The first condition of online engagement: Awareness

This is the second of three posts examining online engagement for learning and performance support resources, based on the presentation I gave at Learning Technologies.

Written by Owen Ferguson
Published 13 July 2016
The first condition of online engagement: Awareness

In my first post, I introduced a model for looking at online engagement and the pre-conditions that must exist for a successful implementation. I'm now going to look at the first condition - the need for the employee to know about the resource and think it's useful. You've built it; now you have to get people to visit it.

In order for that to happen, there has to be an awareness that the site exists, and it has to be in the employee's front of mind. By that, I mean it's no good for the employee to be aware after prompting; it has to come to mind at the point of need.

Many organizations approach this by having a grand launch strategy. And there's nothing much wrong with making a big splash when something new is launched, or even after a period of beta use. In many ways it's a really good idea to use a mix of promotional strategies. However, a recurrent problem is that there's no strategy beyond this.

For an initial promotional push, there are many channels you can take advantage of. Some examples might include:

  • Persuading your IT department to present a message on screensavers
  • Getting senior leaders to endorse the initiative, perhaps through video
  • Peer endorsement, by presenting the success stories of early testers
  • Distribute posters
  • Take advantage of any social media channels that your organization may use
  • Stands in the foyer or canteen.

But, a big launch on its own isn't enough. Interest is ephemeral and tapers off. The truth is that a big fanfare is forgotten after a few days. And when the interest tapers off, what often happens is... a re-launch.

The real key to successful, long-term engagement in an online resource is regular, frequent communications to raise and maintain awareness.

All those other methods can still be used but there is a king, an emperor among all these channels, that has a dramatically more significant impact than all the others. All the major players in the online world are taking advantage of it. It's not cool, it's not sexy and it has a terrible reputation.

It's email.


Now, when I talk to clients about this, one of the most common replies I hear is that employees already get too many emails and it simply isn't feasible. There are strict limits put in place by internal comms or IT about the amount of internal email that gets generated. But to not use email means that you won't leverage the single greatest communication mechanism of our time.

Personally, I believe there are better communication tools for many things, but I can't go by what I think or believe. I go where the evidence takes me.

There is a reason that you get an email from Facebook every time someone wants to be your friend, or posts something about you. There's a reason why Twitter started to send you a weekly digest via email. There's a reason why Tesco and Amazon send you offers based on what you bought previously via email.

These companies have run massive studies and experiments to identify exactly the kind of approaches that result in more eyeballs coming to their services. These tactics drive up engagement. If they didn't, they'd stop doing them. If everyone was genuinely too busy and overwhelmed, then they would have unsubscribed in their millions.

Having said that, you need to take an open, honest approach with email. I've got three recommendations for the use of emails to promote your online resource:

  • While I'd advocate a system of automatic enrolment for your target employee base, it should be easy - really easy - to unsubscribe. It means that people in the organization prone to complain can't do so without seeming unreasonable . - after all, it's simply one email.
  • Personalise the content as much as possible  - people respond more to information about their own activity and that of people they can identify with.
  • Automate it - there isn't a guy at Amazon thoughtfully writing recommendation emails just for you. It doesn't take a massive investment to generate a personalized email automatically if you're working with the right tools.

To see the kind of emails that are successful, you need look no further than the major internet players who are already getting it right. I've collected some examples on a Pinterest board you can review.

Notice that all these emails are nicely branded, well designed and visually striking. They also work on both desktop email clients and on mobile. Simply sending out a bunch of text with blue links will not capture the attention of your employees. Once again, it's worth investing a few hundred pounds on getting an email template that works.

So, there's no need to avoid email. If it's done right, you can ensure that your online initiative is front of mind for many more people who will then access it when they most need it. And if anyone asks them for support and the online resource would help, they're more likely to steer them in that direction. Success breeds success.

That consistency of communication can be the difference between making a big splash without any long-term change, and a substantial, long-term increase in overall usage.

But a big question rears its ugly head at this point: how do you know whether this condition is where the problem lies? And the truth is it really depends on exactly what kind of resource you're trying to raise awareness of. This kind of analysis can be a bit of a black art, but I'd like to share some examples that we've found to be useful in determining if we have to work harder to meet this first condition.

The most obvious one is the number of visits, or visitors, you get to your online resource in a given period, say a month, relative to the total size of your target user base. What success looks like will depend on if you set your success criteria based on what the resource is - but to put it a simple way, if the number is going up, you're doing something right. If it's going down, you're doing something wrong.

Similarly, if you aren't reaching your desired numbers and all your visits are coming from people who have visited the resource before, you can be pretty certain that your awareness strategies aren't working, but the resource is valued once someone visits it. This is why the number of return visits is worth tracking as a metric. Again, what success looks like will depend on the stage of the life cycle your resource is at, but even fairly old resources should still be getting new visitors on a regular basis.

When you carry out a new campaign, or send out a communication, you should expect to see a spike in visits. If you don't, you can be fairly certain that something about your comms isn't working. Maybe people don't read them, maybe the subject line wasn't inviting enough, maybe the copy didn't tell the user what's in it for them. What you're looking for after a campaign or communication is an increase from the average number of visits. This signal is a red flag; it doesn't tell you what the answer is.

Finally, there's visits to the launch pages. By this, I mean visits to the page where the employee accesses the online resource. I'm going to look into this in a bit more in the next post.

So, that's the first condition. The employee must have the resource in their memory banks ready to spring to mind when they need it. But the next condition acknowledges that awareness itself is no good unless the employee knows how to get to the site and can access it easily. This is the second condition of online engagement and I'll deal with that in the next post.

About the author

Owen Ferguson

Owen Ferguson

Product and Technology Director
A self-confessed nerd, Owen is passionate about taking an evidence-led approach to developing digital products that solve real-world problems. He is also a regular on our weekly podcast.

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