It’s hard for employees to engage with giving and volunteering programs…when they don’t even know they exist. Which is why an effective communications strategy is critical.
As the person charged with engagement in these programs, your first challenge is to simply to cut through the clutter to get your employees’ attention. From there, you need to keep their attention long enough to pique their interest and then make it easy for them to take an action (click on a link, fill out a form). Objectively it’s a simple equation, but as you probably know, it’s far from easy.
In this RealTalk webinar, we break down six principles to keep in mind as you formulate your employee engagement communications approach this year. We’ve summarized the highlights from our discussion below (but be sure to watch for a few extra insights!).
While your Comms person will support you in executing this approach, you need to be the one to clearly define the strategy and have a vision for what will get you to your ultimate goals. So, let’s dive in!
Principle #1: Stick with one clear and consistent message
First of all, to have a clear message, you have to know your objective – or at least why you exist. Your initial impulse may be to do all the things, but having a clear objective in engaging employees will help focus your messaging. This RealTalk on goal setting is a great resource if you’re in need of some guidance here!
To make progress this year, you’ll need to focus your efforts on one (or maybe two) primary objective(s). Do you want to:
- Engage the largest number of employees?
- Encourage deeper engagement in your giving or volunteering programs?
- Reach employees who have never been involved in your programs before?
- Increase the number of employees who log their volunteer hours?
In the few chances most companies have to grab the attention of their employees, their message is often disparate and unfocused. One important hint here is to choose NOT to include everything they need to know in that one message. Every message is about helping people take ONE specific action – and doing so with a tone, image, and voice that is consistent with your program brand and objectives.
Principle #2: Manufacture Urgency
Clear and consistent messages will be dismissed if they’re not either serving a felt need or helping us avoid a threat – threats or benefits are the signals human brains notice. Essentially, this is about a sense of urgency – a need to act now. However, we don’t recommend threatening people into participating in your program – and we don’t recommend trying to convince people to join because of the benefits they’ll receive – at least not directly. So, what do we mean?
People notice a threat, which is why the opportunity to volunteer for disaster relief – like the Turkey earthquakes – or donate to a recent war effort – like helping the victims of Russia’s violence against Ukraine – is so appealing to us. It’s not that we’re less compassionate towards ongoing situations where people are in pain or in need; it’s that the recency of this one re-presents an existing threat to us. The pain we feel when we observe the pain of others rises up again and we want to intervene. That’s also why people will only respond to the urgency of this threat for a relatively short period of time. When we can’t intervene to stop the pain, we eventually look away. If you’ve heard us talk about the neuroscience that guides our work you may be familiar with the framework – Alert, Orient, Act [06:00] – that explains why and how this actually works (and if you’re a Social REV member, there’s a whole course available for you to learn more!).
Similarly to threats, we notice potential benefits, but only when it’s new or urgent. This is why it’s useful to manufacture a timeframe for a benefit (like a temporary 2:1 match for giving programs) and why it’s so important to know your audience and appeal to existing values (Principles #3 and #4).
Principle #3: Know Your Audience
If you’re developing a new program opportunity, you probably want to do some research to understand your audience. If you’re considering this for the first time or in a new way, let’s assume you want to reach a broad group of employees, which are mostly going to be first-time volunteers. What’s important to a first-time volunteer at your company – what are their interests? Their schedules? Their pains? Their gains?
Your first instinct may be to send out a survey, which could work if you allow for comments and after-survey interviews or focus groups. The problem with surveys is that people tell you what they think you want to hear – and worse – you may choose to do exactly what they say. When you ask employees what causes are important to them, the question you’re really trying to answer is, “What motivates you? What causes you pain? What defines success?” If you know this, you can adjust the messaging around existing opportunities to appeal to those values – rather than getting distracted by the idea that you need to build something new.
Some questions to figure this out might be:
- What issues do you find yourself reading about in the news, watching on TV?
- Related to the areas / causes that you care about – what’s one thing that you wish you knew more about?
- What do you find fun to do on the weekend? Hiking? Time with friends? Time alone?
- When it comes to time constraints, what do you find is the consistent barrier to doing some of the things you’ve just mentioned? Kids? Other obligations?
- What are the things that usually make something ‘worthwhile’ when out with your friends?
- When it comes to getting to know your colleagues better – what are two things that could help?
Find survey templates with recommended format and question logic on Social REV.
Principle #4: Appeal to Existing Values
For pro-social behavior to produce the internal and external results we want, it has to be fully voluntary (so if participation is required that’s your first thing to fix). But, when people don’t have to do something, why do they do it? Well, because they want to! Something about doing that thing gets them something they want.
When it comes to our Social Impact programs, people may not want to show up on a Saturday to volunteer with their colleagues – but we can motivate them to show up by giving them something they do want – like a deep, personal connection with colleagues, an opportunity to work side by side with executives they never meet, a chance to volunteer with their kids – but we can’t appeal to any of these things if we’re distracted by trying to use blanket incentives and good emails and rewards programs. Start with those life-affirming values, assess the benefits your program has to offer and bundle them together in what we call a value bundle! You want to package volunteering opportunities in familiar habits that reinforce employees’ existing identity and priorities.
Some common themes to leverage in value bundling are:
- Team building
- Professional/skills development
- Networking with cross-functional departments
- Face time with leaders
Principle #5: Extend Human Relationships – Don’t Replace Them
Once you’ve crafted a series of messages that are likely to appeal to existing priorities and identities of your target audience, the next step is to work with your Comms team to figure out which channels will help you reach that audience.
We recently completed a benchmarking survey at RW, and we learned that the five channels most often used to effectively engage employees are:
- General, enterprise-wide communication channels (e.g., Teams, Yammer, Intranet)
- Workplace Giving Software (e.g., Benevity or similar)
- Employee Resource Groups
- Promotion through internal committees/networks (e.g., CSR Committee, Volunteer Network, etc.)
- Executive sponsor communications (e.g., video, email from Exec. etc.)
Consider holding a comms-specific webinar or meeting series with your program ambassadors or champions. Determine which channels make sense for your audience – not all of them will – and agree on a regular schedule of using these platforms. Talk about your clear and consistent message. Share the communications plan. Put tools in their hands and explain how none of it will work without them.
One thing we can’t stress enough here is that your communications channels (digital and electronic ones in particular) are support systems. They extend your core communication channel – human beings. If the human channel is blocked, nonexistent or overwhelmed, none of your support communications will work. This group, more than anyone else, must be able to articulate the message and the purpose of it. Stay closely connected with them and support them as they talk about the program everywhere in a shared narrative, focused on appealing to existing values.
Principle #6: Tell Stories
If you’ve been doing this work for any amount of time, you’re no stranger to this principle. We’ve all asked for stories, we’ve encouraged blog writing, sharing online, using hashtags – and it works…sometimes or for a period of time with a small group.
If you’re feeling discouraged about your story-telling efforts, consider making small tweaks in the types of questions you ask your employees. For example, one of our clients is deeply committed to the training employees complete in order to become a certified Volunteer Champion. While going through the training, employees are asked, “Have you ever developed empathy through volunteering?”. From this one question, we received story after story of life-changing volunteer experiences, many of which took place with the company. The best answers rarely come from direct questions. They come from better questions – questions about perspective transformation and why people volunteer in the first place and who invited them for the first time and whether or not volunteering has anything to do with empathy.
And when you hear great stories, don’t forget to share them! We recommend following Deirdre O’Brien on Instagram (@deirdre.at.apple). Read her posts and notice the personal nature of them and the frequency – that’s how you tell stories. Designate one person on your team to be like Deirdre. Find out where something’s happening, take a picture, celebrate an individual. Post it everywhere. Do it often. These are the kind of stories that mean something to people!
A Few More Tips for Effective Communications
Beyond these 6 principles, there are a few other things you might want to keep in mind as you tweak and perfect your communications strategies this year:
- Focus, tweak and repeat, repeat, repeat. Research suggests leaders tend to under communicate their vision by a factor of 10. You are the leader, here, and this is your vision. So, repeat your message and encourage your team members and volunteer leaders to do the same. And stick with it!
- Pay close attention to which messages and channels are performing the best along the way and be ready to tweak your message or channel in response. Don’t forget to track your progress on a regular basis and keep your team updated on the forward movement you’re making. Together you can brainstorm ways to iterate and improve along the way.
- Perfect those emails…
- Put the point up front
- Use active voice and personal pronouns
- Write short, simple sentences
- Avoid jargon
- Use everyday words
- Harness your people…
- Ask team leads to read a list of local volunteer opportunities at the top of each weekly meeting
- Have volunteer leaders add an email signature “advertising” their next upcoming volunteer opportunity
- Connect with HR to offer to provide information for new employees on volunteer opportunities to be presented during onboarding
- Consider leveraging RW Institute’s Nudge the Good initiative. The companies involved with Nudge the Good are actually testing nudges – from executive involvement to the subject lines used in emails – to find out exactly what works!
Implementing and living into these 6 principles is no easy task, so take what you can today. Tackle them one at a time and come back when you’re ready for the next one. If you want a load off your plate (or just a little extra insight), consider joining Social REV – half the work is already done for you with ready-to-use tools, templates, frameworks and more (including a Value Bundling exercise to help you perfect your messaging and appeals!). We can’t wait to hear and share your stories this year!