Internal influencers: now actionable, no longer optional

Ever wonder why your internal communication isn’t getting any traction?  Or why your engagement scores are slipping despite your steady diet of snappy intranet articles and C-suiter videos?

Recent studies from Edelman, the American Press Institute, and Innovisor in Copenhagen identify a crucial and often-omitted factor: the peer influencer, or, as they are often called within organizations, “internal influencers.”

Influencers drive trust

Although corporations and other organizations have relied heavily on C-suite leaders as authoritative voices, a significant gap has opened in the extent to which people respond to senior leaders versus their own peers.  According to the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2017, peer credibility is above 60% across the board, while trust in CEOs averages below 38% across the 28 countries surveyed.

In a world where the sharing of articles is an increasingly pivotal internally as well as externally, a recent American Press Institute survey shows that peer credibility can be decisive in whether messages get noticed or believed.  Receiving an article from a trusted influencer drives positive attitudes towards messages, and higher degrees of engagement, than receiving from an unknown or less-well-trusted source.

Forget the 80-20 rule.  Think 3-90

Now, recognizing the value of peer influence does an organization little good if it can’t successfully harness, or indeed, influence it.  But the identification and mobilization of influencers is an emerging practice within internal communication and organizational change, and, when done properly, it’s relatively quick and cost-effective.  The most important thing to remember is that 3% of employees (the “key influencers”) drive organizational conversations with 90% of the other employees, according to Innovisor, the Copenhagen-based market leader in organizational network analysis and social mapping.

Finding the 3%

There are two main methodologies for finding the 3%.  My approach involves a small-scale survey approach involving a relatively small number of respondents, and engaging those who are most frequently identified as influential by their peers. (A similar approach was explained in this piece by McKinsey.)

A second, which Innovisor focuses on, performs a comprehensive social network analysis which not only identifies influencers but maps their connections across the entire enterprise, and produces a “real” organizational chart, one which can vary from C-suite perceptions of “the way things are.”

Two other methodologies that are often substituted for these – having managers select who they perceive as influencers, and having HR and communications staff brainstorm names in workshops – tend to miss the target.

Jeppe Vilstrup Hansgaard, Innovisor’s CEO says: “HR and Communications staff tend to pick the people they see the most of, and managers tend to pick the employees who are most cooperative.  When they are asked to pick the influencers, the overlap between what they pick and what the employees pick is usually limited and often non-existent.”

Communicating through influencers

Regardless of the method chosen to identify influencers, it is most crucial that efforts to engage them reflect the respect and status that they have earned from other employees.

Identifying influencers without offering them enhanced news flows, detailed explanations and rationales for major decisions, and preferential access to senior management makes no sense.  They need to be able to tell your story credibly, and even if they disagree, they will have to account for facts and realities they won’t be able to ignore.

This reflects that there are always two main tracks of organizational information: the baseline news (the snappy intranet stories and videos mentioned above) and the informal conversation where, if a coherent, cohesive narrative isn’t being conveyed by credible sources, rumor and “fake news” will fill the void.

This does not mean that you must turn your informal influencers into formal “ambassadors.”

Early in the process, though, the organization needs make a choice.  It can choose simply to make sure that its side of the story is moving into the organizational conversation, or whether it needs to actively mobilize influencers to support specific initiatives or narratives.

Making it happen

If you recognize that peer credibility is something you can’t ignore, the key is to make an authentic effort to tap into it, by doing the research to find the people your employees trust, rather than doubling down on the people you trust (your line managers and departmental favorites) and hoping that no one will notice the difference.  Then, make sure these people are prepared to tell your side of the story or at least to acknowledge its legitimacy.

This is not a complicated process. It’s nowhere near as complicated as what it takes to produce highly visual communications and ambitious live engagement events.   But it requires discipline, a willingness to operate strategically, and a recognition that peer credibility is no longer optional.

Want to talk about internal influencers and how to quickly find and mobilize them?  Call me at +31-6-2417-9475, or send me a note at mike.klein@changingtheterms.com.

This piece was published previously as a submission to IC Kollectif.