The IABC Trends Watch Task Force identified and researched six key trends shaping communication in 2021 and beyond. This article presents research about how communicators are the drivers who integrate the human experience into a business or community mission, initiative or day-to-day operations. Read on to understand why this trend is relevant to IABC members, and look forward to the full publication of the 2021 Trend Report, coming soon.
Definition of the Trend and Its Context
The focus on the human experience is not new. The trend of creating silos among internal and external communications, marketing and customer experience is fading, and the lines have started to blur. Organizations are organically, and sometimes purposefully, integrating the spectrum of customer, employee and user experience into the Integrated Human Experience.
For the individual, the human experience is the aggregate of a person’s mental, cultural, emotional, spiritual and physical experiences. For an organization, success lies in understanding how the aggregate of those experiences becomes an asset within the workplace and a way to understand external audiences. By understanding that communication is the underlying force in building and connecting these experiences, communicators assume the role of ultimate integrator for human experience within the workplace, as well as within the consumer space.
Potential Impact and Scope (Based on Scenarios)
From recruiting to sales pitches, to building work environments with more human interactions, the topic of human experience is prevalent. It is a concept that is familiar to many of us who have been working in this realm, regardless of where it may have fallen in an organization or what it was called. Where the ownership for the human experience resides is clear: within the communications function.
Human experience is best demonstrated via the process of communication: sender, message, channel, receiver. Thus, the communicator fills the role of building, bolstering and integrating the human experience in any organization. By virtue of what we are charged with doing, we assess and act quickly. We also develop the appropriate messages to connect with the individual receivers of messages.
In Deloitte’s research, the company talks about designing marketing around the human experience instead of focusing solely on brand loyalty. A key takeaway from this research:
“In this frenetic, impersonal digital age, we believe that people want to be treated like individual humans and less as a part of a homogenous customer experience. Organizations that go beyond delivering on customer experience to elevating the human experience will be better positioned to create more meaningful connections, foster loyalty and ultimately drive growth. When we focus on the human experience, we go beyond just showing up. We build relationships that matter. We seize attention, build love, inspire dreams, create connections, respect and recognize individuals, and build confidence.”
Deloitte also developed the Human Experience (HX) Quotient, a formula that demonstrates how an organization can define human experience to align the values of its customers, employees and partners.
2020: A Prime Case Study for Communicator as Human Experience Integrator
The human experience often reveals itself in online conversations, and the need for human connection and interaction was preeminent during 2020. We might argue that at no other time has the collection of human experiences been at center stage than during the pandemic when people were told to quarantine or isolate.
Whether to share pain, grief, stories or artistic endeavors, connectivity was arguably what people craved most. The year also proved a need for authenticity and accuracy. Amid the chaos of online confusion about the pandemic and U.S.-based elections, organizations looked to communicators to provide information online. Internal communicators and public relations professionals emerged as the appropriate owners of the single source of information for their respective organizations’ employees, clients and partners.
We can and should continue to lead as the single source of information for our organizations. During crises or in any given situation, easy access to validated information is critical. After a year of letting down their paywalls to provide pandemic-related news, newsrooms are considering the efficacy of their paywalls, a potential tradeoff to engage with the people they did not know they could reach. A 2021 Newman Lab prediction says newsroom leaders “got closer to their communities during the pandemic and the 2020 election, and they’re reluctant to wall themselves off once again.” We believe that this trend is the result of communicating directly with a broader, previously untapped audience, one that would not have engaged had the paywalls existed.
During the pandemic lockdown, the intersection of most human experiences became almost entirely digital, with social media as a primary communication and connectivity tool. That provided some unintentional risks for people. During this era of “cancel culture,” employees regularly balance participating in free speech with aligning to their employer’s values. (See trend no. 5 for more on cancel culture and disinformation.) Countless examples exist of employees being let go after posting extreme or insensitive statements online, particularly related to the race movement and the U.S. election. PR and internal communications professionals were often left to clear up these external and internal situations.
There is certainly a positive side to digital connections within organizations, particularly as organizations saw the cost savings of allowing remote working conditions. Interestingly, some organizations worried for years that if they allowed office and support teams to work remotely, would productivity levels would plunder and give way to personal distractions?
With many offices shuttered during 2020, the result showed that people in offices were able to communicate and be productive remotely. In 2019, 87% of US employees averaged 8.5 hours per workday (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). The Wall Street Journal reported on two surveys, one citing that a sample group of 2,025 full-time employees worked an extra 26 extra hours each month, and another citing that daily work hours increased from 8-15% in a sample of 3.4 million workers.
True, interruptions exist in home offices and even encroach during web-based meetings, such as children or pets making unannounced, charming interruptions during meetings. These interruptions contributed to another amazing result of people working from home during the pandemic: online meetings emboldened the human experience of the office worker.
People learned a great deal about their colleagues and clients by seeing them in their home environments, versus the artificiality of work environments. They have also been able to connect on a human level; the walls came down and new avenues of connecting and communicating emerged by using the digital communication channel.
In her series “The Lost Year,” Vox writer Emily VanDerWeff interviewed a fitness studio owner who hosted web-based workouts as a way of not only earning during the pandemic when fitness studios were shut down, but also connecting with her clients — and even building a new client base. VanDerWeff thought the interview would take on another “Zoom fatigue” theme. Instead, she references the unusual intimacy of Zoom in the headline. Melanie, the instructor, said that she was able to create a one-on-one connection, or experience, with each person. “This whole experience has brought home the idea of making sure that the weave of your social fabric is together, by any means necessary,” VanDerWeff says. This certainly tracks with the experiences of many colleagues and customers during the pandemic.
The pandemic also increased the number and intensity of online exchanges during this time. In his article about social impact theory, Ronn Torossian covers “how important the influencer is to the target audience, immediacy is in terms of proximity in time between the two, and numbers stand for the number of the influencers themselves.” In this case, the influencer is the human and how his or her experience affects interests, as well as personal content shared.
If Torossian’s theory holds, then the human — and therefore the human experience — has potentially incredible influence and power on marketing campaigns. He does caution we need to be flexible in our campaigns because user-generated content (such as testimonials and reviews) is the most influential. Nothing new there, as we all know that people trust other buyers’ reviews. However, through marketing and communication campaigns, we not only allow user content, but we should encourage it to get the direct impact of peer trust. In Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer, the agency found company experts, academic experts and peers as the most credible source of information. Furthermore, people in our organizations can be some of our best communicators if we equip them.
Ethics, Privacy and the Creep Factor: the Risk vs. Rewards of the Internet of Behaviors
Read about the ethics, privacy and risks and rewards of the Internet of Behaviors, another trend identified by the IABC Trends Watch Task Force
Who Will Be Most Directly Impacted?
The individual employee and the employee as consumer are the primary focus of this trend. To understand this, we have to understand that there is a person behind every decision. Much too often, when we use the term business to business (B2B), we treat it as if a business comprises a single individual decision-maker. There is a human behind the decision-making, albeit perhaps a different human at each decision-making level. Thus, the messages we share must resonate and tap into the human experiences of the decision-maker.
Communicators understand how to reach people through storytelling, data, facts and even images; we know how to explain something so the audience receives the message. In order to be successful in marketing, we should look at the role of the message, plus audience, plus channel – and thus the communication. Communication professionals know that the same message or channel will not work for every audience, thus the need for well-designed communication strategies with tactics, channels and messages with fully defined audience analyses.
Why Is the Trend Relevant to IABC Members?
The single factor that complicates this trend is what makes the communications professional the best individual in an organization to lead the integration of human experiences: the individuality of the human experience.
There is no need to create silos of functions overseeing the variations of human experiences. Communicators already understand them and we evaluate and analyze these experiences to develop fully integrated communication strategies and messages. As communications professionals, we weave multiple points into singular messages. The communicator adeptly plays the role of integrator. Here is why:
- Communicators build and own the channels that allow the need for connection to not only survive, but thrive within the organization and within the brand. We are integral to explaining, sharing and bridging workplace culture. That includes the physical and mental culture. Organizations traditionally have asked employees to leave their personal experiences at the door. This has created a huge gap of experiences we could tap into to understand our myriad audiences. In short, we had the data under our virtual roofs the whole time. Communicators naturally tap into the human experience through our ability to assess quickly and respond with an understanding of those experiences.
- With this understanding, we actively seek brand advocates and equip them with toolkits, training and guardrails. Our organizations’ employees are already online, and they connect and represent our organizations and our brands. We want them to be authentic as they speak on behalf of the brand. Communicators can provide the monitoring, guardrails and guidelines for employees who want to make these connections.
- The communicator is the key person during any organization’s crises. Because of our need to understand any new situation or crisis and quickly develop communication strategies and messages, we are uniquely qualified to understand how to reach audiences through authentic, transparent messages, using the best available channel. We can cull out something that is not authentic and we are uniquely able to play the role of editor and critic, even of our own messages. On any given day, the crisis changes, yet the role of the communicator remains the same: share the messages that move audiences back to center.
- Further, although the lines within communication disciplines are blurring, the communication function should exist outside of all other functions to maintain credibility and authenticity within and outside our organization. We already organically assume the role of integrator within our organizations. We know the messages and the ways they are best delivered and received. That is the primary benefit of having the communicator in its own internal vertical comprising internal communications, external communications, media, PR and marketing. These communication functions and experts are the integration point for all messaging for sales, operations, human relations, talent acquisition, customer relations and digital media. We also bridge human experiences with those of others, thus creating the integration among people as well as functions.
What Do IABC Members Need to Know and Do by Audience?
Help your organization’s employee base understand your message, equip them with the tools, talking points and allow them to use their positive organizational experiences to share with new audiences; this may allow you to reach new external audiences.
Given the variety of human experiences, combine multiple sets of talking points into single messages.
Work with this group to build the messages that work for you and appeal to them.
Encourage organizational leaders to ensure the key message for the audience is the one they want to reach. Use multiple approaches versus a singular approach to ensure the message matches the audience.
Shine a light on the authenticity of the human experience within your organization by allowing your employees to be your best brand ambassadors. This is not a situation where we can check a box and move on. Instead, it requires constant nurturing.
This group wants to know that there is longevity and potential. They are humans with their own experiences, and we need to appeal to them as individuals with their own experiences.
Donna Itzoe, senior vice president of communications and marketing at Global Medical Response, is an award-winning communications leader known for her innovative and collaborative approach to developing integrated communication solutions. In her role at the world’s largest medical transportation company, she is responsible for internal and external communications, brand marketing, media relations, proposal development, employee engagement, digital and social media strategies, crisis communications, public relations and M&A communication strategies.
A long-time IABC member, Donna has held many local and regional chapter leader positions, including president of the IABC Dallas chapter. She lives in Texas with her three dogs, who shed a lot and keep her busy. She also loves to paint and create artwork.