How and why to segment your internal audience

Frontline workers, supervisors and middle management require a different communication touch. Here’s how to reach a diverse staff with different preferences and needs.

We often hear people say communication failed because it missed the target.

Like any strategic communication effort, employee communication requires a thorough understanding of who your audience is. If you want your messages to hit the mark and cut through the clutter, it’s crucial to understand the people you’re trying to reach.

Employees differ in terms of demographics, behavior and communication preferences. In today’s increasingly diverse workforce, communicators must find a way to reach employees from different backgrounds, cultures and generations, as well as workers with various levels of technological aptitude.

Audience segmentation is not a new concept. Researchers have long identified various demographic, psychographic and behavioral variables to segment external audiences for more targeted, effective communication. The discussion, however, has been limited when it comes to internal audiences.

If you want to reach people with more relevant, personalized messaging, you can segment employees based on such demographic differences as age, gender, education qualification, ethnicity, income, work tenure, job type, physical location and employment status. You can also segment based on employee psychographics, including personalities, values, attitudes, social needs, cultural interests, desires, work styles, career focuses, desired career benefits or even entertainment preferences.

Behavior variables are another helpful segmentation source. You can consider media consumption habits, involvement in organizational activities or interests outside of work.

Another straightforward approach to internal segmentation is based on the hierarchical structure of an organization. Employees can be grouped as frontline workers, line managers, middle-level management, senior management and executives. Each group has distinctive functions and communication needs, so let’s take a closer look at what that might look like:

Frontline workers
Frontline workers include service employees who are behind the counter, on the phone, on social media responding to customers or walking the floor. They’re also manufacturing or maintenance workers who perform manual labor.

Frontline service employees have the most direct communication with customers, and they often have tremendous influence over customer relationships. Given their access to firsthand information and feedback from customers, service employees are frequently the best sources of observatory research.

Although frontline workers exert great impact on the organization’s productivity and success, they are often the least considered group and most difficult to reach. Reaching people not glued to a screen is a challenge, but communicators who go the extra mile to craft messaging that resonates with frontline workers can tap into a goldmine of insight.

If emails aren’t getting through, consider a more video-centric approach to reach frontline workers.

Line managers
Line managers are positioned in the middle of hierarchies. They are important conduits for distributing information to frontline workers. Line managers are also important sources of information for senior and top-level management.

Line managers can facilitate effective internal communication by translating corporate messages to make them relevant and understandable for employees. They can (and should) also help solicit useful feedback from frontline workers to include in corporate strategic decision-making. How line managers treat employees affects employees’ overall attitude toward the organization, so it’s essential to invest in superior, empathetic line managers. Good relationships with supervisors create a supportive working environment for employees, which boosts productivity, morale and engagement.

Middle-level management
Middle managers act as mediators between business strategy and daily operations. Senior executives depend on middle managers to execute an organization’s vision and strategies.

Unlike line managers, who focus more on managing followers and work units, mid-level managers often deal with peer relationships and communicate horizontally with other middle managers. This could facilitate cross-departmental collaboration, but the middle managers who work together on a task may also experience tension and resentment because of competition for resources and departmental loyalty.

Top-level management
On the top of the ladder are the executives, boards of directors and senior managers who determine the organization’s direction and strategies. These leaders help establish a collective purpose, communicate the vision and ideally define and communicate the core values of the organization to stakeholders.

Top management also sets the tone for internal communication. It establishes the organization’s communication philosophy, allocates resources and provides support for communication initiatives. More importantly, as the public face of the organization, top leaders are the most powerful communicators in the organization. They should embody the organizational image for internal and external publics.

Especially in the increasingly transparent world of social media, stakeholders (including employees) expect higher visibility, authenticity and approachability from top leaders. CEOs are increasingly called upon to be “chief engagement officers.”

Relevant, meaningful communication for all

Given such distinctive characteristics among these groups of employees, communication should be tailored to fit the needs of each group. For instance, to engage frontline workers, communicators should take the time and effort to fully understand frontline employees’ operational environment. Pick a limited set of channels particularly suited to frontline workers’ needs and routines, and deliver more focused, relevant messages.

To engage line managers, organizations can provide training to equip them with effective communication strategies, skills, tools and messages, and empower them to communicate in a two-way, interactive manner that encourages employee participation.

For middle managers, communication can be focused on fostering collaboration that emphasizes big-picture goals and objectives.

Finally, to maximize leadership support for internal communication, communication managers should act as business strategists for top management. Communicators can gain a seat at the decision-making table by equipping CEOs and other executives with strategic communication mindsets, strategies and tools. It’s also crucial to help CEOs enact their “chief engagement officer” roles.

Internal audience segmentation is all about catering to employees. The more you can tailor your messaging according to people’s affinities, routines and preferences, the more successful you’ll be in reaching them.

Rita Linjuan Men is an associate professor of public relations at the University of Florida. A version of this post first appeared on the Institute for Public Relations blog.

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