Commentary: You can’t miss it: big data is changing how business is done. Technology is making it easier than ever to harness information, crunch the numbers in meaningful ways, and apply the insights to solve business challenges and uncover new opportunities.

Have you considered applying science to employee communications? If not, it might be time to start thinking about it. Numbers can tell you if your internal communications are effectively engaging employees, and resulting in a stronger culture, higher benefit participation rates, and other goals your HR team works hard to achieve.  

I’ve touted the advice “think like a marketer,” but today, I propose you tune into your inner scientist. Test your employee communication assumptions and see what you can learn from using the scientific process. Ask a question, make observations, and form a hypothesis about a communications strategy. Experiment and analyze your results, and apply your insights to your next project. Then, question again and again until your practice is optimized. Just like scientists, internal communicators have a vision for what needs to be achieved. You have creative resources, technology for delivering content, and expectations to meet. It’s time to get scientific about ensuring success.

Let’s walk through a simple example of how this might work and address some important points along the way. 

The question

Maybe your company’s 401(k) matching program isn’t performing the way you want it to, especially among your younger employees. You surmise that the under-30 crowd is not as concerned about retirement as their more seasoned colleagues. Or perhaps they lack the investment sophistication (or cash flow) to maximize their contributions? You wonder if they have unanswered questions about the retirement plans that you shared when they were hired or during open enrollment. Will more employees participate in the matching program if you change how you’re communicating about their 401(k) plan benefits?

Start observing. After taking a look at how you’re communicating to your employees, from the content of your messages to their timing and method of delivery, do a little research. Even a small, informal survey or employee focus group can help you grasp their preferences: Where and when do they want to learn about their benefits programs? What do they want to know about their retirement plan? You may find that the younger employees are generally not reading through the printed brochures in their employee welcome package or that the annual open enrollment presentation may be too generic or focused on employees in a different life stage. If you’re sharing one message to all your employees — you may not be truly connecting with any of them.

The hypothesis and experiment

You hypothesize that if you provide employees with more targeted, relevant information in a more consumable format, participation in the 401(k) matching program will increase. So you begin your experiment by reworking your retirement plan materials. You insert some examples showing what contributions and matches might look like for employees in different life stages, or how funds can be invested differently according to projected age of retirement. You develop new, multimedia content for your intranet and make it accessible via mobile devices around-the-clock. Then, you incorporate these new materials into your new employee welcome package and open enrollment communications plans. Roll it all out, and await feedback.

The measurement 

How can you know if your new communication strategy has been effective? Measure, on a granular level, all your campaign components, including the delivered message and format. For example, how many employees watched a video? How many employees viewed content on a computer vs. mobile device? At what time of day? Who opened an email or downloaded a document? Who called the HR hotline and what questions did they ask? How many employees participated in the matching program this year?

To supplement this data, I suggest conducting some formal employee surveys to get feedback on their open enrollment retirement plan materials and their experience. Your results will help you formulate a conclusion that you’ll use to further develop and deliver content that meets employees’ needs even better next time, even if you’re thrilled with the outcome of your first experiment.

One word of caution here, it’s important that you conduct employee surveys using a representative sample. Be sure to test and measure over a large enough data set, and be careful about drawing conclusions too quickly before you have a statistically significant group. This can be a challenge for organizations dealing with much smaller numbers of employees, so expect that it might take a while to measure true breadth of engagement of your efforts — and that you’ll probably get different results for each demographic segment of your employee population.

Using a scientific approach provides evidence that your efforts are actually working — and your communications strategy can confidently evolve with changing technologies and employees’ changing preferences. The key is to keep testing and evaluating your communications results on an ongoing basis. Don’t be surprised if over time, you find that you need to use a different distribution method for each type of message. Some communications will be more effective when you personalize them — or when you encourage employees to share them with their families. Likewise, some employees are going to be most highly engaged through multimedia communications, while others remain responsive to print or face-to-face workshops.

Bringing science to employee communications can make a big impact on the long-term success of your benefit programs, culture, employee satisfaction, and more. With insights into the effectiveness of your communication strategies, you can truly make the most of your resources and connect successfully with all employees — across generations, locations, and media. Plus, the practice helps you quantify your HR department’s efforts and show precisely how much value you’re adding to the organization’s bottom-line.

Keith Kitani is CEO of Guidespark, an employee engagement and communications firm.

Other stories from Keith Kitani:

Why employee communications, engagement fail as companies grow

Inspire a culture of employee appreciation

5 ways your employee communications can break through the noise

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