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The Marketing is Coming from Inside the House

Zach Brooke

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Companies are using external marketing strategies—including communication software—to strengthen internal employee engagement and brand buy-in

Last year, U.K. charity Alzheimer’s Society set out to transform its 2,500 employees and 9,000 volunteers into dedicated, effective brand ambassadors. The ambitious undertaking launched alongside a new brand, a five-year strategic business plan and a new set of organizational values and behaviors. An internal video provided the rationale behind the changes and Alzheimer’s Society provided public speaking training so employees could speak confidently about their work.

Another company, Monzo, surveyed employees on how engaged they were, then responded to the results. Employees of the mobile-only bank now receive free lunches, work-from-home opportunities and free subscriptions to meditation service Headspace. Perhaps the most revolutionary outcome of the survey was the creation of a unique management program, in which every Monzo employee has a manager and a team leader—no individual may maintain both responsibilities. The internal marketing work of Alzheimer’s Society and Monzo has been recognized among Europe’s best communications case studies of 2018 by the U.K.’s Synergy Creative.

For every exemplary campaign, there are dozens of smaller, yet stellar examples. At Hodges-Mace, an Atlanta employee benefits technology and communications company, internal marketing falls to 28-year-old marketing manager Paige LeBel. Despite being the company’s sole marketer, responsible for all external engagement, part of her job is to deliver internal, company-wide messages. Quarterly newsletters are the most regularly distributed form of internal content at Hodges-Mace, and LeBel knows to inject information from her client-oriented communications into these newsletters. New product updates and existing product rollouts require an employee messaging strategy and client-support script, which LeBel develops in consultation with the tech team.

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Then there are Hodges-Mace’s strategic objectives concerning the company’s employee benefits packages. Rather than blasting out reminder emails, LeBel converted enrollment alerts to push notifications on workers’ devices. She also gamified the enrollment drive by offering a cash reward to the first person to screenshot the notification and email the image.

This may sound like human resources or internal communications work, not a marketer’s job. But if marketers manage the company’s brand, they must also know how the brand looks inside the organization. This internal employer brand affects everything from how employees view their organization to how customers rate their service experience. Consciously tinkering with the employer brand is internal marketing.

“A lot of times, HR has their processes set in place, but they bring in marketing to come up with a more creative solution for their delivery method,” LeBel says. “We have important information to send out. We don’t want it to be full-on serious where readers lose interest on paragraph three.”

Keith Kitani, who has been in the communications business for more than two decades, is CEO of GuideSpark, an employer software communications company. He says interest in engaging with employees using internal marketing principles is at the highest level he’s seen. Like the external marketplace, employers target their internal audience of workers and bring them down the funnel to adopt a program.

“When I think about internal marketing, culture is a program, benefits is a program, they’re all programs that the company is trying to sell,” Kitani says.

Robust internal marketing, like its external counterpart, is facilitated by advances in data analysis. “[Employers] know where you work,” Kitani says. “They know what programs you have. They know your status. They know how much you make. There’s a lot of data that marketers would kill for.” Tapping that data can be a game changer for employers looking to encourage employee responses, related to workload or lifestyle.

“Give Them a Reason to Care”

During his tenure as CEO of a marketing agency, PoliteMail founder Michael DesRochers noticed the office was out of step. He found that departments were too chatty and that sales and support teams were stuck in an infinite loop of trifling customer updates.

“They were catching each other up on, ‘I said this to them, and they said this,’” DesRochers says. “It frustrated me because all that information was there in Outlook. The conversations needed to be opened up so each team could see it.”

DesRochers was determined to end this maddening inefficiency. In time, he helped develop a “kind of sales and service email information tool” that spread message data across internal parties. The tool led to the creation of PoliteMail, a plugin for Microsoft Outlook that allows for internal corporate communications, where DesRochers is now managing director. Working within Outlook, PoliteMail offers analytics capabilities comparable to Marketo, without the need for separate list management. It allows for backend operations—from benefits enrollment to service strategy—to run as a marketing campaign directed exclusively to employees.

Initially launched as both an internal and external communications tool, PoliteMail abandoned the outbound marketing version around 2012, following the increasing popularity of email marketers MailChimp and Constant Contact. PoliteMail refocused on making internal communications better.

The refocus succeeded; PoliteMail’s 2017 revenue was $3.6 million, per Inc. Magazine. The company grew 490% over three years, good enough to make it the fastest-growing company in New Hampshire in 2018 and one the top 20 fastest-growing companies in Greater Boston.

“We discovered the market opportunity for internal communications more than we intended to be there,” DesRochers admits.

Writing for Forbes last December, DesRochers noted that this external marketing-like approach, focused inward, can have a profound impact on how employees work together and feel about their employer. “For those organizations willing to buy into funding internal marketing campaigns and communications staff, the rewards promise to be engaging,” he wrote.

Internal marketing isn’t just having the right software, though. Tech certainly enhances internal marketing capabilities, but is only a support mechanism for the beating heart of the drive to activate employees.

Kitani and DesRochers are neither internal marketing’s first prophets nor practitioners. Years before PoliteMail existed, Ogilvy & Mather then-senior partner Colin Mitchell highlighted the importance of marketing-minded employee messaging in a 2002 edition of Harvard Business Review, extolling the benefits of “Selling the Brand Inside.”

“[It] is a truth of business that if employees do not care about their company, they will in the end contribute to its demise,” Mitchell wrote. “And it’s up to you to give them a reason to care.”

Adjust Your Alignment

Even as employers are eager for new ways to motivate and measure employees, internal marketing itself has something of an image problem with the boardroom set. Agencies that help companies with branding and marketing have learned that clients bristle at the mention of internal marketing.

Christina L. May, managing partner at East Coast consultancy Illumine8, spends her time touring offices and telling leadership where it’s falling short. A lot of problems she encounters can be fixed with an internal marketing campaign, even if it’s not what owners want to hear. “We found that if we add the word ‘marketing’ to [what we offer], they immediately think that means ad services and ask, ‘Why would I run ads to my workforce?’” May says.

[Internal marketing campaigns] command attention and can build hype. But to create meaningful change, companies need to live up to their side of the bargain.

Rather than fight what she calls an educational battle to convince employers to use marketing techniques on their own staff, May repackages the same concepts as “alignment.” Alignment can seem a more precise and tactical goal to businesses, especially when May refers to it is a key differentiator for firms.

There are two branches within internal marketing: pathos and logos. Alignment hews closer to the logos portion, aiming to coordinate internal corporate machinations with customer-facing responses, the way LeBel does at Hodges-Mace. Internally aligned companies will work harmoniously toward collective business outcomes.

“A company that is in alignment can be felt immediately when you walk in,” May says. “For those that are not in alignment, it really shows. Typically, there are a lot of, shall we say, reality issues.”

Misalignment both stems from and feeds into employment engagement problems—the pathos part of internal marketing. How do you convince employees to love their jobs enough to contribute greater amounts of themselves? Gallup tracks workplace engagement and defines engaged employees as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.” Gallup’s most recent workplace survey, released in August 2018, found that 34% of U.S. employees are engaged, while 13% of workers are disengaged. These are near-historic highs and lows, but the lion’s share of the workforce—53%—reports feeling neither engaged nor disengaged, making them likely to perform minimally and quick to jump ship for marginally better employment offers.

Muddled mission statements or incongruent leadership actions also hurt employee engagement. In 2017, Gallup found that a minority of U.S. employees (41%) say they know what their company stands for. A year before that, about a quarter of workers (27%) reported believing in their company’s values. Internal marketing is the best lever available to combat chronic disengagement, short of sacking the entire staff.

The Customer Comes First

If alignment and engagement still come off as fuzzy distractions rather than clear business objectives, the fact is that these issues will manifest themselves in an area that every executive should care about: customer experience. May says that unaligned companies can exhibit symptoms such as reputation management issues. “Either you have a poor product, or you have poor service,” she says. “It’s not hard to figure that out once you get inside.”

For employees to meet customer needs, companies must meet employee needs. Disengaged employees who interact directly with customers will deliver markedly negative service, says Lisa Morris, a self-described organizational anthropologist, strategist and experience design specialist.

A 25-year veteran of blue-chip consultancies like Accenture and Sparks Grove, Morris recently founded XPLOR, a design and innovation firm focused on improving the experience of work and workplaces through design. Morris endeavors to understand how organizational constraints interact with human behavior.

Every workplace has boundaries—whether financial, strategic or otherwise—that impact employee behavior for better or worse. For instance, limiting worker autonomy will limit worker engagement. Morris recalls when she consulted with health systems and noticed that disaffected staff lost the ability to empathize with patients.

“Your customer isn’t going to get a great experience if the employee doesn’t have a great experience,” she says. But why wait until customer experience issues drag down a company’s reputation? Prudent decision-makers should attend to workforce alignment issues before customer experience takes a hit.

A basic approach is to use a quantitative survey to understand voices within an organization. Morris prefers to incorporate principles of organizational design, which she used to help management consulting firm North Highland develop its own employer brand strategy.

“You don’t just go ask somebody what their needs are,” she says. “That’s really hard for any human to answer.” Instead, ask probing questions that suppose a greater degree of autonomy. Employees should have the opportunity to describe what their work would look like if they had the chance to structure their own projects. Don’t stop at assignment descriptions, but ask questions about how performing the work would make employees feel and why they should want to move in that direction.

At Illumine8, May says that her team will conduct anonymous one-on-one interviews with a cross section of staff to distinguish how leadership’s perception of the company differs from management and rank-and-file workers. Conflicting results are presented to top executives, who can either accept or dismiss the findings. It’s a crucial moment—one that May says has caused her to drop clients who reject her research.

Working for an undisclosed technology company, Morris says that she began by auditing company communications, looking for examples of hypocrisy. “A lot of my initial work is to resolve the disconnect between the brand message and the experience. Either the brand message is not authentic, or the experience needs some degree of improvement.”

The goal is to consider the ideal employee experience and how to reinforce it with employer brand and messaging. It’s not an exact science; corporations are unique. Morris asks leadership to approve pilot programs to determine if an engagement solution meets the needs of the employees.

“There’s nothing worse than building something big and rolling it out, then not realizing until that point that no one finds it desirable or engaging,” she says.

Empower Your Team

As much as companies want to project being one big, happy family, there needs to be some degree of worker segmentation. Millennial employees view retirement, health and life insurance different from Generation X employees or baby boomers. Attention must be paid to how each group is messaged to keep them engaged.

Kitani says that internal marketing as a system can maximize on the promise of digitization. Not all content is relevant for everyone, so tools are required to ensure employees are receiving individually appropriate updates. Internal marketing segmentation has a big impact on engagement: Epilog, a manufacturing company, engaged 90% of its employees with benefits and open enrollment programs when communications were segmented. An identical approach by Nebraska Medicine led to a four-fold increase in its healthcare enrollment.

Kitani says that some companies have gone so far as to develop internal personas for compensation programs. “A combination of different demographics—essentially age, role and performance—allows them to create different personas and send a marketing or communication experience to them to drive higher engagement,” he says.

Campaigns command attention and can build hype. But to create meaningful change, companies need to live up to their side of the bargain. “We live in a very transparent, transactional environment,” May says. “Whether it’s your internal marketing or your external marketing, you cannot say one thing and do another. You will be found out very quickly.”

Be careful to manage expectations. Some of the language of marketing campaigns can lead employees to expect changes that management might not be willing to make.

“Say [a company] has a brand message that says you value empowerment,” Morris says. “But then you walk in on your first day and it feels like you’ve just been through an encyclopedia of policy that doesn’t provide for some autonomy. You almost start to say, ‘Did I sign up for the right organization?’”

These realities often undermine internal brand strategy. Bad internal marketing is distinguished by what May calls “the hokey factor.” One client she works with is unaware of how out of step it is with its internal slogan: “One Team.” It’s a nice idea, she says, but not reflective of the firm’s reality, where multiple departments compete for resources against one another.

“You can’t say that you’re one team and then put quotas against each other,” May says.

Compare that example to another Illumine8 client, this one a commercial painting firm that emphasizes workplace safety as a core value. The company provides workers with apparel and safety equipment to wear on the job, all of it branded to emphasize the company’s commitment.

Elevate Your Internal Marketing Game

Not everyone will welcome obvious internal marketing. The longest-tenured employees likely have memories of previous branding efforts that floundered. A tricky aspect of internal marketing is that everyone in the office not only sees the sausage being made, they help make it.

Following May’s advice to avoid the hokey factor, companies must realize that kumbaya won’t cut it. She believes that acknowledging the detractors can advance an internal campaign’s goals. Her team has developed a protocol for troubleshooting naysayers: The first step is to understand where the resistance is coming from. Include detractors in the internal marketing process early. “Make them part of the solution, not a part of the problem,” she says. In May’s experience, 60-70% of detractors can be converted.

Internal marketing can solve alignment, engagement and customer service issues, but it’s not a panacea. It can’t catch a company in freefall, nor can it clean up a toxic work environment. But internal marketing can work as part of a comprehensive revitalization package. It need not be costly, nor require countless hours of navel-gazing.

New technology can aid this process. Email plugins and segmentation tools are great internal marketing supplements, capable of reaching and responding to employees with a sensitivity unknown to leadership a generation before.

“We’re at the very beginning stages of people applying marketing techniques internally,” Kitani says. “I look forward to a scenario where people can really drive and elevate the employee experience.”

As with external marketing, employers shouldn’t place all of their hope on technology. “Organizations get enamored by shiny objects,” Morris says. “Many are hoping for the silver bullet.” For any internal marketing effort to be effective, employees need to be empowered to lend their voice to the company culture; it’s their brand, too. PoliteMail’s DesRocher acknowledged this in his Forbes piece, calling it “bi-directional buy-in.” Morris echoes him: “All humans want a say in their destiny.”

Zach Brooke is a former AMA staff writer turned freelance journalist. His work has been featured in Chicago magazine, Milwaukee Magazine, A.V. Club and VICE, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Zach_Brooke.