Once solely the domain of the HR department, employee communications are increasingly being routed through the chief marketing officer's office. A number of factors are driving this change, including the need to improve retention rates in the face of record unemployment, a recognition that a strong culture can make or break the customer experience and that employees can be deployed as persuasive brand advocates.
To better understand the ins and outs of employee communications, I spoke with Bob Armour, the CMO of Jellyvision, a software company that helps employers market their benefit programs to employees. And while benefits are still the domain of HR, the lessons Armour shares are applicable to all–employee engagement requires a focused strategy, multi-touch and multi-channel campaigns, clear metrics all enhanced by user-friendly tech.
Why is it so hard for companies to communicate effectively to their employees?
There's a thing called the curse of knowledge. We all suffer from being experts in whatever we're experts in. In the case of our clients, who we're trying to help and provide the software too, these are HR professionals and HR is awash with all sorts of shortenings, jargon—and they don't even know that they're doing it. Back to the communication aspect of it: you need to be aware that you are a victim to the curse of knowledge. This basically says that you, as an expert, cannot really explain something to a beginner very easily, because you think about all of the nooks and crannies and notches of the thing that you know really well, where the beginner usually doesn't need to understand all that most of the time.
How do you make sure that your software actually gets to the employee?
We spend a lot of time with our clients making sure that they are marketing our stuff to their employees in the way that's going to get their employees to use the software.
There are pre-written emails and all sorts of collateral and then we try to help them with content around "what is effective communication." It is about making sure that you're referencing "what's in it for me" for the user. For the employees, typically making sure you're doing the right thing, or saving the most money, or getting what's right for your family—that's a little more important than just, "Hey, sign up for your benefits."
Do you give advice to the HR folks in terms of how to communicate this?
We do a lot of work around again helping these HR professionals become marketers. What goes into creating a motivating message? I would argue there are two things that motivate people: love or fear. So how do you motivate your employees using love—love of their families, love of saving money—or fear of making the wrong choice. How do you use that to then craft a message around what you're trying to do? Then, they actually pay attention. Again—nobody loves the last day when you have to pick your benefits. Nobody does. So how do you motivate those people to actually lean in to an experience that typically isn't that great? And we try to make it really great.
When you help companies communicate, which ones are typically the most successful?
The companies that have done the best have taken advantage of all channels to market to their employees. They've gone beyond just the direct mail or email, to social marketing where they've created pages around an event and marketed there. They've done text-based marketing around their open enrollment for their insurance and they've put up collateral all over their physical office space to do it. The HR professionals who have taken a significant multi-channel approach—and a multi-channel approach that really focuses on millennials and how millennials are collecting information and sharing it—those are the ones that we see you get more than 100 percent of their employees, because they have multiple people coming back, multiple times.
How do you advise clients on measuring success?
There are surveys that are done throughout the experience and then at the end of the experience. Our mantra is "be helpful" and our ultimate measurement is the scores on "was Alex [the bot] helpful to you and your experience?"—that rolls up to the kind of employer experience. We look at anything that we've done to help people move meaningfully into a better financial place. Did they choose a better plan? Did they put more money into a 401k? Did they put more money into their health savings account, because they understood it better? Those are super important to us.
Any final points about effective employee communications?
Sure. The feedback that your own employees can give to you in terms of crafting the message is crucial. We advise a lot of our clients to create internal focus groups of people from all walks of life inside their company, whether it's people on the factory floor, people at desks or people out in the field and run the messaging by them. Get them to give you the input that you need, to figure out whether this has jargon in it, whether it's confusing, whether it's not motivating. Whatever it is, talk to people who are going to cure you of your curse of knowledge.