It’s a Rocky Road But It’s Worth The Trip

Tips for building an internal communication strategy that supports innovation.

In 2010, I was hired to introduce social media as a marketing tool to a hotel management company called Innisfree Hotels. The plan was to show up with a mind blowing power point presentation, point out that Facebook had 400 million users, and do a happy dance while a room full of hotel General Managers eagerly jumped on the bandwagon.

Seven years later, Facebook has two billion users and Innisfree Hotels has an in-house marketing agency called Bee Loud, with thirteen team members sitting two to a desk in a cramped office. Today, Bee Loud is both a sizable revenue generator and a key competitive differentiator in attracting investor capital in our company.

In hindsight, it is tempting to say this was our plan all along — and that the road from exploring social media to building a full-service digital marketing agency was smooth. Not so much.

First, this was never the plan. Like most innovations, it happened incrementally. Secondly, despite the quality of my powerpoint presentation, some members of our company leadership team were hostile to the idea, others were ambivalent, and the rest were simply too busy to engage.

I had to convince our operators that jumping on the digital marketing bandwagon would generate a return. Doing so required a sustained internal marketing campaign with an impact on par with our public-facing initiatives. Multiple (painful) failures later, I’ve learned a few lessons about internal communication that I carry with me to this day.

Lesson One: Don’t Wing It

A well-planned and robust internal communication strategy smooths the pathway for innovation. In fact, one cannot happen without the other. Without a shared understanding of ‘what and why,’ resistance and acrimony will escalate. Once that happens it is a long road back to harmony.

Lesson Two: It’s Going to Be Harder Than You Think

Building shared understanding is no easy task. For instance, email announcements (formerly the most common tactic in my arsenal) are appallingly inadequate. More often, they cause more confusion and anxiety than they resolve.

Lesson Three: They Will Not Come to You, So You Must Go to Them

Internal (much like public-facing) marketing strategies need to be executed seamlessly on multiple channels. Your team members (like consumers) are distracted, inundated with information, multi-generational, and have varying access to and comfort with technology.

Today our in-house agency manages a robust internal communication strategy that employs a variety of tactics like company-wide email newsletters, instant messaging on Slack, a corporate blog, social media platforms and in-person training sessions and workshops.

Most recently, we invested a lot of money into a ‘social’ intranet with cool features like two-way searchable news feeds and discussion threads. Bee Loud supports the intranet with ongoing one-on-one and small group training sessions, engaging content, and incentives that drive daily engagement.

Lesson Four: The Marketing Team Must Lead

Even though it was never the plan, hindsight shows that it was a natural fit for our in-house marketing agency to manage internal communications. With great internal communication (like all marketing campaigns) content is king and content production sits in the marketing department.

Innisfree is likely the only hotel management group in the US with a Lead Storyteller, Photographer, and Videographer on the company payroll — and I believe these people are key to our success.

Lesson Five: It’s Not Cheap, But It’s Worth It

Growing our internal communication strategy and sustaining it with amazing content requires a significant investment and we expect a return. How we measure this return is yet to be determined, but we can already see many business advantages.

We now have active communication channels we can and will leverage to smooth the implementation of future innovative projects. Our employees are getting to know each other better, and this is improving camaraderie and collaboration. They are also able to communicate their ideas and pain points with their peers and leaders. And, most importantly, our team members are learning about our company history and values, which enable us to scale and sustain our culture.

All of this leads to improved employee engagement — which everyone knows results in more productivity and a better experience for our hotel guests. And that’s a win in my book.