“Run your internal comms like a marketer” is a rallying cry seldom heard across the land.
Yet Sara Karam Holtz, director of internal communications at Ellie Mae, is doing just that—drawing on her background as a marketer to better reach her internal audience.
Holtz previously ran a marketing department for a credit union in the San Francisco Bay Area, a job that required a two-hour commute each way.
Fed up with spending so many hours behind the wheel, she landed a job at Ellie Mae, a cloud-based platform provider for the mortgage industry.
She began applying the skills and experience of her previous role to the new job: starting with an objective, studying the big picture, setting up a strategy, establishing and executing tactics, measuring results, and adjusting based on the metrics.
“I now recognize that’s a unique way to operate from an internal communications function,” Holtz says. “Because I approached it like that, everything we did fit into that pattern. … We were able to measure what worked and what didn’t.”
Holtz came aboard at Ellie Mae in 2015, at a time of change. The company had experienced exponential growth over the previous five years, yet it didn’t have an intranet. One of her first tasks was to lead that effort.
Launching an intranet
The chief marketing officer, vice president of communications and Holtz assembled a companywide stakeholder task force, then met with President and CEO Jonathan Corr to establish objectives for the intranet.
All agreed that its main purpose would be as a source of information for the employee base. Ellie Mae ran the launch like a broad marketing campaign, as opposed to just notifying employees about a new tool.
Corr appeared in a launch video to get employees’ attention. Associates took part in a digital scavenger hunt that led them through the site and ended up entering them into a drawing for a $500 grand prize.
“Each click actually took them to a feature of the site that we wanted them to know about,” Holtz says.
An impressive 80 percent of employees participated in the scavenger hunt.
After only three months, Karam Holtz’s team polled people on what they liked and disliked about the new intranet. Though some might say that’s too soon, Holtz says, she intentionally sounded out people early, using the feedback to drive the site’s development throughout 2017 and last year.
For 2018, Ellie Mae’s 1,500 employees had 644,000 homepage views. Beyond that, there were 24,000 click-throughs, or 16 per employee per month.
“We think it’s pretty significant that employees on average are checking two times a day to see what’s going on,” Holtz says.
Statistics guide announcements
Measurement helps Holtz to partner with other departments. She returns to her marketing roots by thinking in terms of crafting the right campaign, she says.
“I use these statistics to say, ‘Based on what you’re trying to announce, this is a more effective way to do it,'” Holtz says. “These are the tools in the intranet I would utilize versus sending an email.”
She often piggybacks important but less-popular messages on heavily trafficked pages. For example, pleas to sign up during open benefits enrollment can fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, employees love the “Happy Birthday Teammate” announcements.
“We get really good traction on those,” Holtz says. “So I will double up and mention campaigns underneath those articles or on the side of those articles, because I know people are clicking on them.”
She has shown other departments that it doesn’t work to send lengthy emails with no links to click. “You can’t measure the traction,” Holtz says. “You get people very confused. They can’t go back and find [the email].”
The communication team sends a Monday “hot topics” email recapping the top stories from the internet during the previous week. By sorting the topics into sections, communicators get greater readership and engagement.
The email links to stories under these subheadings:
- Need to know. Links to five stories employees must read in order to do their jobs. This might include updates about a new product, or information in advance of a conference, so that every employee can answer key questions.
- Good to know. These are things other departments are asking to include in the newsletter, such as a webinar, department initiatives or other announcements.
- Events at a glance, such as a monthly happy hour.
- Inside insights, or links to employee blogs.
- Resources and tips. This might promote lesser-known features on the intranet.
By separating “Need to know” from “Good to know,” Holtz has found that people are reading both at a higher rate than when they were mixed together.
She also tracks the best days and times for announcements.
“I can show without the shadow of a doubt that Monday is our highest click-through time frame for our intranet,” Holtz says. “We get a surge between 2 and 4 [p.m. Pacific], and then a surge on Tuesday morning, probably on the East Coast—people who didn’t read it the day before.”
Though marketing campaigns are often given catchy names, the data showed that this was often counterproductive on the intranet. People weren’t searching for the cute name. Rather, they searched for standard keywords.
“We were confusing our employees accidentally by having catchy names for every program,” Holtz says.
For example, a new job architecture program was named “Growing Talent 2.0.”
“Within a week I had more pings I’ve ever had at this job, asking, ‘Where is this on the intranet? It could not be found. The search wasn’t working.'”
Holtz had the page updated with keywords such as “job level,” “job architecture” and “performance.” Almost immediately, the calls stopped.
People were saying, “Hey, your search has been fixed.”
In fact, nothing had been done to the search engine. What changed was the use of better keywords.
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