Thinking twice about “what’s in it for me”

In a post on her company blog, Alison Davis, who is generally known as one of the top internal communication consultants in the United States, mounted a defense of the idea of “what’s in it for me (WIIFM)” – that a communication must convey a personal benefit or intensely direct relevance for readers, because they are otherwise disinterested in what their organizations have to say.

I’ve always had a lot of discomfort with the view that communications should be built exclusively around WIIFM messages. I actually once worked once in a US government agency which had a WIIFM fetish, and the insistence that we only publish content that had direct personal relevance for every employee made us leave a lot of content out that was important to specific, often critical people.

It also led to dumbing down–to stripping down all but the most commonly relevant bits at the expense of an even basic level of color and depth.  

I can understand the attractiveness of a “WIIFM is king” approach when an IC function is being measured on the increase in the number of intranet subscribers and click rates.  

But in organizations which lack the ability to target specific subgroups with focused messages integrating relevant context and meaning, doing so requires a willingness to not have every employee read every word of every article, whatever the measurement consequences may be.  

For me, the main goal of internal articles is that they give people who are relevant to a specific outcome sufficient understanding, content and context to impact that outcome.  

Sure, it would be great to be able to narrowcast such messages to those who have genuine interest and/or influence, such as by identifying them through social mapping, or by allowing them to self-select content through team or group membership.  But organizations which don’t yet have those abilities need to think about “what’s in it for them” before bowing to the altar of “what’s in it for me.”