ICology: Internal Communication Trends for 2017

Ep #40, Gregg Apirian with Vignette

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It can be quite dangerous when it comes to making predictions in communications, but trends are something entirely different. They are thoughts or topics with energy, data and thought driving them. In this episode of ICology, listen to Gregg Apirian, managing director at Vignette, share eight trends for internal communicators to begin focusing on. Why eight? Because they actually have 11 on their blog. On this episode, we discuss:

  • The gig economy
  • Leadership and budget
  • Employer branding
  • Culture transformation
  • Diversity & inclusion
  • Insights driven creative
  • Measurement
  • Going beyond email and intranet

Read more about these eight (and the other three) on the Vignette blog


Episode Transcript

Chuck: We've come to the end of 2016, and it's not really a surprise, that's how calendars work. But during this time of year, people can become reflective on what's happened over the past 12 months, so let's reflect a bit. Prior to this episode, there have been 914 minutes of ICology content created, and once you factor in this episode, that'll be around 16 hours of listening bliss. But that content could not have been created without the amazing guests and support from listeners as well as the internal comms community. In a previous episode I spoke with Crystalee Beck about gratitude, so this is my chance to say thanks for a great 2016.

Enough of looking to the past, let's look into the future. When I speak at events, I challenge communicators to learn more, to try, and be okay to fail. It's not that failure is the goal, but it also doesn't mean all is lost if you do. We have to become more comfortable with failure, dissecting it, and knowing that there are many degrees of failure.

We're creatures of habit, and it's a comfortable place to be when you know what your world is like. Companies act this way too, but comfort can restrict creativity, it can limit innovation. This is why I love seeing communicators push their world in the new areas, and take on challenges that improve communication at their business, but also their standing in the business community. I welcome to the show today Gregg Apirian, Managing Director of Vignette. Gregg, welcome to ICology.

Gregg: Thanks Chuck. Really happy to be here and really get into what the future might look like for everybody.

Chuck: We've met before at an ALI conference in New York so it's great to put a voice to the face, but before we jump into sort of the future of internal comms and the trends, why don't you give our listeners a little bit of background on who Vignette is.

Gregg: We're really proud of Vignette. Vignette is a creative agency, and we have called ourselves "the employee experience agency" because many years ago ... We have always been focused ... Vignette's been around for about a decade or a little more, and always been focused on internal communications, but what we've seen happen in the marketplace over the past few years, it's stemmed beyond just communication. Our perspective, and I believe now we're seeing the industry take the same perspective, is that it's all about the employee experience. Just like how most companies focus on developing solutions for the customer experience, we look at it from the inside of organizations on how to create experiences for employees that drive a more meaningful connection to their employer.

Chuck: Why don't you give listeners a little bit of your personal background.

Gregg: I have been on the agency side of the business for pretty much my entire career. I graduated college from Syracuse University with a degree in consumer studies and focused most of the beginning parts of my career in content creation and marketing. As I built a few agencies in the past, as years went on the agency space just got very crowded. When I looked at what the next strategy would be I saw this opportunity, having worked enough in internal communications, that there wasn't much focus there, so as all of my experience in planning marketing strategies, activating consumers, and just creating engaging content all came together, it came at a time when this side of the industry really needed that influence. As I looked to the future, I saw Vignette as an opportunity to sort of do what I did in consumer marketing, which was bring innovation to consumers and connect companies closer with those consumers, and that's the same thing that's happening over here at Vignette. We're just doing it with the employee lens on.

Chuck: You guys have published trends coming up for 2017. A little teaser here for the listeners. They've published 11, but we're going to discuss eight, so at the end we'll tell you how you can check up on those other three. Gregg, are you ready to start digging through some of these trends?

Gregg: I am. Let's get into it.

Chuck: Okay. The first one up is the gig economy.

Gregg:  The gig economy is a term that I would bet most people are not familiar with yet. It's been around, but it's becoming more popular. What it really means is, it's all about how temporary positions have become common within organizations, so contacting independent workers, for whether short term or long term engagement, is happening, but the trend that's really going on right now is that it's a large amount. Currently one in three Americans is a freelancer, making up a sector for a critical part of the labor market. Nearly 54 million Americans participated in some form of independent work in 2015. That's 33 percent of the entire US workforce. That's a big number, which really translates to about 700,000 workers more over the past year. It's projected that half of the working force will move to the gig economy within the next five years, so that tells us that it's not just a trend and a prediction, it's really actually happening and we have to prepare ourselves for this.

Recently Amazon published some materials into the marketplace saying how they're creating a 30-hour work week policy to try to transform the way that the temporary positions will merge into longer term positions. If they even don't merge into that, companies have to address this, because those people represent, again, almost half of the workforce in America, and it's hard to find great talent and to retain great talent. Starting to figure out how to work with the gig economy is ultra important.

Chuck: I think there's always been people who have had little side gigs, right? I remember having a neighbor of ours who did drywalling on the side. People have historically sort of had gigs, but what I'm seeing now is that a lot of this gig economy is really more geared toward their mainstream profession and, adding responsibilities. Or it could be more of an entrepreneurship standpoint, where people are looking to diversify their career. How do you think communicators tackle, or approach, this new gig economy?

Gregg: I don't think they have. When I think of the word "communicators" I try to look at the business as a whole, and it's mostly HR professional and communication professionals. Whether they're one and the same or different, both of them are responsible for attracting talent and retaining talent. I think that the level where they're at is a certain skills gap, which is why they need those people on the outside who are freelancers, and they need the people who are full time. What we're really recommending is try to look at them as one and the same. If you've got a gap, you need expertise. Whether it's a W2, 1099, or whatnot, first start by thinking, "Where is my gap and how do I find some people to fill those gaps?" Possibly that evolves into some freelance position a into full time, or never does, it stays that way, but how you work, what you expect from them, nothing's going to be different in either scenario.

Chuck: Yeah, I really think this is, again, part of that evolution of what a workplace is to individuals, versus say what work meant to my parents, versus me, versus what it will mean to my children. I think we're just part of that evolution.

Gregg: I should probably also add there, Chuck, that half the workforce is almost millennials now, who we all know have a different way of working. As we look towards generations, which I hate to do, because I think it's more about people's preferences than their generation, but ultimately that's the workforce that's driving these numbers up even greater. Once again the millennials have forced us to take another look at how we work.

Chuck: Next trend you have doesn't necessarily sound trendy. It's leadership and budget. What makes this a trend?

Gregg: Leadership and budget is really about leadership support and budget equilibrium. At most companies leadership's support for the employee experience isn't the same for customer experience, and I think ultimately there's a similar effort, in terms of communicating continuously, planning, developing strategies, creating content and campaigns, understanding the effects of it by measuring these things and learning from that, and iterating the work that you've done. That's the way marketing works and the way the customer experience is managed, but it's not the way the employee experience is managed across most companies, and that needs to change.

The way that's gonna start to change is by HR and communication professionals helping leadership understand the value of this, and why employees are equally as important as customers, and bringing balance to that spend, and bringing balance to measuring the effectiveness of it. Because if I was a leader in an organization, I would know that I need to do this, but I would also be very careful of what I spent, so I'd want to know what's working and what's not working. The fact that barely anyone's measuring anything is a big part of the issue I believe here, so ultimately the opportunity is for leadership to care more through their HR and communication professionals, helping them understand why they should care more.

Chuck: The next trend you have up is employer branding. Why is this something that communicators should be focusing on?

Gregg: Employer branding, in the internal communications world, or HR world, is a word that goes around a lot, but there's not necessarily a clarity around it. To bring some clarity, let's just define by what a brand is. A company's brand is based on its reputation in the market for its products and services. Years ago companies were in control of this brand perception, but that's not the same case anymore. The world has changed, technology has certainly created a lot of change in the marketplace, and consumers now own that perception. Companies do have the opportunity to influence it, and that's how they try to maintain somewhat of control.

When you look at what an employer brand is, that consumer brand is focused on how to convey that reputation with the customer; the employer brand helps the company convey the reputation as a place to work. What a consumer feels about a company, or what a potential new hire, or just anything about the same company, could be different. Without an employer brand they're going to see the brand the same as consumers, which could mean a positive or negative perception based on their own experiences.

Ultimately an employer brand is used for a few reasons, and even if there's a foundation, just a basic foundation, our advice is, use this employer brand to influence employees and prospective employees' perceptions. The way to do that is to translate your external brand, or consumer brand, for internal use. At minimum what this could require is just focusing on developing an employee-centric tone of voice and positioning, and a style guide that addresses color palettes, and fonts and typography and employee-centric imagery, or candidate-centric imagery and graphical styles, that map to the nature of the things you're communicating and the styles of your brand. The ultimate walkaway from all of this is giving employees a story to tell, and to make it their own.

Chuck: The next trend you've got here is culture transformation.

Gregg: Yes. This is a big one, and we see a lot of requests coming in nowadays to help with this, but ultimately what culture transformation is, is it's not something new and it's been there all along. The sort of issue that comes along with culture transformation is, years ago culture was created, or defined, by leadership, and probably in most cases, not really nurtured throughout the years. Throughout the years the world has changed, markets have changed, businesses have transformed; culture needs to transform along with it or else they're on a path to collide. There are opportunities for everyone to understand the nature of their employees and how they feel about culture, and ultimately try to refine it as business continues to change. The idea is, be managing both business transformation and culture transformation at the same time so that everybody is aligned to the same purpose, to the same values, and to the same mission.

Chuck: My challenge with this is the world "transformation". It's around the fact that it's one of those in-vogue words, where people like to throw "disruption" out there because it gets people's attention. I wonder, in your opinion are we heading down a dangerous road where people might use the word "transformation" because they think they're doing this really great big thing, but they're really just focused on, "Because we need to be transformative, we have to have a transformation," but they're not actually really changing anything at all?

Gregg: Buzzwords are buzzwords, nothing you or I can do about that, but ultimately I think it comes down to the word. "Change" is scarier for that, so I think the word "transformation" came about years ago in multiple capacities, where change is something that most people fear, when transformation just feels like a little bit of change. Ultimately you can't escape it. If culture feels wrong it affects business, so anything that affects business negatively, most managers or leaders are focusing on and trying to turn around. We see this the same way, that culture transformation, the transformation is greater and more challenging if you aren't consistently nurturing it. If you have to catch up there's a lot of change and risk to your business, but you still have to do it. The positive outcome is better business performance, people are more connected to the company, helps recruiting, helps customers, helps people be more engaged and work together. I guess my response to that is that "transformation" is a safer word, the same way "data" is a scary word to people in HR and communications, over a word like "insight".

Chuck: The next trend you've got here is diversity and inclusion.

Gregg:  I think diversity and inclusion is not a new set of word or practice, for especially large corporations, but especially this past year in 2016, we saw a lot of things, from the election to some bad news for some big companies and how they handled women in leadership, and how they handled, ultimately, not treating everybody equal. This has become not just something important to focus on, but there are now standards, edges of certification, that most big companies try to focus on nowadays. Becoming certified is one step towards creating a diverse and inclusive work force, but just like all the other communication factors we're talking about here, it's a continuous nature and loop of communications to create the awareness, to have people internalize what all this means.

PWC recently reported that 85% of the CEOs they surveyed whose companies have formal diversity and inclusiveness strategies said it's improved their bottom line, and that companies that embrace diversity gain higher market share and competitive edge in actively new markets. This is true for overseas as well. It's not just about this simply being the right thing to do, I think there's financial benefit to doing so as well too, and there's an engagement benefit to doing so. You can stand to lose good people, or possibly fall into legal action, if you don't address this.

Chuck: I think this is a tremendous opportunity for communicators, because historically diversity has fallen under HR's roof at a lot of organization. I like including the word "inclusion," because I think what happens is, as you mentioned, recently we have become very divided and very divisive in our language, and so then here's a communicator's opportunity to have an organization celebrate diversity beyond race, beyond gender. Even opportunities to embrace the LGBTQ community at their organization.

I think the challenge here is that sometimes in celebrating diversity, that can make some employees uncomfortable, but I think that's got to be okay. Because you're right, the more that employees feel included, the more they feel welcome, the more that their backgrounds, their heritage, is celebrated and recognized, then the more engaged they're going to be, the better employee they're going to be, the better workplace it's going to be. It's going to be an opportunity and a challenge for communicators, but I think it's more important to focus on the opportunity that is presenting here, versus focusing on the very few negatives that could come out of it.

Gregg: I agree. It's risky, lawyers will be involved, but it's what people want and what they need, and it needs to be addressed. If you're going to spend the time surveying, or trying to understand your audience of your employees at any level, you've got to respond to that too. It's not just saying that you care about it, it's showing that you care about it.

Chuck: What is insight-driven creative? What do you mean by that as the next trend?

Gregg: I think this is one of the most important trends that we're talking about here. We have always been a data-driven company. When I speak at events, you've seen me recently do this Chuck, where one of the first things I do is, I survey the audience and say, "How many people have a lot of data in their organization, especially around your employees?" All the hands go up in the room. Then I say, "Now how many of you know how to extract insights from that data?" About two thirds of the hands go down. Then the final question I say is, "How many of you who have insights know how to take action on them?" Almost all the hands go down.

This is the problem. We all hear the words "big data" all the time, and I think ultimately everybody's got data, and if you don't it's time to get onboard. The issue here is not about not having data, it's about the opportunity of removing the word "data," which is a scary word, and to look at it in terms of insight. How do you figure out what insights are important? An example of insight might be how an employee behaves, or what their habits are, or what their preferences are. Are they a visual learner or an auditory learner? That can make the difference of how you communicate with them.

Everything that we do at Vignette, and I believe everything that drives engagement the right way, ultimately turns back to smart creative. Spot-on branded messaging, the right mix of design and images, et cetera, and you have an experience there. To know what to do, what channel to use, what vehicle to use, how to design it one way versus another, how to create a message, one for all or segmented for multiple audiences, relies on insight to tell you what people want and expect. If we're just trusting the word of the people that are managing this at those brands, they'd better know what they're talking about and have concluded this through data driven methodologies. Otherwise you're probably walking into a situation where your efforts, your dollars spent, all of that time, could be wasted and take you back to scratch, versus having a plan that's driven by insights.

Chuck: We're onto number seven, which is measurement. For those that have watched the Something Else, which is a video series where I ask a question and communicators write the answers, one of the very first questions I asked was, what's the biggest lie internal comms tells itself? Rachel Miller, from All Things IC, her answer was centered on measurement, meaning that she did not believe that communicators really knew how to properly measure. In your mind, why is this an important trend going on in the 2017?

Gregg: This measurement in general has been on our list of trends for years, and it's because it's sort of the foundation to understanding your audience, and to grading effective communications, but more so, we still se nobody doing anything about it. It could be companies that are highly analytical in all their other business areas, but not addressing this here, and I think it really comes down to a skills gap, that the people at those organizations that manage HR and communications are not trained in the skills of measurement.

 Again, another area where there's a gap, another area we're bringing on either 1099s, and pulling from the gig economy, or W2s that are specialized in this area. It doesn't take a data scientist in some cases, and in some cases it does, but ultimately everything that you do should have a plan of what success means, a plan of how to measure that success, and then a process or a methodology built into your practice of communication that allows you to use those insights to define the plans and execute them. To frequently study them and analyze them, to report them to team leaders, to stakeholders, to other forms of leadership. Where again this irrefutable data, whether good or bad data, comes in the forms of insights that helps your continuous efforts to reach the measures of success you've set out to do. Ask yourself for a second, if you're doing anything, as simple as redesigning an email template, to developing a comprehensive campaign, how are you measure that? If you're not, stop everything and figure out how to measure it, because otherwise, why are you doing this?

Chuck: Then number eight, the last one we're going to talk about here on this episode, is going beyond email and internet.

Gregg: This eighth one is really all about use of more channels. A channel is how you reach someone through marketing. Ultimately, when we look at internal channels, almost every company we've ever talked to or worked with, and I speak to people in the community, I speak to people at conferences, you pretty much have email and your internet, and in most cases the internet is not a great solution. It's old school, it hasn't been designed like a modern-looking and functioning website, may or may not have social features. The bottom line is, if your internet is a channel, and one of your only ones, and you continue to use it, but you know that it's not an effective channel, then why, again, are you doing that? We need to look at channels from a different perspective.

 If you take it back to understanding your audience, and using insights and measurement to sort of guide this, then when you understand preferences you'll understand X type of audience wants to be communicated to in X few channels, Y wants it in Y channels, and Z in Z. Generally when you send a communication and you're trying to activate someone it doesn't happen on the first try, so if you try again it may or may not work, but generally trying again in the same channel is what fails, versus spreading the message across channels and opening up your reach. Companies have to get away from the minimum use of channels. The number doesn't matter as much as the effectiveness of them, so you always want to be piloting and trying them.

For example, if your internet's failing, and it's a hard solution to fix right away, what about building a website that serves the same purpose, that has similar features, that might be more cost-effective? There's lots of templated solutions out there to create engaging channels and vehicles. Ultimately I think that it's very shortsighted of most of the HR, communication professionals just to rely on what they've been given or what they have, versus what employees want and need.

Chuck: A message that has resonated through several episodes here through the year is, go where your employees are. They will not come to you. You're right, it's so important to understand your audience, how they consume content, how they want to consume content, their habits, and then take advantage of that data, and go where they are. Versus, like you're saying, relying on just email and internet.

I recently was in a room with a bunch of communicators, and we were talking about email, and automatically the complaints go up about it. The point that I brought is, email isn't the problem, it's how people use it. Just like with internet. People like to complain about PowerPoint, and it's like, no, it's not PowerPoint. The software isn't the problem, it's how people use it that's the problem. Focus on email, and work on your internet, but then the other variety of channels, whether it's mobile, whether it's digital signage, whether it's a social network. Look at consumer behavior to see how people are acting.

There are employers using WhatsApp as a communications channel. I'm not saying every organization out there should use WhatsApp, but if it makes sense for your employees. Or is it chatbots, based on the fact that they use messaging services? This is where it is important for communicators to understand where their employees are, how their employees are consuming content, and then be there. Be there and be present, don't just rely on what you've done because that's what you like to do.

Gregg: Yeah, and I would also add that there's not generally not one channel meant for all audiences. I think that again, understanding preferences aligned to a segment of an audience helps you really understand what channels to use, the frequency of messaging the day parts and times in which people want to be messaged and will respond greatest. All this comes together, versus just haphazardly pushing content out through channels whenever you have the availability to do so. That trend we're going to see go away, and we're going to see more and more channels open up, and more effectiveness in the communications because of that.

Chuck: We talked about eight of the 11, so where can listeners go to reel in more thoughts about these first eight as well as the other three, and also learn a little bit more about Vignette?

Gregg: Users and listeners, all these can go to VignetteAgency.com, V-I-G-N-E-T-T-E Agency dot com, forward slash blog. That's our blog. It is active. We also encourage listeners to reach out to us. If anyone has some good topics to talk about, we like to look at partnerships and guest bloggers as well, so just as Chuck has welcomed me on the show today, I welcome people to come speak with us too.

Chuck: I'm curious, I assume you did this exercise last year in looking at trends for 2016. Were there any you saw that held true? Or, what was your general perception or take on what the trends would be in 2016 and how it all transpired?

Gregg: That's a great question, and I think we saw on all of our trends, from last year and the year before, activity happening around them, but it's a different level of activity for every company. There's kind of a progressive step in thinking, companies who are ahead of the curve on some of this stuff, very few. There're one to recognize that they need to be addressing these things, and are experimenting in basic ways, and then there's those who just aren't doing it. It's probably for lack of resources or vision, but ultimately most of the clients that have engaged with us, either as clients or prospects who came to us to talk about helping them in certain ways, we qualified that everyone came with a request to address something on that list.

Chuck: Thank you Gregg, and again that was VignetteAgency.com/blog, where you can read about all 11 trends for communicators in 2017.

Then for this podcast, there's obviously a lot of communicators who listen to ICology, but we also just have business leaders who want to get better at communicating. What's a final piece of advice you want to share with listeners?

Gregg: Hopefully you hear my passion. As I talked earlier, I started my career in consumer marketing, and have spent the past many, many years focused here, and I'm going to stay here because we can only go up, this particular space of internal communication. The HR community is at least a decade behind of how marketing is operating, and the innovation that marketing has brought to the marketplace. There's still so much for us all to do together. I think the message is, master your craft. If you don't know what you're doing, figure out how to learn this stuff. Ask your company for training. Ask your company to give you opportunity. Build business cases that help you experiment and measure and learn, because ultimately it's that irrefutable data that gives you the power to do something good for yourself and for an organization. There's just not enough people who are taking that leadership and there's a lot of opportunity to do so. Just imagine what your life would be like if you were able to transform the way that you work to a more effective way that also doesn't just affect you, but it affects others.

Chuck:  I love that you brought in innovation there, because I absolutely relish the opportunity when I see communicators who are very innovative, who do take changes, and bring a new flavor and new creativity, to not just their role, but to the communication in the companies they work. I think that's a great piece of advice.

Gregg: Just consider that innovative doesn't always mean fancy, or what everyone else is doing. It's what you're doing that you need to.

Chuck:  Thank you, Gregg, for coming on ICology and sharing your thoughts on what communicators can expect in 2017, or at least what they should be focusing on or investigating in 2017.

You can visit LearnICology.com to catch up on old episodes, get to know guests better, read blog posts, check out events, and all episode transcriptions are there as well. Also keep an eye out for something else, the video series where I ask the internal comms community a question, and you provide the answers. They're all at LearnICology.com/SomethingElse.

Please follow ICology on Twitter, @LearnICology, to pick up show announcements as well as other IC news, and if you're not already a subscriber listen to ICology on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoy what you hear it would mean a great deal if you took the time to leave a review.

Thanks to Gregg and all of the past ICology guests in 2016. It's been a great year, and can't wait to see you all again in 2017. If internal communications is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening in.