Herd Virality?—?why focusing on internal influence beats “100% engagement”
Do we really need to shoot for “100% Engagement,” or do we need to focus on engaging the right people?
As someone who spends a good share of my time working in the world of internal communication, there’s an immense amount of talk about “engagement”: as a benchmark of organization-wide satisfaction, and, often concurrently, as a measure of the percentage of people reading or interacting with a piece of online content.
But one problem that unites these differing, but deeply flawed, worlds of content engagement and employee engagement is that they both treat “engagement” as a one-size-fits-all, one–person–one–vote concept. It’s on a linear scale of 0–100%, and all engagement counts equally and means the same thing.
As they said in the days before the “s-word” and “f-word” became routine, that’s “horse-pucky.”
Click rates, open rates and employee engagement scores tell you nothing about which employees are key to spreading your messages?—?or how those messages actually flow through your organization.
A story from an airline merger
About 20 years ago I learned the most important lesson of my career as a professional communicator.
I was managing the internal communication for easyJet’s acquisition of Go Airlines, its former British Airways-funded competitor at the time. My predecessor, the legendary Johnny Harben, insisted on having the change newsletter, Changing Times, published on paper, even though easyJet was an early and fairly religious convert to the gospel of the paperless office.
Every Thursday the newsletters were distributed at the combined airlines’ offices at London’s Luton and Stansted airports, hand-delivered to the office staff, and placed on aircraft to be distributed across the flight network.
Maybe 30% of the staff picked up a copy. But in the survey research I followed up with, more than 75% understood the key messages and recognized the official language used to express them.
Fast forward to 2021, when Covid-19 vaccination rates hit 50 percent, 70 percent in some countries.
Then, authorities started talking about “herd immunity”?—?a level of vaccination sufficient to substantially prevent the spread of infection in that society.
When someone was explaining herd immunity to me, it struck me that what I saw at easyJet-Go was the exact opposite phenomenon: “herd virality.”
Herd virality? Essentially, that’s the extent to which a small-but-sufficient number of people can drive needed information and messaging through an organization, community, or market.
Herd virality is effectively a function of having a motivated minority of people in an organization, community, or focused market who are willing to consume information and share it so that sufficient people get the message, even those who don’t wish to read or otherwise directly engage.
At easyJet-Go, the process was illustrated by employees who didn’t read Changing Times noting those in their physical space who did. If you heard something or needed a question answered, someone who’d read Changing Times was the first person to ask.
From one-size-fits-all to internal influence
Herd virality challenges the notion that communication initiatives need to directly reach 100% of the population to have sufficient impact.
It also lays waste to the notion that communication needs to be presented, delivered, and packaged so that everyone finds it equally appetizing, and opens up more radical ways for organizations to streamline the ways they connect with their internal and external audiences
The most radical?—?and actionable?—?way to streamline internal communication is to conduct research to identify those influencers who drive “herd virality”?—?and shape the tone and flow of an organization’s own “word of mouth.”
Over the last few months, I’ve developed a course that will allow internal communication pros to understand the basics of internal influence, to conduct their own research, and develop their own influencer lists?—?my Internal Influence Masterclass.
How it works
The approach used in the masterclass is not new?—?it was described in some detail by McKinsey in 2014.
I’ve added the ability to take the theory and make it actionable?—?through a combination of a two hour course with a series of follow-up consultations.
The basic approach to snowball research is simple?—?to start by surveying a small number of individuals and ask them who they seek for news about the organization, or for support and advice.
The results of the survey then are analyzed and form the basis for future rounds until a usable influencer list emerges.
The game-changing advantages of getting an intentional understanding of your internal influence list include:
? Reducing the volume of irrelevant information sent to employees
? Identifying credible sources of feedback about organizational developments
? Harnessing the support of influencers who are positively disposed towards the organization’s ambitions
? Ensuring that more skeptical influencers are better informed?—?and thus less empowered to “make up their own facts” about what is happening in the organization.
The approach also provides a useful sense-check for the activities of “Champions Networks” and “Ambassadors”, which organizations use to try to impact word-of-mouth in support of specific initiatives, but which are often built without thought about who is actually seen as credible and respected.
Snowball vs. ONA
Yes, there is a more powerful approach available called Organizational Network Analysis that offers deeper insights into the nature and direction of relationships on an enterprise scale, and offers comprehensive maps showing how certain hubs and spokes emerge in organizational networks.
But the snowball approach still offers internal communicators a new ability to target the small group of knowledgeable and well-connected individuals who drive organizational word of mouth, without requiring the need for organization-wide surveys and the turbulence they can potentially cause.
Naturally, once a company starts with snowball research, it may develop an appetite for deeper knowledge that can be satisfied well by Organizational Network Analysis specialists like OrgMapper.
What you need to know
In a two hour session, along with the included follow-up consultations, the Internal Influence Masterclass discusses the power of internal influence, and goes through the specifics of collecting, distilling, and presenting the data.
The course does not require any background in statistical analysis?—?though it can benefit from some basic familiarity with Excel or other spreadsheets, and with the use of common survey tools like Survey Monkey.
Private sessions can be arranged at your convenience. For more information and to register, visit www.changingtheterms.com/courses/masterclass-influence.
A version of this article originally appeared in Strategic and Mister Editorial (paywall).