How to Overcome the Urge to Overcommunicate

For a good half-century, companies had well-defined ways of communicating with consumers, B2B customers, employees and shareholders. For marketing, there were television, radio and print advertising. Employees got newsletters. Investors received quarterly reports.

But the digital era has exploded the number of alternatives for marketing and internal communications, which now include email, blogs and an alphabet soup of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. What’s more, every utterance can be put out there in real time. It’s now possible to pepper business constituencies with messages continuously.

This has created tremendous opportunity but also a new problem: Companies now can—and do—over-communicate. They overwhelm target audiences with a plethora of messages. At the same time, they risk seeing crucial communications get lost in the clutter. A growing number of C-suites are not only aware of this danger but also are doing something about it.

“One of the single biggest fears we have is to overextend our welcome,” says Ram Krishnan, who was CMO of Frito-Lay before a recent promotion charged him with handling all of PepsiCo’s business with Walmart. “Digital enables one-on-one real-time conversation, but consumers don’t want to talk with you every waking minute of every waking hour. The last thing you want is for people to opt out of your brand because you interrupt their lives. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it.”

In fact, commanding the new techniques and integrating them into an overall philosophy of marketing and communications may be the most important thing business leaders can do with
digital technology these days.

“I have to consciously think about what the right level of depth is, and as the company has grown I’ve had to adjust my style. Sometimes less of the right communications is actually more.”

The proliferation and power of digital channels alone dictate that C-suite executives adopt a revolutionary new form of strategic communications rather than regard new media as merely evolutionary. And making judicious use of the new capabilities is a crucial part of succeeding with them.

When it comes to consumers, the threat of over-communicating with them “keeps me awake every night,” confesses Raja Rajamannar, CMO of MasterCard. So the financial-services brand takes a three-pronged approach to ensuring that MasterCard doesn’t realize his worst fears.

First, Rajamannar says, every piece of communication by the brand “has to be about the consumer and what is most interesting or relevant for them—something that touches their passions—otherwise we get lost in the background noise.”

Second, he notes, MasterCard takes advantage of the precise targeting that is made possible by social media to “really only push content to [consumers] that matters to them and resonates with them.” Third, MasterCard’s philosophy is to communicate economically as well as continuously, given that every day creates the opportunity to make fresh marketing outlays to demonstrate the brand’s relevance to some new development in culture or the news. “How do you stay top of mind?” Rajamannar asks. “You have to do it continuously and constantly, staying relevant while also economic.”

As at MasterCard, the power and immediacy of digital media demand that everyone in the C-suite get on the same page when it comes to marketing and communications strategy. However, there are obstacles to doing so. For example, more than 60 percent of marketing and IT executives don’t see eye to eye on important areas such as incentives and metrics, according to a recent survey by CMO Digital Benchmark Study. In fact, marketing leaders aren’t even sure about the benefits of digital messaging; 97 percent of them said that social-media spending made only an “average” or “below average” contribution to their company’s performance, in a recent report by CMO Survey.

All of this uncertainty underscores the importance of a CEO’s attention to the issue. “CEOs obviously have a lot of responsibility for the top and bottom lines and operations as a whole, so when the CMO comes into the room and says we’ve got a great opportunity to drive awareness and top-line revenue, it needs to align strategically with what the CEO is doing—and he needs to have the same passion for it,” says Sean Blankenship, CMO for Coldwell Banker realtors.

That is what happened at Atrion after the CEO himself became a victim of marketing over-communication from a major supplier to the Warwick, Rhode Island-based, mid-market IT-services firm. “I would get 15 emails from them each day, in various forms, and many of them personalized,” Tim Hebert recalls. “Their marketing team would send out one message; the people who work with me day-to-day would send out slightly different ones and the people who supported our account would send out another slightly different one. So then I asked our team: ‘Are we doing this to our clients too?’”

Yes, it turned out that Atrion was creating “organizational spam” with its own marketing. So Hebert ordered a complete consolidation and rationalization of communications to clients, winnowing the occasions, themes and numbers of messages. For example, to promote the many client events that Atrion holds, Hebert ordered the integration of what used to be separate direct mail, email and telephone campaigns.

Atrion’s new philosophy even applies to making sure that the subject line of emails is very specific, to help recipients quickly identify its worth. “Our clients and prospects want to hear from us, but we want to make sure we’re not flooding them with noise and that we’re only giving them the most pertinent information that’s easy for them to consume,” he explains.

“Our clients and prospects want to hear from us, but we want to make sure we’re not flooding them with noise.”

The spare approach at Atrion also carries over to internal communication. For example, Atrion set up a site on Yammer—a sort of internal Facebook—where it posts company messages ranging from Hebert’s financial outlook to client praise of an Atrion salesperson. When any employee comments on such reports, the thought stays on Yammer instead of being automatically repeated in an all-hands email.

“Before, if I put out something saying what we’re looking forward to as a company this year, about 10 percent of our employees would respond to it, meaning that there would be 30 more emails to everyone in addition to what I put out,” Hebert says. “Now we keep the comments off the normal communications path.”

At Coldwell Banker, avoiding over-communication internally is a challenge because the company must cast a broad net. It must keep in touch with about 3,000 independently owned and operated, franchised broker offices in 44 countries and territories with more than 88,000 affiliated sales professionals, as well as the employees at its home base in Madison, New Jersey.

To come up with a handful of strategic objectives every internal communication must meet, Blankenship enlisted the support of CEO Budge Huskey. “Each [message] has to be reviewed and go through those filters,” Blankenship explained. “This makes everyone more mindful of whether they’re just coming to work each day and hitting ‘send’ or whether they really need to be asking someone to do something.”

Coldwell Banker is also making more new training materials and other background information available to agents for discovery via an app, rather than proactively pushing it out to them. But the app also provides the CEO with a way to break through any time he chooses: It tags any message from Huskey.

The savviest CEOs realize that sometimes the risk of overcommunicating simply calls for them to send out a message that can’t be overlooked. Last fall, for example, Danone CEO Emmanuel Faber ground operations of the global dairy giant almost to a halt so he could hold a 90-minute all-company meeting. The session at Danone headquarters in Paris was attended in person or via video by about 75,000 of the company’s roughly 100,000 employees worldwide.

At the New York headquarters of Dannon USA, 300-plus employees gathered around video screens to watch. In plants, the company stopped production and set up viewings. Danone employees who were on the road or otherwise unavailable watched the meeting on their own laptops or smart phones.

Faber was a new CEO, and Danone faces huge challenges, so he didn’t make a major announcement. He simply wanted to underscore the importance of Danone’s twofold mission—ensuring growth for Danone and boosting “health for mankind” through its products—and to remind everyone of the importance of their roles in achieving it. But to employees who had never before taken a forced break just to listen to the big boss, it was a message that no doubt got through.

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" Dale Buss : Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.."