Your employees don’t know what they don’t know.
In 2011, venture capitalist John Doerr quoted the late Steve Jobs, saying, “It”s not the consumer’s job to figure out what they want.” It’s a sentiment that internal communicators should take to heart.
A few weeks ago, I participated in an online conversation about the effectiveness of publishing news to an intranet. I suggested that mobile delivery of news is far more effective today, a view that got considerable pushback. In survey after survey, I was told, employees voiced their preference for news on the intranet.
Here’s the way these surveys work: Employees are asked about their current and preferred sources of various kinds of information (company strategy news, benefits news, etc.) and are given a list of options from which to choose (immediate supervisor, senior leadership, intranet, email, etc.). I was told that even when mobile text alerts are offered as a channel, they don’t rank high.
That’s where Jobs’ belief comes into play.
Social media as a news source
Last July, Pew Research Center reported that 63 percent of both Facebook and Twitter users get their news from these services. Fifty-nine percent of those who get their news on Twitter continued using it to follow the event (compared with 31 percent of Facebook users).
Even more interesting, nearly every demographic group has seen that sharp increase in the use of Facebook and Twitter as their source of news. Not surprisingly, younger users are more inclined to get their news through social media sites, with half of Twitter news users under 35 saying Twitter or Facebook is either the most important or an important source of news. Given that millennials are now the largest generation in the American workforce, that’s an important data point.
Another critical data point is the number of mobile users of these networks. Eighty percent of Twitter’s users are mobile (which means they may access the site from a smartphone or tablet but also from a desktop or laptop). Meanwhile, nearly half of Facebook’s 1.4 billion users use their mobile devices exclusively.
Yet on internal communication surveys, employees continue to state their preference for intranets and email.
That’s because they don’t know what they don’t know.
Relevance is the key
If there are news feeds and activity streams in their organizations, it’s likely they have not been widely adopted. When presented with a mobile notification as an option, they think about the notifications they get from external services and shrug off the notion. What they are not familiar with is an effective internal system or some of the tools available on the market, such as Social Chorus or RedEApp. (Disclosure: Social Chorus is a sponsor of my my podcast.)
Add to that the experience of organizations that have injected articles into the activity stream—those same articles that they used to publish to the intranet home page. They saw an increase in readership of those articles of between 300 percent and 400 percent.
Why the huge uptick? Employees check their news feeds far more frequently than they check the intranet home page—both at their desks and on their mobile devices—because they know the content there is relevant to them.
If one employee spots an article that explains or illustrates the connection between a big-picture company initiative and their own team’s activities, they are likely to share it with their teammates. Once a teammate sees it, they may very well share it with others and follow the communicator who wrote it, figuring that person may be a good source of useful information in the future.
Why intranets get ignored
A few years back, I worked on an employee mobility audit for a global CPG company. In focus groups at production facilities, employees repeatedly told us they never read content on the intranet. The stories were headquarters-focused, they said, and were rarely relevant to them.
When I asked how they would like to subscribe to news updates on their phones only if they were about their facility or the products they made there, every employee in the group said they would subscribe immediately and read the updates within minutes of the time they got the notification.
Please note that I’m not suggesting that communicators stop publishing articles to a news page on the intranet. But the likelihood of an employee seeing a story that’s published in a news feed accessible on their phones is far greater than just posting it on the intranet and including the link in an email newsletter. Why? Because that’s how we’re all getting more and more accustomed to getting our news.
Why, then, don’t the employee surveys reflect a preference for mobile-accessible news feeds and notifications?
Because it’s not the employee’s job to figure out what they want. Or, as Jobs is quoted in a 1998 Business Week article, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Forget the framework; think characteristics
In the case of a listing of internal information sources, we are not showing them how this would work. We just list “mobile text notifications” or “internal news feeds” as an option.
That doesn’t cut it.
Without being able to show employees a mobile Yammer or Chatter feed, a RedEApp or Social Chorus mobile application, how can we get to the answers that will lead to the right conclusion? We need to ask about the characteristics of the news delivery mechanism they would prefer. I would include the following on any internal communications survey:
Please check your preferences for company news/information and how you get it:
The above isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, but you get the idea. If the responses come back pointing toward a mobile app or mobile version of an internal social network, you’ll know all you need to know: that employees don’t yet know what delivery mechanism they want. It is up to internal communicators to make that mechanism available.
Whatever communication technology gets wildly popular in our day-to-day lives eventually finds its way into the workplace. Based on the Pew study, there is no doubt whatsoever that we are getting our news increasingly from our personalized feeds.
There is also no doubt that this will be the way employees get their company news. The only question is whether you’re going to wait for employees to demand it or provide it before they know it’s what they want.
A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn .