Strategy
WHERE IC PROFESSIONALS COME TO TALK

EVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE: HOW TO CARRY OUT A COMMS CHANNEL AUDIT

The measure of a good channel mix is whether employees know where to go to get the information they need. A thorough channel audit will tell you the content colleagues want to consume – and which formats should be shelved.

WORDS: ADAM GALE

12th January 2022

Most people just don’t appreciate a well-crafted email – the care and cleverness that go into giving a piece of content impact. Outside of the communication business, they are probably also unfamiliar with the feeling you get when your labour of love – and this could be the Sistine Chapel of newsletters – gets consigned to the trash without so much of a read, let alone a reply.

Yet they probably have a better idea than you do of why they didn’t read it, which – if it makes you feel any better – may not be because they think your work’s garbage. They could just be sick of emails. They could have already seen the message you sent on the company social network or heard all about it from Chris in accounting. Maybe they prefer to hear or watch it rather than read it.

This, of course, is why internal communicators have channel strategies as well as content strategies, to make sure as many people as possible get the messages the business wants them to receive.

As Chloë Marsh, head of communications and engagement at housing association RHP says, you can’t see content and channels entirely in isolation, but it is important to examine them independently sometimes, to find out what’s working and what’s not.

“You could have the right channel for what you want to achieve, but you’re putting the wrong content in it. The level of engagement would be low, but it’s not the channel’s fault – it’s how you’re using it.”

Channel audits are systematic evaluations of who’s accessing what channels, when, how and why. IC teams usually conduct them following some major organisational change, whether that’s restructuring, rapid growth or indeed the advent of hybrid working. Sometimes it’s just because employees and technologies have moved on and the old strategy needs a refresh. In all cases, it can lead to powerful insights that can make internal communication more effective – if it’s done well.


Defining the brief

The purpose of channel audits is to help you decide which channels to use and how to use them well, so that the right people get the right messages, in the right way, at the right times. To be successful, you need to understand why you’re talking to employees in the first place.

“The starting point of any channel audit is to go back to the business objectives and to think how IC can be a strategic enabler of that,” says Jon Bates, internal communications manager at RVU, a group of online product and price comparison brands formed in 2018. Jon is conducting the group’s first ever channel audit right now.

Jon has identified three pillars for IC’s role to examine in the channel audit: knowledge (how well you are disseminating information), connection (how well you are supporting leaders to be visible and enabling culture within the business), and activation (how far your channels are enabling other departments to achieve their objectives, for example giving access to key training or tools in the business).

Once you understand what you’re trying to achieve with your channel strategy, you can define your brief. Thecla Schreuders, an engagement strategist who frequently conducts comms and channel audits for IC clients, suggests having no more than two or three central questions that the audit is designed to answer. It shouldn’t just be a show and tell of data.

“There’s a difference between doing an audit and generating a report, which is just the data on how we’re doing this month or this year,” says Thecla. “This is to review what’s working and what’s not, so you can act on it.”

To keep it focused and aligned to organisational objectives, Chloë recommends involving key stakeholders like HR, learning and development, IT and the senior leadership team right from the start. This is to help you understand how you can support their priorities, but also because sometimes they will own or jointly own certain channels, which means a joined-up comms strategy can hardly exclude them. And, she adds, involving stakeholders early is crucial for getting buy-in later.

“It means when you do roll something out after the audit, you can say, ‘You told us this was a problem for you, and this is what we’re doing as a result’, and hopefully get a head start with engagement.”  


Gathering your data

Once you have your questions, it’s time to seek out data on channel performance.

For digital channels this can seem straightforward. Most email marketing platforms will show email open and click rates. Google Analytics can usually measure views and time on page for browser-accessed intranets, while enterprise social networks like Jabber give engagement rates (comments, likes, etc) as well as views.

However, it’s important to think carefully about your choice of metrics and what exactly they’re telling you, says Zaheed Bardai, a Canada-based communications strategist and veteran of channel audits for multinational corporations and universities.

“You could use email views to represent engagement, but if I have my Outlook set to preview, then an email will show up as read, even if I haven’t looked at it. It’s not an accurate measure.”

For true engagement, Zaheed prefers metrics around users’ contributions. This can include comments, shares or responses to calls to action, which he suggests adding to communications whenever possible.

Think about segmenting your audience as well. How will you capture different behaviours among different groups? You could segment by role, function, age, location, seniority or personas – such as frontline, executive, middle management or knowledge worker – that make sense in your organisational context.

“There are lots of nuances to be aware of in your staff,” reflects Zaheed. “A company I once worked for was based in Saskatchewan, an English-speaking province, but we had offices in Sao Paulo, Shanghai, Tokyo and Singapore, so are you reaching people in the best language for them? If it’s a video, what are you doing for visually impaired employees?

Diversity and inclusion is an important component to consider in your internal channel audits.”

Then you will need external data to benchmark your results against. What is a good level of engagement for posts or emails? How do you find that out?

Jon says that there are consumer-grade analytics platforms out there if you have the budget, but suggests starting by asking around the internal comms community: “You’ve got to bear in mind your specific context, but we are one of the most supportive professions going, and there are lots of internal comms groups on platforms like LinkedIn for continuous learning.

“When I’m doing a channel audit, I spend a lot of time talking with our wider community and also to vendors to see what they have to say. Sometimes you have to take them with a pinch of salt, but you get an idea of what good looks like in the market!”
 


Deriving insights

At this point, you’ve started noticing patterns. People don’t open newsletters on Fridays. Frontline staff never access the intranet. Plenty of senior staff signed up to the new mentoring scheme advertised on your kitchen posters, but few juniors.

Remember: correlation isn’t causation. It is misleading – possibly ultimately counterproductive – to assume you understand why you’re seeing these patterns.

“You always have to be cognisant of the context of the audience, the medium and the message,” says Zaheed.

Frontline staff may not be able to access smartphone-based comms during work hours. Engagement rates could be higher for intranet content than for email because you only use the latter for urgent or critical information. Employees in your overseas office may have poor attendance at virtual town halls because you’re holding it outside of office hours in their time zone. Many factors will be beyond IC’s control, but should not be beyond IC’s consideration.

In order to get to the why behind the what, Chloë recommends doing deep qualitative research after your initial data search, via surveys and focus groups. “We went to every single virtual team huddle. We got so much richness about what was driving behaviours and the feelings behind them,” she says. Questions asked where they get the information they need, and which channels they’d like to magically vanish or make appear.

“Yammer was both people’s favourite channel and the one they most wanted to make disappear,” continues Chloë. “What came out of the focus groups was actually that our intranet was very out of date. People had lost trust in it, and it was negatively affecting other channels. They were starting to use Yammer as a replacement intranet, storing and sharing documents for instance, but that’s not what it was designed to do. It doesn’t have good search functionality, and so people were missing things and getting frustrated.”

If you have a data specialist working with you on the audit, cut the insight into every which way you can, advises Thecla.

“Look at the data through the lens of different audiences. You might segment it by role type, geography, operational unit or age. You may see patterns emerging that you weren’t able to anticipate.

“Sometimes all sorts of other stuff emerges. Have a discussion in advance around the insights that you’re gathering that don’t neatly fall into the brief and what you should do with them.”


Preferences vs behaviour

While qualitative research can help you turn hard numbers into solid insights, it’s important to remember that what people say doesn’t always reflect what they do, Thecla adds.

“People might use channels without liking them, and they might like channels but never use them. They’ll say, ‘We hate how many emails we get.’ But what’s most effective for conveying a message to people? Emails. So it sheds a light on the difference between what people say and what the reality is.

“Also remember that a channel audit won’t tell you if people are acting on the message, unless there is something built into the channel which gives that information – for example, if they can interact on a social channel by liking or commenting, or click on a link in a call to action in an intranet story.”

The key, says Nicola Hearn, who conducted a channel audit during her time as head of internal comms for Lloyd’s Register, is to think carefully about your survey or focus group questions.

“Don’t necessarily ask about which channels they prefer, as they might come in with preconceived ideas,” says Nicola. “You could ask how they like to consume information, if they like longer features or bite-sized content, when they have spare time during the day, or where they go for things they absolutely need. It’s about probing behaviours and preferences.”


Strategic execution

You’ve done the research – so now what? The final, critical element of a channel audit is to act upon what you’ve uncovered.

It isn’t enough, says Nicola, to come away with an interesting observation.

“You’ve got to be willing to make a change,” she says. “There’s no point running an audit, coming out with an insight and then thinking, well, we don’t really have the budget to do that.”

Sometimes it will be straightforward. Your insights may enable channel optimisation –scheduling communications at smarter times, for example – or better channel management.

This could be as simple as keeping business-critical messages on email and lighter content on the intranet, or creating a new channel to reach an underserved employee group.

In such cases, the next step is to keep measuring what matters, with well-thought-through KPIs and regular follow-ups, so you can test, learn and optimise.

“You sometimes hear internal comms is behind the marketing world,” says Jon, “but I want to be as accountable as any marketer would be with their campaigns, constantly learning and optimising the content they produce. This is the standard I think we should be trying to match.”

Other times, the decisions you’ll need to make off the back of a channel audit are harder. Your team may be too small to hold regular live events – despite a clear employee preference emerging – so do you try convincing the business to give you extra support or do you sacrifice activities in other channels?


A cultural shift

You might also find that people aren’t using channels in the best way, as with Yammer at RHP. Do you prioritise the channels people are actually using, or do you attempt to impose strategic order? If the latter, be prepared for it to be difficult.

“Leaders need to recognise that change from a channel audit isn’t going to happen overnight, because you’re essentially talking about a cultural shift,” says Zaheed.

You may decide to get rid of an old, beloved channel – a lesser magazine, perhaps – or possibly several of them as a result of your audit. Zaheed points to an organisation where the number of channels had ballooned to 45. Many of these channels were no longer used effectively, if at all, but were still being maintained by company resources. It was a picture of chaos and inconsistency. Employees were still going to channels that had obsolete information, the IC team’s time was wasted on other channels that hardly anyone was accessing, and few colleagues knew where to find current information when it really mattered. All of this was ultimately preventing IC from doing the job the business and employees needed it to do.

In such cases, the end point of a channel audit really is in execution.

“I don’t know what the right number of channels is – it will depend on the shape, scope and size of your organisation,” concludes Zaheed. “But whatever is not necessary, don’t keep it open. If it’s not being used, retire it.”

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