More than just Gen Z: upping multigenerational… | Gagen MacDonald

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More than just Gen Z: upping multigenerational engagement with new-wave communication tools

Sep 12, 2023

The modern corporate communicator’s challenge

Today’s workforce is deeply multigenerational and diverse, with a wide range of needs, preferences and experiences employees are bringing to work. It’s also very short on time: as employees grapple with competing business priorities, relentless meetings, new technology and shifts to their working models, their attention spans are incredibly limited, especially for information they find irrelevant. TIME magazine found that the average person’s attention span lasts eight seconds — if you don’t hook them before that, you lose them. Engaging a large employee base is a more complex challenge than it’s ever been.

The best engagement work always starts from understanding the audience. This is especially true when engaging a diverse, multigenerational workforce. You need a strong, layered picture of people’s different needs to build communications that are tailored around what each person needs to know, as well as when and how they want to hear it. In my work with a Fortune 50 pharmaceutical client, however, I have also found something else. I’ve found that content made in a style we typically associate with today’s young people — bite-sized, do-it-yourself, social media-oriented material — works wonders for engaging the entire employee base. Done well, these communications can resonate with far more than just younger employees.

What we did

At Gagen, we’ve been working through an interesting merger with the pharmaceutical client. The client combined one of its small, relatively new subsidiaries — a company whose product is still in testing — with an established, high-earning therapeutic subsidiary. Months into the merger, our client was at a crossroads: after years of strong engagement as independent companies, engagement rates among the newly unified employee base were at unprecedented lows.

Collaborating closely with our client, we started the work to change this engagement by conducting an analysis of the organization’s demographics. Our findings revealed that nearly the entire employee base belonged to one of three generations — Generation Z, Millennials and Generation X (with a few Baby Boomers sprinkled in). Our first takeaway from these results was that we needed messages that spanned across mediums, to accommodate the wide ranges within our audience. By pushing the same announcement as a video, an email, a Viva Engage announcement and a town hall presentation, we realized we could give more people an intuitive entry point into the message.

This adjustment helped move the needle, but the major breakthrough came when it was time to launch the tagline for the newly merged organization. Weighing the data, we saw that email was being overused, Yammer engagement rates were plummeting and live meetings were almost impossible to schedule. Eager to try something fresh, we went with a concise, bite-sized, TikTok-style selfie video of the company president himself. It was not high budget — if anything, the video felt unusually DIY for the context — but it was casual, personable and organic. We shared it at a town hall, over email and on Yammer, to a lot of laughing reacts on each.

The video exceeded company benchmarks, but that was far from the full story: a month after its release, it had been viewed by a shocking 88 percent of employees in the organization. Employees frequently stopped the president and other featured executives in the office to tell them how much they enjoyed it. In the wake of the success, our client continues to incorporate videos of this kind into its internal communication strategy.

Why it worked

On a foundational level, our engagement efforts have worked well because we’ve operated from a strong understanding of the audience, and we’ve made sure all our materials are clear, concise and well-crafted.

But I think there are specific things that many businesses can learn from the ongoing success of our TikTok-style, new media-oriented communications.

The first is that it is a mistake to think that young people are the only modern consumers among your employees. This is far from the truth. The issue with short attention spans, for instance, is something often pinned to young people — but as the numbers show, it’s an all-age issue.

Similarly, for as much as you’ll hear about how Gen Z cares about authenticity and Gen Z likes modern forms of media, when you spend time with a multigenerational workforce, you quickly see that these truths and preferences apply to older generations too. Young people are not alone in having grown tired of over-polished, top-down, traditional communications. People of all ages are hungry for institutions that show up in more organic ways — especially for leaders who are fun, transparent and willing to lean into their messy humanity.

Advice for trying it

  1. Be Resourceful. When our clients think of videos, they often think of high-production costs and cat-herding. With the TikTok-style, smart phone-oriented videos we’re talking about, this approach is not just unnecessary — it can sometimes be counterproductive. Today, authentic, organic videos are more effective in many cases, and they can be produced for half the cost of a traditional video — if not significantly less.
  2. Be Patient. Not every bite-sized communications tactic will be as effective as you hope, especially when you’re early on in the strategy shift. Iteration may be required to make it work for your people. Resist the urge to pivot before you have an extended chance to try, fail and learn — the DIY, affordable nature of the videos should allow you to iterate without significant costs.
  3. Have fun. It can be challenging for leaders to let down their guard and let employees see their casual, more fun sides. But today’s employees want to feel authentic connections to their companies and leaders, and in the context of videos like these, being genuine and approachable is more important than appearing perfectly polished.
  4. Be Employee-Centric. Employees are our best metric. Whether or not they’re actively participating says a lot about how they’re feeling toward their job, company and future. The less you think about presenting a perfect image and the more you focus on truly resonating with employees, the more you will capture their hearts and minds.
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