In a world of infinite content but finite attention, how can communicators battle endless digital noise to capture employee attention and build meaningful interactions?  

Time is now the currency of our digital age. More specifically, who, where, or how we choose to give that time to, through our attention.

It’s also becoming harder and harder to capture.

The competition for consumer attention is the compulsive focus of entrepreneurs, technological giants, and organizations globally. Time is money: the more we give, the more likely we are to build an affiliation for a brand, make a purchase, advocate, share, or promote their content.

This end-goal now subjects us – as consumers, as employees – to repeated interruptions from professional attention stealers throughout our day-to-day lives. And behind every push notification, auto-play video, pop-up banner, or promoted piece of content, there is a dedicated team researching and utilizing every psych trick in the book to vie for a piece of our time: and keep us hooked.

Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

There are now between 60 and 90 apps installed on the average smartphone, and estimates put the number of applications in the average enterprise at anything from 129 (Okta Inc) to 464 (Cloud Security Alliance.) Each is designed to tap into our limited, precious time.

The result is a measurable impact on our attention spans (or so some academics argue.) Worse still, we’re actually self-interrupting on average every 3.5 minutes. It’s a wonder we get anything done.

In a world where many of us are self-confessed addicts to our smartphones, Netflix, or game consoles, or easily distracted by a Facebook notification or email pop-up, how can internal communicators compete to gain employee attention?

How do we cut through the noise and apply those same tactics to create compelling communications that will help us connect with employees?

Going into battle: the science behind attention

The challenge, as we’ve already mentioned, is not only the sheer volume of content and digital touchpoints competing for our attention. It’s the fact that these technologies are not neutral: they are purposefully designed to influence, change, persuade, or even manipulate us.

“Attention is the behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on some information while ignoring other perceivable information.”

This comes down to how our brains work and the science behind how those big brands keep us scrolling, watching, and engaging.

As human beings, we’ve developed a brain system wired for connection and accounting for most of our decision-making. Our limbic system is responsible for triggering those dopamine circuit-promoted feelings of ‘empathic harmony,’ or connection.

Or put simply, this part of the brain plays a role in how we experience pleasure, reward, motivation, memory, and attention. Limbic resonance – our capacity for empathy and connection – forms the basis of our social relationships. Our brain chemistry and nervous systems are measurably affected by those closest to us.

To engage with consumers, organizations are now trying to find ways to tap into this sense of belonging and connection and create products or services that imbue limbic resonance.

To capture and keep us scrolling, those technological giants are continually evaluating ways of getting us that ‘hit’ of dopamine: because the higher the limbic resonance of a platform, the more successful it is at capturing and keeping our attention; and, in turn, at moving us to action (whether that’s to engage, share, purchase, or something else.)

This can take many forms. Platforms may show us updates from those individuals we tend to interact with more, and therefore presumably have a closer personal connection to. Sophisticated algorithms can track our behaviors and promote associated content, people, or products based on our unique preferences. We get a hit when we’re alerted that someone has like, shared, or viewed our own content.

Small, but deadly: those little read notification numbers are powerful pulls of our attention. Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash

The challenge for internal communicators, then, is two-fold. First, we’re battling with those highly focused, innovative, and experienced organizations who are experts in tapping into our employee attention.

Secondly, we need to find our own way to create that same sense of connection and build communications that create limbic resonance with employees.

So, how do we capture – and retain – employee attention with internal communication?

In this ever-optimized digital world, attention is often reduced to short-term metrics: clicks, views, read time, and eyes on content.

While these measures have their place, the emerging understanding – especially given our waning attention spans – is that it’s less about the amount of time we devote to content, and more about the quality of the interaction. Time spent doesn’t necessarily correlate with the engagement response.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The deeper the sense of connection, involvement, and perceived value our employees or users gain from interactions with the organization, the greater the impact. Those seemingly small moments all accumulate, marginal gains style, to a much bigger picture.

It’s less about the amount of time we devote to content, and more about the quality of the interaction.

Given the average employee visits their intranet three times a day for just 3.2mins each time, we need to affirm their choice and make that quality time: and draw them in further where we can.

Attracting employee attention

Many of the features or pieces of functionality utilized by leading technologies to capture attention are also available in our internal communications tools, or within the power of communicators to emulate.

Ensure you’re making the most of the opportunities available, including:


#1. Pulls: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. These are those all-too-familiar and pesky interruptions that pull our attention to a particular channel or piece of content. Think notifications, pop-ups, alerts, or broadcasts.

If you have a broadcast tool within your intranet or internal communications platform, it can capture staff notice. However, it mustn’t be over-used, or it will lose its impact (or be muted by employees if they have that power.)

Intrusive pulls can support your most essential communications: emergency or crisis announcements, for example, or notifying staff of a town hall meeting, important company-wide news, or an annual survey.

#2. Visual captures: the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual (Thermopylae Sciences + Technology.)

We are visual animals by nature, and more importantly, we can take in – and retain – far more information this way than by text alone. If you need to make an impact and get something across quickly (i.e., when your audience has the attention span of a goldfish…), it pays to lead with something that will catch the eye.

A picture paints a thousand words. Capture attention through visual aids. Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

While it may seem obvious, it’s worth highlighting: keep banners, images, video, icons, and visual quick links high on your internal comms agenda.

This is also why the design and layout of intranet homepages are so important. As the first place your users land, it has the power and potential to pull your users in: and hold their attention.

#3. Relevance or connection: we’re naturally more interested in content relevant to us, or with which we feel a sense of connection. For example, we’re more likely to click on an article shared by a close friend or family member than a stranger; or read something about a topic that resonates with us or means something to us.

The subtle power of personalization or tailoring of content has a significant role to play in internal communication.

Using permissions, personas, tailored homepages, or built-in intelligence that responds to our preferences, characteristics, or previous engagements will ensure the content our staff sees strikes the right note. Your users are more likely to engage with a spotlight piece about a colleague they know than a financial report designed for leadership.

We’re naturally more interested in content relevant to us, or with which we feel a sense of connection.

Remember: creating that much-needed limbic resonance that will get them clicking.

#4. Subliminal pulls: the marketing and advertising industry is big business, and for a good reason. Our brains are highly complex and astute mechanisms, processing an incredible amount of data with every interaction we make. Seemingly small and insignificant cues can make a surprising difference when it comes to catching our attention.

A certain color, a particular font, images, spacing: there are a number of powerful ways advertisers draw our attention. Adding a few of these tricks to the internal communicator’s toolkit can help hold our users with just the smallest of touches.

For internal communicators, this includes things like your use of font, layout, signposting, color, and more. Corporate comms doesn’t need to be dry and text-heavy.

You are marketing to your employees and competing with the Big Guns of the industry: investing a little extra time into the small details may be the dividing difference between engagement and abandonment.

#5. Purpose: our own user research shows that most staff will initially visit their intranet for a defined purpose or perform a specific task, such as finding a policy, booking a leave of absence, or reading a company update from the CEO. These are the initial ‘pulls’ that bring your staff to your internal communications platform, presenting an opportunity to engage them further.

Therefore, it makes sense that the more reasons an employee has to visit their intranet, and the more ‘pulls’ there are, the more attention you can capture. Consider what common workflows, processes, or essential tasks your staff need to do regularly and centralize these on your intranet. It’s far easier to capture employee attention when they’re already there.

#6. Eliminate unnecessary workplace noise: we may not be able to control the inevitable Twitter notifications or personal WhatsApp notifications interrupting our employees (at least, not without turning full Big Brother on them), but we can exercise some mindful management of those tools or platforms we control internally.

Our digital workplaces already have enough distractions. Reduce the volume of interruptions and streamline applications to ensure important communications are getting through.

If your digital workplace has multiple tools that satisfy the same purpose, duplicated content in different places or all notifications switched to ‘on’ for every minor update, consider how you can turn down the dial on the surplus noise by streamlining, centralizing, or reducing. Our blog on ‘11 ways to declutter the digital workplace’ has some handy tips that can get you started.

Retaining (and nurturing) that attention and connection

As the saying goes, we may be able to lead the horse to the water: but we can’t make it drink.

Catching our employees’ attention is one thing, but we also have to ensure we’re creating quality interactions and building on that limbic resonance that will nurture a sense of connection.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

This comes down to a considered approach to our internal communications, including:

#1. Focus on building connections: internal communication must deal with the ‘necessary evils’ of communicating change, policy, procedures, or product updates.

However, content that will resonate most with our employees focuses on building connections between colleagues or between employees and the organization.

This means mixing our formal, corporate communication with social features, opportunities for engagement or participation such as polls, forums, or surveys, and highlighting individuals or teams to increase visibility of others.

Is your organization a force for good? Do your employees volunteer for charitable causes? Are the products or services you provide making a difference? Shouting about it will create a sense of purpose among employees, further their connection with your workplace. Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Think also about pushing content that will help staff build an affiliation with their company: celebrating achievements or success, sharing behaviors that align with your mission or values, insights into CSR efforts, diversity and inclusion stories or experiences, local causes the organization supports, or even stories about the end-consumer impact of your products and services.

#2. Ensure the user experience is up to par: along with our dwindling attention spans, there’s a decreasing tolerance for inferior performing technology: particularly among younger generations of digital natives entering our workforce.

The overall experience for a user when interacting with a platform is now one of the greatest determinants of whether they’ll re-engage with it in future. Prioritize the UX of your internal communications tools.

The digital employee experience is now an established differentiator for organizations. If you don’t offer the right tools, platforms, and interactions from your technology stack, you’ll struggle to attract and retain talent; the same goes for our communications efforts.

If you’re pulling staff to your intranet and they find it difficult to use or navigate, with poor performing search, accessibility, or loading times, they won’t stay. Worse still, they may not come back. Place user experience on your internal comms attention retention to-do list.

#3. Promote relevant, associated, or priority content: if your employees come to read one message, there’s a valuable opportunity to signpost or draw them further into your internal comms. Built-in tools such as ‘Suggested content,’ ‘Recommended,’ or ‘Most Read/Most Popular’ can promote associated content, increasing the likelihood of engagement.

However, it’s not just about driving staff to read multiple pieces. If they’re there for a matter of minutes, there are still subtle, yet powerful, ways to tap into their attention.

Academics argue the ‘low involvement processing model’ of advertising is just as effective: that is, that our brains subconsciously consume content or subliminal messaging without the need to give it conscious attention.

Think about the prime real estate around your comms. Without overcrowding, is there an opportunity for a side banner, a button, a pop-up? Something in the eye line of employees that will be seen?

In this compelling example from Voyage Care, their intranet ‘Hive’ includes the use of visual quick links, banners, icons and more to help continue user journeys through their internal communications platform.

It may be as simple as including your values to the side of news articles, or a calendar event for the next employee forum at the top of each HR document. Subconsciously, they’ll take it in.

#4. Quality and trust: In its study on capturing attention across media types, PwC identified key factors that determined what drove individuals to devote attention to content. Among the top determinants included:

  • Personal connection
  • Exclusive content
  • Putting time aside
  • Fresh perspective
  • Content worth talking about
  • Makes my life better / inspires me
  • Trust in content  

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, research also shows that employees rated their employer as ‘most trusted’ as a source of information around the crisis.

Ensuring that we deliver quality content is vital to nurture those connections and build trust among employees. Simple governance to ensure our communication is relevant, in date, well-presented, and in a language or tone our staff understands is a core foundation.

Consider formats that will grab employees’ attention and engage them, drawing on tried-and-tested types such as video, storytelling, or utilizing employee-generated content for an additional layer of connection and resonance.

All eyes on us

Make your communications the center of employee attention. Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

It’s clear that in today’s noisy, content-dominated world with its continuous interruptions and distractions, internal communicators have a challenging task on their hands. It’s not just enough to have the content available: we have to be deliberate and considered in how we catch our employees’ attention.

We’re up against some fierce competition. However, many leading solutions providers now recognize this growing challenge and offer consumer-grade experiences with built-in functionality to improve the overall digital employee experience and provide a competitive pull for staff attention.

When we couple this with an understanding of how to focus on and build empathetic, meaningful connections through the deliberate choices we make in our communications, we can cut through the noise: and get our messages heard.