UncategorizedFive trends that will impact internal digital communications in the next five years

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WORDS BY SCOTT MACDONALD & OWEN LESKOVAR
ILLUSTRATION BY JUN KAHNG

Predicting the future has always been tricky business – and would-be prognosticators often come away with a sense that the universe has a harsh sense of humor. We don’t have domed cities, meals-in-pill-form, or flying cars. And yet who could have predicted that before we had those things, we’d have our burritos delivered by autonomous drones (as Chipotle has tested in partnership with Google’s innovation lab)?

Yes, predicting the future is tricky business.

But though it may be nearly impossible to predict the next Facebook or the next global pandemic, there are some predictions that are both extremely important and extremely likely to occur. What are the odds that India and Africa continue to be fast-growing emerging economies? What are the odds that AI and machine learning continue to increase the level of automation in knowledge work? No one really knows – but we should all be willing to bet on it.

In that vein, here are five trends that we bet will significantly impact the digital channel as you consider your internal communications in the near future:

#1 – Flex hours, the four-day work week, and work-from-home scenarios will become more common, creating a more diverse palette of user contexts.

There are two parts to this trend. One was accelerated and made more salient by the COVID-19 pandemic, while the other was stifled and hidden – the perfect climate for businesses to mismanage the situation.

First is the general trend towards working from home, which has been on the horizon for a long time, but recently catapulted forward unexpectedly. However, the realities of a closed-off, quarantined society where we were all at home and at our desks obfuscated the second part of the trend: an explosion in the diversity of user contexts.

In a post-COVID world, “remote work” is very different from “stuck at home.” Many employees will not spend their workdays at home at all, and even “working from home” has tremendous variability: the dual-monitor desktop is different from the iPad on the sofa, which is different from the Android phone on the deck.

Sales teams will phone into strategy meetings from restaurant patios after finishing client lunches. IT workers might meet at a park and remotely update systems two time zones away.

Your content delivery needs to match these new contexts. But it isn’t as simple as “having the town hall on Zoom”; the emotional terrain of virtual and live meetings are completely different, and the same is true for every remote context.

Organizations must also make the switch to fully mobile-enabled intranets, easy-to-use VPN, and straightforward security protocols. The bottom line is this: if abiding by your company’s security standards is time consuming and high-friction, many employees won’t do it. Businesses must get ahead of this. If your current protocol doesn’t allow for secure access to information from a phone, it may be time to recruit some senior allies and trigger a bigger conversation with your IT Leadership.

Getting mobile right – really right – will make all the difference in how engaged employees feel, how informed they stay about what’s going on in the business, and ultimately, how well they collaborate.

#2 – Microsoft technologies will be the dominant platform of the internal communications landscape – and by extension, redundant SaaS platforms will suffer.

As of 2019, over 90% of Fortune 100 companies were using Microsoft Teams, and even more are using the Office suite more generally. Their ubiquity is for good reason, and with a strong focus on cloud integration, adding features based on customer input, integrated productivity apps, and a massive marketing budget, it’s extremely likely that Microsoft will continue to be the dominant platform for digital internal communications.

If you’re already using the Microsoft Suite, it’s worthwhile to stay informed about new feature releases. As its functionality grows, the platform may make some of your existing SaaS investments obsolete, allowing you to cut costs while reaping the benefits of integrated platforms. For example, Teams is perfectly capable of replacing Slack, and SharePoint’s communications capabilities are making many “intranet-in-a-box” services unnecessary.

Both tools enable robust remote collaboration in a way that email simply can’t. It’s also a good idea to evaluate Microsoft platforms like Yammer and gauge if it makes sense to adopt them in lieu of the disparate tools you may currently be using.

The strength of the Microsoft Suite is its integration and cross-compatibility, creating an exponential value effect while collapsing cost and complexity, both for users and from a licensing perspective.

#3 – As AI-enhanced data-processing improves and organizations gain more data about employee behavior, communications will become much more targeted and rapidly-adaptable. This means content that’s more effective but more resource-intensive to generate.

Everyone has a story like this: you’re chatting with friends or colleagues and start asking people about what speakers (or new car, or shoes, or phone) you should buy. The next day, you see ads for the product you were discussing on Amazon, on social media, and promoted in your Google searches. Creepy.

There are also events like the Cambridge Analytica microtargeting scandal and even the famous story about the Target algorithm that predicted a customer was pregnant, mailing diaper and formula coupons to the home she still shared with her dad (who didn’t know). Really creepy.

But there’s a bias at play here: these are examples of targeting gone awry. There aren’t articles written about all the situations where targeting works, delivering content that’s perfect for its audience, or intelligently recommending products that people need. Anyone who has stumbled upon an incredible new show on Netflix because of the company’s best-in-class recommendation algorithm knows what a blessing this sort of targeting can be. The same is true at work.

It feels good to be spoken to as an individual. And AI-enhanced data analysis will make it easier to give each of your employees an individualized experience.

Some possibilities:

  • Communications delivered to employees at the times they tend to read them, improving read rates and helping keep inboxes clean.
  • Reducing noise by delivering messaging only to its target audience, roles, geographies, etc.
  • Sentiment analysis enabling businesses to understand the tone of the workplace, level of morale and engagement, and flag potentially toxic conversations for community managers.
  • Analyzing patterns of engagement to create the specific content that audiences are interested in and responsive to.
  • The ability to tailor messages for individual employees’ level of data fluency, extraversion, tenure, and more.
  • AI that detects incorrect information (outdated brand standards) or behavioral patterns (putting a file in the wrong place) and serves content to change perception and shape behavior.

What underpins all these applications is the ability to get more accurate information about what actually works. There’s a famous quote that reads, “Half of the money we spend on advertising is wasted. The problem is that we don’t know which half.” Many people feel the same way about internal communications. But big data and tools like sentiment analysis are the key to learning – often in real time – which communications are actually driving engagement and what employees are actually feeling.

This is obviously great news for communicators. But it’s important to note that in the near term, the potential for more relevant, targeted content carries the burden of increased work for communicators, creatives, and other contributors. Until very recently, audience segmentation for internal audiences was simple – usually based on some combination of seniority and department. But with deeper targeting and segmentation being unlocked by big data, more audiences means a larger requirement for unique content to serve those audiences.

This can be an opportunity. Consider investing in dedicated content roles, such as an “internal journalist” who tells the stories of your people, business and industry. They can conduct interviews with leaders and project teams, compile learnings and best practices, and use communications to close the distance between employees across the broader organization, creating a feeling of connectedness. Like in the world outside, amazing stories don’t show up at your door and knock loudly; they need to be discovered. It’s never been a better time to introduce this role to your organization.

Leaders should keep these factors and opportunities in mind when looking to reap the rewards of higher-efficacy communications. The return on this investment will be well worth it.

#4 – Advances in bandwidth (5G), the reduction of storage costs, and viable cloud solutions will make video a much larger part of your content plan.

It doesn’t take oracle-level predictive skills to notice that video is growing as a channel and will continue to do so. But there’s a more nuanced shift occurring in the world of video that’s important to keep in mind: it’s moving from being one-directional to conversational.

Storage has never been cheaper, bandwidth never more powerful, and phone cameras never more advanced. This combination means that anyone can contribute high-quality video anywhere, anytime, to any discussion. Cultural factors like the proliferation of Snapchat, Facebook Live, and TikTok have primed many employees to think in this way, with GenZ leading the charge – perfectly comfortable with emojis, memes, and video. And cloud solutions like Microsoft Stream can serve as the organizational hub for your company’s expanding video library.

For your next virtual event, or even as a cultural bonding exercise, consider featuring user-submitted video content. For example, if you’re launching a new strategy, having employees take a short video of themselves expressing their support and excitement, and bringing hundreds of these into a compilation can create a feeling of shared commitment and strong retention and sustainment.

#5 – Rising audience expectations around content consumption, convenience, and usability will increase the effort it takes to develop effective communications, but it’s a solid investment in employee experience.

This prediction underpins all others. Why should a business leader care about proliferating user contexts, using the dominant platform, and more rich, targeted content informed by data?

Because it’s what your audience is growing to expect, and that feeds directly into employee experience.

For a long time, there’s been a massive gulf between the quality of the content people consumed in the workplace compared with what they enjoyed outside work. That gulf still exists but is now proving to be a real liability – especially in an increasingly remote working world.

If an employee is disengaged from the content being designed for them, they will simply check their phones, close the browser or app, or move on to something more pressing. Content needs to be more engaging, personalized, and salient.

There are a few ways to combat this. First, and perhaps most importantly, elevate the level of content you deliver. Developing a podcast for employees to listen to on-the-go is a great idea, but only if it survives the comparison with other podcasts they enjoy. Stiff script-reading and minimal audio production simply won’t cut it today. However, don’t let this rule stop you from using employee-generated content. As social creatures, we have an innate desire to see each other’s faces, hear each other’s voices, and learn about each other. When it comes to content from their peers, employees don’t compare it to the best shows they watch or the best podcasts they listen to; they compare it to the content they see on Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat. This is a lever you should find yourself increasingly willing to pull in the name of engagement.

Next, ensure you serve content to the channels your team is already using. This means fewer emails and more direct delivery through the channels in their existing workflow, such as Teams, Slack or other collaborative platforms in your digital workplace.

Use analytics to measure what works and what doesn’t and adapt accordingly. Get experimental with content and use A-B testing. And finally, commit to elevating employee experience by improving the quality of internal channels and tools – not just content. At one point or another, everyone has seen business tools that look and feel like they were built on the DOS platforms of the 80s. It’s challenging.

Updating the backend software you use may not always be possible. But wherever you can, update the frontend so it looks and behaves like the consumer apps your audience is accustomed to. 

While the future is uncertain, the five trends described above are shaping it. Leading organizations will understand them and prepare themselves accordingly.