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Year One, Part Two: When Your Audience Changes, Your Message Needs to Change

Kirsten Liston

Note: This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one here.

In the first post of this series, I talked about my own history in compliance and then shared why it’s a great time to be at the intersection where the discipline of compliance meets the tactics of persuasion and influence. We covered what’s changed in the compliance practice itself (and with prosecutors and regulators) to shift the focus toward connecting with and persuading employees.

But something else has also changed since the early days of compliance: your audience. And, if you’re being honest, so have you.

Observation 2: Your audience has changed—and your tactics need to change, too.

Think back to 2004: How many emails did you send per day? How many places did you have to check for electronic messages? How many smartphones or other devices did you carry? How often did you check your email in the grocery line? How often did you click over to Facebook on a break?

You can read any number of articles on how we’ve shifted from a world where information was limited and enormously valuable—where libraries and colleges transformed society and people’s lives by giving them access to it—to a world where we’re drowning in it.

So, first, there’s a ton of information fighting for people’s attention.

And we have all become really good at screening out anything we don’t want or need to pay attention to right now. Internet use has rewired our brains for quick processing. We “screen and glean,” meaning we skim web pages and only continue reading if we decide they’re useful. These days, you have only a few seconds to make your case before your reader loses interest.

But even more relevant, at least when it comes to really reaching employees, is the business model that all this information runs on.

How much is your LinkedIn subscription? What does it cost to send an email or start a blog? How much do you pay to read your local paper or an HBR article online?

Right, it’s all free.

Pundits call this the “attention economy.” As Jesse Weaver wrote on Medium.com:

“Once upon a time companies and services were geared toward enticing you out of your money. Today, the goal of many is to entice you out of your time. Which, in turn, is leveraged as collateral to attract money from advertisers.”

You know what all this is for your compliance program? Competition.

Let’s say your friend forwards you a workout video (note: song title possibly NSFW). Or a woman in a Chewbacca mask breaks the Internet. Every day, we’re surrounded by compelling options that beg us to pay attention.

If attention is money, then the people and companies that thrive in an attention economy are the ones who create compelling content--content that makes people stop and pay attention. Which means your compliance program is in direct competition with Facebook, clickbait news articles, and celebrity tweets for your employees’ attention.

At the same time, technology has brought us amazing, cheap or free design and communication tools. Professional-quality design is now within reach for a fourth grader working on a social studies project. That raises the expectations for what we all see at work.

In the face of all this, can you honestly say your compliance messaging has kept up? Is it shorter and “stickier” than it was in 2004? Does it make use of great copywriting? Does it include a call to action? How’s the design?

Yes, there are companies doing innovative stuff in their programs. And there are many companies working hard to get a laudable amount of information out the door so they can cover all their major risk areas.

But breakthrough creativity takes time and, yes, attention, and a fair amount of frustration and trial and error. Few companies have had the resources to put in.

Plus, it can be easier and less risky to just keep doing what you’ve always done—and what already has the support of the business and the board.

So what can compliance programs do in response to these changes? How can they change up their tactics to have a better shot at their employees’ attention? The good news is: a lot! In Part 3, we’ll talk about how you can use modern communication and persuasion techniques—including some of the same tactics used by “attention web” titans—in your compliance training and messaging.

Read Part 3 here.

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