The concept of internal marketing is based on a false premise that one can treat employees like external customers.
“Internal marketing” is back as an employee communication approach. The concept is simple: use basic marketing approaches to communicate to employees in the same way that these methods can raise awareness, interest, intent and action with consumers.
The explanation for the revival of internal marketing is also simple. Marketing Directors are increasingly delivering a range of internal communication tasks. The logic is that if an organisation is trying to deliver a differentiating customer experience, then who better to get employees lined up than the people responsible for defining the customer experience? The fact that the Marketing function often has greater influence than does Internal Communications adds weight to the idea. With the importance and power of brand rising rapidly on the corporate agenda, the case is compelling on its face.
But there’s a basic problem with the whole idea. The nature of the employment relationship is essentially different from a consumer relationship. The psychological, emotional and rational processes at play in joining, working within and leaving a complex social system, where one spends at least one third of their adult life, are slightly more complicated than the processes at play in considering even a significant investment such as a car or a home – let alone a snack, an ISA, a mobile phone or a university education.
This is not to say that some of the methods, practices and tools that prove valuable in marketing don’t have an important place in an effective internal communication effort. In fact, internal communication people can learn a lot from marketing approaches such as developing “the big idea,” defining the essence of a brand or value proposition, identifying, prioritising and segmenting stakeholders, and being more creative and inspirational in their overall approach. However, the internal marketing approach generally fails to consider important parts of the equation – for example, the human capital, organisational development and behaviour change elements. Probably most importantly, marketers have only recently realised the importance and power of interactivity and active listening in a world where consumer power is paramount.
Most marketing practice is based on crafting a message, packaging it and delivering it to an audience — and then gauging what happens and modifying the next round of activity accordingly. Internal communication, at its best, goes beyond so-called “two-way” communication models, and creates an ongoing dialogue that both reflects and shapes the place where this conversation occurs. ‘Internal marketers’ can learn a lot from their internal communication, human resource and engagement colleagues. For example, internal communicators are now able to draw a line between their efforts, the effect of these efforts on the customer experience, and the resulting financial impact. Their marketing colleagues have yet to make this link between their efforts and consumer behaviour.
While internal marketing may well be based on a false premise, the emerging truth is that no organisational silo – marketing, human resources, internal communications or IT — owns the whole solution. Best practice engagement is about making sure that these disciplines work together in a complementary manner to deliver the right result for the organisation.