Category Archives: Articles

Is Our Sense of Smell an Unexplored Medium?

Making Scents

Have you been to a fair or carnival recently? Those food vendors aren’t selling all those onions they’re grilling. That sweet aroma is an olfactory billboard wafting through the midway. People also use fragrances to send more personal messages. We spray on colognes and perfumes. We plug those little fragrance warmers into our electrical sockets. We even occasionally stop and smell the roses.

But pleasing smells do more than satisfy a sense organ the way fireworks thrill our eyes or music amuses our ears. Our sense of smell is linked to parts of the brain that process emotion and learning. A smell can trigger memories, influence moods and some claim it can affect work performance. New scents are quickly linked to the moment in which they are discovered, and since we encounter most of the smells we know in our youth, familiar scents often recall our childhoods. (Learn more about the science of smell.)

Given the neurological power of our sense of smell, it seems a bit surprising that more companies and advertisers don’t do more with this afferent medium. Sure, perfume makers spritz their magazine ads and direct mail promotions, but why aren’t more retailers trademarking fragrances that might make shoppers feel more relaxed or welcomed in their stores? Why aren’t employers pumping pleasant aromas into the workplace to soothe employees? Actually, some have tried. The California Milk Processor board made cookie-scented strips part of their “Got Milk?” campaign in 2006. Filmmakers tried to add smell to the cinema before they added sound. The French Resistance tried using a horrible smell as a weapon against the Germans in World War II.

But smell-o-vision and some of these other tactics don’t always work. Theaters had trouble clearing one smell out before the next rolled in. The “Got Milk?” cookie strips met with complaints, and weaponized smells have proven difficult to handle and aim. Even if we could create and reliably deploy a smell, we couldn’t be certain about the memories or emotions it might trigger. Would the smell of suntan lotion evoke memories of frolicking summer fun or of that time your older brother held you under water just a little too long? Would the smell of fried chicken entice a patron or annoy an airline passenger?

Either way, scents make sense. So, the next time you contemplate a communication campaign, consider what your message might smell like. Who knows where your nose might lead you.

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2019 Communication Trends

Digital migration trends and challenges.

Digital Migration

In 2019, organizational communication continues its march towards all things digital. Companies are investing heavily in applications and platforms that facilitate HR functions, benefits administration, education, training, performance measurements and more. Likewise, employees are increasingly comfortable and eager to engage with technologies that offer the same types of experiences they have in the marketplace and in their personal communication.

As this digital migration continues, communicators are increasingly aware of the gap between the utopian promises of new technologies and the unadvertised challenges created when they are implemented into real working situations. For the savvy, embracing new technologies also includes creating communication strategies that work for their specific internal audiences. This article briefly considers trending technologies and some of the accompanying challenges.

Trending Now

Personalization of data is increasing rapidly across the employee experience. Employees used to create their own benefits profile against standardized offerings, or call into a center to get help. Now they logon to dashboards populated with real time specifics about their compensation, medical, retirement, PTO, performance, etc.

Enterprise Social Media (ESM) differs from employees’ other social media primarily because it is more intentional. Companies are using private social media platforms (usually built on the company intranet or a vendor app) to distribute information and foster conversations that promote collaboration, wellness, knowledge communities, company culture and more.

Knowledge Sharing across organizations is one of the most important trends in ESM. Wikis, blogs, forums, How To videos, and collaboration tools are all ways to share and preserve important organizational expertise, knowledge and memory.

Mobile computing has reached a tipping point. With nearly 80% of Americans owning smart phones[1], employers can expect that their people have access via mobile applications to benefits, job-related apps, collaboration tools, internal information networks, etc.

Wearable devices are being used by companies to help address several key situations. First, many companies offer wearable fitness trackers and connected applications as part of their wellness programs. Second, employees in physical jobs wear devices that monitor the safety and efficiency of their movements. Finally, wearable technology is being used in training and to push performance in professions ranging from package delivery to neurosurgery.

Video continues to rise in popularity as production costs fall. Platforms like YouTube, and the small screens on mobile devices, have made users more comfortable with lower production values and short-format video. The door is open for more organizations and leaders to use video to replace, or supplement, communication that was traditionally done in meetings or print.

Analytics are applied to reams of data available on every aspect of our work in digital communications. For example, we can measure the efficacy of an open enrollment video by knowing if it is watched to completion. This data tells us to make the video shorter, or more dynamic. ESM conversations are tracked and managed to foster an intended activity. Efficiency data is available for online activity and work-related apps. Making sense of all the data is becoming a key job for internal communicators, who must understand how the raw numbers translate into informative stories for leaders and other stakeholders.

Bumps in the Road

Both employers and employees want the benefits promised by new technologies—efficiency, accessibility and customization. However, the road is not without its potholes. Embracing trends in digital migration requires communicators to stretch as they integrate technical expertise into their communication toolkit.

Confusion can challenge the successful implementation of new technology. Converting existing human-reliant processes into digital transactions is rarely a seamless exercise. There are often gaps between the way things are done and the new app. Creating communication to guide a digital migration requires a familiarity with what exists and what is being built, along with a level of technical expertise. Creating a collaborative environment between vendors and stakeholders often hinges on great change communication.

Impatience often follows work-related technologies that are usually far more complicated, and carry higher stakes than consumer products. Billions have been spent on Apple’s iTunes to make buying a song simple and easy. The same is not true of the custom application designed to measure employee productivity. Unfortunately, employees will judge your technology based on usability gold standards found in their consumer experience.

Frustration arises when new technologies are introduced without the necessary human support. User-centered design techniques that help communicators understand the employee experience can help create the support communications necessary to a transition.

Meeting the Future

As technology continues to transform our work lives, the role of the organizational communicator is expanding. Anticipating the promises and the challenges of digital migration prepares us to add value to our organization as we help ensure the employee experience is successful and rewarding.


[1]Pew Research Center. Mobile Fact Sheet. 2018.

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Ideas Influencing Employee Communication

I often hear clients say: “We want to do something new and different!” or ask “What is new and exciting in employee communication?” While the forms of communication haven’t changed in recent years—print, web, mobile—the approaches we use to maximize these media have.

Generational Overlapping

Audience segmentation by role is nothing new (i.e., HR, leaders, managers, employees), but adapting communications to engage diverse generations is becoming an area of focus. This is where media mix comes into play. For example, baby boomers prefer print and face-to-face communication that is open and detailed. Digitally-native Millennials prefer electronic communication that is meaningful, brief and visual, with the option to get more detail. Surprisingly, Millennials love face-to-face interactions for complex or important subject matter. Sandwiched between the two is Generation X—technically very competent and preferring email or electronic communication with higher levels of complexity.

One way to address diverse generational audiences is through media mix and tone.


A U.S.-based engineering and manufacturing company has employees ranging from the age of early 20s (millennials) to mid 60s (baby boomers), with an average age of 42 (generation x). For an initiative such as retirement readiness, this overlapping mix of communications will best reach this broad audience:

  • Posters or full-sized banners with stand and a 30 second commercial spot (plays on local kiosks/monitors and website) to generate awareness
  • Postcard mailed to homes to engage spouses
  • Interactive guide with a downloadable/printable PDF
  • Microsite with layered information (page content, PDFs, videos, links), including testimonials (diverse ages and job functions) and a short game or quiz
  • Employee meetings organized similar to a health fair, including a short presentation and various vendor/financial planning experts

The trick to success is to match media to audience preference, even if you repeat yourself using varied forms. The important idea is to reach your audience in the from it prefers.

Sensory Immersion

Sensory immersion creates engaging experiences that heighten awareness and increase engagement. Sight, smell, taste, touch and sound are common in marketing and in the gaming industry but also can play a part in any communication. This approach is particularly compelling for Millennials, who are always hungry for new meaningful and entertaining experiences.

Brilliant images, like those below, when attached to compelling headlines will hook your audience. They can be paired with other sensory inputs or merely suggest the types of experiences your audience finds compelling.

  • Sight—Given our age of rapid technology, such as email, smart phones, the Internet and social media, sight can be challenging to engage and maintain. We have become accustomed to tuning things out due to oversaturation, so there needs to be a visual hook and strong sense of hierarchy. This can be achieved with unique typography, provocative imagery (especially macro imagery) and/or use of solid geometric shapes with bold color. Evoking the sense of sight can tie in nicely with communications that focus on the future.
  • Smell— Did you know that we can recall 10,000 unique smells! While we can’t reasonably infuse scents into most employee communications, we can certainly suggest them through imagery in a way that triggers recollection of a smell, and the feeling(s) associated with that memory. For example, the aroma of a steaming hot beverage on a cold morning that also warms your hands, or the smell of roasting marshmallows over a fire as you prepare to indulge in s’mores. Stirring up these memories can come in handy when communicating healthy behavior, such as eating delicious and healthy food, engaging in yard work in the spring or taking a relaxing vacation at the beach.
  • Taste—As with smell, taste is something we can suggest through imagery that can trigger a memory and feeling to make a more personal connection with the audience.
  • Touch—Print appeals to the tactile sense, including various weights of paper and textures that can enhance or support a communication. Embossing/debossing and coatings such as varnishes also can elicit the sense of touch. It is more challenging to engage touch electronically, but we certainly experience it with gaming and phones (vibration) and here again, we can use macro photography to tap into the sense of touch. For example, drawing people in with the feeling of holding a sparkler, the rough texture of new money or the gentle softness of a fluffy pillow to rest your head on.
  • Sound—We can use sound to enhance a video or influence the mood of a website or interactive environment. See what Volkswagen did with sound that resulted in a 66% increase in taking the stairs that were positioned next to an escalator: Today we can’t cost efficiently integrate sound into a print employee communication, but we can suggest it in a way that can trigger a memory so it comes to life in our minds.

Infographics blend information and visuals in a minimalistic way to help people comprehend content. This approach oftentimes is used to convey complex concepts, processes and/or to visually break up dense content. After all, 65% of people are visual learners!


Long Format Websites

With over 80% of the U.S. mobile market using smartphones, we have had to start thinking more about the user experience on an array of devices—computers, tablets and phones. This means thinking more about adaptability of the communication (look and functionality).


For a long while web page design has been focused above the fold to eliminate scrolling. Now, those same web pages have a different experience on smartphones, meaning lots of scrolling— there’s no way to avoid it with a small device. As a result, design has begun moving toward long format or scrolling pages.

Designers are finding advantages to this, such as creating a fluid and creative storytelling experience (this dovetails nicely with sensory immersion and appealing to millennials). It also promotes interaction, has greater user consistency from one device to another and it opens the door for training or other game-like experiences.


Rapid technology has enabled organizations of all sizes to work effectively with communication that is fast and electronic. Conversely, the explosion of easy digital communication, is also creating a desire for face-to-face interactions for significant situations, such as organizational transformation, annual benefit enrollment and retirement readiness.

Certainly this won’t be the only touch point with employees for a large communication initiative, so the content should be high-level and offer additional resources for greater detail. PowerPoints or similar tools can be used to guide the conversion and should be used to tell a story that provides meaning to employees. In other words, avoid “death by PowerPoint” or reading the slides word for word. The face-to-face interaction is more about humanizing the message and providing employees with the opportunity to listen and ask questions. The high-level presentation should be fluid so it can be distributed/posted and make sense to the end user. Here’s an example of a creative and fluid PowerPoint that tells the story of how Google works:

Innovate to Engage

There are many creative approaches that can both attract the attention of a diverse workforce and align with budgetary needs. Next time you communicate an initiative to your employees, instead of printing the same old letter-sized booklet or emailing a PDF, consider:

  • Addressing various generational media preferences
  • Increasing engagement through sensory immersion
  • Maximizing comprehension by matching images to content with infographics
  • Building fluidity and story-telling into mobile and desktop web design
  • Meeting face-to-face to increase impact

Kara Pernice (2016), Top 10 Intranet Trends of 2016, Nielsen Norman Group

Natalia Lumby (2016), Sensory printing: engaging all of the senses, Graphic Arts Magazine

PewResearch (May 2015)


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Money Talks

Communicating About Compensation

You’ve just completed a compensation review, made pension plan changes, or are about to award annual bonuses. Now you need to communicate the information to affected employees or the whole organization. This can be a stressful moment.

Communicating about compensation can be a vexing experience for both employers and employees. Employees don’t always trust that they are getting the straight scoop when it comes to how their pay stacks up against other employees, both in your organization and in the marketplace. And often they seem un-interested in the total value of their benefit and compensation programs. They simply want to be paid well.

On the employer side, managers often lack skill and/or credibility when explaining rewards to their direct reports. Complicating matters, confidentiality can become an issue when leadership struggles with identifying a comfortable level of transparency.

So, how can you effectively discuss pay with employees? 

Try Your Hand at Mindreading

There is a cognitive disconnect when it comes to pay. HR thinks about market comparators and midpoints, but employees think about their gross and net pay.

All successful employee communications are built from the perspective of the employee rather than the employer. When you put yourself in the shoes of your audience, you can address what’s on their minds and initiate a connection. Communicating effectively has more to do with building a relationship than it has to do with words and pictures. A message must resonate with your employees.

Instead of starting with the method or format of a communication, think first about your audience—what’s on their minds? Then determine the best way to deliver that message.

Over half of companies surveyed by WorldatWork in 2016 believe their employees do not understand the company’s compensation philosophy. A sound communication strategy starts with education on the basics such as philosophy and an overview of how programs are administered. Sharing knowledge about what guides these decisions helps lay the groundwork for establishing trust.


Whatever is driving your financial communication dictates the content of your message (e.g., special market pay adjustments, a pension plan freeze, a global compensation review, annual bonus awards, change in FSLA status, etc.). Regardless of the content, consider if and how your employees are empowered by the information you are sharing. Relate the message to all areas where the employee has some amount of control.

For example, a younger crowd may feel that a five-year vesting period is a long time away and retirement is a lifetime away. Focus on the near future first, and then distant goals. When communicating about performance and pay adjustments, direct employees to resources that explain things they can do to increase their pay. Also, empower the audience by creating space for questions and feedback. Don’t fear a negative response when it can be turned into an opportunity to increase understanding.

Nearly eight in 10 employees (77%) are engaged when workers strongly agree there is open communication, opportunities to provide input, a clear connection between current changes and the company’s future, and management support for changes that affect their workgroup.

Gallup Business Journal, “Managing in Tough Financial Times: Does Engagement Help?”Chris Groscurth and Stephen Shields (2016)

Open the Door

While it’s important that pay policies and benefit programs are documented and accessible, the communication can’t stop there. Two-way, face-to-face communication is crucial when it comes to financial matters.

Gallup’s 2016 study, The State of the American Manager, Analytics and Advice for Leaders, finds a strong correlation between employee engagement and regular meetings with managers. In fact, employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times more likely to be engaged than employees whose managers don’t. Regular communication removes ambiguity and addresses concerns before they become problems.

Complete the Story

With most communication, the audience first tunes into the story and then decides whether or not the information is credible. Conversely, if information is watered-down by being vague or omitting too many details, credibility is shot.

But there must be balance—it’s easy to overwhelm when discussing pension plans, 401(k)s, and salary structures. The key is figuring out the appropriate hierarchy of the information and then organizing it in a way that creates a coherent and relatable message. A large amount of data can be comprehended if it is well organized.

If you leave out too many details your audience will look for alternative information sources. Coworkers, friends in the industry, and websites sit ready, willing, and able to provide your employees often inaccurate or ill-informed information. This information often comes with personal perspectives on fair salaries and other financial matters. You want to be a trusted source for information regarding your employees’ pay.

For example, if base salary levels or this year’s merit pool are below historical levels or competitor rates, explain why. Maybe your company rewards more through bonus than base. Or, training and development opportunities are far better than your competitor. Sometimes it has just been a bad year and budgets are tight. If employees perceive they are sacrificing pay, they’ll need a good reason why. Whatever the reason, don’t gloss over it—just say it.

Temper the Emotion

Financial messaging is wrought with emotion.

The strategy behind your company’s approach to pay is objectively based on market position, growth plans, the current talent market, and the last quarter’s returns. Yet, when you talk about compensation, the conversation can become very personal to the employee. Impersonal market forces can feel like an indictment of a person’s worth and value.

With any financial communication, it’s important that you demonstrate the company’s commitment—even passion—around the program and its impact on employees. However, be careful to detach this emotion from the facts. Don’t communicate “bad news” in a way that is self-congratulatory.

Constantly educate your workforce about the science behind pay and the work that went into creating a pay program or financial benefit. Remember that the program itself is not the company. It is just one component of the company’s business strategy. At the end of the day, your employees should be able to explain why they receive the pay or financial benefits they have and feel good about them.

Avoid the Fluff

Don’t waste your audience’s time—and risk losing their attention or trust—by filling your communication with rote content. Your audience will quickly tune out if it’s just more of the same thing they’ve already heard too often. While repetition has its place, too much can lead to boredom.

Include only what’s important and what will hit home with your employees. Find a good editor who understands the content. Creating succinct, effective material takes longer than creating lengthy pieces that often go unread. Make sure to allow enough time to create the right message.

Consider the ROI

There is no shortage of data linking solid communication practices to increased employee engagement, retention, productivity, and financial performance. Even in a downturn—especially in a downturn—spending a small fraction of your salary or benefit expense to communicate the value of compensation to employees can help you realize substantial return on your talent investment.

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