Smiling waiter using mobile phone at counter

Want Successful Employee Communications? Think Like a Marketer

By Pam Goncalves | 6-min read

Thumbs up or thumbs down?

So how would you rate your company’s internal communications? That was the question IDG Research asked of 270 HR  professionals in its March 2017 Workforce Communication Survey. In total, 71 per cent answered yes to the prompt: “Our workplace communications are engaging”. That’s great news if you’re sitting in HR. But did you know that only 27 percent of the corresponding 1,050 employees replied yes to that same prompt? So what’s causing such a huge disconnect?

Last mile syndrome

At GuideSpark, we’ve been studying this problem for almost a decade, working with over 1,000  companies representing more than 10 million employees. It seems as if employee communications suffers from the “last mile” syndrome, a term originally coined by the telecommunications industry. You can have the most robust equipment and services but if the last mile, the final piece that connects all of that modern technology to the end user, does not get delivered, it’s all for nothing. Similarly, we can have the best HR programs, total rewards packages and a killer employer value proposition, but if they do not reach and activate our employees, HR can never realize the true ROI of that effort.

Left behind in the digital dust

It’s hard to believe that we’ve found a way to leverage all of technology and digital media to reach today’s consumers and B2B customers. But our own internal communications or the business-to-employees (B2E) group has been left so far behind. Why? Is it a lack of budget or expertise that has caused this lag? We think it’s a different problem.


Today’s employee is on information overload – @home, @work, @anywhere. With the explosion of digital content being pushed through multiple devices, employees as digital consumers have learned to ignore some types of information and readily consume others. Consider Marketo, the leading marketing automation software provider. Marketing has been around for ages, so why was there a need to automate it? According to a Northeastern University article (Northeastern, 2016), there are 2.5 exabytes of data produced every day. That’s a lot of noise. Combine that with the marketing Rule of 7: it takes seven contacts with a prospect before he/she takes the desired action. At some point, humans have to do information triage and let what they deem important on through. That means traditional marketing methods just do not work anymore. Marketers got smart and used technology to develop and track their digital communications with prospects and customers – and a provider such as Marketo offers users best practices on reaching the right audience using a campaign approach.

Up close and personal

Research also shows that the more targeted, personalized, timely and consumable the marketing communications are, the greater response will be from prospects. Marketing creates or curates compelling content, delivers that content using different formats and media types in a short-form campaign style over time and solicits calls-to-action. Because this is a lot of work and can be difficult to manually gauge what’s working and what’s not, marketers use automation software such as the above-mentioned Marketo to manage and analyze their campaigns, doing a lot of A/B testing and making improvements mid-flight.

So the secret formula … What is it?

So what is the secret to great employee communications? We gave it away in the title but we know the value of repetition – THINK LIKE A MARKETER. We have seen first-hand how this marketing approach to employee communications can give new life to legacy programs and most importantly, improve participation and adoption.

But I’m not creative and I have no budget

Yup. This is a fairly common objection but here’s another secret about marketers [. . .] they are often plagued by the same doubts and limitations as their counterparts in HR. Your marketing department has to play with budgets all of the time, demonstrating a clear ROI and placing bets on how they will change prospect and customer behavior. Marketing also relies on third parties who offer not only creative and compelling content but also best practices based on data from a host of other companies they have partnered with. What’s the old adage? I don’t have time to make all of the mistakes myself so I can learn from the mistakes of others. So let’s take a page out of marketing’s playbook right now.

Inspire. Inform. Reinforce

First, let’s imagine a world without marketing. What if there were no “packaging up” or consolidation of information for  consumers? What if reading the fine print was our only option? How would we quickly understand what we’re purchasing or consuming? How would we decide what’s better, what is going to solve our problem or how products differ? Marketing grabs our attention with a compelling message that creates an emotional connection (inspires); so that we’re receptive to learning more  about a product or service (informs.) But remember the @capacity problem? Marketing sends multiple messages before getting people to take action (reinforces.) Applying the same methodology to our HR programs, we should be inspiring our employees with creative content, prompting them to learn more about topics that are highly relevant and timely for them, such as benefits, open enrollment, compensation, equity, performance management and feedback and coaching. We should then use a campaign approach, marketing to employees over time (vs. “one and done”) in a way they want to receive information, just like marketing does with prospects and customers.

Mobile and millennials

Our employee communications need to factor in a changing and dynamic workforce. Consider these statistics:

    • GSMA is predicting over 5 billion mobile subscribers in 2017 (GSMA, 2017)
    • Google estimates that 80 per cent of the global workforce is deskless (GP Bullhound, 2016)
    • Millennials are America’s largest generation (Pew Research, 2016)

We need to take this evolution into consideration as we develop our internal communications plan. If we’re still relying on in-person seminars, brochures in thebreakroom and HR portals to market our programs, we will just simply not reach and engage a vast portion of our workforce. Experience is the best teacher Today’s employees expect a consumer-like communications experience: worthy of their time, meaningful, easy to consume, delightful and consistent. In addition to the employee communications gap, the IDG survey saw that frequent, easy-to-share, modern communications correlated positively to employees’ job satisfaction; increasing the likelihood to recommend their employer as well as to remain at their current  company. Do those positive outcomes of employee satisfaction, employer brand and retention sound like they might fit into your strategic HR plans this year and every year?

A funny thing happened on the way to the water cooler

When marketing teams started using Marketo, other departments quickly figured out that they could also leverage the marketing automation tool to communicate with customers. Marketo is leveraged by sales, support/services, product/engineering and the C-Suite to communicate important information to customers and partners in an organized way. We believe the same phenomenon will happen as HR leaders “programatize” employee communications. Other groups such as the C-Suite, marketing, facilities, sales and others will be attracted to this new way of communicating with employees, especially when they review the engagement analytics and activation statistics. Wouldn’t it be great to put HR in the position of communication transformation catalyst? Imagine the positive effect on our corporate cultures and building up the strategic value of HR. 

Let’s change the conversation

Good news. There is a better way to engage and communicate with employees. Understanding that our employee communications are the “last mile” to connect our workforce with everything the company has to offer is the first step. But the real key is to think like a marketer, viewing our employees as customers by providing them with communications that inspire,  inform and reinforce our employer value proposition. As Josh Bersin, Principal and Founder of Bersin by Deloitte explained, “One critical area of HR that has been somewhat overlooked is the need for ongoing employee communication. Every major change, strategy, and initiative requires a comprehensive strategy for employee communication and there have been few tools designed for this process. Tools like GuideSpark have the potential to reach employees on a regular ongoing basis, just as we communicate with customers”.

Your Maya Angelou moment

Internally, we often cite a great quote from Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. As we mentioned, this type of marketing-minded HR communications should be an experience. Employees will come away with a feeling that we’ve really invested our time, energy and creativity to make life at work a little better for them. Other transformational HR leaders like you have already taken this step and have seen not only engagement scores and retention stats go higher but have also realized huge cost-savings by getting employees to the right information faster where they are making better decisions for themselves and their companies. This marketing approach might help close the employee communications gap that IDG uncovered this year.