The United States Air Force had a big problem in the middle of the 20th century, Todd Rose explains in his book, The End of Average. An alarming number of pilots were crashing their planes on a daily basis. Because the planes rarely malfunctioned, the top brass assumed pilot error was to blame. The pilots insisted their flying was not at fault. So what was going on?
The baffling mystery was solved when investigators turned their attention to the cockpit, which had been designed to accommodate the average-size pilot in 1926. Perhaps pilots had grown larger in the three decades since, they theorized. The Air Force then commissioned the largest-ever study on the subject and measured more than 4,000 pilots to come up with a new average to design the cockpit around. One researcher, however, was not convinced that updating the average was the solution, so he compared each pilot’s measurement with the average and found that exactly zero pilots fit the average. Zero.
When the Air Force got this news, they created a new mandate: Cockpits must be designed for the individual, not the average. Airplane manufacturers were forced to comply and rather quickly came up with the concept of adjustable equipment—foot pedals could be moved up and down, seats adjusted, and so on. Once these adjustments were implemented, pilot performance soared.
Think of your employees as individuals instead of averages
How many times have you spoken about your employees in generalities? “Our average age is 42,” or “Our average income is $72,000 a year.” What do those generalities tell you about Paul in accounting’s current sources of stress, or which programs he might be open to or need?
Not much, if anything at all.
While collecting traditional demographical information such as gender, age, and income can help you gain a general understanding of your employees, it can also have the same limitations that the Air Force ran into: One size most definitely does not fit all.
Gain greater insight into employees’ hopes, wishes, and dreams
To learn more about your employees as individuals, start by asking the questions that matter. What tells you more about Americans—that the average age is 38, or that nearly 9 out of 10 adults have trouble using health information to make informed decisions about their health? You’ll gain greater insight into what drives your people when you view them as individuals and focus your information-gathering activities accordingly, which you can do in a few ways:
- Focus groups: Interviewing a cross sectional representation of your employees often yields amazing insights. The most honest information is usually gathered in a one-on-one interview setting, especially when the topics are sensitive, like concerns new mothers in the office may have, or what keeps people up at night.
- Surveys: Quick to develop and deploy, surveys are great for capturing very specific information about a large number of people—especially when you use branching logic. Branching logic allows employees to go down a very specific line of questioning based on their answers to the prior questions, so you can get more detailed insights. Additionally, surveys provide individuals with the option to self-select more sensitive demographic data about themselves before launching into the survey (e.g., “What is your income?” or “Do you have dependents?”). You can then correlate these answers with those from the survey, while maintaining anonymity, for a more detailed understanding of your employees.
- Predictive analytics: This emerging field can help you reach employees on the things that matter to them, like health goals and financial wellness. What’s more, the industry is becoming increasingly savvy as it starts to bring consumer data into the mix to provide even more targeted recommendations and detailed insights.
Use the power of the persona to reach your employees where they are
The shift from focusing on averages to focusing on individuals helps explain why personas are such a powerful tool in employee communications strategy. Personas help you gain insight into who someone is, what motivates them, and how best to reach them. Consider personas living, breathing humans with the same desires and challenges you have. We understand that for organizations with thousands of employees, it’s not practical to expect to get to know each and every employee personally. But you can start to build messages that better resonate with more of your population by using personas—key characteristics that inform the message you create for a defined population of employees.
Connect personas to your strategy—we recommend creating three to five that represent categories employees naturally fall into. What defines the personas will become more apparent when you look at the information you collect about employees, including their titles and key details about their roles, their demographics, their goals and challenges, their values, and their fears.
When you have a persona, you’re no longer looking at a 34-year-old male who makes the average company income of $65,000. You’re looking at Sean, who is recently married and covers his new wife on his health plan. He has some student debt, so he’s balancing paying that off while also saving for a home. He’s interested in programs that can support those needs. See the difference? Who is easier to connect to and gear communications toward?
Personalize your communications
There are several easy ways to gear your communication to the individual while maintaining the scalability that is necessary in a large organization:
- Targeted messaging. This is when you create a campaign specifically to speak to a slice of your employees who need to take a specific action. You’ll send the communications you create just to those employees, rather than your entire population.
- Pseudo personalization. This is pretty simple to achieve with data—just add someone’s name to your piece. Because it has his or her name on it, the recipient is more likely to open it and read it.
- Versioning. Create multiple versions of a communication so you can focus people’s attention on the information that is most meaningful to them—and avoid having them wade through information that isn’t. A common example of this is versioning open enrollment campaigns by medical plan enrollment.
- Personalized calculations with static or variable messaging. Using data sources like age, salary, or participation in health plans and 401(k) plans allows you to create highly personal pieces. For example, you could have a general piece on saving for retirement, and then personalize it with someone’s current balance. To take it a step further, you can even have different messaging based on 401(k) balance, depending on your strategy. All of this can be achieved with data you have on hand, but it requires that you have quality assurance measures in place to ensure accuracy.
You may not be the Air Force, but you’re still building rocket ships
As you continue to push your business forward, remember the importance of communication in supporting your goals. We encourage you to look at your communications through the lens of the individual to really take them to the next level. Let us know if we can help.