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Connecting with employees today takes a different mindset than it did just a few years ago. Internal marketing can easily become an overwhelming minefield of opportunity for missteps: from email to texting to social media and short-form videos, the fear of being called out by influencers (including your own employees) is real. But why should Human Resources care about the difference between internal marketing and employer brand? Do you need a strategy for each? And what about the tactics you take to execute your internal marketing strategy? In this article, we'll explore how HR and Labor professionals need a marketing mindset to succeed in reaching today's workforce in a way that brings everyone into alignment to achieve goals that make a difference.
Let's talk about what Internal Marketing is not. It is not the same thing as your internal communications, nor is it the same thing as your Employer Brand. Yet, all three work closely together, affording multi-variant solutions to the question, "how do we approach employee communications?" Let's dig in a bit.
Internal marketing is the promotion of a company's objectives, products, and services to employees within the organization. For Human Resources professionals, this is an area that is often neglected for a lack of resources. The day-to-day needs of an organization can far outweigh any "hearts and minds" campaign. But if you're an HR professional drawn to your work by a desire to help employees succeed, internal marketing may be just the focus you need. An internal marketing campaign is often meant to be persuasive in nature. It could be focused on any of a wide variety of goals, from building company culture to remaining union-free. Internal marketing is more about the intentional pursuit of winning the hearts and minds of the people who make the biggest contributions to your company's success.
Internal marketing efforts pursue promoting the company internally so that your employees embrace company values, mission, goals, and brand, making an emotional connection to your company's purpose, products, and services - all things that HR focuses on but, sadly, not often in a goal-oriented, focused way. Frequently, we discuss topics like leadership empathy, emotional intelligence, happiness, and leader-employee relationships because emotions play just as big a role in employee satisfaction and commitment as the job duties or responsibilities assigned.
You can hand someone a job description, but if the person doesn't understand the contribution their efforts make towards business success, or doesn't feel connected to the company's goals as having value, one of several things can happen. That person will either stay and be less productive than otherwise possible, stay as a disengaged employee who actively foments unhappiness in the workplace, or quit. If the person stays and is actively disengaged, the chances of that person turning to a labor union as a means of finding support increase.
Although a bit dated, this 2006 Best Practices in Internal Marketing study from Northwestern University provides a highly comprehensive overview. In it, researchers offered six characteristics of highly effective internal marketing programs, which can help us define internal marketing. Those six characteristics included senior management participation, an integrated organizational structure, a strategic marketing approach, a human resources partnership, a focus on employee engagement, and internal brand communication. Internal marketing inspires people by informing and involving them in the company brand, so a commitment to corporate values and purpose develops. They become internal brand ambassadors to coworkers and customers.
Internal communications are responsible for effective communications among participants within an organization. This function is largely focused on disseminating important information that employees need to know in a timely manner. Internal comms may be tasked with a particular call-to-action (say, getting team members to complete benefits enrollment by a particular date or signing off on the company's disaster preparedness plan) but is less concerned with persuading employees to think or act in a certain way or increasing engagement levels.
Why is this distinction important? Employee engagement is something that needs consistent nurturing. Employees committed to your brand have an emotional commitment, deliver better customer service, are more collaborative, and are more engaged. A January 2022 Gallup survey found that employee engagement dropped for the first time in a decade from 36 percent in 2020 to 34 percent in 2021 and continued to decline to 32 percent as of April 2022.
And in a year where "quiet quitting" was all the rage, going beyond the idea of basic internal communications to think in terms of internal marketing can mean
As Gallup writes, "…engaged employees are involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. Actively disengaged employees are disgruntled and disloyal because most of their workplace needs are unmet."
The importance of the connection between internal marketing and internal communications, though, is this: all communications should be interesting and engaging to get the attention of employees. For internal marketing to be effective, it needs internal communications that are regular, high-quality, attractive, appealing, and informative. It can't seem like a "have to do" or a "forced to do" effort. Never lose sight of the fact that successful internal marketing strategies address the many organizational aspects needed to stay union-free.
Employer Brand is another component of the idea of internal marketing, insomuch as it touches both current employees as often as it does prospective ones.
In his landmark book, The Brand Gap, brand pioneer Marty Neumeier stated that understanding your employer brand requires "scoring high" in five crucial areas of communication.
IRI Communications Consultant Sarah Smith explains the connection between employer brand and internal marketing like this, "Employer brand is how employees feel coming to work each day. It's how they talk about their company to their friends, how proud and aligned they are with the company's mission and values." She goes on to say, "Internal communications are an essential tactic to develop this emotional connection, and how communications are executed reveals the authenticity of the brand. Are the communications consistent? Are they clear? Are they honest and transparent? Effective and purposeful communication builds trust, and trust builds relationships. So the connection between internal communications and employer brand is certainly a symbiotic one."
For HR professionals, a strong employer brand can help bring the right candidates to the door. An internal marketing campaign can help engage employees and inspire them to refer exceptional candidates to apply.
For HR (and labor relations) professionals, an internal marketing plan may focus on any of several objectives, including engagement, retention, contract ratification, or even remaining union-free. These are the types of goals you'll want to establish to build your plan.
IRI Consultants' Smith explained that "The first step to an effective strategy is to know and understand who needs to hear the message — and who should hear the message. And, understanding that those may be different audiences and may be different messages altogether."
An example internal marketing plan begins with articulating these goals. From there, you'll want to establish who your audience(s) are and develop specific campaigns for each to meet those stated goals. Within each of those audience-specific campaigns, you'll include the detailed tactics that need to be completed for the campaign to be successful and the goals met. This framework and process: Goals, Campaigns, and Tactics will make up your overall internal marketing strategy. As with any successful marketing campaign, always establish a way to measure results and report the metrics to your leadership team. It's the only way to know that your internal marketing campaign has been successful.
When it comes to determining the tactics that work best, Smith says that "understanding how your employees consume information is key; email may be effective for employees who work at a desk most of the day, but a quick 10-minute meeting may work best for front-line employees,"
As you're developing your internal marketing plan, don't be afraid to change established practices. "Being open to new approaches and being willing to take the time to identify the best way to communicate — and execute it — makes a big difference," said Smith. "One of the most important skills needed on large-scale employee communication rollouts is the ability to put yourself in the mind of the most skeptical employee and ask the questions you know they're going to ask because they will. And if you can anticipate and answer those questions before they ask them, it opens space for the message to be heard."
When should you implement an internal marketing strategy? The reality is internal marketing is an ongoing effort. It can add new communication initiatives when a company change occurs, like rebranding your company in the marketplace or responding to signs of union organizing. But internal marketing should be embedded in your operations.
Initially, you want to reinforce the company's vision, mission, and values so employees connect their efforts to the company's purpose. Purpose-driven organizations achieve higher employee engagement. Deloitte says that purpose is everything, stating, "Moreover, younger generations also want to work at companies with an authentic purpose, with more than 70 percent of millennials expecting their employers to focus on societal or mission-driven problems." Purpose is a unifier, and your goal is to unify employees around your brand as a purpose.
There are unlimited internal marketing strategies you could develop. It depends on the goals established by the internal marketing communications team for your particular organization. For example, internal marketing strategies could focus on areas like the following with the end goal of creating an engaged workforce that embraces the organization's brand.
According to tech recruiter Martyn Basset, cultivating a great internal marketing team is a crucial element to the success of your efforts. That means internal marketing strategy development may include your marketing team, HR, labor relations, internal communications, and members of executive leadership.
Recognizing each company is different, there is one overriding feature of an effective internal marketing strategy. It involves more than Human Resources or an internal communications function. In fact, it's important to remember that HR is not a marketing function but is excellent at sharing information, like employee policy or benefits changes. HR professionals are great communicators when sharing information about what the company is doing, and they play a key role in employee engagement but are not usually the people who should be expected to be adept at connecting employees to the company's brand.
The internal marketing strategy should involve leaders and employees from all levels of the organization. High-level communication will, of course, originate with top leadership. However, remember an effective internal marketing strategy is not just about sharing information. It is meant to inspire and deepen employee engagement. One suggestion by Michael DesRochers, Founder of PoliteMail Software, is to identify a leader in each department and create an employee communications team. The goal of the team is to promote a coordinated communications effort.
Particularly in times that call for some degree of urgency, such as a union organizing drive, implementation is best left to a partnership between HR and Marketing, a partnership that can make decisions quickly and execute on the established strategy. Bringing in an internal communications consultant who has subject matter expertise can also be an asset that moves the internal marketing effort forward.
Whoever you involve, the intent is to create an internal marketing team that includes employees across the organization and leaders at all levels. One of the internal communications challenges many companies need to overcome is changing top-down only information flows.
Consider an employee app as a tactical component of your internal marketing campaign. There are a variety of out-of-the-box solutions that offer the ability to segment your audience and customize messaging. Connecteam, for example, offers a fully private and secure platform that includes easy user management and "smart groups." To be sure your internal marketing reflects your larger brand strategy, the platform can be fully customized to meet your brand standards.
Software for internal marketing is also an option, as there are platforms that will not only serve your campaign goals but improve your organization's systems and processes as well. Resources like ClickUp and Workvivio (who boldly states that their offering is the "Best communication app for building human connection and emotional commitment between employees and your company.”) offer alternatives to traditional employee communications that can differentiate your employer brand.
Another tool for internal marketing is your internal influencers - employees who are highly engaged and champions of your company. Make these unique employees feel special and provide them with a platform and an outlet. Reward them for their role in making your internal marketing a success.
Companies that want to stay union-free and engage employees find that custom video is a tool that covers the spectrum of employee engagement, increasing trust between employees and leadership. Video can be delivered via other tools such as employee apps or text messaging for even greater impact. Add to that the increased retention rate of video over copy-heavy messaging, and you've got an impactful tool for internal marketing.
All of these tactical ideas can support your internal marketing strategy. Beyond video, consider topic-specific employee-facing websites, interactive eLearning, internal podcasts, employee recognition systems, social media, texts, and even email. Digital communications have made it easier to connect with all employees.
Despite the importance of internal marketing, companies tend to approach internal marketing haphazardly or make only a weak, inconsistent effort. They don't think in terms of marketing, leveraging their employer brand to influence employees. Most employee communication in these cases focuses on things like compliance and meeting deadlines for benefit enrollment. Often, we see companies use newsletters and emails that push information out but are not meant to deepen employee engagement. Adopt a marketer's mindset and think about how you can capture the attention of employees in unique and memorable ways. Generate excitement, spark conversation and inspire employees.
Think of it this way. When you market to prospective and current customers, your hope is that they might voluntarily promote and share information about your products, customer service, and dedication to environmental sustainability and that they might share in the excitement your brand's solutions bring. Imagine how attractive your company would appear to job candidates if your employees voluntarily showed excitement about your company's products and services and the great relationship between the workforce and management.
For HR professionals, any internal marketing strategy that you intend to invest time and money in should have a similar goal – inspiring employees to the point they are committed to your company and want to share their work experience and your brand. Adopting a marketer's mindset and focusing on your internal marketing will help HR support the organization, increase employee engagement, stay union-free, and contribute to your company's reputation as an employer of choice.