Much of my career has been involved with change; either driving it, or reacting to it. The types of change have varied: sometimes internal, sometimes external; sometimes glaringly obvious, sometimes subtly emergent. Change teams are at the sharp end of change; they are the people charged with bringing it about. Ranged against them are the powerful forces of inertia and fear of the unknown. Given these obstacles and the intrinsic appeal of the status quo to the majority of humans, how best to make change successful? In attempting to offer a partial answer I am not going to discuss an overall methodology; instead I want to focus on what I believe is an important, and often overlooked tool – marketing.
Marketing may seem something of a foreign concept to change teams. Often their members have a background in running projects, some of them may have technical skills. Why is it pertinent to change?
What is marketing change?
First of all let me make a definition. Marketing can seem synonymous with advertising and sales. Though I am interested in these connotations, I would adopt a more holistic meaning of marketing: marketing is the set of activities related to acquiring and retaining customers. Therefore marketing touches on virtually all aspects of an organisation’s operations.
Some translation is required in applying this definition of marketing to change initiatives. The word customer is still pertinent, but in our context, it means the people who will be impacted by change, or – to put it another way – whose compliance is required to enact change. Compliance is an interesting term, it can have a negative connotation; people must comply, or suffer the consequences. Maybe a different way to look at this is to substitute “enthusiasm” for “compliance”. Let’s pause and ask ourselves some questions. First, is change likely to be more successful if we rely upon the compliance of people, or if we rely upon their enthusiasm? I would argue that the latter is likely to be a more profitable approach. Second, if enthusiasm is important, then how do we go about generating this? This is where the techniques of marketing come into play. Normal marketing is about acquiring and retaining customers for a product or service. Marketing change is about creating and sustaining enthusiasm; not about a product or service, but about change itself.
A lesson from Hollywood
In seeking to make change successful we can perhaps learn from an industry renowned for its marketing; Hollywood. If we consider the latest blockbuster, then the marketing approach is broad and multi-channelled. There is traditional advertising, such as roadside hoardings, or glossy pages in newspapers. Relatively newer approaches, such as banners appearing on pertinent web-sites also fall into this category, as would trailers being shown before other films. However Hollywood goes a long way beyond this. Stars of the film suddenly appear on chat shows or are interviewed in newspapers. A web-site for the film is launched where snippets can be viewed and new content is drip-fed over time. These sites can create a sense of anticipation, but also increasingly ownership, particularly if they allow interaction. Opinion-formers (aka film critics) are engaged early on, with previews in the hope that they will influence people to go to the film. Given the target audience of many blockbusters, there are often many tie-ins with related toys, video games and even themed meals at fast-food restaurants. Sometimes a new film can seem omnipresent; if people want to find out more about it there is no lack of ways in which they can do this.
Multi-channel marketing of change
Transferring these learnings to change management, the value of making project related figurines available at your local burger bar is probably limited, but many other things apply. In trying to generate enthusiasm, it is important to explain to people what is happening, why it is happening and the importance of change. Some of the same multi-channel approaches can be used to do this. This would include newsletters, e-mails, intranet sites and even posters strategically placed around the office. Of course people are bombarded by information and may filter things out. This means that it is important to leverage any hooks that you may have. For example, maybe make information about change available on a web-site that people already have to visit to carry out some other task. Don’t shove the information down their throats, but make links to further background available for the curious.
With web-sites, the drip-feed concept is important. It is better to have content that changes and expands over time than to seek to answer all questions from the beginning. If there are stages to your change plan, then using the web-site to document achievements is a good idea. For example if Phase I consists of making a change in Country A, then positive post-change interviews with staff from Country A will help to build confidence in other territories. As with any web-site, it will only be successful if people continue to return to it, so think of ways in which you can achieve this.
Newsletters and e-mails are sometimes only read by those who are already interested, so consider novel ways of getting your message across. Maybe a video of your CEO (or even the change team manager) talking about what is going on would catch people’s attention more. If the type of change that you are engaged in is such that the before and after can be described graphically, then consider taking this approach with people; a picture paints a thousand words after all. If there is a systems element, then videos of prototypes or even access to pilot versions can also help.
The human angle
While technology can be massively helpful in these areas, human interaction remains crucial. This is perhaps the analogue of a film’s stars being interviewed. Ask for a brief slot at regular business meetings to talk about your change project and field questions. Follow-up on these sessions with extra information tailored to the particular audience’s concerns.
The role of film critics can be mirrored in identifying early adopters. Whatever type of change you are engaged with, there are likely to be those who are more likely to embrace it. If you can identify these people and spend time in winning them to your cause, then they can act as your sales force with their colleagues. This dovetails with the idea of advertising early successes mentioned above. What you want to do is to build momentum and nothing breeds success like success.
Finally, this article is not intended to provide all the answers. There are going to be marketing techniques that are appropriate for some projects and not others. Marketing is perhaps not something that is currently seen as a necessary core competence of change teams, but I believe that it ought to be and hope that it will become so over time. I would recommend that anyone engaged in driving change consider what tips they can learn from marketing in other industries and what contribution it can make to the success of their projects.
Continue reading about this area in: Education and cultural transformation.
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