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Use the Power of Familiarity to Improve Your Employee Communications

By Jennifer V. Miller | 2-min read

As an HR leader, you’ve likely discovered that employees don’t always immediately adopt new programs put forth by your department. Humans are perplexing in how they treat new ideas. For example, even if employees say they want a new benefits offering, they may still reject it when the program first rolls out.

Want to increase your program’s adoption rate? Put on your marketing hat and consider tapping into a well-studied psychological phenomenon that marketers use to help an unfamiliar idea gain traction.  It’s called the “mere exposure effect”—the notion that being repeatedly exposed to an idea, person or product brings familiarity. This exposure bridges the gap between an exciting new idea and acceptance of it.

Understanding “mere exposure” means that when your HR team pitches new programs, they need to understand the human tendency to gravitate towards the familiar, and reject novelty. Here are three examples of the mere exposure effect and the HR implications for employee communications.

When it comes to uniqueness, aim for the middle.

There is a “just right” element to novelty, according to research conducted by Harvard and Northeastern University researchers. Called “optimal newness,” an idea is most accepted when it’s promoted as a fresh spin on the familiar. Think of the many reboots of the DC and Marvel movie franchises: The average person likes the familiarity of the superhero characters, with the novelty of new actors and origin stories.

HR takeaway: when communicating with employees, instead of using “revolutionary” or “ground-breaking,” which might turn people off, use “improved” or “more efficient.”

 Link a truly bold idea to a familiar one.

If your program is radically different, make it seem familiar with an easily-identifiable comparison. Prominent psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant studies what makes people and ideas “original.” Bold ideas get the cold shoulder, he told us at the WorkHuman conference, but a big idea teed up as a familiar one gets attention. Grant gave the example of online eyeglasses retailer Warby Parker, which has been called the “Netflix of Eyewear.”

HR takeaway: when announcing a program, can you play off of a popular fad, YouTube video or commercial to bring the message home?

Don’t overdo the repetition.

Repetition plays a key role in your HR program’s success – but don’t overdo it. According to The Atlantic, mere exposure studies show that people do eventually tire of the same message repeated tirelessly. (This makes sense: think about how you initially love a new song, then tire of it after the radio overplays it.) Instead, think of varying message format and delivery method. 

HR takeaway: when planning your messaging strategy, create 5-, 15- and 60-minute versions of the same keynote to accommodate varying audiences and situations.

As the old saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Or does it? People are much more comfortable with familiar ideas than they’d like to admit. When it comes to communicating with employees, HR professionals can tap into the power of familiarity to gain buy-in for their employee programs.