11 internal communications trends you’d be crazy to ignore

From the obvious things like smartphones to some less-intuitive avenues (print, anyone?), these are the trends communications pros should keep on their radar as we cruise into 2014.

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 offering my own insights, I’ve asked others to spotlight the trends that every employee communicator should watch for 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 improve their 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 percent 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, as YouTube recently revealed that mobile devices account for 40 percent of the videos consumed on its site.

More and more companies are adopting a YouTube-like approach to video, introducing libraries that let employees search for videos, comment on them, tag them, embed them, and 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 long 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 has been accelerated by articles in communication publications and sessions at conferences from communicators who’ve connected 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 percent of employees worldwide are engaged at work.

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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

Although social software has been deployed in many organizations, employees generally haven’t adopted it. Adoption is crucial; 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 to 25 percent 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 percent of employees participate in the social intranet on a daily basis, and 31 percent rarely or never do. Given the focus on engagement, there must and will be a shift away from email and toward internal social media for most employee communication.

5. Activity streams

“Nothing succeeds like success,” as the maxim goes. 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 home page feature, communicators are giving up their magazine-style approach to sharing news and are instead 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 Radian6 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.

Though 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 a trend I hadn’t included in my original list, but I added it 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 at 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. Employees simply don’t use the intranet the same way they used the company publication.

Although 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 forged 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 whom I presented these trends told me the list validated the work they were 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?

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. A version of this story first appeared on his blog a shel of my former self.

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