Apologies for the invented word. But its sums up the communicator’s mindset.
We say that whatever branch or sub-discipline of communication you operate in, we all have one thing in common. It’s a core characteristic.
We ply our trade by knowing audiences better than anyone else.
Call them stakeholders, publics or just colleagues; we know who they are, what they think and how they feel.
In your organization, your peers in leadership respect you for this knowledge and understanding and they trust your judgment on how to communicate with them.
It’s what makes us useful, valuable and influential.
So what do you need to know?
No one would dream of communicating without understanding their audiences. Why?
- We need different things from different segments.
Why waste energy convincing people who only need to be aware? Why risk just sending an email to the very people whose commitment and support you need?
- People spend their lives ignoring the noise at work
A communicator’s role has to be about understanding enough about individual audiences to work out how to grab their attention or what channels will reach them
- It’s their mindset that matters
People react to our communication according to their personal experience, natural prejudices or whatever else is going on in their world.
There are a probably a million other reasons why you need to understand and segment audiences. But if you messaging either pays no heed to the state of mind, location of tastes of the audiences then it is doomed to failure.
There are two essential areas to think about:
- Audience demographics
It is inconceivable that a good internal communicator does not understand the complexity of the workforce in their organisation. At its most basic, you can’t produce an interesting newsletter if you don’t understand what different people want to hear.
And if you’re trying to build employee commitment and loyalty, you need to understand how motivations vary in different groups of employees.
At a most basic level an internal communicator should know some key things about their audiences. For a start, we should be able to say:
- Where they are
- What they do
- What languages they speak
- What channels reach them
- What is their recent history.
You can always tell a good communicator with the ease with which they can explain the basics of their organization and their grasp on the different tastes of character of groups of staff in their organisation. For example, in a charity they might need to differentiate between employees and volunteers; in a police force the split between enrolled officers and civilian support staff may be a significant factor in communication.
Segmentation – why bother?
As well as understanding where your audience are and all about their communications habits, you need to know about their likely reaction to communication and what outcome you need from them.
You need to know this information because it will influence their communications behaviour, the messages to which they will respond and the channels you choose to reach them.
In fact, it is the vital responsibility of the internal communicator to understand the different perspectives that exist within the organisation. It is certainly not unknown for major decisions to be reversed when the communicators point out potential reactions which were not previously anticipated.
The process of audience segmentation takes place in two main ways: as part of the annual planning round; and as a step in the development of plans for specific initiatives.
When looking at the annual plan, the internal communications manager has to anticipate what events or activities will require support. Some of these will be regular items, like the results announcements, the publication of the annual review or calendar events such as Eid or the summer staff barbecue.
Often little fresh thought is given to the needs of different internal groups. Year in and year out, the same (or similar) tactics will be used and very little attention is given to anything apart from basic logistics. This may or may not matter greatly; nevertheless, a base line picture of the organisation is needed.
Deciding how to define employee segments is, however, not an obvious task in itself. There are a large number of ways of doing it – the challenge
for the professional is to decide which approach to apply in any given situation.
How? Different ways of segmenting your audience
- Organisational Geography
The first and most common strategy for segmentation is usually to reflect existing organisational structures and topography. Most communicators will naturally be able to tell you how many people work at different sites or provide a break-down from different divisions and functions.
In fact, wherever there is a defined organisational distinction, internal communicators will be encouraged to use it as a model for segmentation.
Hourly paid vs. salaried staff, membership of a share scheme or unionised and non-unionised staff are commonly used as ways of identifying different audiences in workplaces.
Following the existing organisational boundaries makes a lot of sense for internal communications.
Many employees are happy with the identity which comes from being a member of a particular division or skill group and are grateful of communications tailored to their location or pay grade.
And such an approach typically is immediately more efficient. The informal, and often voluntary, networks of friends and helpers on which all internal communicators rely will be organised along these lines. For example, where an organisation is structured around locations, the network will naturally also have a geographic logic with key contacts responsible for individual sites.
The drawback is that the network has a natural reluctance to consider alternative approaches to segmentation. If contacts are arranged around operating divisions, considerable effort is needed to get the network to think about messages that need to be differentiated in another way. Asking your key advisor for the Paris office to communicate a message only to marketing people or to staff nearing retirement is often less satisfactory than if you had a more direct way of reaching those audiences.
Following organisational boundaries can introduce gatekeepers who may not always be helpful. For example, the Head of Marketing may insist that any communication that is sent to her staff is cleared with her first, regardless of the relevance of her permission. Many internal communicators have experience of dealing with the site manager who has strong ideas about the value of a CEO’s town hall or how it should be organised.
Notional ‘ownership’ of a segment of the population is often seen to confer the right to modify, delay or even block messages even when there is no reason to do so.
Finally, the biggest difficulty is that whatever structure you choose, it assumes that the groupings within it are otherwise homogenous as well. If all your communications are organised around location, how well will it meet the differing needs of accountants, researchers or marketers who happen to work at the same place? Just because you are a member of a particular group it doesn’t mean that you are identical in every respect to every other member of that group.
- Communications Behaviour
The next most common segmentation strategy is to define people in terms of their access to different media or channels of communication.
Every internal communicator today will have a fair idea which of their people have access to email and who needs a paper communication. They can usually tell you who can reach the intranet and who cannot.
However, segmentation by means of communication behaviour often goes much further – and often without any deliberate design.
Every internal communicator can relate to times when a key piece of information was only provided through a particular channel – such as the intranet – meaning that only people who looked at the intranet would receive it. This approach is to be avoided for anything which is likely to be controversial – if people think you’ve tried to make an announcement by the back door it will seriously undermine any hope you have of being seen as proactive or candid in your communications.
Yet there are times when discussing issues only with the users of one channel or another make sense. You may actually decide that you only want to debate a specific topic with people who are interested enough to attend a meeting on the subject or you would prefer to test initial reactions to something with the small group of people who use a particular forum on the internet.
Interestingly, marketers often say that adventurous or innovative consumers are marked by their exposure to multiple media. Apparently, people who watch more television, read more magazines and spend more time on the Web are more likely to experiment with new products. There may be some lessons here for the internal communicator!
Perhaps one of the most important ways of looking at your audiences is to consider what outcome is required from communication.
Some people may need simply to be informed about an issue whilst you might want others to be actively involved in debating it and reaching conclusions.
Bill Quirke has written extensively on this subject and his books Communicating Corporate Change and Making the Connections contain some of the best guidance.
In broad terms, his point is that when considering communications for a new project or initiative, the question should be asked about who needs to do what to ensure the success of the project. Communication activity can then be focused on securing the outcome needed for each segment.
Consider, as an example, a project to introduce a new appraisal system. At its inception, the project will need to directly involve those managers who can authorise any change. Communications will probably be very personalised, perhaps involving detailed briefings and inevitability significant changes to the plan in order to accommodate their wishes.
Once the new system is designed, it will need to be introduced to line managers – the people responsible for implementing it. Although they lack the authority to reject the system, they certainly have the power to resist its introduction and success will depend on their wholehearted compliance. As a result, communication will probably involve very careful explanation and training. Perhaps, there will be scope for some change to the plan in response to their reactions.
Finally, for staff who need to be aware of the new system, communication will probably concentrate on explaining the process and timings.
Applying this approach is one of the strongest tools in the internal communicator’s armoury. Many projects or change programmes undergo quite detailed design before the communicators are involved. Yet often, only by asking questions about the specific outcomes, do flaws become apparent.
Increasingly Internal Communicators are becoming interested in how they can segment their audiences by attitude.
Being able to target one message at people with a positive outlook and another to colleagues with, say, a more cautious disposition is clearly going to be very useful.
Such a model is enormously attractive when one considers the problem of an individual who feels very differently about an issue to those around him or her. If your peers or manager hold views about an issue with which you disagree, you are bound to want communications that help you make up your own mind – a communication targeted at your information needs.
Writing in his book The Employer Brand, Richard Mosely reports work done by researchers TNS into employee attitudes at work. He explains that they have created a simple model which defines ordinary employees in terms of their commitment to their employer cross referenced with their commitment to their career. This model divides the world into Ambassadors, Career Orientated, Company Oriented or Ambivalents.
Mosely talks about UK retailer Tesco’s project to use data to model employee’s attitudes to career development, reward and work in general.
One popular model is the Buy-In Benchmark which was developed and used by the Enterprise IG Brand Engagement practice in London to assess levels of employee engagement.
The benefit of this approach is that it cross references emotional buy-in with intellectual understanding. Someone who might be called a bystander may understand the company’s strategy but doesn’t give a damn about implementing it. On the other hand, a loose cannon can be highly engaged, but ignorant about where they should be applying their enthusiasm. These two types will need a different kind of mentoring to become champions who are intellectually and emotionally engaged.
Enterprise IG have benchmarked a range of companies around Europe and are therefore able to compare the results against a quantifiable mean.
Use your data
Whilst TNS use a simple two dimensional model, more advanced statistical techniques can generate even deeper insights into the real attitudes of your people. Using techniques that owe much to political polling, Robert Berrier of US specialists Spring International develops factor-based models for clients.
This approach involves taking survey data and exploring the underlying connections between staff attitudes and how they cluster together. Importantly, this approach does not require a pre-determined model – by interrogating the data for each company separately it comes up with the factors that matter most to the organisation under examination.
The result is a guide to which messages will interest people and insights into how to engage them, particularly at times of change.
Apart from the value which dispositional segmentation provides to crafting messages, it also helps the internal communicator fulfil one of their most important roles – that of organisational sense-talker.
When senior colleagues are advocating decisions or communication, having an alternative map of attitudes helps enormously to test the wisdom of the proposal under consideration. By stepping away from normal organisational boundaries, and the political issues they bring, the dispositional approach allows an alternative perspective to be aired.
Do it often.
Whatever approaches you choose, it is important to stand back occasionally and check that your final model still makes sense and is complete.
It’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the role which segmentation plays in delivering overall business strategy. Creating an over-elaborate model can mean that the level of complexity in the system actually gets in the way of simply delivering communications.
Yet at the same time, working exhaustively through a list of potential groups is valuable to establish whether there are new insights that can be gained or audience groups that are being missed off.