhaps they will get a better policy or get it cheaper.
Borrowing marketing techniques
HR can borrow techniques from marketing such as segmenting employee communications according to the profile of the individual, such as age, sex, rank, contract type2. There is little point sending most 18 year olds information about childcare vouchers – travel vouchers or education opportunities might work better for this group – while older employees might place greater value on extra holiday or healthcare benefits. However there are exceptions to every generalisation – it is good practice to strive toward opt-in benefit communications so that ultimately individual employees can choose what works for them. But there are many additional opportunities for improvement before reaching this, rather advanced, stage.
Marketers create personas to help them segment and communicate with different groups of customers using information including demographic data, definitions of the values or drivers for this group and the message they are targeting at this group. In the long term this persona can help with getting the tone of voice right and choosing method of communication that works, rather than ‘sheep dipping’ – sending the same communications, the same way to everyone. Instant messaging with a dash of humour might work for younger millennial employees, while more formal emails might suit Baby Boomers. Marketers use a clear ‘call to action’ for their messages and HR can learn from this too, introducing techniques to ensure employees have acted on the communications HR is sending out, encouraging incremental step-changes in behaviour.
HR practitioners who have implemented employee benefits to drive engagement can use marketing techniques to get the most from their investment. For example, P&MM used automated, retailer-style, welcome journey communications targeted at getting NHS employees interested in a rewards card it was offering to help improve employee spending power through cashback on everyday shopping. In the first three months of its adoption, those NHS employees who received targeted, step by step communications flagging up that the card was on its way to them, then reminding them that they had the discount shopping card and where they could spend it, earned 30% more cashback on it than those who received minimal communications as they had a better understanding of the discounts on offer. Designing this type of lifecycle communication needs some planning but is very doable even for non-marketers.
Expertise on tap
There is no need for HR professionals to become marketing experts. Once you have developed a clear understanding what you are trying to achieve you will often find the expertise you need in-house. It is often possible to tap into marketing expertise that exists in the organisation by making informal connections with marketing people. Payroll teams will have insights on employee data that is held outside of HR systems, while IT and data departments will be able to advise on how it may be filtered and analysed.
There are a few tips that can help with introducing marketing techniques to improve employee engagement:
- Act on indications that current HR communications are not working. Is the generic HR inbox always overflowing with queries to which HR thinks it has communicated the answers? What are response rates to calls to action on taking up benefits?
- Check in regularly with marketing contacts in the business to learn what new techniques and technologies they are using to get their message out that you could borrow to drive engagement with internal customers – employees.
- Start small and experiment with using marketing techniques to communicate benefits with specific small groups of employees. Measure results against a control group before rolling out initiatives more widely.
- Prioritise having effective analytics in place so that it is easy to continuously review how effectively you are communicating benefits to employees and tweak your approach to achieve improvements. Employee engagement surveys can be useful tool here but only if they ask the right questions.
- Review how employees in different lines of business communicate with each other and the business before considering tapping into that with HR communications. If you normally communicate with all employees by email, instead consider using a collaborative social platform or a rewards portal if one is in place to make communications even better.
Uptake of employee benefit schemes and similar initiatives is commonly disappointing – better communications will ensure HR gets return on investment and achieves the desired uplift in engagement. Once HR views employees as customers, professionals who successfully apply marketing best practice to drive employee engagement will find themselves at the leading edge of HR practice.
1 ‘2015 Purpose Workforce Index’. Imperative https://www.imperative.com/index
2 ‘Rewarding and motivating a multi-generational workforce’. P&MM. http://staffmotivationmatters.co.uk/motivating-multi-generational-workforce/