What IC can learn from the experience economy

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Pixabay (Creative Commons)
Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Jessica Gow, senior communications adviser at Solent University, explores how experiences can give employers better relationships with their employees.

As consumer demand for valuable experiences heightens, what can internal comms professionals borrow from this? From volunteering and CSR activities to brand-awareness events, how can we use experiences to deliver corporate messages effectively? 

Over the last few years, studies (such as this one from Barclaycard) have shown that more and more of us are choosing to spend our money on “experiences”, rather than “things”.

Whether this is due to consumerism reaching its peak in the Western world, or our innate, continuous search for happiness, the “experience economy” is here, and demand for tangible, personalised and most of all, sharable experiences is intensifying.

Although identified recently as a key trend for 2017, the experience economy was marked for growth over 20 years ago in 1995, as former British Airways chairman Sir Colin Marshall stated that the airline went beyond the business of performing a function and competed “on the basis of providing an experience”.

Today, you can see examples of the experience economy across a wide variety of consumer-facing sectors – from cosmetics brand Benefit hiring out a cruise ship on the Thames for five months, offering fans yoga classes and beauty advice, as they launched a series of new products, to Tourism Western Australia giving Britain’s commuters VR headsets to get a taste of what it would be like to swim with whale sharks on Ningaloo Reef.

These kinds of experiences give brands a real-world presence, help to form and sustain relationships with consumers, encourage advocacy and generate press coverage at the same time. An article from a 1998 issue of the Harvard Business Review goes beyond the initial concept of offering consumer experiences, to suggest that these could also work within business-to-business settings for internal stakeholders.

Every good conversation starts with good listening

The more we know about this internal public, the better. How they feel about personal development; whether they’re happy in their roles; how they spend their lunchbreaks; their preferred charities; the people they look up to; and so on. This kind of understanding will not only help us to develop valuable experiences for employees, but can also provide a basis for making business decisions, including the development of personal review meetings and effective feedback programmes.

Listening can be used to monitor changes in attitude or behaviour as we roll out campaigns or raise new ideas. Experiences themselves can also be used to facilitate feedback and encourage two-way dialogue. They should form a context for conversations around the business, between individuals at all levels and across various departments.

They should open the floor for discussion of innovative suggestions, possible solutions to business challenges, and thinking beyond the boundaries in which the company usually operates.

These things can contribute to creating a competitive advantage by helping to develop a positive internal culture and improve the way we work, and experiences provide the perfect platform for both.

We all need a sense of purpose

In Gatehouse’s 2018 State of the Sector report, respondents working in internal comms selected “communicating strategy, values and purpose” as their most important priority, and ranked “employee engagement” as one of their top three activities.

Experiences can be tailored to internal audiences and offer employees the chance to feel the organisation’s purpose first hand, in an authentic way. From using video or live events to showcase the stories of people who have been helped by an organisation, to offering employees in office-based roles the chance to speak directly to customers, building belief in a company’s purpose doesn’t have to be expensive or require a complete change of direction.

One example of an experience that reinforces a sense of purpose comes from the Body Shop, which allocates staff five paid volunteering days each year. Although this arguably can be perceived as an employee benefit, it also helps individuals to connect with the causes the company supports on an emotional level, building belief in a sense of purpose organically.

After all, as Maya Angelou famously stated: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Allowing employees to experience the purpose of an organisation as a group improves morale, performance, and fosters satisfaction and resilience, as well as engagement. This is even more crucial when you consider that disengaged employees not only impact productivity, but can also have a detrimental effect on customer satisfaction and profitability.

You can never have enough social capital

In her 2015 TED talk, Margaret Heffernan introduces social capital as “the reliance and interdependency that builds trust” and links it to an increase in both company profit and employee satisfaction. It’s also been suggested that social capital helps to build better co-operation, collaboration and co-creation – all key qualities for cultivating a competitive advantage in today’s turbulent marketplace.

So how can we, as internal comms professionals, look to assist with the creation of social capital in our own organisations? According to social capital maven Robert Putnam, the best way is through shared experiences, as outlined in his ground-breaking book, Bowling Alone.

Offering employees the chance to connect with one another when they’re away from their desks increases the likelihood of collaboration and innovative thinking.  Whether this is through the implementation of shared coffee breaks, use of an on-site swimming pool or sports club, or regular company retreats, socialising without everyday pressures can catalyse the creation of social capital.

Laszlo Bock, former senior vice president of people operations at Google, explains why the company provides employees with cafes and micro-kitchens offering free food located between different departments.

“At minimum, they might have a great conversation,” he says. “And maybe they’ll hit on an idea for our users that hasn’t been thought of yet.”

It may be argued that the creation of opportunities for social capital should come from human resources teams. However, internal comms professionals possess many of the key skills that can be used to design situations to build social capital, including active listening, creativity and relationship management. Coupled with human resources’ knowledge of employee satisfaction and behaviour, these can form the perfect partnership for creating personalised experiences that engage employees and communicate the organisation’s purpose and key messages at the same time.

Employee advocacy and something to share

In Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer, 47 per cent of respondents stated that they believe employees to be very/extremely credible sources of information about a company – in fact, they rate higher for credibility than CEOs, directors and journalists.

Having employees on side means growth in job satisfaction, commitment, and company reputation. A study by CISCO in 2015 even found that employees’ social media posts generate eight times more engagement than posts from an official company account.

If employees are really engaged with their organisation, they are much more likely to voluntarily speak out about it online or face to face with others. It’s easy to see how creating valuable, engaging experiences for employees helps to drive advocacy. But the trick here is to think about how that advocacy can be harnessed and shared externally.

As the amount of time we spend online increases, creating experiences for employees that are optimised for sharing is imperative. When given the opportunity to take photos, use hashtags, feature in videos, or air opinions, employees can create content to fuel their next social interaction, be it on or offline.

However, to create honest and authentic advocates, the brand that is portrayed to consumers should be the same brand that employees themselves are living. This means that companies need to focus on the value they are offering their employees before expecting them to promote the business.

A great example of this is IBM’s Redbooks Thought Leadership Program. Employees can take part in a residency to learn how to improve their blogging and social media skills and, in doing so, commit to writing a thought leadership blog on a topic they specialise in. Both IBM and its staff receive something of value, and employees act as advocates by producing quality content that is shareable and reflects positively on the organisation.

Creating mutually valuable interactions

Creating experiences for employees goes beyond the traditional methods we’re used to seeing within our workplaces – posters, web pages, screen savers and handbooks – to involvement in a memorable interaction that offers value to both parties. It should be unique, spontaneous and immersive, as well as provide a chance for people to socialise.

However, adopting an experiential approach shouldn’t be rushed, and needn’t be expensive.

Meaningful employee experiences can come from small changes – for example, providing staff with a chance to network over refreshments before a senior leadership briefing, or asking individuals to participate in creating a video to promote a message to the rest of the company.

Even something as simple as running an external campaign internally before it is launched can provide a noteworthy experience for employees and offers teams a chance for a test run before a public launch.

Although collaboration with human resources teams is a good idea, internal comms professionals should assume responsibility for creating employee experiences that drive conversations, leverage advocacy, and make individuals feel valued, as well as deliver key messages.

As the media landscape continues to evolve and the lines between internal and external audiences become even more blurred, we must strive to offer employees an experience that helps them to achieve their goals, improves their wellbeing, and gives them a reason to stay.

Great experiences enhance reputation and support recruitment, employee engagement, satisfaction and retention. When it comes to effectively engaging internal audiences, there is much that internal comms professionals can learn from the rise of the experience economy, and a plethora of opportunities stemming from this that are just waiting to be grasped.

This article was first published on IOIC Voice.