I’m often surprised by how HR professionals and communicators don’t know very much about their employees’ communication needs. I don’t expect you to make the investment that Davis & Company did by commissioning a study of 1,000 employees throughout the United States. But even two simple steps can take you a long way to building communication that works for employees.

“Understand your audience” is hardly a new concept; even beginner marketing students learn that the most effective way to reach people—and to motivate them to take action—is to understand who they are and what they need.

Yet assessing employees is a step that’s often skipped in HR communication. We plunge into creating communication without thinking about the people we’re creating it for. Even worse, we assume that employees are just like us, taking for granted that the ways we like communicating will work equally well for employees in a variety of jobs, geographies and functions.

How can you make sure you truly know your employee audience? 2 ways:

  1. Start by analyzing employee demographics. Davis & Company has written a lot about this over the years; here’s an excellent Smart Tips on the topic.
  2. Conduct qualitative research to explore communication needs and preferences. Demographics helps you know who your employees are. Once you do, to really get inside the minds of employees, you need to go further and talk to them. The best way to do so? Focus groups.

Why focus groups? This proven research method—widely practiced by marketers, scientists and other professionals since the 1920s—can help you:

  • Explore an issue
  • Test a concept
  • Follow up on the launch of a program to see how well it was understood or received
  • Find out why employees answered a survey in a certain way

Focus groups are ideal for when you need to explore a topic in an open-ended way, since you can dive deeper and ask follow-up questions. If you need to ask, “Why is this true?” or “What does this mean?” focus groups are the right research method.

While focus groups seem deceptively simple to manage—“All you need to do is gather employees in a conference room and start talking, right?”— experts know that this research method is more complicated than meets the eye. If you’re interested in learning more, we’ve got a bunch of content on focus groups on this website. Or check out our helpful book.

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