ICology: the technology gap in corporate communications

ICology ep #27, Sonia Fiorenza with Social Chorus

Guest Sonia Fiorenza is the vice president of content and engagement strategies for SocialChorus. They recently published a report focused on the technology gap in corporate communications

ICology is available on iTunes as well as many other platforms and apps. Or you can listen to the media player above. 

Episode Transcript

Chuck: One of the big challenges actually facing internal comms is something very simple and those are assumptions. As people, we make assumptions because frankly, it makes thoughts easier. But with internal comms, these assumptions are damaging the profession and hurting the practice of internal communications. 

 We, in ourselves as communicators, tend to sometimes make false assumptions over what we think employees want to hear or how they want to hear it and this is why I like sharing interesting data and survey results, that I find they shed new light on the world of internal communications.

And this is also why we have Sonia on the show today. As much as I like IC, I love technology almost as much and a study conducted by SocialChorus recognizes the technology gap facing communicators. So with us today, we have Sonia Fiorenza. She is the VP of Content and Engagement Strategies at SocialChorus. Sonia, welcome to ICology.
Sonia: Hi Chuck. Thanks for having me. I'm really excited to be here. I actually happen to be a listener of your podcast and I heard some other interesting people doing interesting things in IC through your show and I'm honored to be a part of it.
Chuck: Well, happy to have you here and we met, actually last January, in San Francisco as part of a different ALI event and while we were there, we learned that we followed somewhat similar paths. So why don't you give our listeners a little bit of your professional background prior to joining the SocialChorus?
Sonia: Sure. So, I've spent my career in corporate communications and I like to describe myself as a communicator first and industry agnostic because I've worked in financial services and Biotech and most recently retail. I was head of employee communications at Gap Inc. here in San Francisco. And I have been lucky enough to experience many functions across the corporate communications functions. So internal, external, digital, but like you said IC is your passion, I always say my first love is employee communications. That's an area that I'm really passionate about.
Chuck: For those who aren't familiar with SocialChorus, explain what you guys do and also what you do there.
Sonia: SocialChorus is an employee communications platform that's easy to use and it's tailor made for complex distributed workforces. So we help HR and communications teams give employees the news and information they need to thrive. We bring that content to life and we help them give employees everything from the fun to know to the need to know and we are also a cross platform.

So mobile communications and web communications, then on mobile as well as iOS and android of course. So we make it easy to source, create, and control the news that you are giving employees and you reach them anywhere that they are in their organization, however they choose to consume news and information. 
So as far as my role at SocialChorus, I lead our content and engagement strategies. What that means is I help our customers with the best practices in using our platform in line with their communication strategies, really tapping in to my background in employee communications and the reason I made the move to join SocialChorus as opposed to going to another company, which by the way I love big companies, it's where I started my career, but coming to SocialChorus, I get the chance to work with customers in every industry around the world, some of the biggest brands in the world and I'm really passionate about solving employee communication challenges and I feel like this is a place where I get to do that.
Chuck: And that was very similar when I left both Rolls Royce was sort of to get into the tech world and really help other customers embrace it, so the communicators embrace it. I sort of understand where you are coming from, and as I mentioned, I mean it was about six months ago when we first met. We talked about doing an episode of this together. 
Sonia: I can't believe it's been six months.
Chuck: I know, but the timing is perfect because very recently, you guys released a report on this technology gap in corporate communications. So before we get into too much detail, why did SocialChorus want to do the study?
Sonia: For two reasons. The first one, we really wanted to understand the challenges that communicators face with their employee communications that we can help solve them. Also, many of our customers and our perspective customers need to make the case for investments and communications platforms. I know when I was at the Gap and making the case for a SocialChorus platform, by the way, I was a customer before I was an employee, so I had to put together the data to support what I instinctively knew was the right thing to do and I was hungry for any research I could get my hands on so that I could make that case.

So of course many of our customers and our potential customers, they understand all the challenges that we uncovered in the survey. Believe me, they feel the pain. They already know all of this but when they are building the business cases to take to their leaders on why they need to improve their communications platform, they need the data to back it up. So we did the research to help with that business case.
Chuck: And before getting in too much of the findings, which you will in a little bit, I'm curious, was SocialChorus surprised at what you found or did it just simply confirm some things for you?
Sonia: I would say it mostly confirmed things. What surprised me was how affirmative the data was. Yeah, so I know we are going to get into the data shortly but for example, 97% said they face challenges with the tools they use. That's basically everyone.
Chuck: There is some statistical anomaly there but you are right. It's basically everybody.
Sonia: So I think it was really just how strong the data was confirming again the things that we as communicators instinctively know and having the data to be able to back it up.
Chuck: And then from this report, there’s a really interesting phrase describing internal communications. I'm going to read it and then have you go into this little more depth on it but the phrase is "We have an entire profession that's trying to win a new game while playing the old rules with worn out equipment."
Sonia: Pretty bold statement, huh?
Chuck: I like it. But dig deeper into that for me.
Sonia: So the way that we've communicated, the entire world around us, you know you said you are a technology buff. Instead of calls, instead of calling each other, we text each other. We don't email anymore. We are using Snapchat or we are on...I met you through Twitter before we met at the conference. We've just completely changed the way that we communicate and interact with our world and yet, when we come to work, all of the old tools and the way that we communicate with our employees are sort of from their early age of the digital revolution and we really haven't overcome those obstacles and met our employees in the way that they want to be communicated with. Meet them where they are and also how they want to be communicated with. So that's what we mean by playing with the old rules and with old equipment.
Chuck: But it's a brand new game, which I think that's a great analogy for communicators because it is so often and I'm sure you see this that when...and we probably both saw. When you are in that day-to-day practitioner every day you sometimes lose sight of perspective in what's new and what's out there and if you can achieve new things or install new technology and you just sort of get into this habitual nature of recycling over and over. So you are right. Those are definitely the old rules and the worn out equipment but employees, I think now have a much higher expectation of that.
Sonia: They do. I think employees are, you know they are demanding transparent real time communication and they want companies that are going to bring that to them in the way that they are used to communicating in their day-to-day lives.
Chuck: And really, it was no surprise to me when you guys asked the most frequent channel used and email came out, I think it was right around nearly half, and a guest from one of the very early episodes of ICology used this phrase around email saying there is this floating cloud of hate. It's what she's called it around email. So the fact that half came out as a frequent channel, is this a good thing, is this a bad thing, or is this just corporate reality?
Sonia: I think it's all of the above and I hope that doesn't sound like a copout but on the one hand, email is something that we are very comfortable with and we can get our messages into it and we can get them out quickly and a lot of people in corporate America are used to receiving email and it doesn't require a lot of additional technology although I did listen to that podcast that you were referring to and I do understand that there are some advances in email, so that's a good thing. Here is the bad thing. The data shows that there is something like a third of employees don't even have access to a computer and they are out in the field. 
So if you are trying to communicate through email and that's your primary method of communication, you are missing a huge portion of your audience and then even if there are not employees who don't have a...so maybe there are employees who have a computer and they do have email but we have a whole generation coming into the workforce that, as we said before, they don't use email anymore.

When I communicate with my younger cousins and nieces, believe me, it's not through email. That's not just what they are thinking about. So that's where the bad thing is and I think that's where it gets into the how have we advanced our communications to meet our employees where they are.
Chuck: And you identified in this report, three key challenges facing internal communications. So I want to dig into those and first step was "Engaging an audience that's constantly bombarded with messages."
Sonia: Right. So in some ways, this isn't the age old challenge of communications. How do we break through the clutter and how do we get people's attention but I think that has just even exponentially more. There is exponentially more news and data out there, in our personal lives, with news and social media in our work life trying to keep up with all of that email and we are challenged to reach our employees with the most important communications and on top of that, something like 71...it was 71% of the respondents said that they know that their employees don't read email or other content. So we already intuitively know that people are bombarded with messages and we are not reaching them. 
Chuck: Next up was engaging a remote workforce. That seems to be sort of this new, I want to say new environment, because there has always been remote workforces but you guys see this as now a growing problem for communicators that employees aren't necessarily at the office as much? They are out and about, is that what this is about?
Sonia: That's exactly it. I mean if you think about these large...it's two things. First, it's large, complex, global organizations. The data showed that 59% of leaders consider communicating with a widely distributed workforce to be a primary challenge. So that was a big part of it, and then a couple of other points I would add there, so I said it's two things. I think the other thing is the workforce has changed in that it's more modern. People work remotely. People work on the go and so, it's almost like the technology that has enabled the workforce that we as employees demand, it's enabled that yet we haven't also input the technology that communication needs at that same workforce, if that makes sense. 
The other thing that they said was really hard was this. One of the biggest revelations was that they don't know how there is huge difficulty in communicating with stakeholders during a crisis. So again, if I think about, you've got these workforces all over the world. You've often got workforces of employees who are on the front lines and having to deal with maybe activists or customers who are angry or things that are going on that they are hearing in the news and they don't even have the information that they need in order to address that, yet they are having to deal with it. So I think that that's also tied to this challenge of engaging with a remote workforce is that they see...people see that as a challenge as well, effectively communicating during a crisis, and then the other big challenge that was identified was the length of time it takes to communicate organizational changes. 
So, I don't know about you but if I think about the number of organizational changes or change management that I did over my career at different big companies and how important it is to get everyone moving toward the change of the organization and yet how slow it is to be able to get people on board. So those were just some of the other challenges that I thought were really interesting that came out of the survey, along with the engaging a remote workforce.
Chuck: Well, the next challenge you had up here was the effective selection in use of metrics, and I think this is another one of those challenges communicators face because a lot of them think what they are measuring, but what they are measuring the right thing? Is it the wrong thing? You said also being effective in that. So, go a little bit more into this challenge.
Sonia: So Chuck, before we go into that challenge, I would love to hit on a couple of more of the challenges with engaging the remote workforce that came out in the survey because I think it's really interesting and it all ties together in terms of how we reach them. Do you mind if we go back to that for a second?
Chuck: Definitely. Now, let's dig into the selection and use of metrics because again, I think it's a...that's a challenge communicator have. They know they need to measure, they are not sure what they are measuring is the right thing, the wrong thing. Is it other things that need to measure? So talk a bit more about this.
Sonia: Our researchers talked about this kind of being a good news, bad news story. So, the good news is that many teams do track metrics. In fact, they showed four in five do. But the bad news was their primarily tracking activity through surveys or website analytics or email and what came down to it was are they really measuring the effectiveness of their communications or are they just tracking like people radar communications?

And then even from there, about one in five were confident that they were using good metrics. Even then, they are like, "Yeah, we are kind of sort of doing it but we are not really sure if these metrics are even good," and then the other metrics, it was something like one in four said their executive team request the metric. 
I think that in this area of big data, I think maybe in the past, communicators often, maybe we chose our profession because we...I always say we like words, not numbers. But the fact is big data, like we all have to be stronger about metrics and this is an area where we really need to build this critical skill and up our game. I think that the revelation to me is we've just got some work to do and I don't mean to make a blanket statement because there are people, some of them who listen to your show who are very strong at data and analytics but many of us actually need to really improve in this area and understand the effectiveness of what we are doing.
Chuck: And I think that I agree with you. This is one of those good news, bad news situations because it's something communicators know they need to do. They may not necessarily want to but they certainly recognize the value that it brings to the profession and so I think it’s that they want to do the right thing, I think it's just a matter of them understanding what those right things are. And then earlier, I said there were three key challenges. I lied. There is actually four and this is actually my favorite one. It sounds negative but I think it's another area of opportunity for communicators and the challenge is insufficient involvement in tech decisions.
Sonia: That's right. I think that while we've always been responsible for developing and getting the message out to the company and creating this great content, we haven't necessarily been considered the experts in selecting the tools that are used to reach employees. We are not all coding wizards but I've known many communicators who are techno geeks, I think you'll probably count yourself in that count, and I think that we actually do know the best ways to reach our employees but we haven't been involved in the decision making. We've often been handed the tools that we are expected to use. 
What the data showed was...part of it was 25% that said that they had no role at all in selecting the tools they used for their communications. So here they are trying to communicate to the organization and that they haven't even had a say in what those technology solutions should be and at the same time, we also asked about if they know what they want from a platform and they actually lifted out a lot of things that they said, attributes that they want out of a technology. So we are very clear but we know what we want. Yet we haven't been involved in the decisions and been at the table in selecting those tools. So I think that's definitely a challenge and something that we need to be brought in earlier and be part of the change and that kind of goes back to why we need to be part of having the data to make the case study for that...make the business case for that.
Chuck: Yeah, this is a, again, sort of an age-old problem where, I hear it all the time around tools as being dumped on it They might say they want this type of tool, whether it be some engagement software or in my world, digital signing software or it's a new email platform or whatever and then IT will select that for them without really understanding, like you said, the use case. Do they like the software? Do they like how it works? Is it intuitive to them? This is where I'd like to see communicators develop a stronger partnership with IT more than anything out of mutual respect because IT doesn't want to go out on the activity and source a tool that nobody will actually use. 
So I think this is one of those examples where I personally would like to see communicators in IT strengthen their partnership because there are obviously, each ties has their own concerns and issues and that's when they come together, do they find that right tool that then meets both IT's need as well as communicator's requirements? So, that's why I said that was one of my favorite ones because I see it but it's always a...it's a huge opportunity for communicators to step up, be a leader and helping select those tools that will ultimately impact their job.
Sonia: I completely agree and you know, I have been lucky enough. As I said, I get to work with a lot of different companies and some of the best practices that I have seen lately with people who have been selecting and rolling out our platform are the people who have a very strong IT partner at the table and you can really see that the IT partner understands what the communications challenge is and they are also there to advise on the technology challenges and it's so rewarding when, I mean just yesterday, I was in a working session with a customer on how we are going to build the content for their platform and how we are going to launch it and the IT partner was right there at the table with them the whole time, really understanding everything that they were trying to accomplish and that, I just thought that, "Wow. Everybody should be able to build this kind of partnerships because then you can see the power of it together."
Chuck: Well, it's just making success that much easier because they are both there. And then one of the more, I would say, sort of controversial, maybe not controversial but interesting parts that you had an internet quoting, where you talk about the "The promise of mobile" and I agree that there is promise in mobile. I sometimes get frustrated when I see some of these conflicting reports about whether it's the rise of mobile in internal comms or people aren't adopting mobile. I'm asking you personally, where do you stand on the role of mobile in IC? Where do you see it fitting?
Sonia: Well, you know my answer is going to biased because I personally think that it has...there is a huge opportunity and it has a huge role to play but I think that it's where I need to go back to data to support my case. I mean that's really why we did this study. So even going outside of this data, what I have seen depending on the different data sources that you look at, the average person, this is frightening, the average person spends something like three to four hours a day on their mobile device. Put in another way on data that I have seen out there, the average user checks their phone more than a hundred times a day. I'm sitting here at a computer talking to you but guess what? My mobile device is right next to me and you know, I'm the same way. I'm guilty. 
So, I think that mobile has a huge role to play even in just saying this is how people operate in their lives and then if I go to the data from our survey, 92% of response said that more than half of their employees have access to smartphones.

So they know that their employees have that access and then compare that with 32% reported that not all of their employees had access to a computer, and then we also, on top of that, have those that don't have...don't even have corporate email or access to a corporate internet. Where do I stand at mobile? I think again, if you are going to reach your employees where they are and have them aligned to what's going with your company, mobile has a huge role to play but I would also give you the conflicting piece of it.
So like what you said, what are some of the downsides? It's not just about tools and if we think that we can take everything that we've been doing in internal communications for the last 20 years of their long boring corporate emails with no visuals and no videos and we just going to plop it in a mobile device, then we are not going to have any more success. You also have to be thinking about what kind of content is it and when I talk with our customers about content strategies, I talk about the content that employees want and need to know and I say, "If you don't get them what they want to know, then you are not going to get them wanting to come to your communications platform and to use it."

I just challenge us as communicators to not only be attracted to the shiny new object and the really cool technology because people like you and I like technology. We also have to challenge ourselves to think differently about how we do...how we build and create our communications and our content and sometimes that means that we are in some battles with our leaders and with people and our business partners and our company and trying to get them to think about how we do our content differently.
Chuck: I know that mobile is a huge broad topic when we are talking about internal communications. It could be sms, it could be apps, or it could be mobile internet, so I get that it's a very broad topic but when it comes to apps, something that I think would be interesting to study, would be to find out, and this probably even exists in the consumer world as an app on the home screen probably gets x number more views than an app that's on, if I just swap right three times to get to the app, if you have many apps. So, probably not just...do you have employees download it but where do they put it on their phone because that would be probably an expression of how important it is to them and how likely they are to use it again? I think that would be interesting data to get.
Sonia: It would. I will give you as a slightly different data, is that I saw a study that said people go on a date four times with an app before they break up with it. So you'll give it a try four times and if it hasn't your need or your purpose, then you'll decide that you are done with it and it either gets deleted or like you said, it just gets moved off the home screen of your device. So, that's why I think it goes back to the challenge to us as communicators is to make sure that we are putting that fresh, relevant, interesting content that employees want and need to know into the platform so that when they come in, they find it there and they want to come back again and they don't break up with us.
Chuck: So, does a...a real quick summary. There is obviously much, much more information in the report. Again, the report is called the technology gap in the corporate communications. So, direct listeners so where they can go to read the rest of the report as well as connecting with you and SocialChorus.
Sonia: They can download the e-book. It's on our website, SocialChorus.com. If you'd like to get in touch with us to find more, you can also email us at info@socialchorus.com. As for myself, you'll find me on LinkedIn and Twitter, Sonia, S-O-N-I-A, Fiorenza, F-I-O-R-E-N-Z-A. So, Sonia_fiorenza is my handle on Twitter or you can find me on LinkedIn and I love to connect like you Chuck with interesting people doing interesting things in the world of communications. So, I would be happy to connect with people. 

Chuck: You know listeners of this podcast, obviously there is a lot of internal communicators, some HR communicators, but we also have small business owners from a lot of different environments who just want to get better at communicating. So given all of your experience in communications, what is a piece of parting advice that you'd want to share with listeners?
Sonia: The bigger piece of advice is put your audience first and if I drill that down to employee communication, its let's start putting our employees first and oftentimes in our communications in the past, we have put the company first. We've said, "Here is the corporate message that's coming down from on high and we are pushing it out and this is the way it is." And if we could turn that on its head and start saying, "Can we give employees the communications that they want and give it to them in a way that they want it and really just put them first in our messages?" I think that will be a lot more successful in connecting and engaging with them.
Chuck: Well, Sonia, I want to thank you again for being our guest on ICology. Sorry it took the five or six months' tenure for us to make this happen but I'm glad we finally did. It was great, you sharing your story. ICology is the listening post for communicators. It's a place for them to hear stories from professionals like you who can inspire them to be better communicators because I think we can all be better communicators.

Please follow ICology on Twitter, @LearnICology, to pick up show announcements as well as other IC news that I like to spread around Twitter, and if you are already a subscriber, listen to ICology on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast and as always, those reviews are appreciated.

So again Sonia, I want to thank you for being on the show. If internal comms is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening in.