rotary pay phones
By viewing communications through the lens of supply and demand, practitioners can boost the efficacy and reach of their programs PHOTO: Pavan Trikutam

Imagine you run a small shop, filled with things you think people will buy: fresh vegetables, sustainably-sourced furniture, fair trade coffee. 

But none of it sells. 

People might even tell you they want those things, but they still don’t buy. Even worse, your shelves now have no room to sell anything else.

These are the basic challenges of supply and demand, and a useful framework to think about internal communications. 

For example, I sometimes see intranet homages loaded with worthy content, but nobody consuming it. The content is all supply-driven, without looking at demand or delivery challenges. The customers are frustrated too: 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 organizations measure systematically, and even know 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 Cheesesteaks or Korean kimchi. None of these are big global sellers, but they do have strong local markets.

Communications teams that use global metrics dashboards risk smoothing out insights by looking at data that is too broad. For example, if you only ask, “What was our most-read news article?” chances are it will be a corporate-wide one due to the size of the potential audience.

Wouldn’t you be more excited to see 80 percent of a small target audience read a story rather than 5 percent of a large audience? There's often a higher demand for news with a local context because the potential impact on the reader is higher, even if the significance company-wide is lower. Comms teams should balance this by using local dashboards as well as global ones.

Connecting Comms with Consumers

Other times, like goods delivered to a depot that never make their way to the shelf, the supply is there but people don't see it. 

This is where personalization can help. Delivering content specific to an employee's needs and interests can surface communications that otherwise would go unnoticed. 

Motivation is another strong factor in communications success. When an intranet includes transactions and collaboration it becomes more viable as a communication channel. Using your intranet purely to push communications messages is the digital equivalent of bussing people to see a billboard in the desert rather than erecting it on an already busy highway. 

Get Your Comms Distribution Right

Internal communicators used to ask, "How can I make my intranet a one-stop shop?" which implies success is somehow linked to shutting other channels down. 

This battle was lost long ago 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.

Of course you can still publish news on your intranet. 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. We’ve seen a big uptick in apps dedicated to delivering mobile communications, such as SocialChorus and APPrise.

When to Communicate 'I Don't Know'

The most common complaint during times of change in a business is, "managers never tell us anything." This assumes all decisions have been made, but managers are keeping staff in the dark — which is read as a display of power or unconcern, neither of which is good for employee morale. 

In truth, the decision is still up in the air and consultations are ongoing. Sometimes management tells those directly affected personally before a general announcement — sometimes the silence is because management wants to do right by employees. 

So what and where do you communicate in this kind of situation? Social channels, and where possible, face to face, helps here. A formal news article announcing "We're still thinking," would be too much, but employees appreciate openness about where you are in the decision-making process.

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. It's time to retire the antiquated view that leaders should have all the answers. Saying you don’t know yet may not put people’s minds at rest, but it doesn't keep people in the dark. And who knows, sharing what you don't know may invite an unexpected answer.

Author's note: I’m grateful to Liz Carlile from IIED for inspiration for her article that inspired this piece: "Making communication count: a Strategic Communications Framework."