UncategorizedThe cost of employee attention



Creating effective and efficient communications for employees demands that we consider the cost to produce the media and the cost for it to be consumed by the workforce.

In his essay The Audience Commodity and its Work, Dallas Walker-Smythe concluded that the “free lunch” of network television programming isn’t free at all. The audience “pays” for the programs they watch with their attention to advertisements, forming opinions about products that drive future sales. The labour is the cognitive effort of focus, evaluation, emotional response, and judgement. This exertion by the audience creates value for the company that paid for the ad and the entertainment programming that attracted the viewers in the first place.

Today we think more about brands existing between the consumers and the organization. So, in contemporary terms: it is a collaborative project between the audience and the marketing department to negotiate a brand perception.

In an age of constant distraction, winning attention requires investment that is in-line with the value to the organization. By investing in entertainment media and advertising media, the Marketing department is sowing seeds of attention-grabbing content that they will harvest as brand awareness and perceptions.

Communication is about attention

Whether it is Marketing targeted at customers, Public Relations engaging the broader public, or Internal Communications connecting with employees, successful communication is only accomplished when the communicator engages the attention of their audience.

Now, Marketing is given largest budgets by far, followed by PR, with Internal Communications a distant third. Marketing has grown to be a power center in many organizations and the investment is justified because of the ROI: it instils market awareness and desire for the product – a specific demand – not just for the product category, but for a distinct brand experience. Starbucks marketing doesn’t manufacture demand for coffee, it manufactures demand for the emotional experience delivered by Starbucks that they alone can satisfy.

Marketing gets those big budgets because the cost to aggregate that particular audience with a piece of entertainment media and keep them engaged to also consume the advertisement is understood as the path to creating brand awareness. While it wasn’t always the case, it is now just the cost of doing business, and a rough guideline is for consumer brand companies to spend 10% of gross revenues on Marketing and PR combined.

And it creates real value for companies. Apple’s brand alone is estimated to be worth $260B. That’s an estimate based on what all those brand perceptions add up to in terms of the customer behaviours they motivate. Done well, Marketing’s ability to cultivate attention is serious business and a worthwhile investment.

Investing in brand damage

Contrast this once more with Internal Communications. In the ways many companies handle their touchpoints with employees, they are creating the conditions for damage to their brands. Marketing dollars are used to raise customer expectations but under-investment in employee communication sets the frontline up to fail them. This is arguably worse than doing no marketing at all.

To get strategically aligned action from the workforce requires effective communication. We need our employee audience to focus their attention, meaning that they process the message and determine what to do next.

Success in any organizational initiative is effective only when those who do the work:

  1. Are aware that there is something they need to prioritize
  2. Understand why it is a priority and how it works for the customer and the business
  3. Have line-of-sight to the specific actions required of them, and
  4. Are rationally and emotionally committed to undertaking that action

The costs of employee attention

Earlier we noted that 10% of revenues is the estimated cost of winning external attention and includes the media production and placement expenses. How do we calculate the cost of harnessing employee attention? It is the full cost of the communications that capture their attention and are effective at motivating the employee to take the desired action.

Unlike the Marketing example above where the audience is investing their discretionary time, the employee audience is on the clock. But their attention still needs to be earned – it is a scarce resource and there are dozens of things competing for it. You are paying for the minutes they spend, whether or not they give your communications their focus.

To calculate the full cost of employee communication, it is key to recognize that the organization incurs both the cost of production of the media and the cost of consumption by the audience.

The cost of consumption is rarely considered in assessing the true cost of employee communication. It is substantial. Every member of the workforce not giving it their attention will be ineffective; every extra minute spent consuming communication comes from the total time available to focus on the customer, thereby reducing overall efficiency.

There it is. Employee communication is an organizational discipline like any other and must get the desired outcome from efforts (effective) with optimal use of resources (efficient).


The most expensive communication is one that fails to get the right response. Employee communicators must understand the business objectives and the internal audiences; design audience engagement strategies; and create and sequence tactics that enable them.

There is so much more that most organizations could be doing to communicate strategically with employees in a way that will improve their use of employee attention.

The typical approach is to find the least expensive tactics. Often someone decides to “just send an email.”

What results is long, dense, and tone-deaf, with two attachments, and lands in an inbox cluttered with dozens of other emails with more relevance or greater urgency. We’ve already failed at being effective. We know how often we ourselves open those kinds of emails, let alone give them our full attention and diligently act upon them.


But were they even efficient? The cost of production was the time it took to write the email; let’s say that was an hour, with another hour of proofreading and getting a second set of eyes to look it over. Two hours at $100/hr. So $200.

This misses the largest part of the equation: the time to consume.

Call this an audience of 25,000 employees. Let’s say half of them give this email their nominal attention: those 12,500 that open and read it take ten minutes to get through it. That’s 12,500 x 10 mins = 125,000 minutes; over 2,000 hours, or the equivalent of one full-time employee.

More than this, those ten minutes were time spent not serving customers which incurs an opportunity cost. That single, $200 email effectively took away one worker for the whole year. And, at best, it only half-worked. Then there was the follow-up email because the first didn’t get the result, and the second follow-up. We’ve all seen how this goes.



Tactics that cost more to produce but which reduce the cost of consumption by employees are more efficient and deliver greater value.



Strategic communication uses the most effective and efficient tactic

Another tactic or set of tactics that may cost more up-front, but which creates higher levels of buy-in and action with lower over-all costs of consumption delivers greater value. This requires that we be strategic about employee communications. We must understand our audiences, their motivations, and their frames of mind. We need to know the channels they follow, the tactics they will engage with, and the times of day where they can give their attention to our communications.

Engaging employees with communications is essential for far more than ensuring the customer experience. Every aspect of work is accomplished by employees. Operational excellence, break-through innovation, crisis recovery, mergers, acquisitions, technology rollouts, performance management – we need the attention of the workforce to do them all.

The business imperative is clear. Planning for communications that make effective and efficient use of employee attention is something leaders can’t afford to ignore.