Survey: Internal social networks won’t replace email

Email remains a daily tool for communicators, despite the popularity of social media, a survey reveals. Specifically, email is the preferred way to deliver crucial information to employees.

You might think that email wouldn’t hold long-term promise as a communications channel for health care organizations.

After all, doctors, nurses, and other frontline employees often don’t have computer access or time to monitor their inboxes during their shifts.

Still, asked whether internal social networks will replace email at Kaiser Permanente within the next five years, senior communications consultant Vanessa J. Granville doesn’t see it happening.

Although most communicators doubt that their social networks will make email obsolete, organizations have moved beyond viewing email as simply a way of pumping out messages to employees, according to the survey “Email Best Practices” from Newsweaver and Ragan Communications.

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Communicators increasingly are looking to intranets to meet their goals. Engagement is a goal for most. And organizations are differentiating among channels when it comes to various kinds of messages.

Asked whether internal social networks will replace email in their organizations within the next five years, 48 percent disagree—13 percent of them strongly—while only 27 percent of respondents indicate that such networks are going to muscle out internal email.

Granville, who works in Kaiser Permanente’s Mid-Atlantic States regional office, communicates with up to 7,000 regional employees of the health care giant. Her office primarily sends what she calls “from the desk of” messages on behalf of regional executives, relying heavily on a “manager cascade” of messages.

“We have a biweekly update that is sent via email to a designated ‘communication champion’ in each of our frontline facilities, who prints the messages and posts in employee break rooms,” she says, adding, “It has to be high-level information that provides necessary knowledge for a majority of regional employees.”

Three-quarters link communication to engagement

The survey dug into the broader role of communications. Forty-six percent agreed with the statement, “Internal communications is responsible for making sure employees are engaged,” with 30 percent strongly agreeing.

Twelve percent chose “neither agree/disagree.” Eleven percent disagreed, though only 1 percent felt strongly about disagreeing.

Got a mandate from the top? Our sampling was split on whether email is the best way to get it out to employees. When asked, “Top-down, corporate messages are best sent via email,” 40 percent agreed, 7 percent strongly so. Thirty percent neither agreed nor disagreed.

In contrast with Kaiser Permanente, Ginny Hermann of the Omaha-based Home Instead Senior Care network strongly agreed that email is likely to be replaced with internal social networks. Home Instead sends a popular daily email to communicate with headquarters staff, and it produces a robust monthly email for its franchisees in 16 countries.

Hermann has high hopes for the new intranet to be launched early in 2015.

“Once our new intranet is up and running, I see them embracing the technology and moving away from the back-and-forth cycle of email communications,” Hermann says.

Boys & Girls Clubs and tribal lands

Salt River Project, an Arizona utility with nearly 5,000 employees, uses Outlook to communicate messages about matters such as policy updates, company news, and cyber security updates, says Mark W. Estes, senior corporate communication strategist.

Emails have included news on parking garage construction, volunteer opportunities at a theater and Boys & Girls Clubs, and an Environmental Protection Agency proposal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel-fired power plants on tribal lands.

Email is effective for top-down communications, Estes says, because “we use a variety of distribution lists based on facility, salary grade, and/or geographic location.”

Despite the digital push these days, SRP’s Estes says print also remains popular with both remote and in-house employees who have limited access to laptops and computer terminals.

“We are trying to remedy this with more mobile-device-friendly emails,” he says.

How about measurement? Respondents expressed slightly more confidence in their ability to measure the effectiveness of email communication, with 45 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing that they could do so. Thirty-five percent said they couldn’t.

Asked whether he was confident that messages are getting through, Estes says, “Not so much in the past, but that is changing.” This is because the organization is now using measurement software “to provide us metrics about open, click-through, and read rates.”

Communicators have many channel options these days, but if you urgently want something to be seen, email is the weapon of choice. Nearly everybody—99 percent of respondents—always or sometimes use email for crucial, must-read information.

In a related answer, 96 percent always or sometimes fire off emails to convey time-sensitive information. Some 82 percent of respondents at least sometimes push employee newsletters through email, with 58 percent saying that they always do so. Less frequent is the use of email to drive traffic to the intranet. Thirty-five percent always do so, and 49 percent sometimes do this.

Choose your channel

Trying to build awareness? Want to up your game in collaboration and problem-solving? Trying to drive change or get a response or action? Or just plain trying to make sure all those rumor-afflicted employees are getting a consistent message?

These are sound goals, but what’s your best method of achieving them? When asked to pick the channels that best help build awareness, digital signage surprisingly topped the list (84 percent), followed by print publications, with 81 percent. (Multiple choices were allowed.)

Kaiser Permanente did a comms audit in 2013 and found that 60 percent of respondents prefer to receive communications directly from their manager or supervisor, Granville says. The intranet site came in next with 48, followed by getting information from co-workers and in departmental meetings. Broadcast email drew 46 percent.

Collaboration and problem-solving? In the Ragan/Newsweaver survey, one-to-one managerial meetings topped the list, with 78 percent. Internal social networking tools followed, with 73 percent of respondents raising their hand. In this category, digital signage bottomed out at 4 percent.

Yearning to drive change or get a response or action in your organization? Again, sitting down with the manager is the top method (72 percent), followed by leadership and town hall meetings (58 percent), and email and electronic publications (52 percent).

If you want to get a consistent message to everyone, email and electronic publications are the channels of choice, earning a thumbs-up from 78 percent of respondents.

Comparisons

Comparing email against other forms of internal communications, town hall and other face-to-face meetings “still are the more preferred vehicle” at SRP, Estes says. The company drives traffic to internal and external websites as much as possible for detailed information on any topic, and it uses email headers so employees know the nature of the message.

“For example, for corporate news, we have a Corporate Communications banner,” Estes says. “Facilities Services has its own banner. IT has its banner. This helps us channel information.”

Still, many communicators are realistic about the limitations of email.

“When you’re talking policy and stuff, you almost have to send it that way,” says Wayne Crist, vice president of Alpha Terra Engineering, a small engineering, architecture, and environmental compliance firm in San Antonio, Texas.

“But it never gets internalized until you talk to people about it. You can push stuff out all the time,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that you actually communicated it to them. It’s only when they make the personal contact that you know that they got it.”

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