Integrated communication is more relevant today than ever before. The growing digital content ecosystem has significantly increased the number of communication channels used by an organization’s customers, employees, partners, shareholders and communities. An integrated communication strategy helps businesses deliver a cohesive message across digital and traditional channels to engage audiences, build and sustain trust and provide a positive brand experience.
Demographic shifts in the marketplace and workforce have altered how brands communicate across these channels. Most millennials, who now make up the largest living adult generation, grew up using technology. These digital natives expect to interact with, buy from and get support from companies and their employers across a broad range of channels and often prefer digital communication methods (e.g., social media, text messaging, video). Gen Z, which already has significant buying power, follows closely behind with even higher digital expectations. Other generations have adopted similar expectations but still value traditional brand interactions, including phone calls, face-to-face meetings or in-store shopping.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified the role and significance of digital channels. Organizations had to quickly pivot to engage their stakeholders safely and effectively from a distance. As a result, it propelled society forward five years in digital adoption — in just eight weeks.
Never before has the need been more critical for companies to leverage the right channel to engage and connect with their audiences. Organizations that use integrated communication to ensure a consistent and cohesive message, regardless of the channel, will establish trust and build deeper connections with their audiences — succeeding now and well into the future.
An integrated communication strategy is the connective tissue that ensures brand consistency across all channels and aligns communication with business objectives. It considers who the target audiences are and how and where to communicate to engage them and move the business forward. Integrated communication helps organizations efficiently and effectively deliver:
- The right message: What information and messages are important for the organization to share? What business objective does the communication support?
- To the right audience: Who should receive this message? Why is it relevant to them?
- From the right voice: Who is the most trustworthy spokesperson to deliver this particular message to this particular audience? (e.g., CEO, social media brand ambassador, front-line employee)
- At the right moment: How will the organization know when to show up at the exact right moment this audience needs to receive this message? How does engaging them right then support the business?
- On the right channel: Which channel is most effective for this audience to receive, trust, understand and engage with this message?
Answering these questions requires businesses to keep a pulse on what’s happening within their organizations, industries and communities, so they know how to remain relevant and engage stakeholders effectively. Integrated communication enables organizations to deliver a consistent message across channels to support business objectives, create a seamless stakeholder experience, and build brand trust and loyalty.
Integrated purpose, mission and values:
An organization’s purpose, mission and values are guideposts for why and how a brand communicates. Integrated communication is the mechanism to bring these strategic business elements to life everywhere the brand shows up. Communication that aligns to purpose, mission and values and integrates across channels establishes an authentic connection, builds trust and delivers a powerful brand experience.
Multichannel vs. omnichannel vs. integrated communication
Multichannel and omnichannel are popular words used in marketing and communication jargon. These terms are similar to integrated communication, but their differences are worth noting.
- Multichannel communication: Multichannel communication uses data to inform what type of content an organization should create. The company shares its data-informed content via multiple channels their audiences use.
- Omnichannel communication: Omnichannel communication uses data about the organization’s audiences (typically from a CRM) to deliver personalized content. The company engages each stakeholder with the message that will resonate most on the channel that works best for them.
Communicators often consider omnichannel a more sophisticated approach than multichannel because it uses technology to personalize and automate communication. Both, however, are valuable business strategies to engage audiences. Businesses should understand the value of each and the distinction between the two to properly determine what level of resources they can commit to either one. Some organizations may start with multichannel communication and eventually progress to omnichannel communication when their technology and resources can support it.
Integrated communication elevates either a multichannel or omnichannel approach as the strategic layer, tying all messages to the business objectives. Any organization can push content out to many channels. Integrated communication ensures that, regardless of the channel, the message is consistent and cohesive. Companies risk creating confusion and misunderstanding without this strategic thread, which can result in a loss of trust or perception of inauthenticity. Trust is vital, and communication achieves little without it.
Create connected communities with integrated communication
Communication is largely about the relationships organizations build with all of the audiences that matter most. The first step to develop an integrated communication strategy is to evaluate and define key audiences, mindfully considering stakeholders both within and outside the organization, along with the secondary audiences that could influence these primary audiences. Primary stakeholders have a vested interest in the company and may include employees, customers, partners, shareholders and the communities in which the organization does business. Secondary audiences could include influencers (e.g., referral and advocacy networks), regulators or other organizations that can impact the primary stakeholders’ brand perception, purchasing decisions or loyalty.
Organizations should ask the following questions to define key audiences:
- Which audiences are most important to target?
- What’s the business case for targeting them?
- What do these audiences care about most?
- Who influences the primary audiences, and how could the company target those influencers?
The most effective way to answer these questions is for organizations to listen to their audiences. Social listening and feedback surveys provide valuable information that businesses can analyze to understand their audiences better. They can use these insights to determine what messages will inspire conversation, engagement and action.
Business growth happens when organizations build meaningful connections with their prioritized audiences. Integrated communication enables the consistent, relevant conversation and engagement necessary to establish this connection. Communication between audiences and businesses also includes back-and-forth connections between influencers, referral sources and advocacy networks. Beehive calls these audiences “connected communities.”
Identify and map stakeholder engagement points
The growth of the digital content ecosystem has added what seems like endless communication channels for engagement. People interact with brands across many channels, coming in and out of interactions at various points in their journey. Organizations must strategically decide which digital and traditional channels best engage their audiences and support business objectives.
Businesses can visualize key engagement opportunities with stakeholder journey maps, developed from the insights gathered from listening and analysis. Let’s consider how Healthy Metro, a hypothetical regional health clinic, might map a patient’s journey:
This map uncovers communication opportunities for Healthy Metro along the patient’s entire journey. For example, how can the clinic embed itself into the patient’s awareness, so they consider Healthy Metro when they have a health need? How can the clinic convince the patient that Healthy Metro is the place where they should receive care? How does it keep the patient engaged after their appointment?
Visualizing this patient journey clarifies which communication channels Healthy Metro could use to reach and engage the patient. Consider this sampling of the many channels Healthy Metro could leverage:
Awareness (before becoming a patient):
- Digital: Targeted digital and social media ads, owned social media, paid and organic search, blog, podcasts, paid influencers, media publications
- Traditional: Out-of-home advertising, radio, print, direct mail, events, clinic signage near clinic location
Consideration (when choosing a clinic):
- Digital: Retargeting ads, paid social media ads, paid and organic search, website, blog, infographics, owned social media, educational or promotional emails, testimonials and reviews
- Traditional: Direct mail, refrigerator magnet, pens, signage near clinic location
Conversion (setting appointment and going to it):
- Digital: Patient portal, mobile app, patient email reminders, text messages, video messaging, e-newsletters, testimonials and reviews
- Traditional: Signage inside the clinic, brochures or handouts, mailed newsletters, business cards
Loyalty (after appointment):
- Digital: Post-appointment feedback surveys, appointment notes, e-newsletter, influencer posts
- Traditional: Invoices, mailed letters, direct mail, refrigerator magnet, pens
This patient journey map, coupled with the channel audit, helps Healthy Metro determine which channels will likely be most effective for reaching and engaging patients and supporting business objectives. Integrated communication strategically knits these digital and traditional interactions together to keep messages tied to business objectives and consistent across channels.
Healthy Metro could also complete the same exercise for its internal audiences, considering the employee’s journey from when they first learn about a job opening (Awareness), evaluate whether they want to work for the organization (Consideration), get interviewed and onboarded (Conversion), and finally, when they work for the organization (Loyalty). The clinic could then evaluate the channels they might use at each phase in the journey. These channels could include company review sites (e.g., Glassdoor, Indeed), workplace awards via media publications, an intranet, internal emails, in-office signage and posters, town halls meetings and feedback surveys.
The workplace experienced a dramatic shift when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. It forced some organizations to quickly rethink how they could engage office workers when it was no longer safe for them to work from the office. For others, it mandated quick action to keep front-line and essential workers safe and supported as they continued to work on site.
Stanford University reported in June 2020 that, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, 42 percent of the U.S. labor force was working from home full time. Roughly 26 percent of workers, mostly essential service workers, were still working on-site at businesses. (The remaining thirty-three percent were not working.)
Research predicts the digital workplace is here to stay in some form, even if the extent is not yet known. Engaging remote employees and trusted partners (e.g., physician groups, franchisees) in this new work environment is crucial to sustaining strong workplace cultures. Simultaneously, it’s just as important that organizations who have a hybrid workforce maintain strong connections between on-site employees and those working virtually.
As organizations adapt to this new way of working, integrated communication can help them determine how to best and strategically use the available channels to connect with employees and business partners. Organizations that lean into their purpose, mission and values to guide decision-making can create an engaging modern workplace that supports internal audiences and the business’s objectives.
The role of integrated communication in internal communication
Communication teams play a pivotal role in maintaining a healthy connection between employees, partners and the organization. How well an organization communicates with its employees across channels can impact employee engagement. Employee engagement matters because research often correlates it to critical business metrics, including productivity, profitability, retention, revenue and customer engagement.
The digital workplace has only heightened the need for an integrated and strategic approach to internal communication. Integrated communication is vital to reach employees and trusted business partners where they are, deliver more effective messages and cohesively align communication across channels to business objectives.
Follow these steps to apply an integrated approach to internal communication:
1. Consider how to keep employees happy, healthy and productive
Integrated internal communication is about engaging employees and partners effectively to create a better workplace and support business objectives. It’s not about using as many communication channels as possible. The channels an organization uses are secondary to its strategy to nurture and maintain employee well-being, productivity and a values-aligned culture.
Consider how the organization can provide employees with the best opportunity to grow and contribute to business success. A focus on employee growth has always been foundational to a healthy workplace culture. The only difference today is that organizations now have to consider how digital internal communication tools like Slack, Yammer, Zoom and SharePoint support or hinder their culture and engagement efforts.
2. Engage employees in two-way communication
Two-way communication with employees can help the organization maintain a pulse on employee expectations, satisfaction levels and morale. An honest back-and-forth dialogue between leaders and employees builds a foundation of trust and positive workplace culture. Two-way communication also invites and empowers employees to help solve challenges, including those related to the new virtual workplace.
Create feedback loops through both digital and traditional channels. Listen to employees through feedback methods like surveys, virtual town hall meetings, comment boxes, direct mail and an always-open email inbox. Ask employees how they’re doing and get input on which communication channels work best for them. Keep in mind that employees who work on-site might prefer traditional communication methods. Employees feel heard, understood and valued when their employer listens to them, acknowledges their feedback and explains how they’ll use it to make improvements.
3. Audit the channels currently used and available
Consider which channels the organization uses today to communicate with and engage employees. This may include internal digital communication channels like the Intranet, email, instant messaging (Slack, Yammer), collaboration or project management tools (SharePoint, Google Drive, Asana), video conferencing (Zoom, Teams, WebEx) and surveys (SurveyMonkey, Qualtrics). Some companies might also use external digital channels (Facebook, Instagram, Reddit) to engage internal audiences on initiatives related to workplace culture, health and wellness, and more. Traditional channels may include in-person meetings or town halls, direct mail flyers, posters, mailed letters and paystubs.
Be mindful that internal channels are not the only ones employee access. Employees are also consumers and use the same channels the organization leverages to communicate with external audiences. Integrated communication weaves a thread through all messages, regardless of whether they’re internal or external, to keep them aligned to the same corporate values and business objectives. No company message an employee sees on social media or in the news media should surprise or confuse them because they receive similar messages internally.
4. Thoughtfully assess the purpose of each tool or channel
The number of tools and channels available to organizations grows every day. It’s easy to lose sight of why an organization uses a particular tool if it doesn’t first assess its intent before implementation. Consider what employees need to be effective at their jobs, what the organization needs to achieve its objectives and whether there is a tool or communication channel to solve these challenges. Build the business case for each channel to determine if it’s appropriate to invest the resources necessary to maintain it. Avoid using a new communication channel that isn’t a strategic fit for the organization just because it’s trendy.
Set clear expectations with employees regarding the most effective way to use each tool or communication channel and explain why the organization uses it. Align the “why and how” to the organization’s purpose, mission and values. Acknowledge that digital overload is a real problem. Consider what mix of digital tools and technology is right for the organization to stay connected at healthy levels. Factor in what combination of written digital content, written hard copy content, video and audio content is most effective to support healthy workplace culture and business objectives.
Integrated change management communication:
Integrated communication is effective when organizations manage and navigate change. The ADKAR Change Management Model works hand-in-hand with integrated communication because each prioritizes the desired outcome, message and messenger over the channel used.]
A robust content ecosystem that spans digital and traditional channels helps external stakeholders find, engage and quickly form authentic connections with businesses. It also provides organizations with a mechanism to share, activate and demonstrate their purpose, mission and values. Brands establish stronger, more connected communities when they communicate their purpose and values because people increasingly want to do business with companies whose values and beliefs reflect their own.
Integrated communication supports a positive brand and customer experience across all channels. When implemented effectively, an organization’s external communities (e.g., customers, shareholders and the community in which it does business) receive cohesive messages. They have a consistent experience, regardless of which channel they choose for brand interaction. They know what to expect, and the brand meets those expectations across each interaction. Effective integrated communication strategies consider these questions:
- How do external communities connect with the organization?
- What kind of content resonates with them?
- What action does the organization want them to take?
- How does the organization use communication to inspire a collective movement toward its objectives?
- How does the organization infuse its values into all communication, regardless of the channel?
Listen first to understand
Listening is an important part of communication but can be undervalued by businesses. However, listening is how organizations understand their stakeholder communities’ needs and desires and assess whether the brand’s communication is resonating with them.
Approaching integrated communication from a listening-first mindset helps organizations look across their digital and traditional channels to spot issues, assess positive or negative sentiment and gauge overall satisfaction. Social media is one of the first places companies can find conversations about their brand and competitors. A listening approach that includes conversations, content and sentiment can yield deep insights that support strategy, campaign creation and optimization.
Organizations can also request feedback from their external communities through surveys, focus groups or comment forms. This kind of candid input can uncover important insights and opportunities. It also positions the brand as being open and receptive to questions and comments, which creates a reputation of transparency that builds trust and supports an authentic connection.
Integrated communication and crisis:
An integrated approach to crisis communication helps organizations identify, in real-time, any issues that bubble up across their digital communication channels. It enables a quicker and more effective cross-channel response when a crisis strikes. Integrated crisis communication keeps audiences informed and messages consistent, helping the business sustain or rebuild trust.
Form connections and inspire action with buyer personas
Businesses can use insights from social listening, feedback and analysis to create buyer personas and identify content opportunities. Buyer personas define who the “typical” people are in each stakeholder community, what they need, which channels they prefer to use and how they act.
Organizations can map each persona’s customer journey to identify the various points at which they can use communication to build stronger relationships and encourage action. Insights from the personas and customer journey maps inform content and social media strategies that connect the stakeholder’s needs and preferences to business objectives. These journey maps can also inform user interface design, user experience (UX) and technology decisions when used cross-functionally with product, marketing and development teams.
The goal is to create a cross-channel content ecosystem to support each persona along their journey. Effective content connects the persona’s needs with what the organization is trying to achieve. It helps the persona flow through each phase of their journey, supported by the information and technology they need. Organizations that understand how personas travel their journey can provide a seamless cross-channel customer and user experience that builds meaningful connections. Organizations can also break down silos between teams (PR, digital, marketing, web) to ensure everyone is working together to support customer and business needs.
Why authentic and meaningful cross-channel connection matters
Many consecutive moments make up a customer’s experience with a brand. Customer experience includes the moments when a customer first learns about a brand, navigates its website, interacts with it on social media, waits in line at a retail location and calls customer service. The sum of all of those interactions becomes an experience that is greater than any one piece of it. The consistency and cohesiveness of this cross-channel holistic experience are critical to how a customer will perceive the brand’s reputation and credibility and whether they will become a loyal customer.
Brands that deliver a consistent experience, regardless of channel, will build a relationship, trust and deeper connections with their customers. This emotional connection reaches even deeper when the brand’s values align with the customer’s values. Research shows that emotion is the single biggest driver of loyalty in many industries. This matters to the business, given emotionally loyal customers spend more and promote their favorite brands more to their friends and family.
Brand loyalty and advocacy create unique opportunities for storytelling across traditional and digital channels. Organizations can leverage PR to tell customer stories through media outlets to establish third-party credibility that’s difficult to build through other channels. User-generated social, video or blog content can bring authentic customer stories to life to deepen trust and more personally engage customers.
Integrated communication puts the audience’s needs first, ties them to business objectives and helps brands deliver a cohesive, positive customer experience. A study conducted by Walker found that customer experience will overtake both price and product as the most important brand differentiator. Strong customer experience also leads to higher customer satisfaction, retention and revenue, with customers willing to pay premiums when brands deliver better experiences. The case for strong customer experience has never been stronger as brands adapt to the digital ecosystem.
Integrated communication is a strategic response to the market pressures faced by companies today. It helps organizations meet high customer and employee expectations by leveraging the many communication channels available across both the growing digital content ecosystem and traditional channels. Integrated communication enables organizations to deliver the right message, to the right audience, from the right voice, at the right moment on the right channel to engage stakeholders, deliver a positive experience and move the business forward.
Business leaders need strategic communication partners that can sit side by side with executives to keep them focused on business and stakeholder needs. Too often, marketing and communication partners convince organizations they need to adopt every new digital tool, channel or tactic to remain relevant. That approach often leads to disjointed customer and employee experiences. Succeeding in today’s digital environment is not about using every new channel. Instead, it’s about applying a strategic thread through every stakeholder engagement to help businesses decide which new opportunities to pursue and why.
Beehive Strategic Communication takes a modern approach to solve our clients’ biggest challenges and maximize their greatest opportunities. We help organizations use integrated business communication to tell a consistent story across channels, form authentic connections with their audiences and stay true to their objectives and purpose, mission and values. Beehive applies digital-inherent thinking to activate strategies and connect with the audiences that matter most to our clients.