April 05, 2006

Why Intranets Suck Telling someone to use the company intranet is usually like telling them to “go to hell.” In most companies the operative business model seems to be to build the legendary library at Alexandria without a catalogue or a navigable interface. Ironically the worst intranets are often in software companies where the shoemaker’s son syndrome is at play. But the problem of internal communications is a by-product of trying to create a comprehensive archive of stuff without a communications strategy in the face of many departments eager, and often incented, to publish to the site. The result is usually a mish-mash of hard-to-find stuff which ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime thrown together without the benefit of skilled information architecture or interface design. Every one clains that whatever you need is "in there" and no one ever wants to use it. This too is partly the fault of software companies who madly tout and sell portals as a tool for cutting costs, reducing cycle times and empowering employees by forcing them into self-service. The software guys hint that all the big issues have been pre-thought, pre-digested and will be solved by buying their code. The reality is usually the opposite. To get an employee portal right and get it used requires three basic steps: 1. Determine the Primary Mission and Create a Hierarchy of Needs What should this portal do? Everything is NOT an acceptable answer. Do you want employees to make transactions like selecting or adjusting their benefits, sick days and vacation requests or filing expense reports? Do you want it to be a beacon for your mission statement, your vision and your corporate blab? Is it a communications channel for reaching and interacting with employees? Is it a workbook for setting MBOs, doing performance evaluations and hiring or firing? Is it a workgroup collaboration tool? Is it a delivery mechanism for added employee services and benefits? Is it a document storage system or knowledge-sharing device? You can’t build it right if you don’t know what it should do. And even if you aspire to a multi-functional portal, you can never afford the time or money to invest in state of the art features for each element. So you must choose what it should do first and best and then rank order by priority the other functions that get built in. 2. Don’t Leave it Solely to HR Too many bad intranets are run by HR departments alone. They rarely get the IT, marketing or communications part right because they are all about processing paperwork and keeping records. In fact the modern HR department is mostly about automating employee interactions not necessarily encouraging them. You have to create a cross functional team and bring all the relevant disciplines to bear. And you have to start out by thinking of your employees with the same care and concern that you think about your customers. From the beginning you have to assume that personalization, preference setting and straight forward presentation are mandatory. Intranets that are the oracle for corporate big brother and those that are relentlessly rah-rah generally fail. Also you need to decide up front on the definition of success. Is it usage? Is it the number of transactions? It is manager compliance with instructions? Is it time and money saved? Understanding that metrics motivate most corporate behavior means that what you measure is what will get done. So laying out what you want to happen will directly influence what gets built and what gets used. 3. Think in Web 2.0 Terms The best websites and the best portals have abandoned the page-serving paradigm. Web 2.0 is about anticipating information needs and usage patterns and staging information so that it comes to the user rather than forcing the user to find whatever he/she is looking for. This requirement ratchets up the technology needs and the necessary advance thinking about information design, site architecture and interface construction. But ultimately it’s well worth it since without it your realistic chance of stimulating widespread use and any ind of ROI is severely diminished.
It's Not About You The object of every marketing communication is to prompt action. The action can be to remember a name, a price or a point of view. The action can be to call or click or clip. But if there’s no action, you’re dead. The only way to do this is to focus entirely on who needs to act and what will motivate them. Everything else is a waste of time and money. Yet the vast majority of messages are egocentric. They are all about the company, the products and the features. They are usually filled with either chest-beating or me-too claims that satisfy sellers’ needs and expectations and turn off buyers. The result – huge investments in ads, direct mail, e-mail and online campaigns that make marketers happy but never pay off or pay out. Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last 5 years, you know that power and control in the world of media and messaging has changed. Buyers control the time, place, device and messages they want to see or hear. They control what gets in and what gets filtered out. And they are a ruthless bunch. To increase the likelihood that your message will get some attention, consider these basic creative rules Make everything about the target audience. Understand who they are and what they care about. Present the benefits to them early and in language they understand and respond to. Tell them what they win by doing business with you. Keep it short. Attention spans are short. Everyone is multi-tasking. You’ve got 15-20 seconds to get attention. Don’t squander it. Say the most important benefit first. Then say it again in a punchy way. Focus exclusively on the intended action. You’ve got 15 seconds to get someone to do something. Everything you do has to drive to that action. Anything that doesn’t encourage taking that action has to go. If they don’t take the action, you’re out of the game so you must be a merciless editor. Eliminate anything that could distract a reader, viewer or listener from the intended goal. Make it easy to take the action. Make the button, the coupon or the link big, easy to see in a bold color. Separate it with white space. Put it high up on the page. Drive the eye to the goal line. Limit the choices to do anything other than take the required action. Customers expect easy, fast, intuitive choices. Give them what they want. Show them what you want them to do. Be Real. Familiar, savvy, realistic language beats corporate-speak. Colorful language beats plain vanilla. Customers aren’t navel-gazing the way marketers and managers are. They aren’t worried about every implication, nuance and liability. They are barely there and barely paying attention. So you have to grab them quickly and convey your meaning plainly in terms they immediately can understand, process and act on.

Danny Flamberg

I am a veteran marketing consultant working with leading and emerging brands

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