I was recalling recently how several years ago, when preparing to go to market with a new subscription model at a newspaper where I worked, we decided to put together focus groups to gauge reaction to the product offering, the pricing, and the marketing of our new model.

We did two focus groups: one with outside participants who signed up via our Web site, and a second focus group that included a cross-section of employees from different departments (and different demographics) throughout the company.

The feedback we received from both groups was valuable. Needless to say, it was nice to have an “outsider’s” perspective from the folks recruited from our Web site, although the group was not truly representative of our market, as the people who responded and signed up for the group were all over the age of 65 with one exception.

The comments and suggestions we received from the employees, though, were priceless for many reasons. Their working knowledge of our vision, our mission, and what we were trying to accomplish — marketing-wise — enabled them to provide feedback about the product that really shaped our direction.

Newspapers have one of the most valuable audiences right under their noses: their employees. If the human resources department is doing its job correctly, a newspaper staff should be somewhat of a microcosm of your newspaper’s community at large.

While it may not mirror current readership exactly, these employees are representative of the various audiences for a newspaper to attract, including young readers.

Employees provide a built-in and, dare I say, “captive” audience that can provide lessons about what their respective counterparts think and care. They can also provide initial feedback on ideas and products. And, the more engaged the employees feel at a company, the better the feedback they will provide.

Innovation and creativity should not be limited to the marketing staff. Not only that, but all employees should consider themselves sales people, regardless of the role they play in the company.

Many of your employees have good ideas or can provide valuable feedback on innovative ideas that bubble down from the top of the organisation. After all, they are the people who will have to implement these ideas.

In addition, these folks provide a gateway for knowing and learning about the audiences they represent. Here are a few thoughts on how to engage your employees, and how to make the most of their feedback:

  1. Vision/mission statements: Close your eyes and tell me the vision and mission statements of your company. Does your company even have them?

    The basic foundation for any engaged workforce starts with a clear understanding of what your company stands for, and what it is trying to accomplish. If this can’t be defined in your organisation, it will be difficult to get everybody behind the cart and pushing. These statements must be well thought out and meaningful; not just words on paper.

    Many years ago, I worked for an organisation where about two dozen employees from all different departments and all different levels of the company were put into a room for two days to come up with a mission statement for the company (this was driven by a third-party company that did this sort of thing).

    The final result was a simple, easy-to-understand, and easy-to-remember statement that had buy-in from the group that developed it, which made it easier to get buy-in from the rest of the company.

  2. Commit to better communication: This may seem like an extremely simple concept, but one that many companies are not very good at. If your employees don’t have a general idea of what is going on in most areas of the company, they cannot participate as fully engaged co-workers with an understanding of the overall challenges.

    I’ve known publishers that held daily or weekly sessions that all employees were welcome to join. These were quick, interactive, informational sessions lasting usually no more than half an hour at most. They were informative, but they were also an opportunity for the employees to express opinions and ideas, many of which were acted upon.

  3. Encourage product knowledge: Do your employees know what your newspaper offers in the way of content? We expect our sales teams to know our various content and advertising options inside and out. Why should we expect any less from every employee in the company?

    Employees should be encouraged to know and enjoy the content we produce. At various jobs I’ve held at newspapers over the year, I’ve gone in and looked to see what percent of employees were subscribers. The results were always shockingly low. While I realise that many employees simply read the newspaper at work, it is my guess that others rarely pick one up at all.

    When I was a customer service manager overseeing an inbound call center, I would not allow employees to read anything at their desk other than that day’s edition of the newspaper.

    I encouraged them to read the product daily by frequently playing, “What’s in the newspaper today?” and giving out prizes to the person who could answer first. Over time, the customer service agents became much more knowledgeable about the newspaper and better able to answer customer questions and overcome customer cancellations.

  4. Develop focus groups: When launching new products, look within the ranks of your own employees to find the audience you are hoping to attract. Don’t be afraid to put them in a room to ask them what they think.

    If the company has a culture of honest, two-way communication, the employees will give you valuable opinions and insights, rather than simply telling the boss what they think he or she wants to hear.

    While you shouldn’t necessarily base every decision on the consensus of the employees in these meetings, savvy management will at least take the feedback to heart in an attempt improve the chances of a successful product launch.

  5. Eat in the lunch room: I worked at a newspaper where the publisher would frequently eat his lunch in the lunch room with other employees. This accomplished two things.

    First, it made the publisher seem approachable and relatable. It helped the employees see that he was just a “regular guy” who eats his lunch like everyone else. More importantly, it gave him a chance to take the pulse of the operation by getting a sense for what was on people’s minds and personally share his vision for the company.

    Managers who take the time to develop personal rapports with their teams will be sure to get honest, valuable feedback about what the greater audience they represent thinks about the product and the company. They’ll also learn more about the audiences that exist in their communities.

  6. Encourage social media: Needless to say, we expect our editorial and marketing departments to have social media strategies. But why not get other employees involved?

    Something I find astonishing is that some newspaper companies “clamp down” on social media in the workplace because they feel it stifles productivity.

    While guidelines should be established regarding this, newspapers need to not shy away from the fact that they are media companies and, instead, encourage and inspire every single employee to engage with and share newspaper content on their social media sites.

The bottom line is you have audiences within your organisation that do not cost anything to reach and study. Your employee base will generally be a reflection of the community at large and thus can give you a sense for how products, content, and your company in general are perceived. This group is also a gateway to the larger audiences you want to attract. 

There are many other benefits to employee engagement, such as greater productivity, higher morale, and better employee retention. Who knows, you might even be surprised to learn that you have a shining star in your organisation that you didn’t even know was there.